I recently spent almost three weeks in Africa for wildlife research and conservation. I volunteered for African Impact, where I was given the amazing opportunity to work with four 18-month-old lion cubs through two programs: ALERT (African Lion and Environmental Research Trust) and Lion Encounter.
As a volunteer, I was responsible for observing the cubs, collecting data, researching their behaviors, feeding and meat preparation, as well as enclosure maintenance among other tasks. The idea behind the Lion Encounter program comes from a decline in lion populations, they are struggling and this is what has been chosen as the best way to help improve their numbers.
So, a few prides have passed through this system of living in a large enclosed space (next to the Zambezi National Park), until about 1.5 to 2 years old. This current pride consists of “L” names (so we know what pride they are part of): Liuwa, Lekker, Lila, Lala. There’s a set of a brother and sister, and another set of two sisters. Each group of siblings is cousins with the others, so its pretty awesome to see this family all grow up together.
Our focus on these cubs is their fitness: how active they are, how strong they are, how aggressive they can be (which is pretty ruthless to see). The goal with these specific cubs is to have them enter a game reserve within the next few months, like those before them. Although the game reserve means there will no longer be any human contact, they will have food provided for them and not be particularly “wild” in the sense of truly hunting to survive.
But whats special about these cubs, apart from the past ones, is that because Lion Encounter has been successful in increasing lion populations, the next step can be made to releasing animals as 100% wild with no previous human interaction. By monitoring these lions for hours each day and analyzing their behaviors, other researchers will be able to best predict which lions will produce the best naturally-selected genes, and most successful offspring. So once these four cubs make it to the game reserve to live out the rest of their lives and reproduce, their babies (if chosen) will be able to be released into the national park as completely wild and free! Its an amazing feat to be able to do this and an accomplishment in the lion world.
Every day was different–different lions, different places to explore, and different interactions. Have you ever happened to rub a lions belly? Well, let me tell you, its pretty dang soft.
To me, these lions are kind of like massive dogs. They each portray their own personalities, their own quirks, and their own behaviors. It was amazing getting to know each and every one of them on more than a personal level, especially when on the first day I couldn’t even tell them apart! Take Liuwa for example, she complains ALL THE TIME. It was hilarious to hear, especially because she would just plop down in the middle of her walk and give us an attitude about it. She was so lazy when she wanted to be…God, I miss them so much!
We spent quality time with them each day, sometimes up to 5 hours. It was amazing. By the time I had to leave, I teared up having to say goodbye to my new four-legged friends. They were a sight to behold. I’m looking back on all my videos and pictures right now to fill this void.
Working with lions isn’t something you can get out of a book (or a million books), its not something you can watch on a video, or something you can study–its an experience, its something you have to do to understand. I am so grateful to have had this experience of a lifetime and to be making a truly good difference in this world. I helped research and conserve lion populations in order to better their futures. There is good and bad in all scenarios, yes especially when it comes to what is morally right for beings other than ourselves, but these lions are what the future is. And I was a part of that.