Taking a stroll with the king of the jungle (or savannah) might sound like one of the most dangerous activities going – but it’s actually part of a revolutionary conservation project.
We were out on Zimbabwe’s open savannah, my eyes swimming in the heat, and the lion was right in front of me. So I stretched out my hand to stroke it…
But it was the lion, not I, who was the endangered species here. And the walk is part of a programme to protect them.
The number of African lions has halved in the past 25 years, so charities are breeding them in captivity, introducing the cubs to stalking and hunting, before they are released into an enclosed reserve to hunt and fend for themselves. And it is only the cubs they give birth to here, who have had no human contact, that can go wild.
Lions can live for up to 20 years, making this a costly process. So Lion Encounters, based near the Victoria Falls, uses the brief period when the human-reared lions are introduced to the bush to give tourists a chance to walk with them, subsidising the greater part of their lives.
This is the closest you’ll come to big cats / AP Lion Walks
All this was explained to us at a short briefing. But it was when our guides got into the dynamics of the 45-minute walk that I became nervous. The nine of us were given sticks so that if a lion did turn on us, we could distract it. We had to walk behind them, so as not to challenge their dominance, and shouldn’t touch their heads, only their rear quarters. Did I hear that right?
So, sticks in hand, we were led to meet Phezulu and his sister Pendo, who were lying nonchalantly in the road, surrounded by five or six rangers, two of whom had rifles. Yes, one assured us, the lions had been fed. And, with a little coaxing, they set off into the African bush under a solidly blue sky, with all of us right behind.
Having been brought up by humans – our guides explained – the lions viewed us as older members of their pride, which was why we could walk with them. Indeed, though they looked the size of adults to me, it would be unnatural for cubs this age to be in the bush alone.
Being a tad nervous, I hung to the back of the pack, hiding behind my status as a senior member of the pride. But clearly Phezulu, with his adolescent beginnings of a mane, was tiring of hanging around these old-timers, and set off on his own into the grasslands.
The rangers don’t discourage this, and two followed him. On these daily constitutionals some lions have killed impala, giraffe, even wildebeest in front of tourists. But on this day their prey remained hidden in the buzzing bushveld, with the cry of ibises warning of our coming.