On the way back home in November from our expedition in Namibia, we stayed a few days in Livingstone in Zambia. As the rains had been falling on and off for two weeks, the Victoria Falls there were very pretty when we visited them. But the really interesting experience was discovering and visiting a new lion and cheetah re-introduction initiative: the Mukuni Project.
More on our experience there below!
The Victoria Falls were very enchanting in late November after the first rains of the wet season:
We visited the local Mosi-Ou-Tunya park there. The picture below shows the last white rhino left in all of Zambia. His partner was murdered by poachers several weeks before, and he had been very lonely. The container area on the left contains four new rhino that had just been brought to the park. They had not yet been released as several scientific and medical checks had still to be done before they were released. The white rhino has taken up sentry outside and was waiting to have rhino friends around again, and would not move anywhere else until they could come out. We need solutions to prevent such tragic poaching, but the issues for solving the problem are complex. Let us take our hats off to the brave vigil of this mourning rhino, and I hope it will motivate some readers to action.
While we were in Livingstone we found out about a very interesting project there: the Mukuni project. The people running it have worked for years with animals and conservation projects in Zimbabwe, but have had to flee the chaos and destruction of their work there. Unfortunately, the wildlife is being massacred there too. So they have moved to Zambia and are working on starting a new breeding, re-introduction and park program there, which will also involve the local chief and people in a community effort. They will work on setting up programs and parks areas for animals such as lion, cheetah, rhino and elephant.
They have a program where you can visit the lion and cheetah and the donation you pay helps support the project so we went and did that one morning, and it was a wonderful experience. We certainly hope we can help support the development of the project in the future.
We visited five cheetah and were able to say hello to them by holding out our hands and having them lick them as a greeting as shown below. Eventually I rolled up my sleeves as they wanted to lick all the way up to my elbow! It is not too unlike saying hello to a domestic cat, just that their lick is a lot rougher and stronger. After we said hello that way, we could then stroke them.
Nicki was particularly happy as she really loves cheetahs.
We also went for a walk in the bush with two lions, a 2 year old male and female brother and sister. Here I am following them as we take our walk. Note that I am carrying a little wooden stick to show that “I am in charge”, but you might wonder :). They also had not eaten for three days, and although food was coming that afternoon, one did not want to be part of an early snack :)!
We were also able to settle down with them in the shade of a tree and pet them both together.
They were very relaxed with us, but also had impressive teeth that caught my attention.
Their handler and caretaker Ian had advised not to approach from the front or try to stare them down, and to stroke firmly when stroking them. It was also an advantage not to be perceived as the weakest link in the group, so “bravery” was also a smart approach. Whatever you do, you should not hold back or run away in fear from such a predator, or you will become a target for their instinct.
With the male lion he even let me hold his hind leg and rub his stomach; probably something I could never have imagined doing before our expedition and work in Namibia, but by this stage I was able to be relaxed enough so that he was too!
You cannot do any of the above with wild lions or cheetah; these animals have grown up with human carers since they were cubs, and even then you have to be careful with your behaviour with them. They will sense and pick fear if you have it, and they might turn on you. You should not approach them from the front or stare them down in a threatening way. But otherwise they are fine having you with them. That was such an amazing insight and experience for me!
Hopefully their cubs will prosper in the planned-for new park and a new group of wild lions and cheetah will be formed. We won’t be able to walk or hold them, but we can return to be happy in observing their prospering wild and free in their new park areas; at least that is the goal and hope to further support.
We certainly hope we can support this worthwhile project further.
PS: Back home (June 09) - our new kittens Pixel and Witchikins: