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Watch: Birth of world first lion cubs via artificial insemination marked in South Africa

South Africa is celebrating the world's first lion cubs born through artificial insemination, a pioneering moment in the conservation of the big cats. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Pretoria, South Africa Sep 12, 2018, 08.53 PM (IST)

South Africa is celebrating the world's first lion cubs born through artificial insemination, a pioneering moment in the conservation of the big cats.

The fluffy pair was born on August 25, 2018, at the Ukutula Conservation Center in the North West province. They were conceived through non-surgical artificial insemination using fresh semen collected from an adult male lion by joint research between Pretoria University and the Ukutula Conservation Center, headed by PhD student Isabel Callealta, who specialized in the reproductive physiology of lionesses.

The birth of two lion cubs through artificial insemination is a major scientific breakthrough. In honour of Dr Callealta and her fiance, the cubs have been named Isabel and Victor.

"It was really, really exciting actually because we all knew that the female was pregnant. But it's that moment of seeing that finally, the cubs are there and that they are healthy, and that they are happy calling for their mom. It was a really exciting moment," said Dr Isabel Callealta, veterinarian of the Ukutula Conservation Center.

Little is known about reproductive patterns of lions and other big cats. Yet, several are on the United Nations endangered wildlife list. Callealta studied Ukutula's population of 40 lions to gain more insight.

The University of Pretoria formed a research study by a team of scientists from the university on the reproductive physiology of the female African lion and the development of artificial insemination protocols for this species, which could be used as a baseline for other endangered large wild felids.

"We trained the lions to co-operate in terms of sample collection which refers to blood and faeces. And after that we also included behavioural observations to find the right time for the lion to be receptive and then tried at several points in time with different individuals of the artificial insemination protocol," said Professor Andre Ganswindt, behavioural endocrinologist of Pretoria University.

Lions, tigers and cheetahs are under threat of extinction because of poaching, trophy hunting and human-wildlife conflict. Wildcat populations have been wiped out in half the countries in Africa. It's hoped that in-vitro fertilization will help prevent these creatures from disappearing on the earth.

"This artificial insemination has been made with fresh sperm. The main aim of this project would be to manage to find the protocol for artificial insemination where we can actually use frozen sperm because that's what will give us the key to help these guys in the future if the numbers are getting lower," said Callealta.

"We have that fantastic opportunity that the lion population in South Africa or southern Africa is healthy. So, we can use that species to understand some of the factors necessary to help us save some of the more endangered or critically endangered big cats around the world," said Ganswindt.

There are only about 20,000 lions left in the world. They are extinct in 26 African countries and have vanished from over 90 per cent of their historic range.

For Callealta and her team, there's more work to be done, to ensure their survival and that of other felids.