It’s not everyday you find yourself strolling through the African savannah at sunset alongside two young lionesses, but for me, this was the reality of the best two weeks of my life. Walking with lions – it’s a privilege that a small percentage of the world’s population has taken part in, and luckily for me – I’m one of them.
So what’s it like walking with lions? In a single word – unforgettable.
As part of my gig as a voluntourist at Antelope Park in Gweru, Zimbabwe, where I was helping with lion conservation efforts with the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust, I took lions out for walks twice a day. Morning walks commenced at 6:30am while afternoon walks were at 4:30pm – avoiding the mid-day heat. After greeting the lion cubs at their enclosure, the lion handlers (who have worked with the cubs since birth), would release them and together, man and beast would walk side by side.
During my stay at Antelope Park, there were two sets of lion cubs:
The L’s – Lewa and Laili, both eighteen months old.
The first time I found myself walking with lions is an experience I will never forget for the rest of my life. Myself, along with four other volunteers- Helene and Karin from Norway, Gillian from the Isle of Man, and Emily from the USA- had prepared for this moment all day long. It was our first full day at the park and we had sat through hours and hours of induction classes that taught us about the purpose of the conservation program and the expectations they had of us as volunteers. After a final safety briefing, we made the short 5minute walk across the private game reserve to go meet the L’s for the first time and experience walking with lions for the first time!
As we approached the bush enclosure, the two young lionesses were happily greeting the lion handlers by rubbing their faces along the fence that separated us from them, much like a housecat would do to your leg. We were directed to go on ahead, with a staff member. We continued our walk and stopped under a big tree. We waited patiently – with an indescribable mix of nerves and excitement bubbling in each of us- until we saw Lewa and Laili happily trotting up the path we had just come from. The two lions were herded towards us where they plopped themselves down on the ground and started affectionately grooming each other – a sign of their loving bond.
After another ten-minutes or so of learning about these two incredible lions, we commenced our walk. The lions led the way, and we all followed – lion stick in hand. Once we reached the polo field -a clearing in the bush- the lions laid down. This was our opportunity to really get up close to them. I watched, excitedly, as Gillian knelt down next to Lewa and had a bunch of photographs snapped. It was my turn next.
As Gillian got up and left Lewa’s side, I slowly approached the lioness from the back and cautiously knelt down beside her. I carefully and gently patted her along her back, as the lion handlers were kind enough to take a few photos of me. They even told me to hold her tail- which of course I did without hesitation. The more time I spent up close and personal with this adorable lioness, the more I likened her to an oversized cat with the personality of a dog. After we finished the photo opportunities, we continued our walk for the next hour and a half, through the crisp afternoon air, along the labyrinth of paths carved out through the tall, dry grasses in the private game reserve.
Over the following two and a half weeks volunteering at the project, I found myself walking with lions twice a day, each day becoming more comfortable and confident alongside these majestic animals. Despite comfort and confidence levels rising, we were constantly reminded by the lion handlers to never fully trust a lion. While these lions were raised in captivity they still have the ability to rip you to shreds with their razor sharp claws and teeth designed for tearing flesh from bone. And while I think it would take a lot for these animals that have been nurtured and reliant on their human counterparts for survival, they are still wild animals – ones that were never designed to walk alongside man. Unfortunately, due to man this beautiful beast has been brought to the brink of extinction – and if not for programs and conservation efforts such as ALERT, they will surely go the way of the dodo birds, the moas, and the sabre-toothed tigers.
What’s the purpose of walking with lions?
ALERT has a four-stage program where they intend to one-day release captive bred lions back into the wild. A vital part of Stage 1 is to familiarize cubs with their natural environment, game species and to encourage them to naturally develop their own instinctive hunting skills. While the walks are also utilized as a means to make some tourist dollars – the primary reason is for conservation purposes. Even during my short two weeks, I witnessed the young lionesses attempt to stalk and hunt various game species living within the park. I even witnessed an impala kill from some of the older cubs who had been retired from walking with the public- as they do with all cubs at around 18-20 months of age.
Ultimately, being able to walk side-by-side with the king of the jungle through a piece of preserved land in the middle of Africa is pretty darn amazing. And while in just a few short months I will return to Antelope Park – I’ll be back to walking with lions twice a day – I’ll never forget my first time. It’s a memory I will cherish in my heart forever. Thanks to my gig as a voluntoursist, I found a cause that is close to my heart – and not a day goes by that I don’t think about how we can raise more awareness for the plight of the lion and hopefully save this beautiful animal from becoming a thing of the past – something we can only read about in history books. Support World Lion Day on August 10, 2013.
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’!