I whipped around to face the stalking 5-month old lion cub that had lined me up for target practice.
“I don’t think so, bubba,” I said firmly, staring at its nose and displaying dominant behaviour. The stick in my hand was for distraction purposes only.
Cute as they are at such a young age, lion cubs don’t differentiate between a human and another lion. To them, you are the pride therefore you are a potential target. Which is fine, if I had the thick fur of a lion that can withstand the razor sharp retractable claws these suckers possess on paws that will continue to grow throughout their lifetime.
Even their tongues are studded with rough buds to assist in the stripping of the fur and skin of their prey.
Jeremy Tiger is a Canadian volunteering for the second time at ALERT’s lion research project based on the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia.
“I was here when the program was just a year in,” he explains. “I loved it so much that I came back for a second time.”
This time he had brought his partner, Alanna Swarup to experience Africa’s pride. “He didn’t have to convince me,” she says. “From the moment he talked about it I knew it was something that I wanted to do.”
ALERT – African Lion & Environmental Research Fund – began its lion conservation efforts back in 2008. The aim is to successfully release lions into the wild.
“There are four stages to the project,” explains Daryl Black, the general manager of the project in Livingstone. “Stage 1 is walking the cubs until they reach about 18 months of age. Unlike most lion walks around Africa where it’s just the client and the lions, our walks take place in the Mosi Oa Tunya National Park where the cubs interact with wild animals like elephants, buffalo, impala, giraffes. This way, they familiarise themselves with the wildlife they’ll encounter when released.”
Stage 1 is where most of the volunteer work is conducted. It involves cub walks in the morning, cub feeds by mid-morning, cub-sitting after lunch, afternoon cub walks, preparing the meat (which is chopping up donkey carcasses) for the bigger lions in Stage 2, cleaning out the enclosures and even a cultural exchange talk with the guides where volunteers talk about the culture differences with the locals.
“Stage 3 is where the program is at right now,” Daryl says. “Once we get the funding to erect a 9 kilometre double electric fence in the Damba National Forest, we can release the pride to interact with hyenas so they get used to competition. And then Stage 4 is when they are released into the wild – our ultimate goal which is just a couple of years away.”
The program also provides employment opportunities for the locals anywhere from fence maintenance to working as guides. “It gives the community a sense of ownership,” Daryl adds.
ALERT isn’t just about the conservation of lions though. “Education is a very important part of our project,” says Dr Jackie Abell, ALERT’s Director of Research. “The kids will attend our conservation classes even during school holidays. And not because they have to, but because they want to. Conservation is all about education. It’s where it all starts.”
I visited the Stage 2 pride who share a 707 acre electrified enclosure in Damba Forest with impalas so they can hone in their hunting skills. Cara Watts, the lion manager of the project was observing them along with the long-term interns and a couple of volunteers. 13 radio-collared lions make up this pride that have had a litter of cubs that will have no human interaction whatsoever. And it’s these cubs that will eventually be released into the wild.
“What about the lions that have been hand-raised?” I ask her in a hushed tone so as not to disturb the snoozing beasts in the shade of the bush tree. Zulu, the dominant male glanced over as though to say, ‘Shh.’
“Lions have the natural instinct to hunt and kill,” she explains in a whisper. “Even if they are hand-raised, when you release them into the wild, they’ll quickly be taken over by their natural ability to survive. Cheetahs, for example, need to be taught to hunt.”
Lion numbers have been reduced dramatically due to the ever-expanding human population and the Asian market’s demand for lion products under the mythical belief that lion possess healing powers due to their ferocity (it’s this same mindset that has tigers and rhinos on the verge of extinction).
“Lions used to number 200,000 across Africa during the 60s and 70s,” Daryl says as we wrapped up my four-day experience (volunteers stay for two weeks). “Now there are about 32,000 left. That’s an 80% drop.”
Africa has thousands of intriguing animals from tiny parasites to the largest land mammal on earth. But it’s the lion that rules over all these creatures as the undisputed king. Without this magnificent cat, the eco balance in Africa’s animal kingdom will be thrown out of whack.
Long live the king.
About the Author
Simon is a nomadic adventure travel writer (self-proclaimed) bartering his way around the world without flying. The Nomadic Diaries is a platform created to share his experiences as he hitchhikes and barters, exchanging what little skills he has, including playing the guitar and singing (although, what he calls singing most people call, ‘Shut up!’) for food, shelter and passage; volunteering where he can with conservation efforts and local communities. There is no time limit; there are no restrictions (besides flying). There’s not much planning either. Life is one shot. No more, no less. Go live it.