The first time I met Kirsty Lynas was during a Data Collection induction session early on during our stay at Antelope Park. In order for the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) to determine which lions in their Rehabilitation and Release Into the Wild program stand the best chance for release into Stage Two as an independent, self-sustaining pride, they first need to monitor them closely during Stage One. Which lions pair up well? Which notice prey species when out on bush walks? Which don’t? How far away was the prey? What was the ground cover like? Tall grass? Short grass? Trees? From which direction was the wind blowing? What time of day or night was it? How did the lions stalk the prey (assuming they noticed it and assuming they chose to stalk it)?
Remember: Africa is going nowhere and is awaiting your return.
The only way to know which lions perform well, and just how well, is to continuously monitor their behavior and collect data on it all. A lot of data. And as a lion research technician for ALERT, Kirsty understands better than most the importance of collecting this data.
The second time I met Kirsty was during our first encounter with the Ngamo Pride. In the back of a Land Rover watching this very unique group of lions go about their daily routine, I spent as much time watching Milo and Co. as I did paying attention to Kirsty – how effortlessly she recognized each lion, her understanding of each lion’s place in the pride’s hierarchy, her unbridled giddiness at being witness to a long and luxurious grooming session between several of the lionesses, and the way she notated every behavior of each lion in detail. Meticulous detail. It was obvious Kirsty was in her element out in the Ngamo release site, and it felt like having pitch side seats at a cup final.
On the eve of returning to Zimbabwe to continue her duties as researcher for the Ngamo Pride, we caught up with Kirsty to learn more about her involvement with ALERT, her dedication to saving lions, and her love for Africa.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
Kirsty: I’m 27 years old and grew up in central England. I left school after my A levels to gain some work experience, and after a couple of years and saving some money I decided that I wanted to go traveling and at the same time help out with some conservation work. I have always had a fascination and love of animals since childhood and decided that I wanted to see animals in their natural habitats rather than just in a zoo. After several trips to Borneo, South Africa and Zimbabwe working with a range of animals I then decided it was time to head to university to gain further qualifications so I could progress in a career of wildlife conservation and research. I have just finished my second year at Northampton University studying BSc (Hons) Applied Animal Studies.
What are your first memories of Africa and lions, and can you describe your first trip to the continent and your first encounter with them?
Kirsty: My first trip to Africa was in 2005 when I first volunteered at Antelope Park for six weeks. I remember meeting my very first lions – Phoenix and Penduka, who were just a few months old at the time – within an hour of first arriving at the park. One of the guides took me into their enclosure and there was these two little balls of fluff curled up together. We slowly approached them and Penduka soon came bounding over, eager to say hello. Within a few minutes I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real; here I was sitting with a lion cub’s head in my lap! The afternoon of my very first day in Africa was spent walking two 12 month old lions, Ashanti and Ariel. They both came bounding out their enclosure and greeted me with the typical lion head rub against my legs. It was then that I fell in love!
I walked around wide-eyed and in awe of everything for the first week. Africa was just something that I could never have even imagined. Everyone was so friendly, the lifestyle so laid back. I tried not to take anything for granted and appreciate everything I did. It’s amazing how quickly walking lions can become just a routine!
One of the biggest things that stood out from that first trip to Africa were the smells of the bush and the traditional African way of life. The smell of the earth after rain, the smell of wood burning on the fire, and the smell of thatch when you walked into my room. To this day they evoke so many memories.
How did you get involved with animal volunteering? Why did you choose volunteering over more traditional safari- and tourist-oriented encounters, and where have you volunteered?
Kirsty: When I decided that I wanted to go traveling I looked at various different options and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to do just the normal tourist-type travel. I wanted to really submerge myself in different cultures and ways of life, as well as make a difference in wildlife conservation. My first trip took me to Borneo in early 2005 to work at an orangutan orphanage for two months. This was an incredibly special experience and one that will stay with me forever. Orangutans are so much like humans that an instant bond is built when you work so closely with them. I returned to Borneo for a further year in January 2006 to work as a research assistant on an orangutan post-release monitoring project, living at a remote base camp in the middle of the rainforest. This was easily the most challenging experience I have had but as equally rewarding.
Once I had returned from Borneo, Africa called my name once again and I returned to Antelope Park in 2007 for a further ten weeks as a volunteer. Working with the lions day in and day out and getting so involved definitely gave me my most enjoyable volunteer placement. This is when I realized that I had Africa in my blood and sparked my love affair with this incredible continent.
In 2008 I completed another volunteer project in South Africa researching lions, leopards, wild dogs, cheetah, hyena and elephants. This particular project allowed me to observe a whole host of animals in their natural environment and reinforced the reasons of why I was doing what I was and why conservation is so important.
In 2009 I returned to South Africa once again for another 18 months working as a research assistant on a leopard project in the remote mountains of Lydenburg. These animals were regularly persecuted by farmers due to a large amount of predator-livestock conflict. Spending time in such a volatile environment I came to understand that conservation is as much about people as it is about the animals.
It was then that I decided that gaining further education would be beneficial to progressing my career in conservation and I begrudgingly returned to the UK to start university.
How did you first become aware of ALERT and what led you to volunteer for them?
Kirsty: ALERT was founded in 2005, the year that I was first a volunteer at Antelope Park. The project was advertised on a volunteer website and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to be part of it. Ever since I was a little girl Africa and lions had fascinated me, particularly after watching Born Free. So when I saw the opportunity to gain such a hands-on experience with this magnificent predator it was an opportunity that I couldn’t give up.
I volunteered twice at Antelope Park, but followed the progress of the project very closely, always knowing that I would return at some point. It’s difficult to describe but Antelope Park has an effect on you that just makes you want to go back again and again. When the opportunity came up to work as a research technician for ALERT I knew this was the right time to try and return to Antelope Park.
How did you transition from volunteering to being more directly involved with ALERT’s Lion Rehabilitation and Release Into the Wild program, and why?
Kirsty: Like I mentioned previously, I had closely followed the progress of ALERT after I left Antelope Park and had stayed in touch with the Chief Operating Officer of ALERT, David Youldon, who had been the volunteer coordinator when I was a volunteer at Antelope Park. When I saw that he was advertising for a research technician and was ideally looking for someone with previous research experience, I contacted him to see if he would consider me for the position. Fortunately he did, and only four weeks after originally inquiring about the job I was on my way back to Zimbabwe.
Why is the dwindling lion population in Africa so important to address, and what is it about ALERT’s approach to solving this problem that deserves our attention and support?
Kirsty: The lion population in Africa has declined dramatically over the past 30 years, and if it continues in this way there is no doubt that lions will follow in the footsteps of many other species and become extinct. There are a variety of issues that are encouraging this decline: from disease and loss of habitat and natural prey, to trophy hunting, conflict with humans, and inbreeding. ALERT takes a multi-action approach. Not only do they operate their Rehabilitation and Release Into the Wild program – which is operated at Antelope Park, Victoria Falls, and Livingstone in Zambia – but they also support the work of other predator projects across Africa, as well as working to implement national lion action plans to help to restore habitat, undertake research, help local communities to get involved and educate them as to why it is so important to conserve this species.
Lions are an apex predator. If their populations are healthy and stable then it is likely this indicates that the majority of species below them are also doing well.
Like any organization in the public eye ALERT has faced its share of criticism. As someone intimate with the program and the people behind ALERT, their approach to solving the dwindling lion problem and the philosophy driving it, how do you deal with the misconceptions, misrepresentations, and mistruths?
Kirsty: The majority of criticism about ALERT usually comes from people who do not understand how the project works and what we are trying to achieve. People see that we work in close proximity with lions and automatically presume that the project is a money making scheme and has no conservation value. This could not be further from the truth. ALERT does not intend to release captive bred lions into the wild; it is the offspring of these lions, who have had no direct contact with humans and have been raised solely by a pride, that will be released into Stage Four of the Rehabilitation and Release program. All the money that is raised through the volunteer program and activities involving the lions goes back into the project.
The only way to prove our critics wrong is for the program to work, and already that is happening. The first release pride of the project, the Ngamo Pride, has already been released and fending for themselves for over 18 months now. They have successfully bred, and their first wild-born cub [AT1, aka Wakanaka] was involved in her first kill at just 15 months old. This is proof in itself that the project is working. The pride now needs to move on to Stage Three so that the cubs can start to experience a larger variety of prey species and also learn how to deal with other competitive predators, such as hyenas.
The only thing holding the program back is funding. ALERT desperately needs money to be able to get the Ngamo pride in the next stage of their journey and continue to prove that this project can and will work. Every single person who works for ALERT and their associated partners are passionate about lions and securing the future for such an incredible animal. The thought of Africa without lions is just incomprehensible and I truly believe ALERT can play a part at the forefront of lion conservation.
What are your favorite memories of your time with both the Ngamo Pride and with ALERT?
Kirsty: There are just too many to describe! Entering the release site for the first time and seeing the lions that I walked as cubs living as a self-sustaining pride was very special and brought a lump to my throat. Also seeing AT1, the first wild-born cub, for the very first time was a particularly fantastic moment. Watching the pride male, Milo, go from being a gentle and tender father as he played with his daughter at sunrise to seeing his power and aggression as he brought down a zebra in one swift action was immense. The whole experience of watching the pride grow and progress is just incredible. Being able to have been so involved in their journey has been an honor and I consider myself extremely lucky to have been given that opportunity. Each day is different and you never know what to expect; the lions can be fast asleep one minute and then chasing after zebra the next. The job can be emotionally draining at times, but the most awesome thing about it is that is doesn’t feel like work.
What advice would you offer someone looking to volunteer for their first time in a distant corner of Africa, or anywhere else for that matter? What should they look to bring to the experience, and what should they look to get out of the experience and an organization like ALERT?
Kirsty: Anyone wanting to volunteer for the first time must have a good work ethic and be willing to pitch in wherever it is needed. Volunteering is not all about the glamorous lion walks and playing with cubs, it’s about being the first to raise your hand when asked who wants to cut up a carcass when the lions need feeding, or offering to help to maintain the roads so that vehicles have access to all enclosures. A volunteering experience can be the best time of your life but you will only get out of it what you put in. It’s not about cuddling lion cubs, it’s about playing a small part in helping to conserve a species and being willing to undertake any task that you are asked to do. It’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself, build confidence, and meet people who will become friends for the rest of your life. You also get the opportunity to experience different cultures and ways of life, and genuinely make a difference.
How do you explain the spell Africa casts on you to someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand?
Kirsty: To be honest, it’s virtually indescribable. There is something about Africa that captures your heart, and I truly do not think anyone who hasn’t been to Africa can understand that feeling. It is just a special place, like nowhere else, and a place that once you have been to you will always want to return.
Besides the lions, what do you miss most when you’re not there and what are you most looking forward to when you return?
Kirsty: The sunrises and sunsets, the birds, other wildlife, the list goes on! Just the general African way of life is pretty special and the feeling of just wanting to smile because, yes, you are in Africa.
Unsurprisingly, I am most looking forward to seeing the Ngamo Pride again, and seeing how much AT1 has grown and has progressed. I cannot wait to witness her hunting and also meet her four half-brothers and half-sisters who have been born since I was last there. I cannot wait to hear Milo roar again; it is one of the most intense sounds of Africa and reverberates through your whole body.
It will also be fantastic to catch up with the young cubs in Stage One of the program. They are now starting to make their first kills so it will be exciting to go back and watch them develop.
How has Africa, lions, and ALERT changed you as a person?
Kirsty: It has given me perspective of what I want to do with my life. It has made me realize what a privileged life I have had and to not take anything for granted. Africa, lions, and ALERT have all provided me some of the most amazing memories and given me the passion and drive to make a difference and not stop until the end goal has been achieved. It is now a huge part of my life and I know that nothing can ever change that.
Finally, what does the future hold for you?
Kirsty: I have one more year of university to complete, which will include undertaking a dissertation project on the Ngamo Pride. Once that is complete I hope to stay involved with conservation, and of course Africa and lions.