S.African lion cubs conceived artificially in world first

September 30, 2018 by Susan Njanji
Conceived through artificial insemination in a world first, the two lion cubs were born on August 25

Watching the two little lion cubs boisterously play with each other at a conservation centre outside of South Africa's capital Pretoria, it's hard to see anything out of the ordinary.

But these cubs are unique.

"These are the first ever cubs to be born by means of —the first such pair anywhere in the world," announced the University of Pretoria, whose scientists are researching the reproductive system of female African lions.

The two cubs, a male and female, born on August 25 are healthy and normal, said Andre Ganswindt, the director of the University of Pretoria's mammal research institute.

His team's breakthrough came after 18 months of intensive trials.

"We collected sperm from a healthy lion," Ganswindt told AFP.

Then when the lioness' hormone levels were found to be viable, she was inseminated artificially.

"And luckily it was successful," said Ganswindt, adding that "there were several attempts, but surprisingly it didn't take too much effort".

He said the breakthrough could be repeated, with scientists hoping the technique can be used to save other endangered big cats.

Lions are extinct in 26 African countries and numbers in the wild have plummeted 43 percent over the last two decades, with roughly only 20,000 left, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists the African lion as vulnerable.

Scientists hope the artificial insemination technique can be used to save other endangered big cats
"If we are not doing something about it, they will face extinction," said Ganswindt.

'Another tool in conservation box'

He said that rather than move the lions for breeding, the new technique would let breeders to simply transport the sperm to receptive females, as is done with the captive elephant population in Northern America and Europe.

The findings are part of research being done by Isabel Callealta, a Spanish veterinarian and PhD student at the University of Pretoria.

Callealta personally trained the lions to lie next to a fence, where they would freely give blood samples to determine hormonal levels and assess the perfect time for insemination.

The research was carried out at the Ukutula Conservation Center, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Pretoria in South Africa's North West province.

Lions are extinct in 26 African countries and numbers in the wild have plummeted 43 percent over the last two decades

Imke Lueders, a scientist involved in the study, said "having the first lion cubs ever born from artificial insemination in their natural range country, and not in a zoo overseas, is an important milestone for South Africa".

"Assisted reproduction techniques are another tool in our box, of course not a sole solution, but another technology that we can use to protect endangered species," she said.

Andre Mentz, a prominent lion breeder in South Africa's Free State province, described the birth of the cubs as "very revolutionary".

But animal welfare organisations are less enthused.

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

"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," he added.

The world's first lion cubs born through artificial insemination, Victor and Isabel, at a conservation centre outside South African capital Pretoria

A group of 18 international and African conservation organisations wrote a letter addressed to the scientists saying they do not support the study, but did acknowledge artificial insemination could help other imperilled wild cats like the cheetah.

However, Paul Funston of wild cat conservation organisation Panthera raised fears about "anything new which gives any validity to the captive lion industry".

After all, he said, "in captivity, lions breed like flies—most cats do".

Explore further: South Africa approves export of 800 lion skeletons this year

Related Stories

South Africa approves export of 800 lion skeletons this year

June 28, 2017

Some 800 skeletons of captive-bred lions can be legally exported from South Africa this year, the government said Wednesday, meeting demand for the bones in parts of Asia while alarming critics who believe the policy threatens ...

India probes death of 12 endangered lions

September 21, 2018

Indian authorities Friday ordered a probe into the deaths of a dozen endangered wild Asiatic lions, half of them cubs, over the last 10 days, officials said.

Recommended for you

Scientists ID another possible threat to orcas: pink salmon

January 19, 2019

Over the years, scientists have identified dams, pollution and vessel noise as causes of the troubling decline of the Pacific Northwest's resident killer whales. Now, they may have found a new and more surprising culprit: ...

Researchers come face to face with huge great white shark

January 18, 2019

Two shark researchers who came face to face with what could be one of the largest great whites ever recorded are using their encounter as an opportunity to push for legislation that would protect sharks in Hawaii.

Why do Hydra end up with just a single head?

January 18, 2019

Often considered immortal, the freshwater Hydra can regenerate any part of its body, a trait discovered by the Geneva naturalist Abraham Trembley nearly 300 years ago. Any fragment of its body containing a few thousands cells ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.