World's First Artificial Insemination Lion Cubs Thriving, Despite Sparking Conservation Controversy

Victor and Isabel are healthy and thriving, and oblivious to the controversy they have sparked. Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

At five weeks old, South African lion cubs Victor and Isabel are normal, healthy, lively, and – like any baby cat – adorable. But these pint-sized predators came into the world in a unique way: they are the first lions to be born following artificial insemination.

The male and female siblings’ conception was shepherded by veterinarians and mammal specialists from the University of Pretoria (UP), in collaboration with the Ukutula Conservation Center (UCC) & Biobank: a research institute and private game reserve. Victor and Isabel’s mother and sperm-donor father are residents at the facility.

The pregnancy capped off 18 months of study into the lion reproductive system (a lion gestation period is about 110 days). During that time, there were several failed insemination attempts, yet once the proper protocol was determined, the process was simple, Professor Andre Ganswindt, director of the University of Pretoria's mammal research, told AFP.

Happily, the cubs are thriving, but not everyone is happy about the method used to bring their existence about, or how it could be potentially misused. 

These pint-sized predators look like butter wouldn't melt.  Ukutula Conservation Center & Biobank

According to AFP, a group comprised of 18 African and international conservation organizations wrote a letter addressed to the UP and UCC scientists citing concerns that the technique will be used to breed captive lions for tourism. Their skepticism stems, in part, from the fact that lions already procreate readily in zoos and wildlife parks – so, why is there a need to boost their reproductive efficiency? 

"The captive lion breeding industry in South Africa is exploitative and profit-driven," Mark Jones of the Born Free Foundation told the outlet.

"It generates its income through interaction activities (lion cub petting and lion walks), canned trophy hunting of lions, and the lion skeleton trade while contributing nothing to lion conservation."

The UCC's lion program has been accused of such tactics in the past.

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