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Encounter with Lions

22 January 2012

I mainly did this activity because Anna (my girlfriend) was really keen to do it so I really did not know what to expect (I am not great at reading guidebooks in advance) other than a “walk with lions”.  But, deep down, I was also pretty keen to see some lion cubs…

I had contracted some bug and was not feeling my best the night before (vomiting at 1 am), perhaps as a result of the white water rafting, as several of my fellow rafters were also having bad effects, so the 6:30 am start was not ideal, but we had been assured that the lions were more active in the morning and often just sat around docilely in the heat of the afternoon sun.

We had booked through the campsite in Livingstone with Safpar (link, not a great website) and were picked up at the neighbouring hotel by an air-conditioned bus, somewhat surprised to see several other members of truck group who had been picked up at our campsite (they were doing the elephant ride in the same place and had been picked up at our campsite whereas we had been walked through to the neighbouring hotel) – but TIA…

We were given a thorough safety briefing and a background to the project.  Having not really known what to expect I had also been slightly sceptical about habituating lions to the presence of humans if they are then to be released into the wild.  The briefing anticipated my fears and explained the plan. 

They essentially are breeding new prides of lions to breed more lions to release into the wild.  The first stage of this involves taking the cubs on a walk every morning.  We walked with two one year old sister cubs.  I say cubs, but they were about 1.5m long, 1m high and had paws that could quite easily give you a swipe that you would not forget.

However, as the guides work with them on regular basis, the walks are in the form of a mock pride (of lions, rather than a gay pride style march) and we have to act as dominant members of the pride, but without pushing it too far (such as patting the lions on the head or ears) otherwise the lions may seek to challenge for their place in the pride.  The guides have established their dominant position and occasionally have to reassert this by messing with the lions’ faces or pulling them around – which produces some amusing growls. 

Apparently until about 18 months old the lions generally accept their position as a subordinate naturally (the guide likened it to the position of a younger brother respecting his parents and older brothers, which I remembered fondly from when own brother was younger) but then at about 18 months they start to be a bit more rebellious and will challenge for dominance if they think they have a good chance (which they probably would against the average human…).  At 18 months they move into a second stage of living as a pride in the wild, then they move into an area with hyenas (so they learn to compete) and then their cubs will eventually form the pride that is released into the wild (the lions that have taken part on the walks can’t be released because they would form a danger to humans and/or livestock).

Rather than releasing the lions that we would encounter into the wild, the program uses these walks as funding but also to establish a pride mentality with the lions at a young age (we would be part of the pride for the day). 

As to safety…even lion cubs are not toys.  But they will respond to pride mentality and can be distracted.  We were to act as though we were senior members of the pride, but not walk in front of them, and only approach them from behind touching what we would but not their heads or faces.  If they looked at us with ill intent, we should point our sticks (to be provided) at them and say “no”.  Should they begin to approach us with evil intent then we were not to hit the cubs with the sticks but should rather wiggle our sticks in the sand to provide a distraction that they may choose to play with rather than maul our faces.  Fortunately, there would also be trained handlers who had asserted their pack dominance over the cubs.

Armed with our sticks and our newly acquired knowledge of lion taming we went to meet our pride for the day, two two-year old sisters.  I immediately realised that my stick was inadequate.  At two years of age these lions were already about 60cm high and 1m long, with paws the size of dinner plates.  Still, knowledge would be our defence…

The walk was quite pleasant, mainly dictated by the lions who would occasionally decide to have a rest or stalk each other.  Whilst this was in the main tolerated by the handlers (particularly for the photo session), we would often walk ahead (in front of the lions I noted…) and encourage them to continue.

Although rangers were apparently in the area to ensure that there was no other wildlife, we did spot a pair of warthogs in the distance.  On pointing this out to the head handler he seemed relieved that the lions had not seen them as “they change a lot” when their hunting instincts kick.

We then retired to the lodge to have a cup of coffee and watch the obligatory video of the session.

It was an enjoyable experience and I am glad that programmes like this exist to try to increase the lion population (which has decreased by 90% in recent years alone) but I felt that we could perhaps have seen a bit more of the operation, perhaps just to see the younger cubs and older animals.  However, there was a volunteer programme so perhaps these aspects are reserved for them and so as not to overly disturb the younger animals.

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