Walking With Lions

Up until recently I was completely unaware that the African lion was in danger. After all, what could possibly threaten the animal king? And the answer is, of course, humans. Through hunting, loss of prey, and natural habitat destruction, the free-ranging lion populations of Africa have declined by so much as 80% in the last 50 years! A shocking statistic that made me all the more enthusiastic about supporting the conservation efforts of ALERT in the form of a Lion Encounter experience at Victoria Falls.

Normally I would shy away from human encounters with wild animals. From past research on the internet it seems like most places where people are allowed to touch a member of the Big Five has ultimately led to said animal ending their existence in some form of canned hunting. I am violently opposed to hunting for fun and even more so when the animal’s chances of survival are limited from the outset.

But this Lion Encounter is different. These animals are actually being saved through a four-stage process beginning with young cubs being taken on walks in the wild at sunrise and sunset to allow them to build confidence in their natural habitat and to learn how to hunt. In stage two, these lions are integrated into an existing pride within a 500 acre enclosure, where they will learn social skills and self-sustainability. Stage three sees the pride relocated to a 10 000 acres or larger habitat where they will have no interaction with humans, but will have to compete with other predators, such as hyenas. Cubs born to stage three lions will then be released at stage four into the wild, untainted by human contact, wild and free as they should be.

Gareth and I had the privilege of participating in stage one when we went on a walk with Chundu and Chete. Although we were accompanied at all times by three rangers, we were warned in advance that the cubs could be dangerous if we weren’t careful. A playful cub with the best intentions could easily hurt someone. So we were given thin walking sticks with which to distract them if they did try to play rough and were told never to walk in front of them, but always either behind or slightly to the side of them.

With all these warnings in our head, we were slightly nervous when we set out, but our fears were unfounded. They were the two most beautiful, friendliest little lions we could have hoped for. We walked through the bush with them for close to an hour, the members of our group getting alternate chances to touch them and pet them and have their photos taken with them. We had ample opportunity to walk alongside them, and as Gareth noticed, the lions actually liked being touched by us, often stopping and looking over their shoulders if we stopped petting them.

When the time came to say goodbye, we had grown quite fond of our little cubs. Gareth and I wanted to contribute even more to their conservation and bought a fridge magnet to go with our growing collection from around the world.

It was an incredible experience. I am filled with so much respect for the people who work so hard to save endangered animals and cherish these opportunities to learn more about and interact with wild animals. And maybe this memorable encounter will help, even if only a little bit, to protect Chundu and Chete and other lions in need.

Click here for more posts in the African Adventure 2011 series.

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