Walking with lions
I’ve followed lions on many occasions from the safe seat of an open game vehicle, and watched them hunt, fight, mate and make a kill. But when I was asked if I would like to walk with lions, I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity – to walk with three young lions through natural bushveld as zebra and impala grazed not too far away.
The walk was supposed to last for an hour, but we walked, watched and took hundreds of photos for over two hours as Michael, the white lion, and Coa and Sesame, the two younger tawny ones, ambushed each other from behind bushes, climbed trees, rolled over and over as they played in the grass, and washed their whiskers. They even went into a dam to cool down, and shook themselves like huge dogs as they climbed out and up a bank.
A cool grey heron eyed them cautiously but didn’t stop its own fishing activities.
Where was I for the walk? At Ukutula Lion Park & Lodge in North West province, where Willi and Gillian Jacobs and their family run a game lodge that breeds lions (and other big cats), and where they and a team of international researchers are studying lions in all their shapes and forms.
They shredded our curtains, ran away with the washing, ate the furniture, but stole our hearts.
Gillian spoke about the time she and Willi had five young lions staying with them for months: ‘They shredded our curtains, ran away with the washing, ate the furniture, but stole our hearts.’
Ukutula has strong research links with two South African universities and three European ones. The day I walked I met young volunteers from Norway; Elaine from Glasgow on her third trip, who has 'adopted' a lion (i.e. made a financial contribution towards the animal's welfare at Ukutula); and Selen, a lecturer in business studies from Yale, who is on her fourth trip and has also adopted a lion. There was also a big group of children on a school expedition who were staying in the big dormitory.
Willi was adamant that his lions are never used or sold for hunting. ‘They are research animals solely, and we always make sure that they go on to wonderful new homes, such as other game lodges and nature reserves, where they quickly re-establish themselves in the wild.’
Ukutula is only just over an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Johannesburg. Go for the day, stay the night in one of the lovely self-catering cottages, or go as a volunteer.
But whatever your purpose, just make sure you do go.
Walking with lions is an experience that I – and you – will never forget.