A Walk with Lions

The inspiration for our vacation to Africa came primarily from two different sources. Our friends Beth and Tucker Russell visited South Africa last December and told us all about the great time they had. Back in the spring, we also received a note from the Alumni Office at Davidson College promoting a trip to Africa they were running this summer. The trip sounded like a really cool opportunity, but was a bit expensive and the timing just didn’t work for us. After looking at the itinerary, however, I was able to puzzle out where the group was staying and the type of activities that were planned.

One that particularly caught my eye was the opportunity to interact with “semi-domesticated” lions in a natural setting without fences, leashes, or other restraints. Beth was never particularly excited by this idea, and a couple of guidebooks did offer comments which raised questions about the lions’ treatment. In the end, I decided to go, because I figured even if we were lucky enough to see real lions in the wild, I’d never have a similar chance to touch a lion again in my life.

When we arrived at the lion center, the staff there showed us an introductory video and provided a short orientation about their mission and the how the lion project works. They’ve designed a four-step process which they hope will eventually result in the ability to release completely wild lions into natural parks, game reserves, or wild environments where lion populations have been diminished.

ALERT describes the four steps this way:

  1. In stage one, lions as young as six-weeks are taken on walks to allow them to build their confidence in the African bush and allow their natural hunting instincts to develop; a necessary part of their pre-release training.
  2. In stage two the lions are given the opportunity to develop a natural pride social system in a minimum 500 acre enclosure. They will have plenty of game to hunt and will remain in stage two until they are socially stable and self-sustaining.
  3. The pride in stage two are released into a larger managed eco-system where they have to deal with competitive species such as hyena. The pride will give birth to cubs that will be raised in a wild environment, within a natural pride social system and with no human contact; making them effectively wild lions.
  4. When old enough, the cubs born in stage three can be released into the great wilderness of Africa with the skills and human avoidance behaviors of any wild-born cub.

The original lions in stage one can apparently come from a variety of sources. There seem to be some lions associated with the organization at another facility that are breeding and some of their cubs are brought here. Other animals may have been kept as exotic pets or in circuses, etc.

The organization was quite open about the fact that after several years of operation, they’ve not even successfully reached stage three. After the experience of walking with the lions, I did wonder how exactly this whole thing is ever supposed to work out. It seems totally contradictory to say you’re trying to create wild lions by having them walk around with tourists. If they could actually get to stage three, I believe those new cubs could grow up to be like “real” lions. However, I don’t know how you create a socially stable pride community out of lions who’ve never known what that looks like before.

Getting to actually touch the lions was an incredible experience. Even with such young lions, you could feel the muscles on their body and see the strength and power contained in their claws and teeth. And like any youngster, the lions were playful and spontaneous. You had to keep your eyes on them at all times and the guides were very specific that we should never turn our back or lower ourselves to their level.

The stick you can see me holding in some of the photos was our only line of “defense” and truly it was more of a toy than a weapon. If the lion started to pay too much attention to you, you put the stick by his mouth or paws so that he could play with that instead of your face. None of us ever really had to use the sticks, but I’d definitely prefer the lion chew on a stick compared to my fingers and toes.

In the end, I think all the touching is probably counter-productive for the lions. I would have been just a happy to walk near them and see them up close, especially if meant that they might be more successful in becoming “wild.” But it was a unique experience and I’m glad I did it. I just have to hope that it really is going to a good cause and that ALERT truly has the lions’ best interests at heart.

  • Lion Walk at the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust
  • Meeting the Lions
  • Lion Close Up
  • Sleepy Lion
  • Petting the Lions Before Our Walk
  • Vic Walking with the Lions
  • Lion Playing on the Trail
  • Walking with the Lions
  • Vic Walking with a Lion
  • Vic Walking with a Lion
  • Lion Yawn - Pt. 1
  • Lion Yawn - Pt. 2
  • Lion Yawn - Pt. 3
  • Lion Yawn - Pt. 4
  • Lion Licks Its Paws
  • Stopping for a Rest (and More Petting)
  • Stopping for a Rest (and More Petting)
  • Posing with the Lions
  • Saying Goodbye to the Lions
  • Lions Laying in the Sun
  • Adolescent Lions

One Response to “A Walk with Lions”

  1. Texas Mom says:

    I think, Bear Cat, would approve!