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Walk with lions: Controversial encounter with big cat predators

The numbers of wild lions in Africa are decreasing at an alarming rate. To stop the trend, tourists are invited to walk with lions in programs aimed to help save the species. But experts seriously doubt if they do, reports Erik Bergin.

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Whatever you do, don’t run!”

We, myself and another European tourist who doesn’t seem to know much English, are at a safety briefing with one of Zambia’s lion walking safari organizations. Soon, we are to walk with wild lions through an enclosed stretch of the country’s green forest. Before we’re cleared, though, we need to know a few basic rules – ones that can be vital to our health.

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“The most important rule is never to run, if your do the lions think you are a prey and run after”, explains one of the tour guides.

We’re also shown a movie about the program, in operation in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Tourists pay a fee to have the privilege to spend time with lions in their natural habitat, let alone in an enclosed area, and the fees help finance the program. [pullquote]Wild African lions are at risk of extinction by the year 2020 – wildlife photographer Christina Bush[/pullquote]


This is serious business for large parts of southern Africa. Lions are under threat of extinction, and nearly half of Africa’s wild lion population may face extinction in the near future if urgent conservation measures are not taken, a recent report showed. According to the survey, in April 2013, lions are now extinct in 26 countries.

“Wild African lions are at risk of extinction by the year 2020 unless drastic measures are taken to save them,” warned wildlife photographer Christina Bush, according to News24.

Several programs are in operation in which animals are rehabilitated within reserves and then released into their natural environment. One part of the process is for lion cubs to interact with humans, which is supposed to increase their chances of survival. Such programs are said to have had success in Zimbabwe, and thus having been imported to Zambia, we’re told.


After the security briefing, we’re off in a mini van into the bush. The door opens and we step out.

What happens next is scary at first.

The van drives off, leaving us alone in the forest. And then, suddenly, out of the greenery comes a wild lion, all by itself. We freeze in horror. It’s a young animal, but nevertheless looks scary.The beast seems playful, jumping up and down. Shortly afterwards its sister materializes itself, following the same path.

Luckily, none of them pay any attention the the two petrified tourists. [pullquote]Reintroducing captive-bred and human-imprinted lions into natural ecosystems is almost always problematic – Wildlife expert Dr Balme[/pullquote]

“These siblings are 15 months old. After 18 months, tourists are not allowed to walk with them, and they’re then ready for the next step in the program,” explains one of the lion keepers.

Although young, the lions are clearly able to do some serious damage, should they choose to. They seem to be in a good mood, though, playing around among leafs and trees, dodging their keepers and not following instructions. Soon enough, we’re allowed to pat the dangerous animals on their backs. They appear to take no notice, or perhaps even liking it.


One of many Walk with lions tour organizations.

“Lion Encounter” – one of many Walk with lions tour organizations.


Finding a Walk with lion tour is easy in southern Africa countries like Zambia and Namibia. A quick search on Google reveals multiple outfits arranging walks. And it is indeed an extraordinary privilege – rarely do you get to have such a close encounter with a big cat predator as you’ll get here.


However, the walks are also controversial. Some wildlife experts state that the lions, after having learned to be around humans, are in no good position to be released into the wild. Instead, argues wildlife conservation group, the lion walking industry is just that, an industry, rather than a serious attempt to preserve the species.

In another recent story by, the scientist and wildlife expert Dr Guy Balme also raises doubts over these tame lions’ chances of survival.

“Reintroducing captive-bred and human-imprinted lions into natural ecosystems is almost always problematic,” says Dr Balme to WildlifeExtra.

“The cats are typically killed by other lions or end up in conflict with neighbouring communities, often endangering human life. We need to focus instead on the key reasons for population declines – habitat loss and the indiscriminate killing of lions and their prey.”

So paying for a lion walk might be interesting enough – but doesn’t necessarily mean that you are saving the beast from an all too early death.


The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.