16th October 2010
The day started early: 6:15. I thought it was better to go on a morning walk before the sun got too hot, even though I was told the lions would be more lively then.
We left half an hour late because a guy had stayed out until 5am and so forgot where to meet and what to wear. Although common sense could have told him that flipflops are not the best footwear when walking through shrubs...
We had a thorough security briefing before the encounter. First rule: Do not panic! To my surprise, I didn't feel panicky. I was determined to make sure I was in the middle of my group and would follow all instructions to the letter even if my instincts would tell me to do the opposite of what I was told.
When a lion charges, it's apparently important to stand your ground and so show the lion who is boss. It is also important not to get isolated because those who are isolated are either seen as easy prey or as weak members of the pack who need to be integrated back. In either case, you are likely to catch a lion's unwanted attention.
We were also told not to have anything dangling below waist level (an open invitation for the lions to come and play) or to put our camera on the ground: „I can retrieve it, but you will cry when you see it.“
We learned that the lion population has declined by 80-90% in the last 30 years and that a four stage programme had been developed to successfully re-integrate lions into the wild.
Our money would help feed the lions, support community programmes and build enclosures.
We would be working with teen lions who had been born in captivity. The next stage is to put the lions in prides and put them in areas where they are expected to hunt for themselves. Human contact is withdrawn at that stage. As they grow in experience, they are released into an even bigger area where they have to compete against hyenias and where they hopefully breed successfully. Their cubs will then be the first generation of completely wild lions.
I was in a group walking with 2 sisters. They were 10 (or 15?) months old. When we met them, they were wrestling with each other and had little inclination to move. One of them played with a big bone, which she seemed to find far more fascinating than the new temporary members of the pack.
I generally found the lions very relaxed and rather lazy. It was almost like taking my favourite old labrador lady for a walk – apart from all the guides and guards around who ensured that the experience remained safe.
It was easy to forget that we were in the wilderness and could come across a water buffalo or elephant at any point. And you don't mess with one of those, even if you are a lion.
I did not notice any, although our guide Lacken pointed out the evidence of their presence. Apparently elephant dung is particular useful. The smoke can stop nose bleed and regulate a baby's head pulse. He also said that the dung would be diluted in water and drunk if someone had an upset stomach. I wasn't sure whether he was pulling my leg. If he wasn't, I believe that the cure works because nobody dares to complain about an upset stomach any longer when faced with the prospect of drinking elephant dung...
The dung apparently also makes great fertilizer. The dried dung looked a bit like straw. I didn't bend down to check, but I guess that once it dries, it doesn't smell and may be more pleasant to use than cow dung...
Because the lions were so relaxed, I had no problems stroking them and even touch them underneath their paws. This was the only part of the body that felt hot.
Our guide managed to show us the different sets of teeth and some of the claws. Pretty impressive weapons, if the lioness could have been bothered to move...
All in all, this was a more authentic experience than what we had on our honeymoon in India where we were taken all the way from Goa to Karnataka to see tigers behind a fence. We were never allowed to step out of the car.
And it really is suitable even for those of a more anxious disposition. Although I am not sure whether I would have still said that if the lions had been in a more playful, naughty mood. (We had been given sticks to point at a lion and say a firm „no“ when he/she stepped out of line, and our guides shared some pretty hairy experiences other tourists have been involved in during wilderness walks.
You've really got to know the rules: For example, it's important to look a lion in the eye, but not a leopard, even though they are both cats.)