It has been deja vu here at Antelope Park (in Gweru, Zimbabwe) which is home to the world famous Lion Encounter. I volunteered with Lion Encounter two years ago at a satellite location in Victoria Falls where I spent two weeks walking with lions, feeding them, playing with them, doing chores, etc–arguably two of the best weeks of my life! Being a satellite location, we only had four lions–Chete, Chundu, Chisa, and Chobe–with ten volunteers so we got lots of lion time over the two weeks! Here at their main facility, they have an entire breeding program which consists of more than 100 lions–so much bigger than where I worked. The aims of the organization (called ALERT–African Lion & Environmental Research Trust) is to reintroduce lions back into the wild as lions have fallen in number by 90% between 1970 and today. Just a few years ago, more than 200,000 African lions lived in Africa… today, only about 20,000. The reasons for this vary from disease (surprisingly, felines have a disease very similar to HIV called FIV which has contributed to the decrease in numbers), poaching, and human invasion of their space. As humans move into the wilderness and spread out into the lions space, lions see cows as prey and thus hunt them just as they would any other animal. However, cows here dictate one’s wealth and are extremely important to the people. So to prevent lions from killing their cows, they simply kill the lions–despite the people taking over the lions territory. Many believe that because of the diseases and limited space for the lions, lions might not even exist in the future–a major problem for one hoping to go on a Safari to see a lion. Well, this program is trying to help prevent extinction of the lion as it aims to reintroduce lions into the wild. To do so, ALERT has a four-stage program in which lions begin in stage 1 interacting with humans as they learn how to hunt. Lions stay in stage 1 up to about five years–the first 18 months they are walked, introduced to the bush, and begin learning how to hunt as their mothers would have taught them. The next few years, they are put into prides where they must form a strong bond with each other in order to survive in the next stage. The second stage puts these lions into an enclosed area anywhere from 400-700 acres in size. Here there are no predators for the lion (such as hyenas) as they learn how to live in the wild as a pride and learn how to survive on their own. Because the four-stage program only began in 2005, they are still awaiting funds to build more stage 2 and stage 3 areas for the lions before releasing them into the wild. Currently, they have three stage two sites–two in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia. Here in Gweru, they released a pride of seven lions into stage 2 and just a few years later the number has grown to twelve as the seven lions have reproduced and are all doing well in the area! Because of the enclosure size, they had to “fix” the lions so that they all still had enough area to roam and such. The lions that encounter humans will never be released into the wild however their cubs will be. The organization sees the program as a great success so far as lions that have interacted with humans have been able to reproduce and have been able to raise cubs just as any lion would in the wild. Currently the organization is raising funds to build a stage 3 center which can house up to five prides (about sixty lions) on a plot of land about forty square kilometers in size. The cost of the project is about 10 million dollars. Realizing that this was far too much for the organization itself, they have teamed up with Burundi (a country near Rwanda). The project would be a win-win for both the organization and the country as the country currently doesn’t have lions and bringing in lions would help with their tourism while the organization is getting land to continue their project. The United Nations has currently given Burundi four million dollars to begin building the enclosed area so hopefully the stage 3 will be finished soon! In stage 3, different lion prides are released together so they learn how to defend their own territory against other lions. They also hyenas and other competitors so they must learn to compete for their food before they are released into the wild. Releasing the lions into the wild is stage 4 and the ultimate goal of the program… fingers crossed that in a few years time the program will be very successful! Essentially that sums up the organization from what they do and what they hope to do! Anyways, we got to spend two wonderful, activity-filled days at Antelope Park. The organization only tends to have one set of lion cubs each year so we got quite lucky as they had twelve-week old lion cubs on site… and of course we got the chance to play with them! They were very soft and still quite small despite their huge, too-big-for-their-body paws. They were asleep most of the time but we got to pet them and take pictures with them before we woke them up and played with them for a bit! They loved playing with keys and trying to catch the blanket that we would move towards them… words can’t even describe how cute they were! Next we had a tour of the lion breeding center. They had one section just for HIV-positive lions as they sample the blood of each cat to ensure that they aren’t spreading the disease further. They had lions, aged between two and six or so, separated into prides–or in the process of forming the ever-so-important bond that exists within a pride. In a perfect world, each of these prides would be released into a stage two when ready but due to the lack of space, not all of the lions will be released. However, they will keep the lions and they would never consider selling them to a zoo or anything like that! The lions up close seemed so much bigger than those that we have viewed on the truck or while game driving… and they weren’t even full grown yet! I was beyond ecstatic to have the chance to see the cubs that I had worked with two years ago in Victoria Falls–I never would have guessed that I would have seen them again!! I was very impressed with the breeding center itself and it was much bigger than I had imagined! We also went on a lion walk and it was neat to see everyone’s reactions for the first time when they got to pet the lions! As a volunteer, I used to go on about two lion walks a day but I wasn’t about to miss another lion walk… especially since it’s been a few years now! We walked two year-old lions who were very playful as they climbed trees, wrestled, and even took off after a few impala! The walk definitely brought back lots of memories as déjà vu certainly kicked in! That night we were off on a night encounter. Typically they take cubs who are at least two years of age to practice their hunting in the dark–because lions are nocturnal and typically hunt during the night, they need to have the practice of hunting at night before being released into a stage 2. Because the lions at this point still see us, as humans, as part of their pride, we help them hunt in a sense. We took out two trucks and the four of us, the two lions (28 months) and the two trucks, were ready to hunt! There were spotters on each truck with a red light that helps the lions see the reflection of the animal’s eyes as they look for their food. We had a few hunts as we came across some impala and wildebeest while on the encounter. The lions stalked the prey as we moved closer and tried to surround the animal, just as they would in the wild. We literally were driving right next to the lions and just as much in the hunt as they were–so neat! Although the lions ended up not catching any prey, we had a few good chases which were fun! The open-vehicles were quite cold on the night encounter but luckily we stopped for some delicious, white hot chocolate along the way! The next day was activity-filled as well as I began the day with a morning, advanced horse ride… and it was advanced for a good reason! Despite having two horses myself, I don’t get the opportunity to ride as much as I would like to and I often forget how much I simply love to ride. Anyways, horse riding is a fairly common optional activity that we can do but because of the cost, I often can’t bring myself to spend money to ride a horse, especially when it is free at home. Luckily, however, a horse ride was included in the package of activities that was offered at Antelope Park so I wasn’t going to complain! Another girl on the truck also has horses so the two of us joined a guide and went out into the bush for some “advanced” fun! Because the animals were so used to the horses, we were able to get up close and personal with some impala, wildebeest, zebra, and giraffe… we even split up with the tour guide and chased some of the wildebeest, galloping with them as they ran in circles! We trotted, cantered, and galloped through the African bush, taking in the beautiful scenery, and even got to canter through the lake… definitely a highlight! It felt great to just let loose and run… definitely one of the best feelings in the world! As a side note, the horses ran free throughout the campsite… you can only imagine how wonderful the two days were! We finished up the Antelope Park experience with one of the coolest activities they had, the lion feed. We crouched behind a chain-linked fence just a few feet from the innards of wildebeest and meat from zebra and impala (pretty grotesque)… it was feeding time for some hungry lions. They paced back and forth and roared as they knew was coming… yum! As soon as they opened the gate, eight hungry male lions stampeded towards the food (and us) at full speed and fought for their share of the innards and meat. The noises coming from the lions sounded like car engines as they roared at one another to defend their share of the food… just imagine a cat fight but way worse! Sharp teeth were shown as they fought for the food… and we were just two feet or so away from the action! The lions chowed down and it wasn’t long before all of the food was gone! What an adrenaline rush! We had an incredible two, fun-filled days at Antelope Park and what an experience it was! Unfortunately we have to continue on with the trip so we are on our way to Bulawayo where we will enjoy a game drive before making our way to Victoria Falls! Despite not having fireworks to properly celebrate the fourth of July, the lion cubs certainly were a good replacement! I hope everyone had a wonderful and safe fourth of July!