The first pair of test tube lion cubs in the world are “healthy and normal” raising hopes that other big cats can be brought back from the brink of extinction.
Victor and Isabel were born to a lioness at the Ukutula Lodge and Conservation Centre (UCC) near Pretoria, South Africa five weeks ago.
These pictures show the twins playing together and resting at the centre after doctors gave them a clean bill of health.
Scientists at the University of Pretoria have been researching female lions’ reproductive systems, and said these are “‘the first ever lion cubs to be born by means of artificial insemination (AI) anywhere in the world.”
Veterinary PhD at the university, Dr Isabel Callealta, said: “The success of the AI births of the lion cubs not only celebrate a world-first achievement but has laid the foundation for effective non-surgical AI protocols for this species, using both fresh and frozen-thawed sperm.
“The research will hopefully mean we can start working towards carrying out similar procedures on some of the much rarer big cats like the snow leopard and the tiger in the future.”
Founder of the UCC Willi Jacobs said he was honoured to provide the scientific facilities, and animals, for the project.
“We are grateful to the team of scientists who continue working relentlessly in pursuit of this key element in preserving future generations,” he said. “There can be little doubt that wildlife conservation through education and ethical scientific research is the most suitable long-term solution for our planet’s conservation challenges and dwindling wildlife populations.”
Although African lions normally breed quite well in captivity, the wild population is highly fragmented and suffers progressively from isolation and inbreeding. Indiscriminate killing, habitat loss and prey depletion, epidemic diseases, poaching, and trophy hunting threaten the extinction of the wild populations.
The African lion population is estimated to have decreased from 1.2 million to 18,000 since records began. Another 7,000 lions have been lost in the past two years alone.
The African lion is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, with the West African lion subpopulation considered critically endangered, while the Asiatic lion is also considered endangered in the wild.
But animal welfare organisation, the Born Free Foundation, criticised the programme, and said the “captive lion breeding industry in South Africa is exploitative and profit-driven.”
Mark Jones of the organisation told the Daily Mail: “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.”