Ultimate Africa – To Walk with Lions (July/August 2008)
a photographic safari in Botswana and Zimbabwe, Southern Africa
Day 12: Antelope Park (Thursday 07 August 2008)
It was midnight when we turned off the lights last night and at about 2am it had become so cold in our tent that Heiko got up and turned the heater back on. The alarm went off at 5:30 and we very slowly emerged from a mountain of blankets. Only a few of us were walking the lions this morning (the rest were getting up later to visit the school again to see the children).
We were all waiting for Mel to meet us. Henry went to give her a shout and Mel realised that her 5:30 alarm hadn’t gone off but in just a few minutes we were all together and ready to go. We walked some much bigger lions this morning, a male called Lozie, who was 18 months old, and a female called Mana, she was 19 months old and quite a bit smaller than Lozie. They came out of their enclosure and just a few metres from the gate they both flopped out on the floor. They had been on a 6-hour walk yesterday, and they were fed yesterday too so they were very very lazy this morning and kept laying down and yawning. Mana would sometimes walk up to lozie and they’d rub heads and roll over each other with paws in the air. I sat with Mona on the ground and stroked her back and her belly. And then Lozie made his way over for some attention and we all had to stand up as he came near. Soon, these two lions will retire from the lion walks and will do night encounters instead.
After the lion walk we had breakfast and then we went in groups of four to see the four month old lion cubs, Batoka (male) and Bhubesi (female). They were a little shy of us because they are not quite used to humans yet and yesterday afternoon they were moved to a new enclosure. Bhubesi was quite moody and she would give a baby growl every now and then. We were able to stroke them; Nico played high five with Bhubesi and I gave her a head rub, she didn’t seem to like me touching her ears though. We were only able to spend about 20 minutes with them because they only came to Antelope Park two weeks ago, usually cubs are raised by hand since they are three weeks old and so are more used to people. The enclosure they had been moved to is near the guides quarters so that means when the guides have a spare five minutes they can go in and see the cubs for a few minutes so that they get used to being around humans, this is better than the long walk to their original enclosure across the river as they get more attention from people now.
At 11:00 we were taken to the lion breeding centre to have a look around and meet some more of the lions. There are about 75 lions at Antelope Park. We met Big Boy who is the biggest male lion here and he is really huge. He has fathered many of the cubs here.
To prevent inbreeding the cubs all have names beginning with the first letter of their mothers name so that it is easy to keep track of them. We saw mixed groups of females and males. The lions are put into coalitions by the trainers. They monitor the skill set of each lion and then put them together to form a perfect grouping. These lions then teach their offspring all they know and then their cubs, which will not have had human intervention, have the necessary skills to be released into the wild once they are old enough.
We were photographing some male lions and there was a distinct smell in the air, and on turning around we saw a huge pile of dead carcasses, mostly bones, but the smell was quite horrible. It certainly sent Nico (a vegetarian) walking some distance away from it.
When we got back from the breeding centre we picked up our laundry and later went for lunch. On our way to lunch we called into reception and bought the ALERT DVD and we asked about putting an article about the Antelope Park and Alert on zoocrew.eu. We were taken to meet David and hopefully we will have a new conservation spotlight article to publish fairly soon!
At 14:30 we all went out for a river cruise, so the big lenses all came out for one last time. We came across a pair of fish eagles and spent a lot of time photographing them. We secured the boat at the bank so that we wouldn’t drift and all of us pointed our lenses upwards. One of the fish eagles was perched nicely on a dead tree, and was calling to its mate and ruffling its feathers. We waited ages for it to fly off towards the right (in the direction it was facing) and to drop a little as it left its perch – wrong! It didn’t drop down at all – and it flew off away from us and slightly to the left. All of us moaned, we’d missed the shot. Not to worry through as the second eagle then perched in exactly the same spot. So we had another go!
We waited so long for it to fly off, we had tried making noises on the boat, whistling, clapping, banging, screeching, but still the eagle didn’t fly. We were trying to be patient but we had an afternoon lion walk and we were pretty tight on time. And then… the eagle flew off and we were all happy to get the shots we wanted and were ready to make our way back only to find that the boat was now stuck in the weeds! It took quite some manoeuvring to set us free and then we were quickly on our way back trying to photograph birds in flight on the way.
Back on land it was a quick dash back to the tents to exchange the long lenses for medium telephotos and then we met at the bridge for our lion walk with the 8 month old cubs Sarah and Sahara. They had been moved to a new enclosure so we had to walk a bit further to reach them and then they seemed more intent on walking back to their old enclosure rather than walking with us, but eventually they followed ‘the pride’.
They weren’t nearly as playful as they had been the previous morning but we saw plenty of ‘naughty looks’ from one of them. I’m not sure which one. But the trainers had to discipline them several times. One of them singled out Jean and practiced her stalking technique. She got literally centimetres away from Jean’s back and was ready to pounce when she stopped after hearing shouts from her trainers. It was quite a moment!
Later on, the two cubs were lay together and I crouched down low to take photos, one of them watched me rise up, and as I walked around to the right her eyes followed me and she didn’t loose contact with my eyes once. I stared right back. She was giving me her ‘naughty look’ and her trainer shouted to her. She had been testing my dominance because I had been lower than her eye-level. Anything smaller than her and she would be dominant so she was testing me. She later did the same with Nico (though Nico was stood up). The cubs were quite naughty on their walk this afternoon, quite cheeky. It was soon time for them to return to their enclosure and that was the end of our last lion walk (for this trip at least, I think it is possible that we’ll return here!)
A few of us headed to the dining area for some beers before sunset and then off back to the tents for a bit before meeting for dinner. And at dinner there were chocolates waiting for us from Henry’s wife. There was chocolate ice cream for desert, and following Chris’ lead, I also crumbled the chocolate over my ice cream and Kaleel did the same – it was almost a chocolate straciatella ice cream …well, sort of!
I really got the giggles tonight, over and over and over again. And Jean also was really laughing hard and couldn’t stop, Mel too, and Nick. Everyone was laughing, and couldn’t stop! And it went on in a cycle. Nico even managed to record my laughter. I’m quite impressed that he managed that – no one else has been quick enough so far! And everyone now wants a copy of it so I guess my laugh has really made an impression on the group, they were even talking about using it as a ringtone, can you imagine that – you’d be answering the phone in hysterics from laughing at the phone ringing. You’d never get a word out! We laughed at some silly things tonight! I actually gave myself a headache from laughing so much. Even walking back to our tent I was still giddy, both of us were!
So we’re all packed now, almost anyway. Just a few things to pack in the morning, and then all too soon we’ll soon be on our way back home…