On the afternoon of our return from Zimbabwe we were scheduled on a walk with the 2MZeds. As we were leaving the White House to walk over to their enclosure we saw Cara, the Lions Manager, in her pick-up truck announcing that she was on her way to pick up the cubs! Of course, all the staff and volunteers were abuzz with an excitement that would later turn to grumbling when we returned from the walk and discovered that we were tasked with cleaning out the crates the cubs had traveled from South Africa in. But afterwards, as a reward for our efforts, we got to go over and take a peek at the newest arrivals. We walked over to their enclosure as quietly as a couple of dozen people tingling with excitement can. They were still recovering from their long journey and adjusting to their unfamiliar surroundings, but they seemed to be in good spirits.
Over the course of the next couple of days the trio of sisters were named Namwala, Nembwe, and Nkoya. The fourth female was named Kasama; and the one male, her brother, was named Kovu. Kovu was easy to distinguish as he was much larger than all the females and was already acting like the protector of the pride. They were all between three and five months old and absolutely beautiful.
While they are now going out on walks, at the time we were fortunate to have the opportunity to cub-sit them during our last week at Lion Encounter, which gave us plenty of time to photograph these beautiful little lions and watch their personalities develop as they acclimated to their new home. It was a joyous time for staff and volunteers alike, but there were some questions that kept nagging at me, and continue to do so.
Since the promise of walking with lions is the number one draw for both tourists and volunteers, it was clear that Lion Encounter needed new walking cubs as the three sets currently in rotation were all getting too big to walk. But what happens now to Dendi and Damara, Zamfara and Zaria, and Munali, Madoda, and Zambezi? Will they spend all of their time in an enclosure until, if and when, they are released as members of a Stage Two pride? In the meantime, and maybe for all time, they will no longer get to run and play and stalk and chase outside the strict confines of a chain link fence. And they won’t get to hunt. Will the same happen to these five new cubs when they, too, get too big to walk with volunteers and clients?
At Antelope Park lions that have recently been retired from walking begin to go on Night Encounters, with the express intent of allowing them more opportunities to hone their hunting skills. At Lion Encounter and Victoria Falls there currently are no Night Encounters for the lions. I don’t know why this is; perhaps it’s related to land issues, staffing, or government policies, but it’s unfortunate. The only opportunity for the lions in Livingstone or Victoria Falls to continue developing the skills required for a semi-wild life would be if they were transported to Antelope Park, which has occurred before. But as the number of lions at this stage increases at AP, it decreases their opportunities to go on the coveted Night Encounters.
Without Night Encounters will these lions lose the skills that have been so carefully cultivated in them? Will they ever get to a Stage Two release? They might, and my fingers are crossed that they will, but it would be overly optimistic to expect every lion that comes through the gates at Lion Encounter (and Victoria Falls and Antelope Park) will have that opportunity. And we can’t forget about the lions who have previously been retired from walking that are already waiting for their turn. Then there are the cubs that will someday replace Namwala, Nembwe, Nkoya, Kasama, and Kovu. In fact, as of this writing there are four new cubs at Lion Encounter recently born to Subi – Songwe, Sadiki, Sekani and Sarabi. Another lioness, Nyika, is said to be pregnant as well. And on and on it goes.
I know ALERT is working tirelessly on funding and creating new release sites, and there are plans in place. They have signed an agreement with the government of the Republic of Burundi to help manage five protected areas and to re-introduce the lion population. There are also talks about a future release site in Victoria Falls. But even these projects are probably twelve-to-eighteen months out before any lions can be released in them. Land and financing aside, it takes time to acquire and build the fencing around the sites, construct waterholes if needed, stock the sites with game, and, if it’s a Stage Three site, with predators, as well as obtaining the necessary permits if lions are going to be transported across borders. The five new arrivals at Lion Encounter will be retired from walking by then, but what are their chances of getting released when there will be so many others already in line ahead of them at all three sites?
While things may change in the future, at present there doesn’t seem to be the money or the land to release all the lions in the program that are ready or near-ready, and if they continue to breed and bring in new cubs the backlog will become larger and larger. It’s this vicious cycle that breaks my heart. So while I tried to be in the moment and just enjoy these beautiful little lions, I worry for their future and for the future of all the lions that I have come to know and love. I know without a doubt that each and every lion is very well cared for and loved and that it is ALERT’s goal to release these lions into the subsequent stages in order to build up the wild lion population, but I can’t get away from the knowledge that, except for a lucky few, many of these lions don’t have much more of a future than spending their remaining years in an enclosure.