Victor and Isabel were born two months ago at the Ukutula Conservation Centre, a private reserve some 70 km 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, reports Efe news.
"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 centre 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.
"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 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.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)