When I made the decision to go to Africa I knew that I wanted to encounter lions in some way shape or form. Little did I know, I was going to be involved with some incredible and much-needed lion conservation efforts. I knew that chances were pretty high that I would be able to see this majestic beast in Etosha National Park or Chobe National Park, as a part of my Nomad Adventure Tours overland tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. However, when I had to make the executive decision to alter my original travel plans, hoping to spend really cheap holidays somewhere and skip out on South East Asia, I knew that I would use the money I would have in SE Asia in a more socially responsible way. Ever since reading about yTravelblog’s Caz and Craig’s lion encounter experience in Zimbabwe, I wanted to have my own opportunity to get up close and personal with the king of the jungle. I did a bit of research and stumbled upon the Lion Encounter website – knowing that I was going to be ending my tour in Victoria Falls, I figured it would be a cool excursion to do.
This was about the time that I realized that they had a volunteer program so I inquired to find out more. Lesley from African Impact got back to me back right away. I read through the website and all the information packages, did my research, and then signed up for my first stint as a voluntourist. It wasn’t until I arrived at Antelope Park (a 3000 acre private game park) in Gweru, Zimbabwe that I learned all about the lion conservation efforts being put forth by ALERT – African Lion and Environmental Research Trust.
ALERT is a non-profit organization, which was founded in 2005 by Andrew Connolly and it’s dedicated to the facilitation and promotion of sound conservation and management plans of the African lion. ALERT was started to support the four-stage program that was initiated in 1999 at Antelope Park which attempts to have captive bred lions be introduced into the wild.
Before I go into details of the four stages, you may be wondering WHY lion conservation is even needed in the first place. Unbeknownst to many people, the lion population has dropped nearly 80-90% in the past 30years. For an apex predator species and the animal synonymous with Africa- this is a devastating statistic. Heck it’s a devastating statistic for any species. Being that the lion is pretty much the first animal that anyone thinks of when they think of Africa and it is the one animal that more than 90% of people traveling to Africa wish to see – the importance of the lion not only in the grand scheme of the environment, but to the tourism sector and economy of many African nations is beyond vital. The lion’s extinction could cripple the African economy.
How did the lion population drop so drastically in the past 30 years? With increased trophy hunting tourism and poaching, as well as communities encroaching on the lion’s natural habitat and revenge killings for lions destroying the communities’ livestock the numbers have drastically dropped. And that’s only due to human involvement. Another major factor also includes feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV – otherwise known as the feline version of HIV) infecting a large number of lions in the wild.
As previously mentioned, ALERT utilizes a four-stage program in their attempt at lion conservation, and from what I could see through my involvement, it seems like a method that with continued and increased financial support and the hard work on behalf of researchers, environmentalists, conservationists, locals and volunteers alike, it could potentially save the species from complete decimation. This incredible work is being carried out by the likes of Antelope Park, where I had the pleasure of getting to become involved with lion conservation efforts.
THE FOUR STAGES ARE AS FOLLOWS:
Stage 1– Lion cubs are born into captivity and are removed from their mother after 3 weeks. At 3 weeks, they have been able to acquire the passive immunity from their mother from nursing but are still partially blind. When the cubs first open their eyes, they see humans and believe them to be part of their pride. After being raised by humans until 3 months of age, the cubs are introduced to volunteers and guests at places like Antelope Park. The guests and volunteers are accompanied by lion handlers and take the cubs into the bush in the morning and evening for a couple of hours to familiarize the cubs with their natural environment and to allow them to encounter prey species. From 3 months until 18 months, the cubs continue these walks to develop their natural hunting instincts. Around 18 months of age, the cubs are retired from their lion walks and brought out during the night or in the early hours of the morning, which is when they typically hunt in the wild. The lions are growing and so they are accompanied by a truck filled with volunteers and guests as they prowl the bush looking for prey. At about 2 years of age, these lions are combined into a pride. This pride is constructed based on characteristics and behaviours observed during their time in the bush and compatible lions are put together
Stage 2– The pride is moved to a 500 acre game reserve that is stocked with prey species but contains no other predators such as hyenas. The lions are left to their own devices and their behaviour is observed without interaction from humans. The lions become self-sustaining, hunting and killing when needed, and breeding. These lion cubs, which are born into Stage 2, are taught by their captive bred parents how to hunt and are considered wild, as they have not had any human contact.
Stage 3– The pride from Stage 2 is moved to Stage 3 which is a 10 000 acre game reserve, complete with other predators so that the lions can learn to scavenge and protect not only their young, but also their kills from other scavengers. Again, the lion cubs born into this stage are wild and have no human contact and are taught how to hunt and survive by their parents and the other members of the pride.
Stage 4– The cubs born into Stage 2 and 3 are moved onto protected land, which is complete with all predators and prey found in the wild. The cubs live on their own and organizations such as ALERT work with local communities to educate them on the importance of the lion to the ecosystem and economy of Africa, as well as reasons for the lion’s population decline.
At the time of my volunteer stint at Antelope Park, they had nearly 100 lions in Stage 1 (including four cubs ranging in age from 13months to 18months – Penya, Paza, Laili and Lewa- who were used for the lion walks). They had a Stage 2 site set up just beyond the park limits, in a fenced-off area called Ngamo. Within Ngamo was the first pride consisting of 6 lionesses, 1 male lion, and 5 cubs who have all been born in the semi-wild 500 hectare enclosure. These lions are the future of lion conservation. Just after I left the park, representatives from the African country ofBurundi had made a visit to the park to discuss partnering with ALERT to help get a Stage 3 site – something ALERT had not yet had the funding for since the fencing along would cost a small fortune. With the partnership agreement signed, things are looking up for the future of lion conservation and hopefully within the next decade we can start seeing the reintroduction of lions into the wild. It’s a big goal – but hey, we can all dream right?
If you would like more information about ALERT, the lion conservation efforts, or if you would like to make a donation or get involved – go to the website http://lionalert.org.
If you’d like to see more gorgeous lion photos from Antelope Park – go to The Mellyboo Project’s Facebook Page – be sure to give me a ‘like’!