The Lion Encounter excursion is an extraordinary opportunity to hang out with lion cubs in their natural habitat. We walked beside them along a dusty trail, stroked their stubby fur, watched as they investigated their surroundings, and posed next to them for photographs. We have had many awe-inspiring adventures in Africa, but this one is indeed a lifetime highlight.
Lion Encounter is an ethical travel and tourism company with an active conservation program designed to secure the future of the African lion. The species has seen a tragic decline since 1975, as high as 80 percent to 90 percent in some areas of the continent. (Thanks to habitat loss as well as the likes of infamous Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer.) Lion Encounter’s lion release program strategically re-introduces the offspring of captive-bred lions back into the wild. The company has two operations on either side of the Victoria Falls border, Zimbabwe and Zambia. We were in Zimbabwe.
After our arrival, we were led to a small hut for an introduction to Lion Encounter’s work and a safety briefing. Lion cubs, like kittens, are playful, but they don’t know their strength. We were told to remove scarves and sunglasses—anything that could dangle or sparkle and pique a cub’s curiosity. That included cameras strapped around our necks. But no worries. We got plenty of pictures. With us were three research interns, one a teacher from suburban Chicago, who held onto our cameras and took our photos while we were interacting with the cubs.
We were also instructed to follow closely behind the cubs as they walked, to stop when they stopped, and to stroke their backs and behinds.
Our cubs were 14-month-old Pendo and Phezulu. Pendo, the female, is the smaller and lighter-hued of the two. Phezulu, the male, is larger and already growing out a shaggy black mane. The walks help them acclimate to the bush and practice their hunting skills.
Pendo and Phezulu eventually will join a carefully selected release pride in a fenced, managed ecosystem. They will have no more human contact, although they will be provided with scavange feeds to augment their own forages. They will be studied from a distance.
Our group of rangers, interns and six travelers struck out into the afternoon warmth. Pendo and Phezulu led the way. We took turns flanking the cubs as they walked, sometimes almost running to keep up with them. Occasionally the cubs stopped to rest or inspect something interesting. Phezulu took a moment to snack on a mound of elephant dung. Then the duo stretched out on a sun-soaked rock pile and began to yawn. We inched closely beside them and smiled at the cameras pointed our way.
After an hour or so, the cubs picked up the pace. Today was feeding day, the guide told us, and Pendo and Phezulu were eager to return to their enclosures. The lions raced ahead and were waiting patiently for dinner when we got there. Pendo was reclining on the roof of her wooden shelter. Then a hunk of raw meat was tossed to each lion, and they pounced. Pendo scarfed hers down quickly to prevent Phezulu from taking her share. It was time for us to leave for our hotel and time for the lions to take a long nap.