Other than the whole business of tourists interacting with lions one of the major criticism of this project seems to be that not a single lion has been released back into the wild when that is surely supposed to be the whole objective of the project. To give them the benefit of the doubt maybe part of the problem is that they just haven’t found anywhere where they can actually release any lions or at least they hadn't until recently.
Just out of curiosity while looking for information on a national park in Burundi I happened to come across the ALERT website and it seems that they have signed an agreement with the government of Burundi to rehabilitate Ruvubu and Ruzisi NPs. Lions are extinct not only in these parks but in Burundi as a whole, I would guess that there isn’t too much game in either park at present so the prey base would have to be built up before any lions could be released. If certain herbivore species need reintroducing which is probably the case then the logical thing to do would be to find suitable animals in Tanzania and capture and translocate them, so why not just do the same thing with lions. Since the the translocation of lions in Southern Africa is tried and tested and works very well and there surely must be enough lions in Tanzania that a small number could be safely moved to Burundi.
I’m inclined to think that they’ve made this deal with Burundi just because they’re desperate to finally release at least some lions somewhere to give the project the credibility that it currently doesn’t have.
Having said that a part of me does think that if they do succeed in re-establishing wild lions in Burundi aside from boosting Burundian tourism this would be a good thing because it would show that their method works. Although there may not be any need in Eastern or Southern Africa to reintroduce captive bred lions because translocation is a much better option. There are however some other big cat subspecies for which reintroducing captive bred animals into the wild may ultimately be the only option for saving them. For example the Barbary lion, assuming that there are actually any genuine Barbary lions in captivity then in theory this same re-wilding process could be used to re-establish a wild population somewhere in say Morroco. Or the Amur leopard only 30-50 animals remain in the Russian Far East, reintroducing captive bred animals if done right would avoid endangering these few surviving animals and would from a genetic standpoint be a better option than translocation to try and establish new populations.
Indeed very much the same re-wilding process is currently being used to try and save the South China Tiger though this project hasn’t so far actually released any tigers back in to the wild in China. However the difference with this tiger project (not to be confused with John Varty’s tiger business) is that as far as I know tourists are not allowed to visit the tigers at all (unless perhaps you give them a very large donation).
So I can see merit in establishing how captive bred big cats can be returned to the wild. What concerns me is the whole ‘walking with lions’ aspect of this enterprise I would be a lot happier about the whole thing if there was no tourist interaction at all, even if this is what funds the project. Also of course the thought that any of their lions are ending up being used for canned hunting appals me, if this really isn't happening at all and no lion that they've bred has ever been hunted then I do find it slightly odd that they aren't able to convince their critics that this is the case.
My view I suppose is that I don’t have a problem with the concept of re-wilding captive big cats for release into the wild as long as it's done responsibly but I do have a problem if the cats involved are being used to milk money from gullible tourists and unfortunately that is what it looks like is happening in this case.
If perhaps they’d established this project in say Burkina Faso and were working with western lions to produce suitable lions for reintroduction into those West African parks where lions are extinct or very nearly so and there wasn't so much if any tourist involvement, then maybe their project would be seen in a more favourable light. After all the greatest need to restore lion populations is in West Africa but so long as there are still extant western lions ALERT's lions can’t or certainly shouldn’t ever be released anywhere in West Africa. So one does have to question the real value of their project to lion conservation, it will be interesting to see what if anything does happen in Burundi and whether this will change anyone’s opinion of ALERT and their walking with lions.