Gweru on the central Highveld of Zimbabwe used to be called Gwelo when I was there as a boy but seemed otherwise largely unchanged when we passed through a couple of weeks ago. Sleepy, laid-back: a petrol station, a few stores and a scattering of offices and little townships of bungalows on the main tarred road between Harare and Bulawayo. Less in Zimbabwe has changed than people think. We were on our way, though, to a place that was certainly new to me: Antelope Park, a lush, green riverside encampment at the end of a long dusty road out of Gweru. At Antelope Park you can walk with lions.
I will not enter upon a debate I know exists about the viability of the park’s overall project. Lion numbers have crashed over the last century and are still crashing: there may be no more than about 30,000 left in the wild. The park aims to breed lions, then teach them the ways of the wild so that in due course they can be released in parks that want to start or increase a lion population. The breeding programme is evidently a success: we saw that. But the rehabilitation is something of an unknown quantity; the outcome can only be judged if the released lions are monitored over time. As an operation and visitor attraction, the park seems to be doing well — walking with lions is a tremendous draw — and those who run it have created a beautiful place with great accommodation in stunning surroundings, and give every impression of a sincere and professional dedication to their environmental goals. But it’s fair to say that the raison d’etre of the whole project must be somewhat speculative. Beyond that I cannot judge: I’d simply observe that this must surely be a better use of 3,000 acres than running yet another scrappy cattle farm.
I loved it. But we overslept and nearly missed what we had come for. Luckily a young African volunteer knocked on the door of our chalet at 6 a.m. to wake us, and we drank warm coffee in a freezing orange dawn while she explained the rules. The sun was not yet up.
Our African guide, Edward, she said, would be taking us for a two-hour walk with two young adolescent cubs, a brother and sister that he had worked with for months. The pride will accept a human, she said, as a sort of honorary member once they’re familiar with him, are fed by him, and have ceased to see him as a threat or rival. Edward walked these cubs every morning at dawn, and for them (as for a family dog) the opportunity to get out of the fenced enclosure and explore, before being given a meal, was exciting. They would accept our presence so long as they sensed we were in our guide’s group. We should behave quietly and calmly, stay upright on two legs, avoid frontal approaches with intense eye contact — and basically just tag along. In due course they would let us touch and stroke them. I was sceptical.
But that is how it worked out. They were beautiful cubs, bigger than (say) big retriever dogs, thick of leg with gigantic paws. In all their movements, their playfulness, their batting each other with their paws and indulging in play-fighting and play-biting, and in their huge self-possession and confidence, they really were just like enormous kittens.
Truly we were feasting with panthers. We climbed a tree with them. Gingerly we stroked them. We took photographs of each other with them. And we walked a few miles with them, past an elephant or two. The time sped by.
In the process, something strange happened to me and my attitude. I had expected to enter upon this experience as a human witness to an animal world. Yes, I would walk ‘with’ the lions, but I would be observing them as a human, another species from another world. It would not affect me in any way, beyond enlarging my knowledge and adding to my experience. I was the scientist; they were my specimens, my data — exhibits A and B. I don’t, for instance, hunt; though I wouldn’t ban hunting, I don’t like the idea of it, don’t know why people do it, and rather wish they wouldn’t. Animals, of course, must hunt, that’s how they’re made; and I’ve watched predators capturing and killing their prey with no moral disapproval, but a faint sense of being on the side of the hunted rather than the hunter.
As our walk drew towards its end, we and the lions spotted — at the same time — a few impala a hundred yards away: you could just see their heads above the tall yellow elephant grass. We all stopped: us and the lions, that is. The cubs sniffed the wind. They had not hunted or been taught to yet, and were too young, but something in them stirred. The cub lioness paused, then trotted very lightly through the elephant grass, aiming off to the left of the buck so that she was not approaching them but going round. I looked at her brother, and found myself putting myself in his place: ‘Now you trot off the right,’ I thought, ‘keeping an eye on your sister’s position.’ His instincts mirrored those I hadn’t realised I had. Off he trotted. ‘Keep well clear of them,’ I thought, ‘for the moment.’ He kept well clear. I was with him in spirit. Now brother and sister were to each side of the impala, but distant. ‘Excellent,’ I thought. ‘Soon we go in for the kill.’
All at once the impala sensed danger. Off they bounded, away from us and the hopeful cubs, leaping over the grass. There was no pursuing them now. ‘Damn!’ I thought, sharing the young lion’s slight disappointment as he and his sister came loping back to us. ‘They’re not old enough to hunt yet,’ said Edward, ‘but you see they have the idea already.’
Indeed. But to my dismay, so (I realised) did I. I had influenced these cubs not a jot, but they had influenced me, even changed me a bit. We humans, including ‘green’ and ‘environmentally sensitive’ humans, do love to play God, don’t we? — supposing ourselves outside nature, observing, preserving it. But just for ten minutes I had been drawn into nature, reminded I was part of it. My brother thinks you are more formed by your children than they are formed by you. So it was for me and my cubs.