In my support of Antelope Park in Zimbabwe and their lion program, I signed up for their monthly newsletter. I just received the newsletter for June which contained an article about the two lions, Ruvubu and Rusizi, who I joined on a bush walk.
It seems that their predatory skills continued to improve and they actually made their very first kill while on a bush walk with guests. I have to admit that I am glad that I was not there to actually witness it…I am a softy and would have found it distressing even though it is totally natural.
Here is the description of the kill that the Antelope Park newsletter provided:
The “R” Cubs Make their First Kill
Our 11-month-old cubs, Ruvubu and Rusizi, have made their very first kill while on a walk with guests. Rusizi had her sights set on a herd of impala early on in the walk, while Ruvubu seemed a bit disinterested and wandered off in a different direction. It wasn’t long before the unmistakable sounds of an animal in distress were heard from the direction that Ruvubu had just gone. The handlers raced over in the direction of the commotion and found that Ruvubu had brought down a baby impala. His sister, Rusizi, quickly joined him and together they gained valuable experience in bringing down prey. These daily lion walks are an imperative part of the cubs’ development and give them the opportunity for invaluable lessons such as these. This is an exciting time for any young lions and at Antelope Park we offer a unique opportunity to share in this experience. Come join us on a lion walk to see for yourself how our cubs are progressing!
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!
Sunday morning I was extra eager to be up and about as the day’s activities including my visit to Antelope Park and my bush walk with lions. Truly a dream come true for me.
It was a relaxing morning spent outside in the front yard as the men of the Dingwa clan spent several hours cleaning their respective vehicles. Not unlike North American men, African men will also spend hours washing, buffing and shining their prized possessions – their vehicles, including cleaning and polishing their tires. Now this activity baffles me, especially here in dusty Sub-Sahara Africa for as soon as you leave the yard you are driving in dust and all visible signs of your efforts are obliterated. Oh well, men will be men.
I had a wonderful morning sitting the front yard watching the men work so hard physically, including Tim who was cleaning Granpa’s car and visiting with Mr. Dingwa. However, this visit started to take a turn for the worst when he found out what my intentions were for my visit to Antelope Park. He was utterly shocked that I would even contemplate trying to touch a lion, let alone snuggle it. While he heartily endorsed my visit to the beautiful Antelope Park, he did not want me to go any where near the lions.
Things escalated when a rather heated and tense discussion in Shona took place between Lawerence and his father which concluded with his father saying in English that Lawrence had informed him that it was absolutely useless to tell me what I could or couldn’t do when it comes to my lion adventure. Now I could understand Mr. Dingwa’s fear. All Africans have a very healthy fear and respect for the king of beasts who have roamed free in their areas and are known for their ability to kill. As my host, Mr. Dingwa felt very responsible for my safety and well being. But like the rest of the Dingwa males he had to accept the fact that there was absolutely no dissuading me on my plans to get as up close and personal with a lion as I possibly could.
And as this was my only offence all weekend – Lawrence had not had to give me an electrical shock once as I was on my very best behavior – Mr. Dingwa finally accepted but did not condone my plans for adventure that afternoon. Quite frankly no one could ever talk me out of this dream, not even Buche for who I have the greatest respect. I was snuggling a lion even if it killed me 🙂