A young male lion caught in a snare which slowly tightened around his neck as he grew older has been saved after a rescue operation was launched.
The snare was wound so tightly around the lion’s neck that he was left unable to hunt and the gaping wound left attracted flies and infection.
The young animal would soon have been lying in agony in the African bush facing a certain death.
But thanks to coverage in the Daily Mail an operation to sedate the lion and remove the snare was launched in Mikumi National park in Tanzania.
The lion was found by park rangers and vets managed to sedate him and cut away the electrical wire snare.
It ended a three year hell for the lion. As he has grown over the last three years, the wire snare got tighter and tighter around his neck, and began causing a slow agonising death.
By the time he was found he was so weak he was unable to hunt, but amazingly he was kept alive by the love of his brothers and sisters in his pride.
They didn’t kill him as often is the fate of weak male lions, but instead the siblings in his pride kept him alive by bringing him back prey they had hunted.
William Mwakilema, Chief Park Warden in Mikumi National Park, said: ‘It was a terrible situation for this lion. He was first seen three years ago with the snare around his neck.
‘He had got caught in the snare which poachers usually use for illegally trapping smaller game animals like impala.
‘He had pulled back, taking the snare with him, and it had been left around his neck. Because he had grown in size over the past three years, the snare has got tighter and tighter around his neck, in effect slowly garroting him. It would have been an agonizing death for him.
‘Amazingly the rest of the lions in his pride kept him alive by bringing him back food to eat. It is a remarkable show of togetherness.’
The lion’s plight was first spotted by tourists in 2009, but because of the vast size of Mikumi National Park and the varying terrain, it was near impossible for vets to tranquilise him, despite seven attempts over the years.
Mr Mwakilema said: ‘Rangers sighted the lion again in October 2010 and up to this year, had on seven occasions attempted to dart the lion but due to the demanding terrain and the lion’s increasing shyness and fear, all of these attempts ended in frustration.’
It is a sight that is growing more common in parts of Africa, as an increasing number of lions fall victim to poaching.
Some are wandering by mistake into snares that are meant for other animals such as antelope which are hunted by poachers for bushmeat, but others are being deliberately poached for their body parts.
There is now a growing demand for lions claws and bones in parts of the far east for use in traditional medicines.
Lions are being hunted more and more as a substitute for tigers - whose body parts have traditionally been used for the Chinese medicine market - as tigers are now so scarce in the wild.
A sharp increase in the lion bone trade suggests that lion bones are being swapped for tiger bones used in far eastern medicine. Also the pelts and claws are being used too.
Dr Pieter Kat, from LionAid, said: ‘There has been a huge jump recently in the value of lion bones driven by the traditional medicine market, seeing as we have so few tigers.’
In the 1990’s, 1kg of lion bones were worth just $10, but now that has massively increased to $300 in 2010.
The increase in value is reflected in the figures that show the number of lions left in the wild is on a serious decline.
There was an estimated 200,000 lions in Africa in the 1960’s. This has dropped to just 23,000- 25,000.
Earlier this year, two lions were found dead in Northern Tanzania, with just their claws removed.
After the snared lion was spotted and photographed in May, the Daily Mail highlighted his plight.
It sparked worldwide concern via the internet, social networking sites and international press.
Mr Mwakilema, who has been the Chief Warden since January this year, decided to launch the biggest rescue mission for the lion so far.
He mobilised the majority of the 77 park rangers, who carried out an extensive search of the vast area, stretching over 3,200 square kilometres.
Mikumi national park is adjoined to the biggest reserve in Africa, Selous Game Reserve, which is a further 50,000 square kilometres - bigger than the entire land area of Denmark. The lions can move freely between the two areas.
Safari tourists were also asked to report any sighting of lion and look out for the signs of any neck injuries and to report it straight back to the park authorities.
The lion was finally found at the end of August when rangers spotted it among its pride. A vet with a tranquilising rifle was called to the scene.
Mr Mwakilema added: ‘This was an extremely dangerous procedure as the other five members of the pride attempted to protect the tranquilised lion.
‘The amount of tranquiliser used was crucial as too little and the lion wouldn’t be subdued - with the ability to kill a man with one swipe of his paw. Too much could prove fatal.
‘The vet eventually managed to tranquilise him and the rangers drove off the remainder of the pride using their patrol land cruisers.
‘The skin had healed over the snare leaving only some of the wire visible and it required a skilled use of bolt cutters to sever the thick electrical wire cable which was embedded into the flesh.’
After releasing the snare a purple antiseptic was applied to the remaining wound and a drug to reverse the transquiliser was given to the lion.
Mr Mwakilema, who studied an MSC in Tourism Development at Surrey University, added: ‘This was a massive rescue attempt - bigger than anything ever attempted before.
‘The terrain varies from open plains to dense forests and mountain areas, so it was a difficult area to search.
‘During certain times of years, the grass can be taller than a man, and this was the circumstances when the photographer first took the picture in May. A lion can disappear in this grass, be sitting five feet away from you and can’t be spotted, due to their excellent camouflage.’
‘Despite all these difficulties we persevered and thankfully managed to free it.’
This November, photographer Gary Roberts who took the original photograph, returned to Mikumi National Park and spent six days photographing lions within the area. On the last night after following a pride he was astonished to see the rescued lion coming out of the darkness.
He was positively identified by park authorities later by matching scar patterns on his face and shoulders. Already the lion had put on weight and was starting finally to grow the mane around his neck and shoulders.
Gary Roberts said: ‘He did not emerge to join the pride until well after dark and we were packing up ready to leave for the day.
‘He approached his brothers within the pride and settled down to rest with them. It was a great sight - an end to a harrowing story - and shows that with the cooperation of authorities and the help from the public something can be done to stem the relentless threat of poaching to wildlife worldwide.’
Tanzanian National Park Authorities have anti poaching patrols, but with over 30 per cent of Tanzania’s land set aside for conservation purposes, the area is a large area to police.
There are projects such as the SANA Project in Tanzania, set up by the Saadani Safari Lodge, to allow poorer communities to develop whilst protecting the national park areas.
It is hoped that projects such as these will help protect and preserve the wildlife for the future.