At 2pm we head back over to the volunteer lounge for our first lion induction class, headed by Dan, a former volunteer who spent so much time in the vol trenches that they finally offered him a job. “I was here so much and for so long that I finally said to them, ‘You have to hire me, I have no more money!’” So they did, and Dan now splits his time between England and Zimbabwe – one of several former vols we’ll meet who are now working for the program.
In a room just off the volunteer lounge Dan shows several media clips. The first few are introductions to ALERT and Antelope Park and explain the purpose of the Lion Release Program. The last video is an interview with ALERT’s COO, David Youldon, and its founder, Andrew Conolly. Youldon is another former volunteer from England who found new purpose after spending time with the lions here, and over the years has proven himself to be both indispensable and indefatigable to the program. Charismatic and articulate, he is the perfect foil for Conolly’s vision. Conolly himself is a third generation Zimbabwean, who lost his left arm to one of his lions several years back. Kim has previously written briefly on his background, so there’s no need to delve deeper into it here other than to say that listening to him speak and looking at his eyes it becomes plain he sees the end goal for his vision of reintroducing lions to the wild in Africa, and absolutely nothing is going to stand in his way. His steely eyes, the conviction in his voice, his missing arm, and, oddly enough, the blue-banded tube socks that are pulled up to his knees, presents a formidable character, and I immediately find myself intrigued and wanting to know more about what drives Conolly, both the man and his vision.
After the videos Dan asks us if we have any questions, and seems surprised to hear we’re already well aware of the program, its aim, the stages involved, Youldon, Conolly – all of it. He’s even more taken aback to hear we’ve tracked down and watched both seasons of Lion Country. “Except for two episodes,” I say. “Can’t find them anywhere online!”
Dan then explains how we are to handle ourselves around the lions we’ll be walking daily. Always approach them from behind, but never let them do the same to you. Never touch their face except for the side of their head, and only then to discipline them if they’ve done something wrong. When disciplining, it’s not about force and it’s never about hitting, slapping, or otherwise hurting them – it’s about reproachful redirection, for lack of a better term. The lions will constantly be probing us to test who has more dominance over the other. During the walks we’ll also have small, not-quite-walking-sized sticks with us. These, too, are not meant to be a physical disciplinary device. Instead, they’re used to extend the length of one’s arm in order to make ourselves appear bigger and more threatening. When a lion at Antelope Park misbehaves or is otherwise testing our dominance, pointing the stick at them and firmly saying “aiwa!” (“no” in Shona) shows them we’re in charge, and more often than not, like disciplining a house cat, they pull their ears back, lower their head, and mutter to themselves as they slink off.
Antelope Park currently has four cubs (ages 6-12 months) that we’ll be able walk. The rest of the lions in Stage 1 are all over 18 months, which is the age the program retires them from walking with volunteers or paying guests (“clients” they’re often referred to as). At that age the lions have grown enough that it’s hard to assert one’s dominance over them if you’re only a “temporary” member of their pride (as the vols and clients are) and not a “permanent” member (both my descriptive terms) as the lion handlers, and others at AP whom the lions have grown up, with are.
At that age, the lions are grouped with others and in various combinations taken out on what are called “encounters”: after-dark or pre-dawn hunting excursions to test their ability to stalk and kill Antelope Park’s prey species, which includes numerous antelope species along with zebra and other game. The lions are accompanied by a truck or two that includes: handlers, to keep the lions focused on the task at hand; spotters, who use red spotlights to help the lions find prey (red doesn’t affect a lion’s night vision); and various combinations of clients and volunteers, the latter tasked with keeping data records on what was stalked, by which lion, how, under what conditions, etc., so ALERT can identify which lion’s or lions’ skills are improving, who works well together, and so on.
Commenting on the encounters, Dan ends our lion induction class with the following (which I’ll paraphrase): “Lions can sometimes give you a certain look when you’re out with them. We call it ‘the naughty look.’ They focus on you intensely, ears back, pupils narrowed. It’s difficult to describe what that look is, exactly; but believe me, you’ll know it if you get it. And if you do get ‘the naughty look,’ you need to immediately discipline the lion and show them who is in charge.”
(Queue the sound of a piano tinkling across a few ominous, dark keys, while foreshadowing rumbles in the distance.)
After the induction Dan takes us behind the staff and volunteer blocks to introduce us to Paza and Penya, the younger of the two pairs of cubs at AP. We find them on top of a platform, both sleeping on a red blanket. Dan immediately begins stroking Paza, which is Shona for “golden,” while Kim and I watch hesitantly from a distance. Dan beckons us closer, and like edging up to a fence we fear is electrified, we slowly screw up the courage to move in and timidly start petting the cubs. Penya (“to shine” in Shona, and a cub whom Dan named) rolls towards me and I immediately jump back, realizing how cowardly I’m behaving but unable to stop myself. Slowly, over several minutes, we begin to relax and start enjoying our time with the cubs – still hesitant, but warming quickly. Penya and Paza mostly nap through it all.
Then it’s off up the road 2.5 kilometers to the Stage 1 breeding program (BPG), which is adjacent to Antelope Park’s main house, where the Conollys live. Dan introduces us to the 85 lions currently in the program, most of whose names, I’m saddened to say, pass by me as quickly as their faces do. One who is remembered, however, is Big Boy – a beast of a lion, if ever there was one. Big Boy is separated from the rest of the lions, along with about nine others, because all have feline immunodeficiency virus, which you’ve probably guessed is the cat version of HIV. Unlike its human counterpart, FIV doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence for cats who contract it. In fact, it’s quite possible for them to live full lives. But not wanting to run the risk of exposing the BPG’s other lions, these are kept separately, and always will be, while ALERT studies them in the hopes of understanding more about this little-known disease.
I’m not sure if it’s the FIV, or just his general demeanor, but one of the things that makes Big Boy so endearing is that he’s a massive grump who will growl and roar at you non-stop while never breaking eye contact. Kindred spirits, let’s just say. From the moment you arrive, to the moment you leave, Big Boy will prowl along his fence line, stopping only to roar his disapproval of you. Love it!
As Dan is showing us around, Mr. Conolly emerges from the main house in the distance and walks past the large vegetable gardens en route to some unknown destination. Even though we’re a good 50 meters away, Dan immediately tucks in his shirt and seems to stand a little more upright. It’s a behavior I’d see repeated in different ways by other members of the staff at AP whenever Mr. Conolly was around, even if the staff aren’t interacting with him directly.
Following BPG we take a quick drive along the perimeter of the Stage 2 release site, where the Ngamo Pride call home. Part of the release site has fallen victim to a recent brush fire, but even with the elephant grass burned away we aren’t lucky enough to catch sight of the pride. Soon, we hope.
Along the way back to camp we pass several of the giraffes that call AP home, along with a number of zebra and impala. “You know what they call impala?” Dan asks us. “The fast food of the bush. Not just because they’re quick, but they have two black vertical stripes running down their hindquarters, along with a third down the middle of their tail. With their tail always tucked down it looks like an ‘M.’”
We’ll find out much later that this is probably the oldest joke in the bush.
Back at the AP’s camp headquarters, the 4pm session is nearing and we’re happy to see we’ve been “assigned” our first lion walk with the two older cubs, Lewa (“beautiful”) and Laili (“by night” or “after nightfall”) – aged 10 and 12 months. (“Assigned” is a hard way to describe what we feel is better termed “given the distinct honor of.”) We’re joined by several lion handlers and over a dozen volunteers, many of whom are taking one of their first walks as well.
Lined up in a row outside the enclosure, the handlers open the gate and two very eager cubs come padding out, making their distinctive “ee-OW” – which sounds like a “meow” that’s been trapped in a yawn. Like children at a playground waiting to be picked for the team, everyone wonders if they’re going to be lucky enough to have a cub come rubbing up against their legs, and Lewa and Laili soon make their choices – in one case flopping down atop the feet of a very happy volunteer. Having marked their human pride members with the scent glands located behind their mouths, the cubs are happy with our company and we set out.
We spend the next two hours walking along the mostly dry river bed near the L’s enclosure. Lewa and Laili hop along, happy with so much attention. They chase each other in the grass, plop themselves down on the trail, yawn, stretch, and even allow us the pleasure of having our pictures taken with them. It’s a little awkward mingling with the other volunteers; mostly because few of us have met, and there are so many of us on the walk with only two cubs whose attention we all pine for, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing, nor anywhere else I’d rather be.
The point of walking the cubs is to introduce them to the bush and allow them to learn and explore, craft and hone, their natural predatory instincts. Laili proves she’s up for the task. On the way back to their enclosure she spots some impala and instinctively starts stalking them. Well, “stalking” probably isn’t the best word to describe her level of skill. Let’s say she takes an “active interest” in a group of impala – who have duly noted her presence and make a leisurely get away when they feel she’s come close enough. Watch those M’s run, Laili!
After saying goodbye to the L’s we pass by the horse stables on our way back to camp and admire some of the two-dozen plus horses and mules AP keeps. Outside the dining hall, the sun is just starting to dip low on the western horizon, lighting up the river with yellows that descend slowly and magnificently into dark oranges and deeper reds; illuminating a pathway across the water to distant heavens. In all my travels, it is some of the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen.
At dinner we sit down with another older couple, Stan and Eva, from Australia, and start meeting some of the other volunteers who will be sharing this adventure with us. Stan and Eva are both Polish, but Stan has been living down under since childhood and you wouldn’t know his heritage if it weren’t for his last name. Eva is a cauldron of bubbly energy, delightedly describing her day and talking affectionately about the teaching and medical programs both her and Stan are here to volunteer for. They are a delight to spend time with. Easy going, well versed, quick to laugh, and with a deep affection for each other that’s plain to see. Instead of spending their days at the park working with and looking after the lions, they’ll be volunteering in the nearby town of Gweru as part of ALERT’s ever widening humanitarian programs. ALERT understands that, as clichéd as it sounds, it takes a village to raise a lion; and by helping and empowering people, they ultimately are helping the long-term survival of lions. It’s part of the long view you see in Mr. Conolly’s eyes.
With dinner drawing to a close, Kim and I look at our watches and discover that, even thought it’s barely 7:30pm, we’re both exhausted from traveling, settling in, and the excitement of getting to meet and walk with the lions. We trundle off to our river tent and to bed. As I pull together the two single beds in our tent (which the cleaning ladies will separate every day) and snuggle under the covers for warmth, I drift off to the sounds of crickets chirping.
That’s when I first hear the lions roaring in the distance.