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Lions, lions and more lions!

Antelope Park, Zimbabwe: Good idea or bad idea?????

sunny 31 °C

Antelope Park is hard to describe. Part private game reserve, part commercial enterprise, part conservation giant? Two people set out, in 1999 to create and maintain a programme that would eventually see lions re-introduced into the wild; a feat that has never been successful in the past. Remember Christian or Elsa? Lion numbers in Africa are definitely on the decline – in the 70’s a staggering 250,000 lions were reported. Nowadays the figure sits at a mere 25,000. Countries such as Ghana or Swaziland now have none. Poaching, trophy hunting, feline HIV, habitat destruction and inbreeding have all affected the lion one way or another. But is there a solution? Is extinction inevitable? What will happen to the African lion if we do nothing now?

Antelope Park think they are on to a winner! It is a hugely ambitious 4 stage project staffed with passionate people; local and volunteer alike. The point is “the release of wild born off-spring from rehabilitated captive bred lions”, a process that takes approximately 12 years, and for each pride costs a staggering amount of money. To date they are ‘stuck’ at the second stage: 1 self-sufficient pride with one male, 7 females and 4 cubs born this year, the cubs being semi wild as they have not been hand reared or touched by humans in any way. Stage 2 is characterised by relatively small enclosures, a steady and never-ending delivery of zebra and gazelle through the back door and no other competition for it. All the stage 2 lions have to do is kill their own food and survive. Stage 3 would be surviving and breeding in a much larger environment but still under very controlled conditions (i.e. the number of prey going in, and the number of say hyenas for competition). Stage 4 would be surviving and breeding in a normal wild environment/National park with no controlled conditions whatsoever. The park is ‘stuck’ because, being a private venture, they don’t have the ‘staggering amount of money’ needed to create the various stage 2 and 3 areas. There is land available in neighbouring Zambia for example but getting the lions there is fraught with red tape.

This is where the commercial enterprise part comes in. On offer are all sorts of animal related activities ranging from the sedate (horse and cart rides, or elephant training) to the adventurous (lion feeding or lion night encounters). All cost various amounts of money, and there are of course package deals to entice even the most budget conscious traveller. We had 3 nights at the park so for the lion lovers that we are plenty of time for plenty of activities. And as we’re doing it all for “conservation purposes” it was remarkably easy to justify doing the “King Lion Package – 10% discount on all lion activities”! Only catch is you have to do every single lion activity. Lol.

Over the three days we both did a lion walk with two 12 month old lionesses, a tour of the breeding programme and the lion’s sick with feline HIV, cub feeding, lion feeding and a night encounter which is essentially a game drive by moonlight and a sweeping infra-red spotlight. We hoped to see the lions headed for stage 2 make a kill that night (they had been unsuccessful on the previous 3 nights hunting so our chances were fair). Unfortunately out of the 3 lioness and 1 lion that we followed only one had any real hunting and stalking ability, as a team they were rubbish. At one point the young male went charging in making the impala scatter in all directions; someone needs to teach him to let the lionesses do the real work. We think it will be a while before that group actually kill anything for themselves; the park feed them every 4-5 days anyway so they don’t starve. It was however really interesting to see how the lions were learning to hunt and work together in a pride like environment.

A real highlight for me was accompanying the research worker, Yvonne into the stage 2 area. Yvonne started out as a volunteer but was soon asked to stay and take over all the research work. Three times a day she enters the stage 2 area, each session lasting two hours, and records all manner of information: GPS locations of all the cats, whose sitting/lying/interacting with who, have they made a kill, any injuries, how their coats are looking and anything else that seems even remotely interesting. I had the briefest glimpse of a cub dashing from one clump of grass to another but despite staying in that area for the remainder of the 2 hour session and going in for another session we weren’t to see those cubs again. These particular cats are waiting for a stage 3 area to become operational – hopefully very soon.

Of all the activities we did, the lion feeding was without doubt the best and most thrilling. 5 fresh cow carcases were carefully positioned before a thin wire mesh fence – literally 1 meter from our viewing place. It was several minutes before they let the lions out so we had plenty of time to appreciate what was before us; the smell of rotting meat and flies will stay with me for a while. All was forgotten the second the cage door was released. 5 male lions charging towards you is an awesome sight, and the sound of them ripping the meat apart and growling was just remarkable.

From the hundreds, no strike that thousands of photos we took I have selected a handful for the blog. I also copied some from Gilly’s camera (Aussie, 40, teacher) who I’m sure you will agree should be a professional photographer. Simply stunning.

I left the park wishing them well, and sincerely hoping they get the funds/land/permission etc. they need quickly to make some real progress and maybe one day fulfil their vision (however ambitious and in the distance it may seem now). I wasn’t to know it then, but just two days later we would meet a guide from Matobas National Park (just down the road) whose opinion of Antelope park is definitely less than favourable; that it will never be possible to re-introduce lions back into the wild and that in certain places in Africa, where the lion is being left alone, numbers are increasing naturally. His arguments were all sound, realistic and intelligent and I was left wondering if indeed Antelope Park (although their heart is definitely in the right place) can or will ever be successful. Two things I do know are that I had an absolute blast at the park, and I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions. They are magnificent beautiful creatures, the heart of Africa and everybody’s favourite. To see a lion, part of the big 5 on safari in Africa anywhere is the stuff of dreams. I know myself that the lion sightings I saw in the Mara and Serengeti will stay with me forever. If I can do something, anything, however small, to ensure their survival here then my support (and cash) will be readily given. I’ll let you decide for yourselves how best to contribute?

Lion walk, Me with 12 month old lioness

Lion walk, Me with 12 month old lioness

Lion walk, Mike and I

Lion walk, Mike and I

Yum! Dinner.

Yum! Dinner.

Thirsty work

Thirsty work

Great friends

Great friends

They really are great friends

They really are great friends

King of stage 2, Mojo

King of stage 2, Mojo

I'm tired, after all this posing for photographs

I'm tired, after all this posing for photographs

Cow for dinner tonight

Cow for dinner tonight

Can't take the credit for this photo, thanks Gilly

Can't take the credit for this photo, thanks Gilly

Can't take the credit for this one either, thanks again Gilly

Can't take the credit for this one either, thanks again Gilly

Posted by Mike.Keely 00:58 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged animals

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Comments

Awesome, very imformative Keely.
Mum xxx

by Jenny Barnett

Cool!!! Wow that sounds great...nice that the people are trying right, can't cause any harm, if nothing else the are promoting the cause. Can't wait to hear more! xx

by Amie

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