It’s not the brightest thing we’ve ever done. Far from it. Forgetting common sense at home, we tourists often participate in thrilling activities that can result in serious injury or death. Walking with lions at Ukutula is simultaneously remarkable and remarkably foolish.
Having been awarded a Fullbright Scholarship, my father and his wife, Cynthia are spending a year at the University of Pretoria in Pretoria, South Africa. Kent and I jump at the chance to visit as locals rather than tourists, and head to South Africa immediately after the conclusion of the Birds of Prey ski races in Beaver Creek, Colorado. After an unfortunate two-day delay on South African Airways, we are anxious to see the sights and cram as much as we can into our shortened trip. On our first full day in South Africa, we head to Ukutula.
Ukutula, a game reserve and lion sanctuary, is located several hours away from Pretoria. First, we approach and photograph several prides of adult lions in their spacious enclosures. The great cats laze around during the day, napping, stretching and yawning. They utterly ignore us; we are inconsequential in their world. The cats remain absolutely relaxed until a group arrives with a toddler. Instantly, the cats’ eyes focus on the child – food! We adults are of no importance, but a child is meat. His place in the lion’s world is clear – prey.
Next, we visit the 3-month-old cubs living in their own enclosure. Known as the “Little Devils” they’re about the size of a Jack Russell terrier, and have soft, wooly fur with paws nearly as large as my hand. They lounge around in the grass, content as we cautiously stroke and scratch them on the head. One playfully grabs my pant leg in his mouth. After Cynthia helps me extract my clothing, I’m a tiny bit disappointed to observe I’m not sporting ‘lion damaged’ pants. We also visit the younger cubs, still fed by bottle, and even hold these warm, furry babies. They play with string and chase a rag mop around just like kittens!
We choose to ignore common sense and heed the call of the wild by participating in a 3 km bush walk with lions. I feel apprehensive when I see the size of the 18-month-old cats (larger and heavier than a Great Dane) that will be walking through the African scrub with us. However, Aneti the lion guide retains absolute control of the animals. After reviewing some basic precautions with game ranger Theresa (stay in a group, don’t touch them, stay tall), Aneti releases three of the lions from their enclosure. With a roar, the juvenile lions bound toward us, sounding like horses galloping over sandy soil. My heart contracts painfully at the sight of lions running toward me. They run within feet of me, directly down the path.
Aneti tosses them bits of freshly-killed chicken, and they scramble through bushes or up trees to retrieve these bits, crunching down meat, bone and feathers. We stand right next to these huge beasts as they play in the bush or perform acrobatic feats to snag chicken bits from the air. Bianca, the youngest lion, constantly stalks and pounces on her older siblings. We can easily walk within feet of the lions, unaware of their location as they crouch in the grass. It’s unsettling. The lions behave as if we gangly bipeds are invisible.
The largest of the juvenile lions, Fatty, constantly looks up to Aneti, often walking close by his side. The lion’s body language is identical to a large dog walking next to its master, seeking both attention and approval. Aneti frequently rests his hand on Fatty’s shoulders or back. Still, I’m nervous the entire time, viscerally aware of these wild animals. Aneti carries deep scars on his head and neck, reminders that these animals are not pets. Fear, admiration and astonishment fuel my adrenaline, making me feel deeply alive. Chunks of dead chicken stand between me and death.
As I walk with Aneti, he explains he raised all these cubs from birth. As juveniles, they continue to treat him as their pride’s leader. But as these lions reach adulthood, they will start to challenge his authority. They will then retire from lion walks, determine their new social structure without Aneti and thus create a new lion pride. During the last half kilometer of our walk, the lions collapse on the ground, reluctant to move after their exertions. Even pieces of dead chicken fail to motivate them to advance more than a few tens of meters at a time.
And then, Fatty smells a zebra. Fatty has never eaten a zebra, in fact he’s been fed on cow and chicken carcasses his whole life. He’s probably never killed anything larger than a fly. Yet, instinct takes over and he crouches in the bushes, silently stalking toward the zebra. Aneti dives into the bush after him, “Fatty, no!” and Fatty reluctantly obeys. I sense Fatty’s eminent retirement from the bush walks.
We arrive back at the lions’ enclosure, and Aneti herds them back inside their pen. He tosses the leftover chicken pieces to the juvenile lions who did not go on the walk. Chaos erupts as the lions fight for the chicken, growling, snarling, and roaring. It’s terrifying. Fierce faces, all snarls and teeth, snap at each other. It’s pure nature, red in fang, tooth and claw. It sounds like they will tear Aneti limb from limb. But while they fight fiercely with one another over the dead chicken pieces, they don’t even think about grabbing the chicken bucket at Aneti’s side. Aneti is still the lion king for now!
Lions used to be raised here for game hunts, although the new owner immediately stopped the practice. I don’t know how much of a real hunt captive lions provide, but I guess some folks just like to kill animals. Now at Ukutula, the University of Pretoria and the School of Veterinary Medicine study the lions while working toward cures for both feline AIDS and TB. Now not only these lions, but hopefully lions all over Africa will find a new lease on life.
Ukutula provides an amazing experience. The rangers and lion guide bring us to the edge of something very dangerous, but with absolute professionalism. Still, that knife’s edge between human control over a wild animal and the chaos of instinct brushes close to my skin. I’ve never been nearer to absolute wildness.