Walking with lions - is a very special experience!
by The Southern Times
Walking with lion cubs in the bush on the private Nakavango Game Reserve is a special experience for the visitors who accompany them on their early morning or afternoon strolls. But beyond it is the realm of photo shoots for documentaries or advertising features just as their lion ancestors did before them.
Born in captivity at the Lion and Cheetah Park near Harare, the lions have the perfect taste of freedom as they walk daily with adults whom they regard as part of their own pride.
"The walks," says Ian, "are just another part of their training phase. They need to be around people as they will be working with humans for a long time.
"The owners of the park have fostered wild animals for 50 years. They provide an education for children who cannot go to the Hwange National Park or the Zambezi Valley. But then the role for which they are groomed cannot be fulfilled at a young age; and so between their time as youngsters and being big enough for the film industry, they come to us at Victoria Falls.
"Small cute cubs are great performing and huge lions are excellent performing, but here we have the lions at the right age (usually nine to 17 months) when they are developing their hunting instincts. Their mothers and fathers have starred in numerous films such as King Solomon's Mines and the Jamie Uys productions and so will they in the future."
This novel concept gives a totally new safari experience for visitors to the Falls. The young lions themselves will regard their walking companions as other lions.
Ian says that there is an age restriction of 14 and people who are small in stature (under 1.5 metres) are not encouraged to join the walks, the reason being that the lions seem to single you out as a younger animal, separating from the pride ' that's their perception. If that happens, you must show a brave face as the lion comes towards you. A firm "no" is better than a shriek.
It's important not to lag behind as this makes the straggler vulnerable to the attentions of the other lions. Don't wear pennants or sunglasses as the lions can pick up the mirror image and become more than curious. Don't have bits of clothing flapping in the breeze or binocular straps dragging on the ground. Always be part of the pride, wearing neutral clothing.
"We walk the lions with clients as long as we know it's safe to do so," says Ian. "When we notice there is a lion that may be developing a character that needs stronger training or a different programme, we will return it to the Lion and Cheetah Park.
"However, what we are trying to do is make this a family project and in order for children to enjoy the company of lions we let them associate with the very young cubs who are being reared to form the basis of the pride. These cubs integrate with the family members who cannot go on such a walk. When these cute young cubs are fed, this becomes a wonderful conservation and educational exercise for the children or even the mothers who are with them."
Out on the walks, the older lions will show off their hunting paces, stalking different things, occasionally on the chase. They are curious about everything ' franklins on the ground, kudus on the run. But while the success rate of their parents in the wild may be one in five, that of the younger lions is probably 1 in 125.
However, because it is a wildlife estate and there may be a potential threat from, perhaps, a buffalo bull hiding behind a bush, open ground is chosen for the walks. In addition, a professional guide armed with a rifle will form a protective screen ' as with the elephant safaris that Ian also conducts.
"We have varying degrees of interaction ' but certain rules. We do not permit the lions to be touched on their heads or even to roll around with them as they are relatively strong cats even at that age. You can, however, touch them on the back as they move past. The thrill for the clients is that they are actually walking in the natural habitat of the lions. Yes, the lions do go into an enclosure at night. But you are actually out there with them and there is nothing between you and the lions themselves. In a sense, you are part of a documentary, a member of the pride," Ian declares.
"We do have a few secrets up our sleeves. We have lions climbing trees and once again it is not a staged performance, but showing what lions are capable of. People can appreciate not only their majestic appearance, but also the agility and strength of these great cats."
The lions under Ian's care will eventually be returned to the Lion and Cheetah Park.
"Everyone who has lions has thought about releasing them into the wild," he says. "I've been with wildlife a long time and I believe it is very difficult to achieve this. We can go back to the Adamsons ' Joy and George ' who raised lion clubs and became famous for it. What wasn't actually written a lot about was that none of these releases were successful.
"We don't condone the release of wild lions, but if it is proved to be a success we would be happy to be part of such a programme. The lions are great creatures and we have found that people are very interested in interacting with them. I would like to emphasis that these lions will not be used for 'canned' hunting ' putting them in cages and shooting them. We will not be part of any business that is involved in this cruel exercise.
"Instead, they will grow up to become the heroes of a film production and our job here is to train them to such a degree that they can fulfill this role, walking with pride into the future."