It’s a little before 4:30am and Kim and I are standing in the road mid-way between the vol lounge and the dining hall, bundled up and trying to keep warm while waiting to leave on an early morning encounter, when Gillian walks up looking miserable and dejected. She was on the night encounter that went out last evening and apparently the group of lions they took out caught a young duiker (a very small antelope species), and spent 20 minutes batting it around between the vehicles, slowly taking their time killing it while the duiker squealed and tried to find an avenue of escape between the vehicles. All this while the volunteers and clients looked on aghast. I guess I’m surprised to hear that so many were mortified to witness the grim killing of game up close – perhaps not fully realizing until now that hunting in nature is rarely the muted and friendly scenes presented on NatGeo, and watching a kill is what they all went out in the hopes of seeing. But Gillian then starts telling us about another incident that also happened during last night’s encounter involving the horses up at the main house.
If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.
When the lions are taken out on encounters the horses, at the stables and up at the main house, are sequestered away in lion-proof enclosures to keep them safe. Apparently, the lions last night got too close to the horse enclosure at the main house and the horses inside panicked. While safe from lions getting in, they weren’t safe from their own fears, and so they bolted; breaking down part of the enclosure fence in an attempt to get free, and severely wounding at least two. According to those we spoke to it was complete pandemonium trying to get the lions away, trying to calm the horses, and trying to tend to the two that had been wounded. As well, there’s a lot of confusion over what exactly happened. Some are claiming that the horses weren’t put into their lion-proof enclosure and the lions got them, while others are saying that the horses were in their enclosure but the lions somehow got in. I see JB and walk over to ask him what happened. He just shakes his head and says, “Someone made a mistake. A big, big mistake.” Everyone is shaken by what’s happened, and it puts a dark shadow over our early morning encounter as we head off to the Bush enclosure to let the MK’s out hunting.
The sky is just starting to light up, and I watch the MK’s pad like ghosts alongside our vehicles. We have a lion handler in the back with us, but no spotter up front this time; the lead vehicle is the only one carrying someone with an infrared spotlight this morning. On the back bench of the front vehicle is a student filmmaker from South Africa, who has been at Antelope Park for the past few days filming the lions as part of a film project. Tall, skinny, with an unkempt mop of black hair, he closely resembles Zach Woods’ character, Gabe Lewis, from the US version of The Office. He has a Canon camera mounted on a tripod, and is using that to video the encounter. It seems a strange, and really poor, choice of equipment to be using to shoot a dark lion hunt. Shooting stills: fine; but not for low light video work that you want to pass off as being even semi-professional.
Seeing “Gabe” filming is probably the reason why Michael, who is seated on the front bench of our truck with Chris, starts pulling out a combination of pocket cameras, and voice and video recorders of his own, thumbing the “record” button on each. “Michael, no light! You’re distracting the lions.” He listens, then about a minute later tries to start covertly shooting again. After about 15 more minutes he has his video recorder propped up on the cab roof, his LCD screen now our view of what’s in front of us. “Michael, seriously! You know the rules.” But there’s no one on our truck to enforce them, and it becomes a pointless complaint. My African memoir has a new title: My Time in Africa, as Seen Through Michael’s LCD Screen.
The sun pulls up over the horizon in muted reds, and the MK’s spot a jackal that they briefly give chase to but do not catch. A few kilometers further on the lead vehicle suddenly accelerates away, and we punch the gas as well. The MK’s have given chase to something, but it’s hard to tell what it is from our vantage point. 100 meters up the road we pull up alongside the lead vehicle and see Kali, Mara, Meeka, and Moyo, towering over a sub-adult zebra. The zebra is on its back, braying at the top of its lungs, kicking its hooves, and rolling from side-to-side – still very much alive. One of the lionesses has tucked her face into the zebra’s rear end, where it was presumably taken down, and is, literally, eating it alive.
The cries are deafening, absolutely horrible, positively heartbreaking. The zebra kicks and screams, frantically trying to right itself and run away. But the lions are having none of it. Faces bloodied, they take turns holding the zebra down while the others nestle into its hind quarters and continue devouring it alive. People in both trucks are in tears. Gillian and I exchange looks. “Fuck, this again?” she seems to be asking. JB appears to be smiling to himself, probably thinking, “Wakapusa mukiwa. What were you expecting would happen if they caught something? Welcome to life.” Gabe’s sweatpants have somehow slipped down his legs as he tries to film – an odd comic side note in the midst of everything else. And in the seat behind me I hear somebody sobbing loudly and turn to see Sharon bawling into her hands while Chris tries to comfort her. “Why? Why do they have to kill it?” she cries uncontrollably. “Why does it have to suffer?” I look at Kim and see tears in her eyes also as she bravely bites her lip. I put my arm around her, but it seems a hollow gesture.
Everything feels awkward, and in that discomfort my attention constantly shifts between the zebra screaming while it’s slowly being disemboweled, and the crying of the voyeurs who’ve gathered to watch. It’s an ugly thing, this killing business, and I make the one gesture that gives me a modicum of comfort: I draw my camera back up to my eyes, like a security blanket keeping me safe, and continue photographing. It’s an old habit of mine, a defensive move, and it’s a way of creating space between myself and what’s happening. Space from the people around me, and space from the gruesome scene playing out in front of the lens. In frame, but out of emotional focus. It lets me be dispassionate, removed, unfeeling. As the shutter snaps again and again, capturing the crime scene in all its gory detail, a mantra hums behind my lips: my god is beautiful / my god is terrible.
Slowly, slowly. The zebra’s kicking comes to end. It’s no longer screaming. After over 10 minutes of struggling, Moyo clamps his jaws around its neck and brings things to a close. Moyo – “the fake lion” – makes the kill official. And then a funny thing happens. No longer fighting while it’s being eaten alive, no longer screaming for mercy, the zebra is now just another piece of meat for the lions. The mood surrounding the trucks noticeably lightens, and it’s really odd to watch that emotional shift take place among everyone. The zebra’s just a dead piece of meat now, a breakfast of eggs and bacon for our loveable lions.
The lions’ hunger sated, a third truck arrives to take what’s left of the zebra back to their enclosure. It’s further reward for a successful hunt, but it’s also a way to entice the lions back home. This is only the MK’s second hunt, and it’s their first kill. Next time, they will be quicker to the throat; knowing that they can avoid a lot of unnecessary kicking and screaming on the part of the prey, and potential injuries to themselves, as a result. And while difficult for some to watch, these hunts are a very important and integral part of the lion release program. The lions need to learn, they need to adapt, they need to know how to kill. If they can’t do that, they have little chance of surviving in the wild, much less graduating their way through the program here.
Back at camp we sip coffee and try to find out the latest news on the horses. Apparently, the horses did indeed bolt from their enclosure – breaking down one side of the enclosure fence in trying to escape – but they weren’t attacked by any lions It’s an odd, highly unlikely thing to happen, but it has. Their safety enclosures were built to keep lions out, not necessarily keep panicked equines in. Of the two that have been injured, both are mares. Kiara, who has a young foal that we met on Monday while feeding the larger group at the main house; and Savannah, who is pregnant and due to give birth in December. A vet has been summoned from Gweru to better attend to their injuries, and it’s wholly depressing for everyone at camp.
Following breakfast we head out to BPG with JB, Mackay, Michael, and Carielle. The session: lion cub feed. Mackay opens the meat trailer and pulls out two animal legs we need to further slice up into cub-sized morsels. Michael and Carielle are busy filming the entire thing, so Kim and I step back and let them take the lead. Carielle has Michael stand in front of the reefer while she films. Michael recites an intro to the task at hand, while in the background JB and Mackay are busily swinging an axe at the legs and trying to split them up into smaller pieces, uncaring how it plays on the video. Mackay then cuts some guide lines into the legs and shows Michael where to work the knife. Carielle films while Michael completes Mackay’s dot-to-dot and carves up several chunks of meat. We all smile and laugh, because this is dead meat we’re working with, after all, not live meat still kicking and screaming. Michael then holds his knife aloft and comments to the camera, “The meat has been cut, and we’ve overcome our fears.” “What fears are those, exactly?” I shout. “The fear of cutting things,” he retorts. Oh, great – a serial killer has been born. I have flashes of cow posters hanging in Michael’s dorm room at AP – dotted outlines of all the cuts of meat on it, perfectly sharpened knives in a trunk at the end of his bed, and his CV updated to read: “Youth entrepreneur and aspiring butcher of exotic meats.”
Meat cut, fears overcome, fantasies fulfilled, Mackay and JB rub down the cuts with vitamins and we’re off to see the cubs and deliver them some lunch. At both stops, each respective pair lay claim to their prize and hurriedly tears into them. It’s interesting to watch both Penya and Lewa act more territorial over the meat than their counterparts; something we’ve previously written about. Chomp, chomp, chomp. Nom, nom, nom. Nothing better than a vitamin-rubbed fresh piece of meat. The cubs are content, and we leave them to gobble up what’s left.
Our post-lunch session sees me and Kim back up at BPG to clean out a couple of the enclosures. Hege is along with us, and upon arrival she immediately lays claim to the task of cleaning the water troughs, stating that back problems prevent her from picking up poo and bones. It seems odd, as you have to bend over more, actually, to scoop out the troughs and then scrub them, but… whatever. I’m happy to pick up poo. Until, that is, I start picking up Lulu’s poo.
Lulu is an older lioness at the breeding program here, and mother to a number of other lions also at AP. She’s also a total sweetheart, rubbing up affectionately against the fence of her enclosure, anxious to be touched and have her affection returned in kind. Given that one of our cats back home is nicknamed Lulu, Kim and I are very fond of our “Lulu away from Lulu.” Her poo, however, is far from being fond. It’s diarrhetic and stinky. Very, very stinky. It’s probably her age, but none of the other lions whose enclosures we’ve cleaned have had scat that smells as horrible as Lulu’s. I’m sure she doesn’t much like the smell, either; so everyone is happy when we’ve finished cleaning.
Because the enclosures we’re working in have no water spigots nearby, we have to fill up a 55 gallon drum and wheelbarrow it over. The guide we’re with passes the hose through to Hege, and she immediately turns to me and says, “Craig, come over here and suck on this hose to get the water flowing into the trough!” It’s not an ask, but a command. “Uh, no. You chose to clean the troughs, you get to suck on the hose.” Hege persists, “Craig, come here and suck on this hose!” One part of me is laughing at the ridiculous and juvenile subtext of the conversation, but the vocal part of me isn’t at all pleased about being ordered around to do a task Hege finds unpleasant, having already spent the session doing other tasks that she decided she didn’t want to do. “Um, fuck you? You insisted on cleaning out the troughs so you wouldn’t have to pick up shit and bones, so suck on your own damn hose!”
Maybe if she would’ve asked my response would’ve been different, but I don’t take well to being commanded by people who want to pick and choose what tasks they perform. “Geez!” she responds. “I was just asking!” I turn my back on the scene, and I’m pretty certain the poor guide who’s along with us gets stuck with hose sucking duty. Everybody has the potential to rub everyone else the wrong way at times, and I know I can put on a mood at times that makes even Big Boy look soft and cuddly, but Hege has been pretty consistent with how annoying she is, and is something everyone else at AP, from vols to staff, have noticed as well. I walk over to the management enclosure Lulu’s been in while we’ve been cleaning out her main enclosure, and spend some quality time with her rubbing the side of her face through the fence and scratching behind her ears with my fingertips. Rwoar!
When we get back to camp we find that the final afternoon session is a boat cruise for all the vols; a ride up the river on the west side of camp to where it’s been dammed. I opt not to go. Having been up since 3:30am, I’m feeling worn out, and being seated on a boat for two hours without much wiggle room doesn’t sound too fun. Plus, there’s a letter I’d like to write. So Kim heads out with the other vols, drinks in hand, to enjoy a sunset boat cruise; and when she later shows me the gorgeous pictures she took, I’ll regret not going.
I stay at camp, penning a thank you letter to Mr. Conolly for taking the time these past two weeks, and especially yesterday, to talk with me at length. I’m old school that way, and sense it’s something he would appreciate. I want to let him know how appreciative I am of his time, his program, his park, his lions, his staff – singling out Nathan, Leigh-Ann, Dan, Liwale, JB, and others. In the midst of all the political and economic turmoil engulfing Zimbabwe, in the middle of all the heart- and backbreaking work here, even with rubbing up wrong against some of the other vols, I’m still very, very humbled to be at AP, still very willing to do whatever work is asked of me, and want to thank him for it the best way I know how: by writing it down.
That night at the vol meeting Nathan updates us on Kiara and Savannah. The former appears to be doing better, and her wounds have been stitched up. But it’s still “touch and go” with Savannah. Everyone’s face lowers and there’s a heavy vibe in the room. Trying to change the topic to something a little lighter, I ask what I’ve been asking most nights for awhile now: “How are the Ngamo Pride doing?” Nathan looks at me, his face a mixture of confusion and annoyance. Clearly unhappy, he says, “Why are you asking?” I reply, “Because that’s why we’re all here, right? The pride are the flagship for everything we’re doing, and it just seems weird to be able to actively follow them online from halfway around the world but have to ask how they’re doing once we arrive at their doorstep.” Nathan’s still looking at me sideways. Leigh-Ann steps in and brings everyone up-to-date on the pride, and I realize much later that Nathan was probably caught off guard by my question, with so much of the day having been spent caught up in the emotional turmoil of what happened to the horses. I feel bad and later apologize, but am still frustrated to have to ask each evening how the pride are doing.
It’s been a long day for everyone; more so for those who’ve been up all night looking after the horses. Around the fire that evening, drinking cans of Castle lager, I ponder the different emotional weight we give things: horses, zebra, lions, people. Zebra are okay to kill, but only if it’s done quickly and quietly. Horses are not okay to kill, because they don’t have any stripes. The lions we work with, whom we love dearly and have grown strongly attached to, suddenly become villains when they act on the instincts we’re trying to hone within them – skills and instincts they need in order for their species to survive. We walk with them, rub their bellies, eeoww at them, and have our pictures taken with them every chance we get, but we are reticent to acknowledge what they really are: finely tuned killing machines. We put them on pedestals like gods, but when they act like gods we are taken aback, horrified at the ugly things they’ve done. Staring into the fire, I hear the mantra building again just behind my lips. It hums: my god is beautiful / my god is terrible.