You Can’t Go Home Again

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

-Thomas Wolfe.

Feeding time at Dambwa. Donkey's head... yum!

Feeding time at Dambwa. Donkey’s head… yum!

We’re up at Lion Encounter’s BPG site in the Dambwa Forest and I’m getting an inordinate amount of affection from Subi, who’s rumored to be pregnant (and of this writing may very well have given birth to a litter of cubs). Having finished cleaning out the enclosures and getting ready to feed the group, everyone is milling about. But me? I can’t seem to give Subi enough attention. Every time I stand up to leave she gives me the most forlorn look and eeowws ever-so-softly, following me along the fence line. So I crouch back down and continue rubbing the side of her face through the fence and scratching behind her ears, which by the contended look on her face appears to be exactly what she wants.

Several days earlier Kim was the focus of a similar kind of attention from Toka – the resident male lion here at Dambwa – but in a completely different way. Wrapping up our maintenance duties and standing outside the enclosures talking with LE’s assistant volunteer manager Mulenga, Toka decided to spray Kim. Caught completely unaware, in the blink of an eye she was doused in full by the golden-maned heartthrob. As she tried to clean herself up there was nothing to do but laugh; although I did give Toka a sideways look and half-heartedly challenged him to a gentlemanly duel for thinking he could simply impress such beauty and intelligence by scent marking her. Oddly, Kim seemed rather aflutter over it all.

As much fun as the BPG crowd are, it’s the single male lion inhabiting a nearby enclosure that remains the focus of our attention at most times – for in that enclosure is Dynamite.

Christened Hero by the staff here, it began in January when a wild lion was spotted in an area near Livingstone. Deemed a “problem animal” for fear of the conflict he might cause, he was going to be killed by authorities when Lion Encounter and ALERT stepped in, offering to dart, transport, and give Dynamite sanctuary up at their Dambwa facility. While moving him into his new, temporary home, the staff noticed he’d been radio collared. Data downloaded, it turned out Dynamite had traveled a considerable distance to be where he currently found himself; a journey that included swimming across the might Zambezi, which is an amazing feat for any animal.

Feeding time at Dambwa

Feeding time at Dambwa. Chicken… yum!

Born in 2002, he made his home in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, one of an original coalition of seven lions known as the Dynamite Coalition. Over the years their numbers declined, and when he was the sole remaining member he was given the coalition’s name as his own. In 2011 he was run off his patch near Gwayi by two younger upstarts, and what followed was his extraordinary journey from Hwange across the border into Zambia.

While old, Dynamite was still extremely fierce. Prone to rush the fence when anyone came near, we were under strict orders to back the truck in slowly towards his enclosure in order to make a quick getaway if needed, and to visually identify Dynamite before proceeding with any other work at BPG. Since no one could actually enter his enclosure, and Dynamite wasn’t in the least bit keen in moving into a management enclosure in order to have food put out and his house tidied up, his meals were thrown over the fence and his water pan was refilled by inserting a long PVC pipe through his enclosure fence while standing in the back of the idling truck. Cleaning his enclosure was simply not an option.

It’s quite unnerving to be mock-charged by a fully grown male lion while standing in the back of a truck trying to replenish his water supply. You know there’s a fence that separates you, but you still feel naked and an easy target nonetheless. That said, it was a rush and I very much appreciated Dynamite for the ornery, and well-deserved, character he was.

His true wildness was in stark contrast to the rest of the lions at BPG. He rightly unnerved his Dambwa roommates, and his presence was very much felt farther on up the forest by the Dambwa Pride, whose King Zulu – still wet behind the ears as a male lion, much less as the head of a pride – was rumored to have lost his mane around the time Dynamite turned up. All of this gave me pause for thought, wondering if the lions here – raised in captivity from cubs to be acclimated to humans – could actually stand a chance against the real deal even with the knowledge that it would be their offspring, or their offspring’s offspring, who would be the first tested by such an encounter. Would they behave similarly as Dynamite? Could they behave similarly?

Feeding time at Dambwa. Ribs and fur... yum!

Feeding time at Dambwa. Ribs and fur… yum!

Having successfully swam from one bank of the Zambezi to the other Dynamite was now the property of the Republic of Zambia, and as such he entered a legal limbo of sorts. The physical act of transporting him over the border and back into Zimbabwe, the multi-government agreements that were needed to do so, and the fact that he was an old lion who probably wouldn’t survive for very long given that he’d been run off by younger lions in the first place and as such probably wasn’t wanted back in Hwange by man and feline alike, didn’t bode well for our Hero. So he sat in sanctuary up at Dambwa. A lone and wayward monk, a political dissident, a lion without a home; snarling and charging anyone that came anywhere near his enclosure. I couldn’t blame him. Fences didn’t suit him, nor should they.

In October ZAWA informed Lion Encounter and ALERT that they’d be translocating Dynamite to Kafue National Park, approximately 250 kilometers north of Livingstone as the crow flies, where he’d be able to live out his final days as a proper wild lion again. Finally, someplace to call home. In early November a team arrived to dart and transport Dynamite, but after leaving Dambwa, in a moment that seemed lifted straight from a Herman Hesse novel, it was announced in a brief press release from ALERT that the Hero of our story “died in transit before he reached Kafue National Park.”

We have every faith that ZAWA did everything possible to safely translocate Dynamite and to save him once things deteriorated.  We are saddened beyond words that Dynamite was not able to enjoy his final days in the wilds of Kafue.

It’s hard to know what really happened while Dynamite was being transported. Did ZAWA incorrectly administer the tranquilizers? Did Dynamite injure himself while in transit? Was he carelessly or purposely injured by someone else? Was he properly monitored and taken care of? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? We’ll most likely never get answers. Having made such a valiant journey it is absolutely heartbreaking to know our Hero was so close to being free again, but in the end not close enough. I keep thinking about Dynamite in his temporary enclosure, looking so ill-fitting behind the fence while the rest of the lions there seemed so at ease and comfortable – Subi wanting human affection in her own way, Toka grabbing human attention in his own way. Not this lion, not Dynamite. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

Rest in peace, Dynamite. Rest in peace, Hero.

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