A ‘lion encounter’ had never been particularly high on my list of things to do in Africa, but once the detail of the experience had been shown to us I was keen to give it a go.
Essentially, a huge amount of parkland has been put aside to help conserve lion numbers in this area. Now the ethics of any programme working with wild animals is of course a point of discussion, but from what I saw the idea is admirable. They take a number of young lions who are raised with human contact and in time they learn to respect the human handlers as members of their own pride.
Over a period of months, they are introduced to larger and larger patches of land, and other lions, eventually forming their own pride (removing all contact with humans) and gaining independence within a huge reserve. These lions can never fully live in the wild due to their earlier exposure to humans, however the next generation can be reintroduced with careful planning and so the programme goes on.
Of course that paraphrases a more complex system but in essence it means that the opportunity is available to walk and interact with the young lions which are still effectively wild, but have been raised as part of the programme.
We were placed with two eleven month old lionesses. These incredible animals still had a leopard like pattern in their fur, something they lose as they get older, and were just starting to learn to hunt for themselves. They are not taught this skill, but rather their natural inclination to do so eventually develops, and after 18 months or so, it’s simply not safe for humans to spend time with them.
We were each given a stick that could be used as a distraction, and briefing on what acceptable behaviour is. No crouching, no placing items on the floor, and if you see a lion giving a ‘naughty look’ – effectively a playful look – sharply pointing the stick at their nose and forcefully saying, ‘No!’ subdues them. They don’t mean any harm, the reality is they view you as a pride member and simply wish to play as they do with each other, but of course the swipe of a lion claw or a bite is probably a souvenir you’d rather not have collected.
Confidence is key as they will pick on weaker members of a group, and actually I was amazed at how much like domestic cats they could be. Distraction comes so easy, and the scratching of a stick on the floor by their side captivates them enough to allow you to approach from behind and stroke their back… hands well clear of the back of their neck of course.
It’s a pretty incredible experience, and something I won’t easily forget. Touching one is incredible alone, but to get to watch them stalk birds, and walk from such close quarters is a privileged experience and one I’d recommend if you get the chance.