By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Four lions that escaped on Sunday from South Africa's Kruger National Park and remain on the loose were probably driven out by population pressures, parks officials said on Tuesday.
The breakout follows one by five lions in May, raising alarm bells in South Africa, which contains its big, dangerous wildlife in fenced reserves to prevent conflict with rural communities and livestock.
"The lion population has grown exponentially and is a contributing factor to young males looking to new territories," South African National Parks (SANParks) said in a statement.
"This is as a result of naturally occurring factors like drought which we have seen in the last two years, allowing for an abundance of animals for predators like lions to feed on, and an increase in their population," it said.
South Africa was scorched by a drought in 2015/16, which hit crop production and caused many of the water holes in Kruger to dry up, providing predators with a bonanza in dead and dying prey species.
An abundance of young males would create lethal conflict in the park as coalitions of older males would drive them away, leading them to take escape routes through gaps in Kruger's fencing.
South Africa launches large operations to return or eliminate alpha animals when escapes occur. Four of the five that escaped in May were eventually recaptured.
The current batch of felines on the run is believed to be in a rugged, mountainous and thickly wooded area south of the park, making capture efforts difficult but also providing relief as the cats are not an immediate threat to humans or livestock.
(Editing by James Macharia and Susan Thomas)