An opportunity to walk around with lions came up at breakfast where we were lodging at Victoria Falls. Initially I didn’t respond to it, thinking it was one of those phony touristy things where you pay a lot of money to make a nuisance of yourself to animals who should simply be left alone. But I was on safari so I had no purity in the game at that point.
And then the prospect of being close to one of Africa’s most alluring creatures and one of the reasons I was so determined to visit Africa caught me and I was on board. Lana, a fellow traveller and I met a driver who took us for nearly an hour’s drive to a very remote shack where our hosts were ready to receive us. I had absolutely no clue how this was venture was going to unfold. We were going in blindly.
I loathe guns. However, I assumed that guns were around in the bush here, in the event a wild animal, man or beast, presented a risk to life. But I hadn’t seen guns of any kind since arriving in Africa, having traversed miles of bush in open vehicles in day and night time. In fact, at one of the lodges the fellow escorting us to our rooms at night used a flashlight as his defense weapon. He said he could shine the light in the animal’s eyes to scare them off…
Now we were about to meet three lions and were given four-foot narrow sticks one might use to roast wieners over a fire. It was explained these were ‘extensions of your hands’ in advance of meeting the lions.
I wondered if the stick would be our defense or an appetizer before the hand was consumed?
When Lana and I were finally introduced to the trio of white lions, they were lying together under the shade of a tree—one male, two females, all yearlings but quite large at that, especially the male.
It took some moments for me to drink in what was before us. Live, white lions, free of cages or any form of restraint lying peacefully at our feet. We were invited to kneel down at their sides and stroke their white coats. I hesitated. As much as I wanted to lay down and stroke the lion’s tummy and kiss its lovely muzzle, I I was also uncertain about approaching a lion so casually without his permission.
The lion caretakers used their sticks for distraction as well as to herd the cats along and began taking snapshots. Meanwhile Lana talked to the lions as though they were kittens waiting for her to put down their Meow Mix for din-dins. She purred to the lions and urged them to come forward to her. She gave them good ol’ ear scratches as though they were her cats.
I stood back letting the cats know that this was Lana’s idea, and I was fine staying where I was.
I envied Lana for her trust in their nature because she was able to relax with the lions as I gazed at the large furry paws noticing the sharp retractable claws underneath that could become knife blades in a split second.
When they yawned, the lions revealed very little teeth, as they are so young. Gradually I touched the lions, I petted them, albeit gingerly. Their coats felt thicker and coarser to the touch than I expected. At one point one of the lions licked my arm with her tongue. Their ears. Well, what more can you say about those ears that is not evident to anyone gazing at these gorgeous cats? In all honesty, my dream would have been to be left all alone to lay around with the lions for the entire day.
The manager of the operation here was clearly the parent figure for the lions. He demonstrated with a low yowling sound of a mother lion and immediately all three cubs responded immediately turning to watch him.
He said the cubs are so innocent that when they catch their own reflection in the river water they often growl and jump back. They are getting the hang of tracking impala and other natural prey although they are still being fed by the caretakers. Their future as hunters is still unknown.
They will never be ‘out in the wild’. They are free to explore the property when accompanied. Otherwise they hang out in a large enclosure which they seem comfortable in.
We spent a good two hours strolling with these stunning creatures through forest where they often wanted to lay down and look about them. At the river bank, one of the females was especially playful and was up for any game of chase or fetch. The caretakers would keep the lions amused by dodging playfully, or throwing stones and sticks to get their attention. The cubs were alert to these tricks and watched as prompted.
The questions I had were many ‘How did the lions get here?’ ‘Where was their mother?’ ‘Did they all come from the same mother?’ The explanations were somewhat vague but I did establish that these cubs did not come from the same litter and were purchased by what I understood was a broker of some kind. I was unsettled by that information.
When I returned home, I explored the private park and its owner on the internet because I thought about volunteering for the lion project. But the only reference I found was a published report by the SPCA in Zimbabwe that the owner of this property where we met the lions, was investigated for capture, exploitation and abuse of wild elephants a number of years ago. The article suggests there was little chance of accountability even if the report was verified. I am providing the SPCA report link for you to read yourself if it’s of interest.
However, I have no reason to doubt that the men employed at the property who introduced us to the lions truly care for them, take good care of them, and possibly love them dearly. But humans loving a creature is not always to a creature’s benefit in the long run.
So, I came away conflicted as I knew in my heart there was something not right about paying money to be close to a lion that doesn’t need and shouldn’t ever need to be that close to human beings— humans being undoubtedly the most dangerous of all the Earth’s predators. -
There are what appear to be legitimate organizations using science based knowledge to protect the white lions and increase their numbers and they can be supported. Here is the link to The Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT)
Here is a link to the report of elephant abuse produced by the SPCA-ZN from 2009.