I’ve known since the third grade that I was destined to go to Africa someday. My fascination began the moment I opened my first National Geographic, a vintage issue dated February 1916, with the headline “How Old is Man?” emblazoned across the cover. Interest was replaced with obsession, and the mysteriousness of the continent was both intoxicating and alluring. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined that my first trip to Africa would have me walking with lions.
The opportunity to go to Africa presented itself a couple of years ago. I decided to offload the lion’s share (pun intended) of my personal belongings, including an apartment, and embarked on a year long round-the-world adventure, one that was to include spending a couple of months in Africa. Africa was divided up into two parts, the first being an overland from Cape Town to Livingstone, and the second, a truly unique volunteer experience working with the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust in Zambia. After spending more than a month viewing the splendor of Africa from a safari truck, exploring the wilds of Botswana, racing the graceful Oryx across the Namib desert, and experiencing the magic of generations old elephant herds frolic in the Zambezi at sunset, learning and living alongside the African lion was to become a new adventure.
So, why a specific interest in the African lion, I mean Africa is rife with endangered species right? Well, the lion happen to be one of them. Tragically, it’s listed as “Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II and are regarded as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List” [Version 3.1 2001]. What would Africa be without lions?
The Lion Conservation Project is broken down into four elements: Rehabilitation, research, conservation education and community development. As a volunteer, you get to actively participate in all aspects of the project. During my time on the Zambian project, under the careful supervision of myriad guides, handlers and conservationists, I had the pleasure of working alongside 10 lion cubs ranging in age from 12 months to 14 months. The lions onsite were part and parcel of a four stage program designed for the eventual release of lions into the wild, the ultimate goal, to repopulate those regions of Africa that have seen a decline in lion populations. The program works closely with governments from around the continent to establish working relationships by creating awareness campaigns. It was something I wanted desperately to become a part of, and you can too! You can either go walking with lions for an hour or, commit yourself to a longer stay, and reap the rewards of aiding the African Lion cause.
My day as a volunteer often began with an early morning romp out in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park with a small contingent of cubs in tow. Watching these cubs run and frolic with one another could have easily been mistaken for mindless play, but it was important to remember that every ankle tap, every swipe, and every pounce inched them closer to becoming adults and was all in preparation for life in the wild. Those skeptical of these sorts of programs, claim that lions are incapable of learning survival skills on their own, and this just isn’t true. Trust me, once you’ve had to chase a 140lb. lion cub through the brush who has taken chase after a fleeting impala, with nothing but instincts driving them, it’s a sight to behold, and nothing makes you feel more alive!
As volunteers, one of our responsibilities was to visit local villages to discuss the importance of lion conservation and the impact of the potential loss of such an important species not only to Africa’s biodiversity, but to the communities that live within lion territory. We were also regularly placed on ‘snare-duty’. A large team of volunteers, lion handlers and guides would head out into the park, and armed with wire cutters, we’d conduct large scale sweeps for snares. Poverty is high, poaching is rampant, and an essential part of conservation is protecting all species at all costs. Conservation is a multidimensional issue, and one that can really only be understood at a grassroots level. A volunteer experience such as this served as a humble reminder that the almighty ‘West’, while it loves to point its fingers at developing nations and comment on the state of affairs when it comes to animal conservation, it’s not Africans who are swooping in, laying down upwards of 250K all so they can take home a handful of lion skins. The hypocrisy is palpable, but that is a conversation for another post!
Africa is many things, and seeing it from the confines of a safari truck just wasn’t enough for me. They often say that there’s something mystical African soil that stays with you and while that may be true, to me, Africa is a mosaic of resplendence. Walking with lions was changing, transformative and awe-inspiring. Africa is home to some of the greatest spectacles on earth, and the birthplace of humankind, and as Miriam Makeba once put it, “Africa has her mysteries, and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them.”