This illustrates one of the main differences between Antelope Park and Lion Encounter. At Antelope Park, we encountered a variety of antelope species on lion walks, as well as zebra and giraffe, but the only real potential danger was between the lions and their prey. In contrast, Lion Encounter is located in the midst of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. There are no predators in the park in the form of big cats or hyena, but there are crocodiles in the Zambezi River and there are plenty of hippos, elephants and buffalo, all of which can and will kill you despite not being predators. Because of that, in addition to the lion handlers accompanying us on our walks, there were also at least two armed Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) scouts. They walked ahead of us and made sure the coast was clear and safe for the humans, the lions, and the wildlife in the park. This is not to say they won’t allow interactions to naturally occur between the lions and the wild animals, as we would soon discover on our very first walk with Dendi and Damara.
As the oldest and feistiest of the walking lions, Dendi and Damara were no longer walking with clients but they were still walking with staff and volunteers. Because of their aforementioned feistiness, these two gave us regular practice in exerting our dominance and “receiving a lion,” which entails firmly and physically directing them away from you when they approach to rub against your legs like a house cat. When we were at AP last year, the lions were much smaller and younger and a rub against your legs was not only acceptable but something we all eagerly awaited. Not so with these two-year-old lionesses.
It was a relatively cool morning and the Ds seemed to be happy to be out and about frolicking in the bush. We’d been walking for quite awhile when they suddenly went into stalking mode. It took awhile to make out what they saw but in the distance, through the trees and the brush, we saw a herd of buffalo that included young calves; calves that the herd would be eager to protect. Dendi and Damara did not hesitate to go straight up to this herd, and there ensued a standoff with lions chasing buffalo, buffalo chasing lions, and back and forth again and again. The Ds never backed down against the herd and we cheered them on from a seemingly safe distance. But the standoff got even more intense when a bull suddenly got his leg caught in a poacher’s snare and both lions jumped on his back trying to bring it down. I’m not sure how, but after some amount of struggle the buffalo freed himself from the snare and the lions. That was when we heard the one critical word: “RUN!”
It all happened so fast that it was hard to know exactly what was going on. All I knew is that if the men with guns were telling me to run, and that they were running themselves, that’s exactly what I needed to do. My heart was racing as we all ran away from the herd, not having any idea of what they would do next. When we were finally told to stop running I thought the buffalo had gone off in the opposite direction and the drama was over. Suddenly that one-word order came again. But this time we were running towards the herd, who had somehow stealthily moved ahead of us, and the lions were off chasing after them again. Apparently, it was now time to put a stop to the chase before anyone – human or animal – got hurt, and so the scouts and handlers worked to get the lions away from the angry herd while we looked around for suitable trees to climb just in case. Finally able to divert the lions’ attention from the buffalo, the herd ran off. With all humans and lions safe and accounted for, we deemed the walk a huge success and headed back to camp.
During our remaining time at Lion Encounter we never again had a run-in with wildlife quite like this, although other volunteers did. It was more often than not common to have lion walks postponed because elephants were in our path of travel. The guards would spend up to an hour trying to get them to move on usually by loudly clapping their hands and occasionally firing a gunshot or two in the air. But that first walk with the Ds will always be memorable, not only because there was an element of real danger, but also because we got to see these young lions doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing – a sign that ALERT’s lion conservation program is working. We were privileged to go on other walks with the Ds during our time at Lion Encounter, and while they never got my heart thumping in my chest like that first time, they definitely showed us their independence, their moxie, and their sheer beauty each and every time.