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Walking With Lions: The Zambian Experience
I've known since the third grade that I was destined to go to Africa someday. My fascination began the moment I opened my first National Geographic, a vintage issue dated February 1916, with the headline "How Old is Man?" emblazoned across the cover. Interest was replaced with obsession, and the mysteriousness of the continent was intoxicatingly alluring, but never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined that my first trip to Africa would have me walking alongside the king of all beasts.
The opportunity to go to Africa presented itself a couple of years ago. I decided to offloaded the lions share (pun intended) of my personal belongings, including an apartment, and embarked on a year long round-the-world adventure, one that was to include spending a couple of months in Africa. The trip up was dived up into two parts, the first being an overland from Capetown to Livingstone, and the second, a truly unique volunteer experience working with the African Lion Environmental Research Trust in Zambia. After spending more than a month viewing the splendour of Africa from a safari truck, exploring the wilds of Botswana, racing the graceful Oryx across the Namib desert, and experiencing the magic of generations old elephant herds frolic in the Zambezi at sunset, learning and living alongside the African lion was to become a new adventure.
So, why a specific interest in the African lion, I mean Africa is rife with endangered species right? Well, the lion happen to be one of them. Tragically, it's listed as "Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II and are regarded as ‘vulnerable' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List" [Version 3.1 2001]. What would Africa be without lions?
The Lion Conservation Project is broken down into four elements: Rehabilitation, research, conservation education and community development. As a volunteer, you get to actively participate in all aspects of the project. During my time on the Zambian project, under the careful supervision of myriad guides, handlers and conservationists, I had the pleasure of working alongside 10 lion cubs ranging in age from 12 months to 14 months. The lions onsite are part and parcel of a four stage program that is designed to release lions into the wild, and ultimately, repopulate the regions of Africa that have seen a decline in lion populations. The program works closely with governments around the continent to establish working relationships, and create awareness campaigns. It was something I wanted desperately to become a part of, and you can too! You can either visit the site as a day visitor and walk with the lions for an hour, or, commit yourself to a longer stay, and reap the rewards of aiding the African lion cause.
My day as a volunteer often began with an early morning romp out in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park with a small contingent of cubs in tow. Watching these cubs run and frolic with one another could have easily been mistaken for mindless play, but it was important to remember that every ankle tap, every swipe, and every pounce inched them towards becoming adults and was all in preparation for life in the wild. Those skeptical of these sorts of programs, claim that lions are incapable of learning survival skills on their own, and this just isn't the case. Trust me, once you've had to chase a 140lb. lion cub through the brush, who is in turn sprinting after a fleeting impala, with nothing but instincts driving them, it's a sight to behold, and nothing makes you feel more alive! I also had the pleasure of visiting local villages to discuss the importance of lion conservation as well as other species. Dancing and singing with school children, meeting with elders to discuss health issues and escorting school groups to the lion site were a few of the highlights, and I'll never forget their graciousness and warm curiosity.
Africa is many things, and seeing it from the confines of a safari truck just wasn't enough for me. They often say that there's something mystical African soil that stays with you and while that may be true, to me, Africa is a mosaic of resplendence. It's life changing, transformative and awe-inspiring. Home to some of the greatest spectacles on earth, and the birthplace of humankind, as Miriam Makeba once put it, "Africa has her mysteries, and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them."