The same day we went to make some field recordings of the lions roaring, we were invited at the last minute to return to BPG for a midday lion feed with a group of clients. Meat is placed at an end of one of the enclosures with clients and cameras at the ready on the other side of the fence, while the male lions pace in their holding enclosure about seventy meters away, anxious for the “all clear” signal that releases them for a run to the other side. Besides providing a full-sprint workout and sating their appetites, it lets a given male lion group play out a number of fraternal dominance exercises. Who arrived first? Who got the best cut? Who fought over a piece of meat and won? Who ended up at the back of the pack? All important information. (As long as someone is gathering that information. More on that later.)
I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.
It’s intense being on the other side of the fence and having a half-dozen or so 400-pound hungry male cats running full speed directly at you. An E-ticket ride if ever there was one.
After the feed as the clients were mulling around, Kim and I stole off across the road to say hi to Big Boy; one of our favorite lions from our previous visit. Suffering from FIV, Big Boy was given sanctuary by Antelope Park along with several other similarly afflicted lions. When we first met him, he was seriously ill-tempered and would stare and growl at anyone who came within twenty meters of his enclosure. But some months previously he apparently had his Charlie Browns snipped (since his chances of being allowed to breed were slim-to-none because of his FIV) and ever after has settled down into one of the most mild-mannered lions at BPG. In fact, Kim and I hardly recognized him when we first walked over to his enclosure because he looked so, well… happy. In fact, I swear he was smiling. Finally at peace, he’d been joined by two other lionesses with FIV and seemed well pleased with himself to finally have a proper harem. While having FIV means he has no chance at being released into Stage Two he still looked a king to me and acted every inch of it; even if he has happily mellowed, and even if he has never really been a king. So all hail Big Boy! All hail the King!
While we’re catching up with Big Boy we noticed a fracas taking place back over at the lion feed. One of the clients – male, European-looking, stupid jeans and a white t-shirt to match his stupid demeanor – had started shaking the fence to the males’ enclosure and was purposefully antagonizing one of the lions inside. After a few seconds the lion charged the fence, throwing his shoulder full-on against it. It rattled under the weight of 400-plus pounds of feline anger and the client jumped back. Then he started laughing, walked back up and began to shake the fence a second time, again yelling at the lion and taunting it. Once more, the lion charged the fence and it rattled furiously against the force. The client laughed, shook the fence and antagonized the lion until it charged yet again. And he did it again, and again, and again.
There was now a small but noticeable bulge in the fence where the lion had been repeatedly throwing itself against it with all its strength. I was glad Kim and I were far enough away to beat a hasty retreat should the worst happen. The guy was being unbelievably stupid. What’s worse was that the front office liaison, the same young woman who insisted Kim and I take lion induction safety training again when we first arrived, stood beside him and laughed – laughed – along with several other clients as this continued. It was surreal what we watched, and I had a hard time believing an employee would so recklessly put clients in danger, put lions in danger, and put herself in danger. I wanted to scream at the guy to stop already, but I must admit I was secretly hoping the lion would break down the fence and give the client his just reward for being such an arrogant idiot.
It stopped, finally, and we climbed inside the truck to head back to camp where I informed Leigh-Ann, AP’s Lions Manager, what had happened, who caused it, and who let it continue. I could care less about the client or the staff person possibly being attacked, injured, or at the very least reprimanded for their inexcusable actions – but I do care about the lions here.
It was one of a growing number of things we’d seen since arriving that, to varying degrees, both saddened and angered me. We weren’t blind to the tourist and party angle when we were here previously, and we know that allowing paying guests (aka the “clients”) and self-funded volunteers to pose for photos with lions, among other cash-generating activities, is part-and-parcel of the program if ALERT’s conservation aims are to be achieved. But it was still a letdown to see it seemingly becoming more and more of a circus atmosphere.
I’d always thought someone was taking data on lion feeds, but I didn’t see it being done this time. I would’ve thought the primary goal of all activities, both client and volunteer, would be the ongoing and at-all-times sharing and strengthening of its conservation agenda by inspiring clients and vols to think beyond the lion photo ops and to ask themselves what conservation really means and what’s their part in it once they’ve left. Photo ops are great, and the money is desperately needed to help fund the program, but it only goes so far. What are people walking away with besides what’s on their camera’s memory card? What should they be walking way with? Could they argue cogently on ALERT’s behalf and speak coherently about lion and animal conservation in general if the opportunity presented itself? How are they being educated with each activity? Why aren’t they being educated with each activity? How are those lessons being reinforced so they can become articulate and intelligent supporters instead of clients who are complete idiots that think it’s okay to rile a lion up, or well-meaning vols who think that walking with lions and getting their picture taken with them is all they need or should do to help save this iconic species?
Maybe it’s because I’d been up since 3:30am on that day, but I was increasingly finding myself unhappy with some of what I’d witnessed during our stay. I would’ve thought that, of all people, a staff member would not have stood idly by and smiled while a vulnerable animal was abused for the sake of a cheap, not to mention potentially lethal, laugh. I strongly support the conservation aims of ALERT, and I do believe that their program has a chance at succeeding as a viable and valuable approach to lion conservation if properly managed and implemented, but I’m wondering how it’s going to happen without educating both vols and clients at every opportunity to think beyond the photo op and understand why it’s important to do so. I realize it’s far from being a black and white issue, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve readily participated in what I’m shaking my fist at here (pictures, not abusing a lion for a laugh), but I think ALERT and its vols should expect more, both from each other and from themselves. What happens when the time comes that there are no cubs to walk with any longer? What happens if there aren’t any lion feeds to experience? Will those moments be cheered or feared? The conservation work will hopefully go on, but will clients and vols know enough, care enough, and have been educated enough to also go on with ALERT?