Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Walking with the lions

Stranger than fiction - there's a place in Africa where the lions take people hunting

If you are a hunter in North America, chances are you've walked with your Labrador Retriever or maybe your Beagle to search out some game.  Boring.

If you were in Africa, you could walk with a pair of lions. Honestly, you haven’t been on a hunt until you’ve walked between a pair of lean, sleek, year-old lionesses at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe.  No collars, no leashes…just lions doing what lions do.

I just did it and it was the highlight of my entire trip to Africa.  Walking across the plains of Zimbabwe, the tall, dry blonde grasses come up to your knees. These beautiful lions blend in perfectly with their golden coats.

Spotting some antelope in the distance, we waited to see if our lion pair would catch their scent. Once they did, their wild instincts started to come alive and their black tipped ears stood at attention. The playful walk was over. The hunt was on.

Slowly and deliberately, the lion pair stalked through the grass toward the antelope herd. As they worked their way farther and farther away from us, one could only see the black tips of their ears and an occasional tail tip moving above the grasses.  

The antelope were ready on this occasion, noticing us before the lions even noticed them. When the lions got within 50 yards, the antelope took off at full speed. Party over for the lion pair. With that, the lion trainers who were accompanying us, called the lions and they rejoined us to head down to the watering hole.

In an amazing program at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, human trainers play the role of dominant male for these lion cubs until they reach about 18 months. Taking daily walks with the lions, the trainers and volunteers monitor all types of behavior which will eventually help them form prides of lions that function well together before releasing them back into the wild on their own.

Visitors to the park, after a short training session on lion safety, are able to actually accompany these walks and interact with the lions. Not much different that your house cat, these big cats like to be petted and have their bellies rubbed. Just don’t get carried away – you’re now dealing with hundreds of pounds of playfulness here.

After dark, you can also mount a safari vehicle and watch as two-year old lions are released for a hunt. 
Following behind the lions with red lights, you can watch the really big cats work together to locate and stalk game in the woods.  The night we went out, the lions failed to make a kill, but they did spot game twice before the prey beat a hasty retreat.  To watch those full sized lions working just 20 to 30 feet away from our jeep was an amazing experience.

If there’s one animal that needs help in the wild, you’d probably never guess it to be the lion. As unlikely as it seems, the lion population has severely dwindled due to hunting, illegal trapping and poaching and disease. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there has been an 80-90% drop in the number of lions across Africa in the last 30 years.

Luckily, Antelope Park in Gweru, Zimbabwe is doing everything it can to reverse that trend. It is the home to 94 lions at present and growing steadily.

Back in 1987, Andrew and Wendy Conolly purchased Antelope Park (with its six lions) with the intention of bringing in even more lions. By introducing additional lions from across Africa, they were able to introduce new bloodlines to the breeding program. Now the program is closely monitored to prevent inbreeding and an outside veterinarian monitors the lions regularly, making sure they have all needed vaccinations.

With a thoughtfully-planned, four-step program, Antelope Park is raising these beautiful cats whose offspring  can be reintroduced to the wild anywhere a lion pride is needed.  As the lions mature, they are transferred to semi-wild situations, where they stop having contact with humans but they are still monitored by park workers – stage two.  The offspring born to those lions will learn their hunting skills from their mother in stage three and will never have contact with humans, insuring their natural human avoidance.  Once they mature and are self-sufficient, they can be sent out on their own – which is stage four.

Antelope Park offers all sorts of ways to interact with lions and with elephants, both as guests or as resident volunteers.  They also offer boating, fishing and horseback riding. Accommodations are elegant, food is delicious as well, so plan to spend some time. The most common guest comment upon leaving is that “they wished they planned to spend more time here.” It’s the one place you are guaranteed to remember for your entire life.

Antelope Park is located just 12KM from Gweru, Zimbabwe.  Contact details follow:
P.O. Box 1218
Gweru, Zimbabwe
Telephone  263-54 52012

If you can’t make it to the park, you can still help them fund ALERT – the lion sponsorship program with a donation.  Go to http://www.lionalert.org for more details.

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