My first visit to Victoria Falls included 3 amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are still among the greatest travel experiences of my journeys so far:
- The magnificent Victoria Falls themselves
- A stay at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel – and –
- A Walk with Lions!
A Word of Warning
Before I get into the article I would like to point out that I’m fully aware of the horrors in South African petting zoos and so-called “Lion Encounters” & “Cheetah Walks” (the country South Africa, not the region).
Laws are very different in other countries. Namibia, e.g. does not even allow the breeding of wild animals and Zimbabwe and Botswana also have much stricter rules.
The program I’m describing is in Zimbabwe, near Victoria Falls, and is the original “Lion Encounter”. It is run by an organization that tries to repatriate captive-bred lions back into the wild and the Lion Encounter for tourists is a side program, done under very strict rules as I am describing in the article.
Sadly, the South African canned hunting industry quickly saw the potential of these activities and turned them into profit schemes that would also provide an ever continuing flow of aging animals to be abused for canned hunting.
“Canned hunting” means, a wild animal is put in a small enclosure, so any amateur, wannabee trophy hunter can shoot it from a close and safe distance – and then pose with a picture.
Absolutely despicable and horrific, but unfortunately rampant in South Africa (and I LOVE that country otherwise!).
So please do not support Lion Encounters, Cheetah Walks or Petting Zoos in South Africa.
Fortunately, there are also a lot of efforts by animal activists to educate the public, most notably in the documentary “Blood Lions” – with the result, however, that every program is now branded bad, usually without any fact checking or distinction.
I’m very careful when I write about animal programs and so far have only recommended 2 in all of Africa:
Na’ankuse in Namibia (also actively supported by Angelina Jolie)
and this program in Victoria Falls.
Unlike its greedy counterparts, this program, together with ALERT is aimed at replenishing the dying wild lion population by training captive bred lions to hunt again and survive in the wild.
Numerous top media organizations have reported on them – most notably:
In fact, the BBC was so sceptical initially that they investigated this program for a full year before they agreed to film it – and now they will return in the coming year when the first group of lions is released into the wild.
I very much appreciate feedback, especially when it concerns the well-being of animals and I’m always eager to learn something new. So whenever you do have solid facts and proof, first hand knowledge – not a link to some blog or forum – but real provable facts specific to the programs I’m writing about – I’m always interested to hear!
What I do not tolerate and will delete in the comments section are baseless accusations, rumors and links to unverified blogs or forums. Those are not facts, but insinuations and often slander – and I will not partake in that.
Now lets get to the lions….;-)
Walking with Lions in Victoria Falls
This wonderful experience was made possible by an organization called “Lion Encounter” who operate the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program, Africa’s first genuine program to ethically re-introduce the offspring of captive-bred African lions back into the wild.
Lions in Africa are in danger of extinction – 80-90% have already been eliminated in the last 20-30 years – and Lion Encounter is trying to counter this trend and help the numbers grow again.
Lion Walks are part of a 4 stage program aimed at repatriating the lions back into the wild:
Stage 1 – cubs 3-18 months old: regular bush walks to familiarize young lions with their natural habitat and help them to develop their stalking and hunting skills.
Lion Walk attendees participate in this pre-release training and watch how young lions behave in the wild as they learn to be wild lions again.
Staff, volunteers and guests act as members of the “pride” (= lion family/tribe) and help familiarize the cubs with their surroundings.
Stage 2 – removes all human contact as a group of young lions – a “pride” – is released into an enclosed game reserve where they can hunt and learn to live together as a wild pride.
Stage 3 – The group is relocated to a larger area, where they will spend the rest of their lives. This area is big enough to have many different species in it, including competitive ones.
Stage 4 – Cubs born in Stage 3 will be raised by the pride in a totally natural environment, and when old enough, can be relocated into those areas of Africa that need them.
So far, two prides have reached stage 2 and sites are being prepared for a stage 3/4 release when the lions have reached the appropriate age.
Meet the Lions
Currently, 4 lions participate in the walks, always in pairs:
- Pendo & Phezulu
- Vithikazi & Fumani
You can find out more about them here.
On my walk I had the good fortune to meet Phezulu (left) and Pendo (right), already imposing figures and very much aware of it.
Walking with Lions
The walk started with a short safety briefing and introduction to the program. Since the lions were free, unrestrained and certainly not drugged, a few precautions had to be observed:
Always walk behind the lions, don’t crouch down, don’t touch them and use a stick to playfully distract them should they ever get too close (which was never an issue on my walk).
Then we met Pendo and Phezulu and the Lion walk began.
It had started to rain a little which the young lions seemed to enjoy greatly.
Both were free to go wherever they wanted and showed emerging hunting skills.
They loved to play and race through the bush – you can see them in action here:
Up Close with a Lion
About half way into the walk, we stopped and were allowed to get a little closer. Pendo wasn’t in the mood, so we were told not to approach her, but Phezulu clearly loved a back-rub and some attention. We were not allowed to touch their heads or front parts for safety reasons.
During my Cheetah walk in Namibia, I had learned that Cheetahs are the only Big Cats that become completely tame, quite like house cats, they even purr. Also, no human has ever been killed by a Cheetah. In fact, once Cheetahs have been accustomed to humans it is no longer safe for them to be released into the wild.
Very different with lions, tigers or leopards. They never become completely tame and they can always attack, even if they have lived with humans for years.
At Lion Encounter only young lions are allowed on the walks – up to 2 years of age. After that, walking with lions is no longer considered safe even though the cubs were reared from childhood and are used to humans.
In addition, a number of handlers who care for the animals and know them well accompany the walk. Visitors are limited to 10 and given strict instructions on how to behave.
Taking small groups of tourists along for the pre-release training walks serves a dual purpose:
- People from all over the world become aware and interested in the plight of the African lion by having a once-in-a-lifetime up-close experience with these fascinating animals in their natural habitat – not a petting zoo, of which there are so many, esp. in South Africa.
- Much needed revenue is generated to finance such a monumental project. Feeding a large number of lions, paying well-trained staff, buying the large sites needed for stages 2 and 3/4 (up to $500,00 per site) all require large income streams on an ongoing basis, and this model combined with the volunteer program helps this effort.
My walk with the lions was amazing. Watching their playfulness, their very different personalities and habits and their youthful enthusiasm was beautiful and an experience I will never forget.
Next time, I will definitely want to participate in the volunteer program and learn even more about these magnificent animals and how we can all help to keep them alive and safe.
For more info on the Lion Walks and Volunteer Program, please check out the Lion Encounter website.
For a wonderful and ethical Wildlife Conservation Program & Cheetah Walk in Namibia, check out my article on the Planet D