While we only had one walk with Penya and Paza, and saw Lewa and Laili all but too briefly, we were able to spend both an afternoon and a morning session inside the Ngamo release site, and it certainly had to be the highlight of our working visit to Antelope Park. This was due in no small part to ALERT researcher Kirsty, who, along with her fellow lion researcher Yvonne, gave us a much-appreciated and personalized glimpse at this very special pride of lions.
Oh Lion in a peculiar guise,
Sharp Roman road to Paradise,
Come eat me up, I’ll pay thy toll
With all my flesh, and keep my soul.
Having admirably suffered through an interview session each (two in the case of Yvonne) for the ALERT profiles project I’d been working on day and night since arriving at AP, and having further allowed me to film them typing, filing, walking into the kitchen at 6am to get a cup of tea, coming and going from their office, unlocking and locking and driving to and from the release site with no practical purpose other than to make the camera happy, they still let us join them in the back of their research truck inside Ngamo. Thank you both!
Kim and I always joked that each time we went into Ngamo we provided the researchers with good lion juju as they always seemed to turn out for us in memorable ways. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that, when I asked Yvonne to pull out the radio tracking equipment so I could get some B-roll of her pretending to locate the pride, we found them almost straight away. That might not seem too out of the ordinary, until you consider the equipment wasn’t even working in the first place and was hauled out entirely for the benefit of the camera. Antennae lifted towards the sky, Yvonne busily looking at the so-not-working-it-doesn’t-even-have-a-battery-in-it receiver, her other arm pointing westward towards an imaginary radio collar signal, we drove for about thirty meters in the direction she indicated and stumbled directly onto the pride. Huzzah!
At one point during our second (morning) session we spotted a group of volunteers who were walking the outside of the Ngamo fence line with a handler, about fifty meters away from both us and the pride. While they were outside the research site and, as such, there wasn’t a safety issue, Kirsty and Yvonne were both still visibly upset as no one is supposed to be on foot anywhere near the pride for fear of acclimating its cubs to humans. As well, Milo has previously been known to charge the fence under similar circumstances in a display of territorial defense. Kirsty radioed over to the handler but he didn’t pick up. They were close enough that we could hear Kirsty’s voice coming through the handler’s walkie-talkie, but he still didn’t respond even after a second attempt at hailing them. On the third try he finally answered. The researchers insisted that the handler move the vols farther away from the fence line and they slowly but reluctantly did so, only to make a slow arc back towards the fence again about five minutes later. Furious, Kirsty radioed once more for the group to move off and stay away from the pride. The handler ignored her again, and I swear I could hear some of them laughing.
It was disappointing to witness this. I’m not sure if the group outside the fence were patrolling it for holes (something that does need to be done regularly) and using the activity as an excuse to get a closer look at the pride and its cubs from on foot, but from what we saw, and were subsequently told, the handlers most certainly should have understood they were someplace they shouldn’t have been; and more importantly, they should’ve been more responsive to the situation and not kept coming back to the fence line for another peek at the lions. Actions like that don’t help a pride of semi-wild lions become less habituated to humans. It’s hard enough watching Kirsty and the rest battle the external critics of ALERT’s lion conservation program without having to witness their hard work and research unnecessarily undermined from within.
That incident aside, it was an absolute honor to once again be among the Ngamo lions. At approximately the same age as the Ps, Wakanaka has grown into a beautiful lioness and acts every bit the princess she so rightly is. Now joined by four younger siblings, they finally look to be a proper pride. But what’s a pride without a king? As usual, Milo was nowhere to be found on our first afternoon in the release site. Off slumbering somewhere, no doubt. About an hour into the session Kirsty pointed down the dirt track we’d parked alongside where, approximately 200 meters on, there was a shape slowly making its way up the road. A big, lumbering ball of machismo and fur, it most certainly was Milo. In complete disinterest, he passed a small group of impala who were nervously hiding in a copse of trees. About fifty meters from the research truck the pride’s adult females turned and took notice, but Milo couldn’t be bothered with his harem either, and casually sauntered by to flop himself on the grass about ten meters from the truck. The King of Ngamo had, albeit rather lazily, arrived home to his pride.
All hail Milo! All hail the King!