A Travellerspoint blog

Lion Walks

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View Zimbabwe (Lion Breeding and Rehabilitation Project) - 19 Jan to 15 Feb 2009 on hilarywh's travel map.

Lion Walking
Every day at 6.30am and 4.30pm we take the walking lions out for walks in the bush. There are currently only 2 walking lions and they willingly follow us out of their enclosure. We usually walk for between 1.5 to 2 hours although once a week, usually before they are due to be fed, we walk for 6 hours to give them plenty of time to practice their hunting skills.

As a volunteer we have two training sessions on how to handle the lions and what to do when they stalk us or misbehave. There is usually three lion handlers on each walk, volunteers and sometimes a guide with a handful of paying guests.

The lions walk with us as their pride. The lion handlers act as the dominant members of the pride and regularly challenge the lions to show them who's boss. The handlers are their for our protection. The volunteers act as equals in the pride and generally interact with the lions quietly and gently giving the odd ankle tap to make sure the lions don't challenge us too often. The guests get to walk beside the lions, occasionally crouching down and interacting with them for photos.

One of the lions, Sahara, is a keen hunter, regularly stalking the park's game without any help from Soriaya who doesn't really get it and often ruins everything by stalking Sahara. I was lucky enough to witness them make their first kill during a very long morning walk. Sahara had been unsuccessfully stalking Impala in the long grass when she disturbed a very young hiding Kudu, took chase and caught it. When we finally caught up with her, she was proudly sitting on the Kudu, apparently unsure what to do with it. Unfortunately the Kudu let out the occasional scream and eventually the more aggressive Soriaya took it and killed it. It took 8 minutes from catch to kill and 20 minutes for the 2 lions to devour the entire animal. What an amazing experience to watch 2 young hand reared lions make their first ever kill but to be on foot chasing with them through the bush then standing only a few feet away while they enjoyed their meal. Well done girls!

We are not allowed to carry anything on the lion walks or wear any bright or striped clothing. When the lions are hungry and the temperature is cool they will often stalk us and sometimes snarl at us. Most of the time they are placid, especially the more they get to know you and I really look forward to walking with them every day.

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Posted by hilarywh 02:03 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Breeding Program

View Zimbabwe (Lion Breeding and Rehabilitation Project) - 19 Jan to 15 Feb 2009 on hilarywh's travel map.

Breeding Program
This area consists of numerous lion enclosures in a variety of sizes, with a maze of joins for easy moving and breeding. It is a 20 minute walk from camp across the park and where the owner of the Park lives in a very pretty thatched house with beautifully manicured gardens. Mr Connolly is white wealthy Zimbabwean with only one arm, torn off by a pet lion some years before the program was born. A good advertisement to all that even though some lions are hand reared, they are wild animals and must be treated with the utmost respect at all times.

There are 81 lions at Antelope Park of which 35 are ready for release into Stage 2. An area of land adjacent to the park and 5 times bigger is currently being negotiated for Stage 2 and 3 release sites. Acquiring land in Zimbabwe is not easy as the majority of land is owned by the Government and leases for White folk are not readily available. Obtaining government permits for the capture and relocation of animals is equally difficult with a lot of delays and endless red tape. There are only 3 vets in Zimbabwe who must be government approved and available to oversea the movement of wildlife.

Posted by hilarywh 02:52 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Antelope Park

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View Zimbabwe (Lion Breeding and Rehabilitation Project) - 19 Jan to 15 Feb 2009 on hilarywh's travel map.

The Camp
Antelope Park itself is a 10 minute drive off the main road about 10km outside Gweru. All the buildings are open sided and have thatched rooves, the main eating area overlooks a river with 2 pretty wooden bridges crossing to guest lodges and some of the lion enclosures.

Everywhere is lush and green, the lawns are mowed, there is a peacock, 5 resident cats and 2 guinea fowl pecking away at nothing on the clean ground and tea and coffee making facilities are available on tap. There's a large camping area complete with Brai's (BBQ) for the few infrequent overland trucks that pass through Zim these days and there is also a large swimming pool. The volunteer block has satellite TV, internet and a laundry! The whole place is far more luxurious than I could have ever imagined and a far cry from the reality of the rest of the country. We get three cooked meals a day and I can see it may be hard to leave, and I definately wont be leaving carrying less pounds than when I arrived!

It seems the volunteers are looked after as well as the guests as our financial contribution clearly plays a very significant role in the survival of the world's only lion breeding program.

The Volunteer Block
I have my own room and later find out that everyone else is sharing so being the oldest volunteer already has it's advantages. My room is cleaned daily and the bed made. I have my own safe and the electricity socket is the same as England although the power has been off for almost 10 days due to a damaged cable. I've been provided with a towel and there is a free laundry service, where everything is washed, ironed and folded better than I would do myself.

The showers and toilets are shared and the home to an array of insects, frogs, toads and unfortunately snakes! The frog has joined me most days for a shower and when it didn't appear yesterday I feared it had been eaten by a python and the snake was waiting for me instead! For good reason, I don't like showering in the dark and wearing a head torch while washing my hair is not ideal.

There is a Volunteer lounge with sofa's, fridge, games, books and satellite TV. We have been given 2 t-shirts which helps preserver my limited stock of clothes for a bit longer.

Workshop and Carpentry
This is where the vehicles are maintained, vegetables are grown and meat is killed, prepared and stored (both for us and for the lions). A variety of crude looking tools, the removable seats on the back of all the vehicles and the boundary and enclosure fences are created and maintained here by hand.

We get provided with 3 home cooked meals a day. At 8.30, after the mornings duties, there is porridge, a full cooked breakfast, bread, butter and Jam, cereal and unlimited tea and coffee. Lunch is served at 1pm and always consists of a fresh salad, rice or potatoes with meat or vegetarian option. At 7pm, after a 12 hour day, we are ready for our third hot meal of soup, stew, curry or Brai (BBQ) with desert. There is plenty of food and I have been unable to shed the extra pounds acquired over Christmas and New Year and unfortunately have probably gained a few more.

There is a snack bar but to date I am not aware of anyone making use of this facility between meals.

The 5 resident cats usually take up their positions around the volunteers table during each meal and shamefully they probably eat better than the majority of Zimbabweans! There is one cat to be avoided, aptly named Anti-Christ, and bearing in mind this is a lion breeding park she is the most vicious cat here!

Posted by hilarywh 02:23 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

The Lion Breeding and Rehabillitation Project

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View Zimbabwe (Lion Breeding and Rehabilitation Project) - 19 Jan to 15 Feb 2009 on hilarywh's travel map.

In 1975 the lion population in Africa was a healthy 200,000. Today, just over 30 years later, it is estimated at just 39,000. There are 82 lions at Antelope Park and the breeding and rehabillitation program here is the only one of it's kind in the world. It consists of 4 Stages but only the first 2 stages have been achieved to date.

Stage 1:
Cubs are removed from their mother at 3 weeks old. They are hand reared and at approximately 6 weeks old they are taken out into the bush for 'walks' to get them used to their natural surroundings and to practice their stalking and hunting skills. The cubs are walked by Lion Handlers, Volunteers and paying Clients. This is the only commercial element to the program which provides the vital funds for the upkeep of the program.

Once the cubs reach 18 - 24 months they have usually made their first kill, proof that hand rearing and walking with humans doesn't have an adverse affect on their natural instincts. Around this time they are also 'retired' from walking as they start to become very big, possibly unmanageable and may start to pose a threat to the people they walk with. Daily hands on human interaction ceases at this point and the lions are taken out into the park on night and day hunting encounters by people in a vehicle.

- There are currently only two walking lions at the Park, 15 month old lionesses Sahara and Soriaya. We walk the lions twice a day for a couple of hours each session. Sahara's two siblings have been relocated as walking lions to project's sister facility at Victoria Falls.

- Three cubs, Thulani, Tsavo and Tanaka, born in January were removed from their mother on the 1st Feb. Part of my role as a volunteer is to help hand rear these cubs. When bottle feeding 3 adorable cubs I keep forgetting that these are actually lions and will one day turn into killing machines.

- Etosha and Echo are two 18 month old recently retired male lions and, despite being big softies, they were becoming too big. On their last walk they managed to bring down an adult zebra, their 3rd kill and very unusual for male lions of their age.

- Masai was retired early as he had a tendency to want to 'play' with his walkers. He is currently living with three brothers Luangwa, Lungile and Lozi who were walked together until they were almost two years. We have taken the three L's out night encounters which was an experience for another page!

Stage 2:
The lions at Antelope Park are tested for TB and FIV (Feline HIV) and also genetically tested if they have not been bred here and their bloodline is unknown. If a lion is FIV positive they wont be used for breeding and will either be neutered or joined with an all male or all female FIV pride. If their blood tests are clear they will enter the breeding program and subsequently be released with their new 'man-made' pride into an enclosure fully stocked with game and with no competition from other predators.

Stage 3:
Lions from Stage 2 are successfully hunting, breeding and working together as a pride. They are moved to a bigger enclosure fully stocked with game but with plenty of competition from other predators.

Stage 4:
It is hoped that the cubs from the Stage 3 prides will be reintroduced into the wild. They will have had no human contact and will be used to populate areas where lion numbers have significantly reduced or been completely eradicated.

Posted by hilarywh 10:21 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Arriving in Zimbabwe

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View Zimbabwe (Lion Breeding and Rehabilitation Project) - 19 Jan to 15 Feb 2009 on hilarywh's travel map.

After 24 hours of travelling and the final leg on a 36 seater plane that was so small I had to duck in the main cabin, I arrive in Bulawayo, the second largest town in Zimbabwe. As we come into land, the landscape is lush and green and appears very sparsely populated.

Johannesburg and Bulawayo are notoriously bad for keeping track of luggage so I am both surprised and relieved to see my backpack carried effortlessly across the tarmac. The airport is a very small 2 roomed building with a small wooden hatch through which to obtain the necessary visa and I lose sight of my passport for the first time this trip. I am unable to get a Multi-entry visa and they have run out of Double-entry visas too so I make do with a Single that is suitably defaced to reflect my requirements. I am expecting an overnight stay in Bulawayo but when I phone on a very bad line from Jo'burg, the B&B owners are unaware of my booking! Fortunately due to some confusion, Arun and Jackson from Antelope Park in Gweru (my home for the next month) are waiting for me.

Bulawayo, worryingly meaning 'Killing Place', is a small town built on a grid system. Fourth Avenue is dominated by a disused power station right in the centre of town. Many shops are closed and those that are open contain very little. Everything is priced in 'Forex' ie South African Rand, Botswana Pula, Dollars or Sterling and all the windows and doors are covered in bars. There are many nice vehicles on the road, a lot driven by white people and, as we pass a fairly well stocked fruit and veg market, I notice that many people appear well dressed. It is hot, very very quiet and I am paid no attention.

After Arun and Jackson have 'conducted their business' in Bulawayo we set off for the 2 hour drive to the Midlands. The road is good once we get out of town and the landscape is predominately farmland used for livestock grazing and except a few periodic clusters of small thatched buildings I see very little in terms of both animal and human life.

The sky suddenly gets angry and I witness my first downpour as evidence of the current rainy season. The 3 of us are squeezed into the cab of a small pickup truck while my backpack endures the storm in the open trailer behind. Fortunately it is still covered in the clingfilm giftwrap from Heathrow so I hope I wont be arriving with a bag full of saturated clothes.

Posted by hilarywh 18:35 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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