Travel offers an infinite number of opportunities to see, do, and try new things. And if you have an adventurous side, the possibilities are even more incredible. But sometimes, the experiences or attractions while on vacation can be a bit controversial or questionable. I had one of those experiences while on holiday in Zimbabwe, which I wanted to share.
My husband and I went to Zimbabwe as part of a group tour. One of the days was earmarked as an excursion day. There were several options to choose from, but most of them were in the realm of adventure experiences – skydiving, white water rafting, 4×4-ing, and so on. There were only a few options that were more my speed – a wine-laden lake cruise or walking with lions.
I’m an animal lover like nobody’s business. Before this trip, my health nurse told me to make sure that I didn’t touch any wild animals while in Africa. Yes, yes, of course, I said.
Well, fast-forward a few weeks to our trip. I’d held an injured bird, played with a tame baby meerkat, narrowly avoided getting head-butted by someone’s pet springbok, and had a black-tailed tree rat run across my shoulder in our tent in the middle of the night. Avoiding touching wildlife in Africa (or having it touch you) is darn-near impossible.
But the opportunity to actually go walking with lions, to be that close to these magnificent creatures, was too much for my animal-loving heart to refuse. When would I ever get the chance to do something like this again? Probably never.
I read the description of the encounter, which said that we would get the chance to meet and walk with young lions. I was picturing little cubs, small enough to sit on your lap. My husband decided that the experience sounded “too girly,” so he opted for the white water rafting experience instead. Luckily, I found one other person in our tour group who wanted to do the lion encounter with me. Everyone else opted for the more adventurous excursions.
So, the next day we got into the truck and headed off to the Lion Encounter.
Once we got there, we sat through a brief orientation. We learned about the conservation facility, which aimed to re-integrate offspring from captive lions back into the wild. They explained that they follow a four-step process for re-integration, which can be found here. The program actually sounded pretty complex and well-developed.
Then, our host gave us our safety orientation. He told us to speak to the lions in a calm voice, approach slowly, and to pet them on their backs only. Then, our host handed out skinny sticks to each of us. He explained that if a lion approached us in a threatening manner, we should swish the stick back and forth in the grass to distract them. Ok then. Yeah, that should work.
It was at this point that I determined that perhaps this was not going to be the cuddly baby cub encounter that I had envisioned. If it were, why did we need this safety briefing?
It turns out, the lions used for the walking encounters are 3 months old to 18 months old. I was really expecting them to be on the younger end of that scale.
We then got up to meet the lions that we would be walking with.
This is not a cub.
When I realized the size of these animals, I think I peed a little. As it turns out, these lions were about 19 months old. Yes, they get even bigger. And yes, I realize that this was marketed as “walking with lions” and not “snuggling with baby lion cubs”. But wow. Look at the size of those paws!
And just like that, we began our walk with the lions.
Oh, did I mention that there were two of them? There were two of them. Notice the stick in my hand for…protection? A distraction? A toothpick for afterward when they ate me, and had to pick the remains of poly-cotton blend pants out of their teeth? Carrying that little twig did absolutely nothing for my confidence with these potentially deadly cats.
I was kind of surprised by how laid back the lions seemed. And yes, it did cross my mind whether they were drugged. Obviously I’m not the first person to wonder this. The Lion Encounter website even addresses this question in their FAQ’s by saying no, they do not drug the lions, they are just naturally lazy.
Once the lions found this patch of cool, damp dirt, they plopped down for a rest.
I haven’t spent that much time around lions, but I can confirm that anytime we have seen them in the wild, they were usually laying about, unconcerned about anything. Even when they hunt, they can stay very still, sometimes waiting for their unsuspecting prey to come to them before they strike. They just seem to want to conserve their energy until they need to run down an antelope. So their perceived lethargy in the middle of a hot afternoon seemed perfectly valid.
At one point in the encounter, the female lion did take notice of some birds in a bush. She perked up significantly before charging up to the bush and watching the birds scatter. But there was a lot of stopping to let the lions have a little lie down:
Before the walk ended, we got the chance to sit with the lions for a photo op. The male lion looks absolutely disgusted by this whole encounter, doesn’t he? I tried not to take it personally:
While this photo looks ferocious, he was actually in the middle of a big, bored yawn. It made for a pretty dramatic pic though! I’m glad that I wasn’t facing him to see those big, sharp teeth.
When the group all met up later that evening back at the hotel, we compared photos and stories. When Mark saw my photos, the size of the lions shocked him. He quickly determined that the experience wasn’t so “girly” after all.
But even so, the experience, while incredible, left me a bit torn. Was it a legitimate conservation facility? Is it right to exploit and exhibit wildlife in order to save it? Zoos do it all the time, so was this really any different? Was it all just a scam? I really don’t know. And from what I found out after the fact, Lion Encounter seems to fall into a grey area.
Lion Encounter seems to have partnerships with several other conservation facilities, but most of these other agencies have similar logos under different names, indicating that they are all under the same umbrella organization. This organization is called ALERT (African Lion & Environmental Research Trust), a registered UK charity. Lion Encounter is one of their commercial endeavours, and they are very transparent about this fact. After all, an elaborate program such as this one isn’t cheap, and it has to make money somehow. ALERT doesn’t receive government funds and isn’t subsidized in any way. Fair enough.
But, even though ALERT opened in 2005, it has yet to release any lions into the wild, even with its four-stage program in place to successfully do so. As an aside, none of the lions that have had human contact are fit to be released into the wild; they will always be captive in one sense or another. And while the four-stage program seems to take the element of human contact out of the equation at some point, the organization doesn’t actually seem to follow through to the end stages.
So, if these “conservation” groups are breeding lions in captivity, but not releasing them into the wild, where are the lions all going? There’s some question whether they may be feeding into the canned lion hunting market, but it all seems to be vague speculation.
I had a lot of reasons (justifications?) as to why I wanted to experience walking with lions at the time.
- My love of animals
- I wanted the experience of being that close to wildlife
- The limited options for the excursions that day
- The tour company itinerary was vague in terms of what our options would be that day, so I couldn’t do any research in advance
- I wanted to support what I thought was a legitimate conservation effort
But this isn’t a critique only of Lion Encounter, but of all wildlife experiences, especially those involving endangered wildlife. Even when you think a company has a good reputation and is making a legitimate effort to conserve endangered wildlife, it can be extremely difficult to get the full picture. No matter how transparent a company may seem, you don’t know what’s really happening behind the scenes.
It’s not necessarily wrong or immoral to want a close-up encounter with wild animals, but you need to be willing to ask questions. If it’s part of an excursion through a tour group, ask them about the facility in advance so you can do a bit of research before you make up your mind. If anything about the company or their reputation seems off, voice your concerns. Ask your tour leader for other options if there aren’t any other excursions that appeal to you. Chances are, they can offer you some alternatives that aren’t listed on the itinerary. You may need to pay a few bucks more, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind and an enjoyable holiday.
And if you do have a wildlife encounter experience that you ended up uncomfortable with, give your feedback to the tour company. That’s the only way they’ll know that they need to consider some changes.