When originally booking our trip, Kim and I decided not to go to Vic Falls; instead choosing to spend our third week in Africa at Elephant Plains, in Sabi Sands. But others have, and for the past several days at the 6pm vol meeting we’ve been discussing who wants to go on what trips, and when those trips should happen. Tonight it’s been decided that the Vic Falls trip will happen this coming Monday, the second Monday of the month; and Chris and Sharon, who are currently out on a lunar elephant ride, are going to be sorely disappointed to find that out, as they had booked their outbound flights from Vic Falls on the assumption that the trip would be happening the third week. TIA? Annoyingly so.
It’s also been decided that the Great Zim trip will be happening this Sunday, with the Matobo trip uncertain because of the low number of vols interested in going. Earlier in the week, before the dates had been decided, Michael kept interrupting the meetings by throwing his hand up in the air and saying, “Question! Can the trip to the ruins be scheduled on the weekend?” To which Nathan would reply, “We’re not sure yet what the date is.”
Michael hasn’t been to a lot of the vol meetings, and every time he does show up his head is buried in his laptop, completely unaware of what’s going on around him. At one point during a meeting he lifted his head up, stared off blankly into the distance, then got up and walked out with no explanation. He’s an odd character. Annoyingly so, at times, even though on the whole he seems a nice person – just completely unaware of what’s happening in the present tense around him. I find myself wondering, “Who is this guy? Does he even know where he’s at and what they do here?”
“Question! I’m just wondering if the Great Zimbabwe Ruins trip is going to be on a weekend, because I would be up for going if the trip was on the weekend,” Michael once again asks. “Why the weekend?” Nathan responds, slightly frustrated. “Because don’t we get weekends off?” comes Michael’s reply.
After the laughter in the room dies down and Nathan can unscrew the look of complete bewilderment from his face, he responds. “Michael, we don’t get weekends off here. Do you think the lions look after themselves?”
“I’ll choose when the trip is!” Nathan barks, his usual friendly demeanor now gone.
Fortunately for Michael, and perhaps even for the lions at AP, the trip to the Zim Ruins gets scheduled for Sunday. With the dates sorted, for good or ill, and the rest of the day’s vol business taken care of, Nathan introduces Mr. Conolly, who has stopped by to address everyone. It’s the first time he’s spoken to the volunteers as a whole, and probably both the first and last times many of the volunteers will see him.
He begins by saying that he personally reads every volunteer feedback form submitted, and acknowledges some of the frustration in the feedback by saying that many people, volunteers included, aren’t aware of the big picture or what’s happening with the lion release program “as a whole.” It’s a little disheartening to hear him start off with that, as many of the minor issues Kim and I have seen since arriving – like this afternoon’s bust of an elephant session – appear to be day-to-day management issues at the local level here, and not the result of what’s happening elsewhere in the program. It is encouraging, however, to hear that he reads all the feedback.
Conolly then speaks at length about the current status of the lion release program. A Stage 3 site has been selected in Zambia, but ALERT lacks the US$15 million needed to build it out. Conolly mentions a former volunteer who works for the International Monetary Fund, and who recently gave a speech at Prince Albert’s Red Cross Ball in Monte Carlo that was devoted exclusively to ALERT’s mission to save the African lion. Over 700 of the world’s power brokers were in attendance, many of them in tears by the presentation’s end; but 700 people does not necessarily $15 million make, and one of the most difficult things has been navigating the ever-more-troubling economic politics of Zimbabwe, which is why Zambia has been chosen for a Stage 3 release site.
Unlike Zimbabwe, the politics and funding are much easier in Zambia, and by way of example Conolly discusses ALERT’s first ever Stage 2 release site, known as Dollar Block. Situated in Zimbabwe between Gweru and Bulawayo, it saw the release of ALERT’s first pride in 2007; but the elections of 2008, and the subsequent political and economic turmoil, saw the site closed after barely a year’s time. It was a huge setback for the program, and would take another two years before a second Stage 2 site was erected, this time here at Antelope Park, known as Ngamo.
Talk then shifts to the Ngamo Pride, “You know her as AT1,” Mr. Conolly says, referring to the Ngamo Pride’s only surviving cub to date. “And I believe she has an unofficial name as well,” he says, looking at Nathan. “‘Wakanaka’,” Nathan replies. “But I call her ‘Alpha,’ because she is the first, the beginning. In Alpha, we have the model that can save the lions of Africa.”
“What we’re doing here is what we can afford to do,” he says, referring to ALERT’s self-funding model. “But it’s a model for what we can do. Once this takes hold this will save the lions of Africa, I’m convinced. It’s so simple, and it’s going to happen. As far as I’m sitting here, this is going to happen.”
It’s hard to argue with his conviction, determination, and vision. And it’s obvious, to me at least, that while Mr. Conolly may have lost an arm to a lion, he is sacrificing everything else he has to save them, without hesitation and without shame. He sees the end posts, and everything else is a means to help him to that end or an impediment to be knocked aside. It reminds me of an old axiom, which I hurriedly scribble down in my notebook.
Lead, follow, or get out of the way!