Wednesday February 4th (PM) ~ In the back of a pick-up, Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
“If we can’t find them soon, perhaps we can try playing animal in distress sounds”, the lone female voice cracked through the night on the radio.
“Let’s meet at (squawk) and coordinate our efforts”, came an authoritative male voice.
And off we went, full throttle, to rendezvous at some previously mentioned but muffled spot.
Tim and I are sitting in the back of a small pick-up truck, hanging on for dear life. On the floor of the truck bed, just behind where we are sitting is a half eaten and gutted young wildebeest. The floor is getting slick from oozing blood.
It is somewhere in the vicinity of 1:00 in the morning and we are trying to help find two missing adult lions.
The night started out somewhat normal, that is if going on a night hunting encounter with lions can ever be “normal”.
Our group loaded into the back of two Toyota pickups, each outfitted with three bench style seats in the truck bed. It was early evening and we had signed up to accompany our guides as they let a small group of lions out so that they can hone their natural hunting skills. Our guide said that if we got lucky, we may even see a kill.
(I can hear those gasps and groans from here).
But the truth is that this is Mother Nature at work. Survival of the fittest. The Law of the Jungle. Etc. Etc. Etc.
It is also part of the over all plan that ALERT has in an attempt to breed lions in captivity and return them to the wild, thus helping repopulate badly shrunken numbers. Being able to hunt for their own food is vital. You can check out my last post for more information about this award-winning and highly respected program.
We were to follow two female lioness (sisters) and one male. Released from a large enclosure out into the open savannah grasslands, we managed to keep them in our sights most of the time. The handlers would give out a shout, or more often a whistle, as if to say, here kitty, kitty.
The large felines would disappear for a short time, then the handlers would spot them again and off we would go in the new direction.
We (our truck) then took the lead, trying to spot some prey. Kind of like hinting to them, or giving them a helping hand that chasing down the spotted animal(s) was the purpose of the outing.
A couple of times the handlers had to get out of the truck, relocate the lions nearby, and off we went once again. After an hour or so, we took a break to allow the lions to rest.
And as luck would have it, our truck broke down. Something about the alternator not keeping a charge I believe. Three hungry lions, loose, and we are literally sitting ducks out in the open in the back of a truck. We were warned to NOT get out of the back and to remain quietly sitting on our benches.
No problem! I was not moving…
Finally between the two drivers, and other helping hands, they managed to jerry rig something and off we went once again.
Our guide had just mentioned that it was about time for a kill when the three large cats took off once more, with us in hot pursuit. We came around a blind corner and there they were:
The three lions had taken down a very young wildebeest (probably only 1-2 weeks old) and were in the process of gutting and gorging. It certainly was not a sight for the overly sensitive or anyone with a weak stomach. It was additionally heart breaking to hear the poor little one still bleating for help as he was slowly being devoured.
Mercifully the cries eventually stopped.
I was in awe of the powerful moment and heartbroken all at the same time. I recognized that this was not a TV moment, where I was watching a National Geographic special. This was real life, or more accurately, real death.
Raw, harsh, cold, emotional, bitterly savage, yet the way of the natural world.
The three lions were allowed to enjoy their meal for about 10 minutes, where we stared, took photos, and tried to find some measure of peace and understanding with what we were witnessing.
And then an even more fascinating thing happened – the handlers took the remaining carcass away from the lions. The three handlers, rushed them with their sticks pointed toward the lions accompanied with loud shouting, and the lions backed away.
Now that takes nerves of steel!
Mind you, these lions have been raised in captivity and have been taught that the man with the stick is head of the pride, but come on – literally taking food out of the mouth of a hungry lion is not for the inexperienced!
The purpose of taking the kill from them is to reinforce that their handler is still the head of the pride and therefore the boss.
And what do they do with the young remains. Well as indicated above, it is loaded into the back of the pickup we are riding in, just behind us on the bed of the truck. We are only inches away.
Tim says he can smell it, but then again he has the nose of a bloodhound.
Oh, yeah, our truck stalled a couple more times and had to be pushed to start it each time…
So here is what is supposed to happen next. The three lions normally would follow the smell of the kill in the lead truck (us) back to the large fenced-in compound where the meat will be divided up and shared with other members of their pride.
The plan goes swimmingly for about two minutes. Then for some reason the two sisters decide to break off and go exploring on their own. The handlers seem not too concerned, and got out of the pickup and set off to round them up and point them back in the right direction.
We wait quietly on our padded seats while off in the distance we can see their flashlights move at an amazingly fast pace. These guys look like they are riding on fast bicycles, but no, they are simply running through the grasslands.
We hear the occasional whistle, as they signal to their individual lions to come to them.
The male returns to us, and falls into step behind the pickup, as he as been trained to do. We are only a few feet away from a still hungry lion with dead meat at our feet. I’m hoping that the truck does not stall again!
A decision was made to return to the compound with the one male lion in hopes that the other two would eventually join us and return where they were supposed to be.
After he is safely back inside the compound, the majority of our group is ready to return to the hotel/camp for the night. I asked if it would be OK to remain with the handlers to see how they located the lionesses.
I was delighted when our lead guide gave the thumbs up. Tim, myself, Katrin and Lynn were all that remained, plus our guide, and of course the lion handlers. Everyone else from our tour group went back to get some much-needed sleep.
At some point we switched over to the truck that was running properly, and the wildebeest remains were brought along, and then eventually left behind in a cage
For the next couple of hours we added our eyes in the mix to try to spot the missing lions. I asked if this happened often and was told, NO. The last time, about a year ago, one lion had also not followed the kill back to the compound and was found the next morning.
Never had two gone missing.
The concern was real. The reserve sits on the border of a small village. We also had some people sleeping in TENTS with limited fencing and a wide open gate between them and the open reserve land.
By 1:00 in the morning, there were nine vehicles in the hunt and every available staff member had been called in. Shortly afterwards, Lynn was taken back to camp to get some sleep. That left Tim, Kat and myself as the lone survivors of the hunt.
Around the property perimeter and then back and forth we went in assigned grid patterns. Turns were taken at holding the strong spot light in hopes of catching the red reflection of the missing lions eyes. Bundled up in blankets, and our backside getting bruised, we soldiered on.
A decision was made by one of the lead handlers to get out two more lions from the same pride in hopes that the missing lionesses would join them and then all four could be brought safely back to the compound.
It seemed like deja vu.
Following now two new lions out into the wild, trying to keep them in sight, and once again loosing track of them, but only for a short time. The new crew decided that they too were hungry and decided to hunt.
Sure enough, the plan worked and by 3:00 in the morning, the new arrivals were found happily munching on another poor young wildebeest, and as luck would have it, the two missing ladies had joined them!
Repeat performance, let them eat for a few minutes, then take away the remains, and put it in the back of the truck just behind us.
And for a short time the caravan back toward the compound was successful. All four lions were behaving and followed along. And then, one of them took off again. It seemed to be a cat and mouse game. Everyone was exhausted, frustrated and anxious to get the big cats back safely behind their fenced enclosure.
Eventually around 4:00 a.m., they had all been spotted, and were headed on their way once more back “home”. By then our guide decided it was time for the three of us to take off our “junior lion wrangler” badges and get some sleep ourselves.
At 4:20 we were dropped off at our river-side lodge to catch a very short couple hours sleep before it would be time for a quick breakfast and then off to our morning activities of playing with the baby lions, and feeding the large male lions.
But that is for another day…
Gratitude Moment: Today I am grateful for this truly unique experience. Was it hard to witness? YES, it was. But I am thankful that I now have a broader understanding of raising the big cats, the mission behind the madness, and an even greater respect for their power and majesty. It is something I felt honored yet horrified to be a part of. And yes, I did say a little prayer for the two baby wildebeest that gave their lives this evening.