Tuesday, April 7, 2009 Lion Encounter Volunteer Program, Livingston, Zambia
Lion Encounter is an active conservation program that is passionate about ensuring a secure future for the African lion. The species has seen an 80 – 90% decline in the past 20 – 30 years and we are Africa’s first genuine program to ethically re-introduce the offspring of captive-bred African lions – through a four-stage program – back into the wild.
In the first stage young lion cubs are taken out into the bush to build confidence in their natural habitat. As the cubs become familiar with the environment, they start to develop and practice their stalking and hunting skills – skills that are crucial for their release into Stage 2 of the program. The volunteer program is part of state one.
Today I begin a one month volunteer program with Lion Encounter. Ben, the Project Manager, picked me up at the airport and we drove 15 minutes to the Park and pulled into the driveway of the “White House” – my home for the next month.
This is the moment when the your stomach tightens just a bit and your nerves are a bit jumbled – everything is new and you’re just not sure what to expect – I’m in Africa now. It’s a whole new sort of unknown. A few little things that run through your mind in the time it takes to get out of the vehicle and walk the 20 yards to the front door…Who will I meet and will I like them? Am I sharing a room and if so with whom? Are there lots of bugs? How many people am I sharing a shower with? Are there lots of bugs? The White House — It’s a concrete building with concrete floors – one bathroon, one common room, one kitchen, one dining room and four bedrooms – for 10 people. The pillow felt like a flat rock – there was huge spider in the top right corner of my bedroom and I was sharing a shower with nine strangers. By the end of night one, I was grateful for the spider (no mosquitos or flies) and the pillow – well I’ll have to work on that.
Maya and Vikki – my roommates – yeah that’s a huge doodle bug
The bed, though only one step up from a piece of fabic stuffed with straw – was surprisingly comfortable. I balled up my towel and a sweatshirt each night over top of the pillow and voila – I could sleep. This would not be the first time I improvised.
It’s a strange room – strange people – strange things. And the bugs – I never thought I’d be happy to have spiders in my bedroom but by the end of the first week we had named them – they were after all catching all of the mosquitos! You put your stuff away – you fill up the bedside table with your junk and before you know it – it’s home.
At 2:00 that afternoon, I found myself scheduled to go on a Client Lion Walk – my first lion walk as well. Clients are tourists who have come to see Victoria Falls and find that they can also walk with the lions. So they sign up and arrive on a bus. I left the White House and walked down to the Boma located right on the Zambezi River. A Boma is a shelter in the wild – this is a night shot of ours. It’s a step up from a “shelter” – actually a beautiful building.
As I said, the boma is on the Zambezi River which is rushing like crazy and higher than it’s been in 50 years (so I’ve been told) – invading much of the grassland between the boma and the river. Besides lots of water, the river also brought – much closer to the boma – crocodiles and I had my first experience with one this very day – via a story. As I was waiting for the tour group to arrive, I walked over a small bridge to a patch of grass just to watch the river run when a woman, Clover, came over to chat with me. She told me the story of her dog. As the story goes…she had three dogs…all of whom were out on the log that juts out into the river when a crocodile came right out of the water and took the first dog on the log. With the poor struggling dog tightly clenched in its jaws, the croc dove under water and swam for 10 feet before bringing the poor thing back up again –and then he was back underwater (with the dog) and swimming off to finish its dinner. They tried to catch that croc but it was bigger than the 17 foot cage they set out for it. SERIOUSLY – I am not making this up! She left me with the warning to keep my eyes open around here. Point heard and taken thank you very much. Now let’s get on with this lion business – which is now sounding much safer than an afternoon walk along the river.
So off I went to join the clients in the meeting room of the boma where we would all be getting instructions from the handlers before heading out on our walk. This is what was hanging on the wall — as simple as one, two, three.
- Do not panic. No matter what happens during a walk, stay calm. The lions can sense fear and will likely pick on you because of it. If a lion puts it’s claws or teeth on you – or jumps on you – panicking will cause the lion’s retractable claws to come out more. WHAAAAT?
- Do not run. Running is never a good thing if you don’t know what you’re doing because the lions will assume that you’re prey and you won’t be able to outrun them. I plan to freeze in stunned and terrified inaction.
- Use your stick. The stick that you are given is purely a distraction tool. If the lion gives you a “naughty look” (which means they have crouched and have you in their sights) point the stick at them and say in a firm tone “NO”. Really? And should I add to the end of that…bad lion?
The rest of the instructions were sort of a blur by this point and believe me when I say I was not the only person in that boma thinking to themselves “what have I gotten myself in to and by the way – have you ever thought of putting them on a leash?
So I was nervous, excited and a very timid that first afternoon and I’m not usually timid. I have to admit that surprised me a bit. But onward. That first walk, there were 7 of us – 6 clients – and me with instructions to blend in, observe and learn. We all walked out of the boma and into a white van that would take us to the start of our lion walk. We reached the beginning of a trail and there, waiting for us, stood 3 men (handlers) and 3 lions.
The lions were laying on the ground and didn’t appear too interested in us as we got out of the van – so it seemed safe for the moment. Then we started walking. The handlers are really great – they keep a very close eye on the lions to make sure they don’t get too friendly with the clients and for the most part the lions played with each other and ignored us. They walked – they moved off into the trees and got shushed back to the path by the guides. It all seemed pretty tame. Until I looked to my left and less than 3 feet away was Loma – crouching behind some tall grass and staring right at me – muscles taunt – ears forward – eyes alert and focused – ready to pounce.
I almost wet my pants. I didn’t. Instead I looked down at the stick in my hand, raised it, pointed it towards Loma and said “no”. Which had no effect because it came out as more of a whisper then a command – she was still stalking me and in my freaked out mind – it looked like she was moving closer. One of the handlers was over in a second and Loma backed off immediately – but I was mortified and really freaked out! God I’m a wimp. I needed to find some balls and fast.
Caught in the middle of a sneeze — too cute!
So that was my first walk with the lions and not one of my proudest moments. I knew that it would just take some time to get used to them – for all of us to get to know one another. My younger siblings tell me that I’m bossy — I need to find my bossy self and tell the cubs who’s boss.
There are 10 lions and we will be meeting them together over the next couple of days. Here are a few pictures of them…and all my new friends at Lion Encounter.
My view for the next 30 days… 🙂
What big, brown eyes you have…cutie pie.
Thanks to all who have sent me emails, notes and pictures so far. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to checking my emails every afternoon – keep them coming!