My lion adventures started with the educational tour of the Lion breeding program at Antelope Park. The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) is one of the world’s leading conservation programs to help save the African lion from extinction. This program is dedicated to the facilitation and promotion of sound conservation and management plans for the African lion. It takes a responsible development approach to saving and revitalizing the species while also providing substantial social, cultural, ecological and economic benefits.
The program’s primary focus is the breeding of lions and a four stage release program that acclimatizes the lions through 4 stages to the ultimate goal of release back into the wild. The lions for the initial breeding program produce cubs that are removed from their mothers at the age of three weeks old. The purpose of this is so the cubs are brought up to respect their human handlers. It is this fact that made my walk in the bush with them possible but more about that later.
The program also does research into the effects of FIV (feline Immuno Deficiency Virus, the equivalent of HIV in lions). During my tour I was told that the program had successfully produced FIV-free cubs born from lions who are both infected with FIV. While there is no known cure for FIV research for treatment and prevention is on-going at Antelope Park through the ALERT program.
My educational tour included the opportunity to get as up close and personal with adult lions as you can get. I am happy to admit that while visiting the adult lions enclosures, I was the only one who held my ground at fence, not running quickly away when a somewhat cranky male lion sought to assert his authority.
This picture was taken just before Poppa Lion decided to rush the fence to assert his dominance. Let’s just say that I was close enough to him to smell his rather stinky breathe but loved every moment of it.
Following my personal tour of the adult facilities, it was back to the main center where I had to participate in a twenty minute lecture before heading out on the Lion Bush Walk.
The lecture included more information on the release program which is comprised of four stages as I mentioned. The first phase is the breeding program and removal of cubs from their mothers at three weeks old. The next stage is introducing the lion cubs to the bush and hunting environment. Once they are about six months old they are ready to be taken out into the bush twice a day for the development of their hunting instincts. These are the lions that participate in the bush walks with humans up until they are about 18 to 20 months old.
The purpose of the bush walks are for them to gain exposure, confidence and killer instincts so that they can make their own kills for food rather than be dependent on feeding by their human handlers. The bush walk takes place in an actual Savannah that is inhibited by all of the game that one would normally encounter. Here the lions have the opportunity to learn and practice their natural killer instincts…the guides are along to ensure that the accompanying humans don’t become the prey!
Once these lion cubs mature and become proficient hunters they are then released into Stage 3 of the program. This involves moving them to a new enclosure where they will no longer have any contact with humans. The enclosure is large and contains a variety of species so that the lions can continue to hone their hunting skills. This program is extremely expensive as we were told that a single zebra or wildebeest costs approximately $1,000 dollars and the lions often kill at the rate of one or two per day.
As the lions mature and mate new offspring enter the cycle which have no human exposure. As the hunting skill level increases, other natural predators and scavengers are introduced to the environment to provide competition to the lions. The goal is to make them totally self-sufficient within an environment that replicates the wild. Cubs who grow up and mature in this stage will then be ready to be released into the wild ensuring that this species will no longer face possible extinction.
The program will take many years to complete even one full cycle and release program and as I mentioned extremely costly to undertake. However, it is the African lions best chance at survival in their native environment.
In preparation for the bush walk we were given the following instructions:
- Never get too low to the ground with the lions. You need to keep your eye level above theirs in order to establish dominance.
- Never stray or wander away from the group as you will find yourself being stalked as prey!
- Always carry a large stick which can be used to distract the lions if they are attacking one of the humans on the bush walk!
- If the lion jumps on you don’t panic, the guides are trained to get them off of you but be prepared to suffer some heavy gashes from their paws or jaws!
- Never run from a lion cause that just makes it fun for them to take you down!
- Always obey the guides accompanying you.
- Have fun! Which I certainly intended to do