BRITS, South Africa – Lion cubs born in South Africa have become the first two to have come into the world using artificial insemination in what was a medical first for the species.
Victor and Isabel were born two months ago at the Ukutula Conservation Center, a private reserve some 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Pretoria, as part of a project led by Spanish veterinarian Isabel Callealta, who is studying a doctorate at the University of Pretoria focusing on wildcat reproduction.
“They’re not test-tube lions, as we didn’t use the ‘in vitro’ fertilization technique,” the 34-year-old vet from Madrid told EFE of the pair, whom staff at the center have named after her and her partner.
The process developed by Callealta, under the supervision of two university professors, offers a non-surgical alternative to fertilization techniques that are much more invasive because they involve growing an embryo “outside” the animal.
“This means it’s not necessary to subject an animal to surgery to apply this technique, though of course we have to use sedation, seeing as we’re talking about lions,” Callealta said.
The technique involves taking semen from a male lion and putting a female under anesthesia so that she can be impregnated using a catheter.
There had only been two successful cases of artificial insemination involving lions before this, but the two South African cubs were the first lions who were actually born.
“There are lots of factors that make it complicated. Generally, felines are solitary, and if you research a species at a center where the animals are in captivity, you’re only going to have one or two animals of the same species and for research, you always need a high number of samples so the results are reliable,” the vet said.
“You need a lot of resources, a lot of money and you need a lot of people working on it,” she said, adding that there were not many studies around on the subject, even less so about animals.
“If it wasn’t possible before it’s because there wasn’t the scope to be able to test it,” said Callealta.
Unlike other animals, like cows or humans, felines usually only ovulate when a male is nearby, or more specifically during copulation.
“If we inseminate, there’s no copulation, so there’s no natural ovulation,” Callealta pointed out. “So not only do you need to develop a process for artificial insemination, you also need to develop one to make them ovulate.”
“It seems simple, putting semen inside a female, but there are loads of steps we know nothing about and you’ve got to do it little by little,” she said.
The vet said her team hoped to be able to apply what it had learned to other endangered species, like tigers and leopards.
“Lions are considered vulnerable, but there are other wildcats under threat that are in an even more critical situation,” she said.
The lion population in South Africa is slowly growing thanks to national and private nature reserves, but in the rest of the world, the iconic big cats are in decline.
The global population of lions in 1800 was estimated to be 1.2 million, a number that has fallen by 98 percent over the last couple of centuries.
The births of Victor and Isabel were the result of over a year-and-a-half of research and are set to open new doors for conservation.
“Assisted reproduction – and specifically, artificial insemination – is not the only solution that is going to save every species on Earth from extinction, but it’s another tool we can use to help,” the vet said.