A Day in the Life of a Lion Walker, Zambia

Monday, April 13, 2009 I hear that some of you are wondering what a typical day is like here at Lion Encounter so today’s blog post is going to take you through my day – start to finish – with a few introductions thrown in so you meet the team.

The morning meeting starts promptly at 6:30am. The alarm in our room goes off at 6:00. We (me, Maya and Vicki) lay in bed until 6:23 then roll out of bed, brush teeth, wash face, throw on a sweatshirt, pants, socks and sneakers – don’t forget the camera – then head to the room around the corner to get our assignments for the day.

Our bathroom

maya in bathroom

The meeting room and the team

team mtg

Getting our assignments

assignments

As you can see from the board, there are lots of people and lots of lions to coordinate.

board 2

This is the lion list…with their birth dates and feeding schedule.The 2nd column indicates their age – 10m+3w is 10 months and 3 weeks old. And next, they’re eating every three days.

lion board

Cheat sheet for the codes that tell us what we’ll be doing that day.

board 3

List of guides, handlers and scouts

handler list

Volunteer list

vol list

If you look at my code – the first column is the morning walk – LW2T. This means I’m on a lion walk with the 2 T’s – the babies – Temi and Tswana. The other column is the mid morning program. MP, EC, LW2T – means I’m doing meal prep, enclosure cleaning and a lion walk with Temi and Tswana (2T’s) Ben, at the bottom is on a CLW2R – Client Lion Walk with the 2 R’s – Rundi and Rusha.

Basically, there are four types of people going out every day – in various capacities – to take care of 10 lion cubs, volunteers and clients.

Guides, who take the clients on their walk. They tell them about the program and about the lions. Our three guides are Friday, Lachan and Roderick. They’re very knowledgeable and entertaining as well. The clients always enjoy themselves. vol walk

Roderick (Guide and Lion Handler)

Roderick

Lion Handlers. The Lion Handlers play the most important role of them all. They are the dominant members of the whole pride. They discipline the young lions and do this so that the cubs, as they grow, understand very clearly what they can and cannot do with people. If the program is to continue successfully, then these cubs must be well behaved. The lions love their handlers and are truly very well-behaved 🙂

Mwiya (Guide and Lion Handler)

Mwiya

John (Head Lion Handler)

John

Scouts carry rifles and always leave the enclosure before us. The purpose is to sweep the walk trail of any dangerous animals that may have wandered into our space. This could be something as mild as a giraffe or as aggressive as a water buffalo or bull elephant. They must scout out each trail we plan to take before we go there. While it’s dangerous for us to a certain extent – it’s very dangerous for the cubs. They’re not prepared to deal with a full grown buffalo on their own – especially the little ones.

Canasius (Scout)

canasius

Zick (Handler)

zeck

But every once in a while something gets past the scouts or comes in after they’ve moved on. A couple of days ago Maya and Alex were on a walk with 3 of the cubs when suddenly a wild bull elephant trumpeted right behind them and came crashing into the area where they were sitting. Scared the crap right out of everyone including the cubs who fled into the bush. The lion handlers told Alex and Maya to run.  Then they radioed the scouts to come back to distract the elephant away. After the scare was over – it took them over an hour to find the cubs and to coax them out of the bushes. These guys don’t get paid enough.

Another time, the scouts shot off their rifles into the air to scare another bull elephant away from the river where some clients were taking a walk. The elephant left the river and headed straight for the lion enclosure where 3 of us were waiting to take out another client group. We could hear the elephant coming toward us in the bushes. All of us (handlers and volunteers) coraled the lions back into the lion enclosure, closed the gate and waited. We could hear the elephant coming towards us – they’re not quiet animals and he came pretty close (we saw him through the bushes) He could have easily taken down the enclosure fence if he’d wanted to – but he turned away and headed in another direction. It was after the elephant was gone that I looked down and saw 4 of the lions crouched at my feet – literally hiding behind me – as if I would be the one to protect them from the elephant. SO. UN. REAL. What land of crazy am I in when to escape a wild elephant – I had to run into an enclosure with 8 lions?  This world in which I’m living continues to blow my mind.

The next group –us! Volunteers, who during client walks, are there as support staff for the guides and handlers. We socialize with them – answer questions – they’re always curious about us – and we help to keep an eye on the lions and where they are with regards to the clients. And last but not least – our reason d’être – the lions. There are 10 lions. Six of them (the older ones) go out in two groups of three while the younger four are in two groups of two. Each group gets walked at least two times per day.   There is usually at least one client walk each day, but mostly we go out by ourselves. So, the morning meeting starts at 6:30 am and ends at 6:40 am. Then we all head out the door and move out to our respective enclosures to round up the cubs.

leaving white house

This morning I’ll be out with 2KL which means Kela, Kwandi and Loma. Kela and Kwandi are sisters and the two oldest of the group turning one year in two weeks.   Loma is a half sister – same mother – coming in at 11 months old. Kela is a wonderful lion. She’s patient and kind, loving and gentle, everything you want in an 80 lb lion. She never puts anyone in her crosshairs – doesn’t crouch – doesn’t give you the eye – won’t stalk you. She’s probably the best of the bunch. Not so Kwandi.

Kela

kela

kela 2

Then there’s Loma. Loma was the lion who stalked me on my first day. I will never forget how nervous she made me and I think she still holds that over me just a bit. We get along fine now – but it took a while. Loma will find herself up in a tree and stuck for hours and she stalks everyone – not just me!

loma 1

loma 3

loma 2

climbing a tree

Kwandi still intimidates me a bit. She’s big and stocky – sort of friendly. She actually jumped on a client just last week – ran right up behind her and had both paws on her shoulders before a handler got her off. She didn’t have her claws out or anything but it was enough to remind you that they are still wild lions who allow us to have a certain amount of liberty with them. But you must stay alert.

kera and loma

We usually spend about 30 minutes at the enclosure before our walks begin. First, the scouts need a chance to get out in the bush…but also…we’re usually waiting for the clients to finish their introduction at the boma. Because it’s cool in the morning, the cubs are usually pretty feisty.   We walk into the enclosure and call out for them to come. If they were fed the night before, they’re full and lazy with very large bellies and if not they’re feeling very spunky. We’ll each go find our own favorites. I’ve been trying to snuggle up to ZULU – he’s people shy – but I’ll make him love me – eventually 🙂

lions in enclusure

By about 7:00 we’re ready to head out of the enclosure for our first walk of the day.

walking

me walking lion

The walks are lazy events. The cubs are trained to stay close – sometimes they wander off – but we don’t let them get too far away. Would you believe they answer to a whistle? Yep – pucker up, whistle, call their names and they come back. These walks are important because they allow the cubs to familiarize themselves with their environment. They practice their stalking skills (on us much of the time) and even hunt – though that’s only the older ones. Kwandi has been known to take an antelope down – but she’s almost a year old and ready to move on to the 2nd stage of the program. In stage two, they’re sent too a secure park with no predators – but they’re expected to hunt and catch their own food. So, for the older cats, it is important that they begin to hunt during these walks.

climing lion

 

lion in tree 2

 

lionn in tree

We walk for a while…find a tree with shade and sit. This is a time for us to play with the cubs and just spend some quiet time with them. Then we get up and walk to the next location. This process is repeated for a couple of hours. They are wonderful hours – full of laughs, petting, scratching and even tick location and removal plus lots of story telling from the guys!

sitting

paw

alex stuck

 

alex

lion 25

 

Playing %22slap%22

Alex playing “snap” while Ben looks on…

RR tracks 2

They did pretty well crossing the tracks and bridge…but they didn’t like it much.

rr tracks 2

 

rr tracks

play time

 

lion tree 3

 

upsidedown

We’re back for breakfast by nine.  Breakfast is awesome – sausage, scrambled eggs, beans, toast and potatoes every morning and WAY too much food! Too many calories for days of meandering through the bush. Maya and I finally had to go out to buy some yogurt, oatmeal, oranges and bananas.
breakfast

breakfst 2

It tastes better than it looks.

The time between breakfast and lunch varies. Twice a week we go into town for supplies. Shoprite is the local grocery store. And wouldn’t you know — they sell wine!

maya and I shopping

Fresh market vegetables

fresh veggies

Picking up a few supplies myself…

bananas Other times, we do enclosure cleanings, feeding research, snare sweeps or another cub walk. Sometimes it’s free time.This morning at 10am, I am scheduled for my very first meat prep. I’m not looking forward to it. Following this chore I will be on enclosure cleaning – looking forward to this even less. But then I get to spend time with Temi and Tswana – the babies. My reward for being a good little volunteer and not throwing up all over the chopped up donkey.

These are the absolute BEST times. These two babies are the most adorable little lions and I’m just so happy to be with them. They’re still a bit like kittens – they love to play and cuddle. There are a few differences – their hair is much more coarse than a kitten’s and everything is bigger from the pads on their paws to their tongues and noses. You do still have to be aware though, because like a kitten they are always testing their boundaries and are still not aware that they can hurt you – until someone gets a nice scratch. So playing with them takes a lot of patience and the willingness to get a few nips and scratches along the way. Did I mention that claws and teeth are larger too? But it’s all worth it for that big cuddle that comes when they’re finally tired.

tracy and lion 1

tracy and lion 2

tracy and lion 3

This morning, we had a group of clients come in for a walk and there were 4 young people with them. The youngest, Allessandro (they’re Italian) was 9 years old and about Chad’s size. The other girls were all older and bigger. Both cubs honed in on Allessandro for the entire visit. We had to keep our eyes on them at all times. The cubs were in a constant crouch position…wanting so badly to pounce on Allessandro. He loved it – his sisters liked it even more – and no one got hurt. They’re funny, and affectionate and they don’t talk back…I love them!!!!!

Just as an aside…Somebody asked me if fresh water has been an issue here.   Absolutely not!   The water at the house comes directly from the Zambezi river which looks clean to me. Just kidding. We have plenty of fresh bottled water here and actually most of the people who have been here for several months drink the river water and they’re still alive and kicking. I’m not that brave – I do stick to the bottled stuff. Now I’m a person who believed in drinking 64 ounces of water a day. That’s a fine plan if you’re never more than 25 ft from a bathroom at any given moment. The bush is not my idea of a bathroom though – so my water consumption has been cut down significantly. I’ve found that I can live just fine on a few glasses per day with a beer or glass of wine supplementing my liquid intake. Going to the bathroom in the bush with the lions and who the hell knows what else…isn’t something that I have any plans to do and that’s that. Lunch is at 1:00 and again and while it’s a really good meal – it’s still way too much food.  I’ve requested a salad every day and it’s delish!

salad

Lunch is a good time for all of the volunteers to get together to talk about their walks and the cubs. There’s always a funny story about one of them. We don’t go out for our afternoon walk until 2:30 so I usually try to get some time on the computer. That’s the Zambezi River you see beyond me. The Boma is my quiet place.tracy in boma We’re back out in the afternoon for another walk with a different set of cubs. That’s something that makes every walk different – we go out with a different group each time and something exciting always happens. So this afternoon I’m out with Leya, Toka and Zulu. Two of the three – Leya and Zulu – could try the patience of a saint. They stalk us constantly. Toka – he’s another gentle soul and besides Kela – a favorite. These cubs are all around 10 – 11 months. By the way…Colby…Leya and Loma were born on May 26th last year.

babies

three cubs

Back to the house between 5 and 5:30. There are eight of us in the house and we all share one bathroom…so until about 7:00…the bathroom door is just opening and closing and opening again. The shower doesn’t have a lot of water pressure but it still feels like the very best shower in the world.

shower

The cooking /kitchen staff will have made our dinner, covered it and left it for us to heat up whenever we’re ready which usually falls around 7pm. All we have to do is light the oven – heat everything up and serve ourselves family style. Last night was roasted chicken, potatoes and veggies – eggplant, beans carrots and it was very good!

veggies for dinner

potaoes

chicken

dinner table

Sometimes we’ll have some beers after dinner and just talk – other times we’ll go to our rooms for quiet time – and other times we’ll go into town to party! This was a going away party for one of my roommates, Vicki, in the red shirt. She’s leaving us to go to a Cheetah Park.

night out

Vicki, Maya and me – Roommates!

roommates

Alex and Oyvand

This house is kept cleaner then many houses I’ve been in stateside and believe me when I say we can bring some dirt back with us every day. They hand wash our laundry every single day as well and did I mention that everything comes back ironed??!! So, it’s come to the end of the day and I’m doing what I normally do each evening – writing my blog. I’m so happy here. The people – the lion cubs – Africa – everything is wonderful. I wake up every single morning still astonished that I’m here and so excited for the day. Life is good and I’m a very lucky person! Thanks everyone – for sending emails and notes! It’s all the better because I can share this with you – and I love to hear all about life back home and share that with my new friends in Zambia! Keep the news coming!

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