One of the best experiences I had whilst in South Africa was to spend a morning walking with two absolutely beautiful 16 month old lions. Unlike in many Asian countries, these animals are not drugged, caged, tranquilised, collared or mistreated in any way.
These lions are not bred for tourism, but are taken on by Botlierskop Private Game Reserve from various farms and zoos that are unable to take care of these cubs; if these cubs had not been brought to Zorgfontein, they would have been sold to lion hunters. The female lionesses are all on birth control, which proves that the reserve is not interested in exploiting these beautiful animals. Some may feel that these animals would be better off being released back into the wild, but these animals are unable to hunt, as they did not learn this from their mothers. When the animals are too old to continue safely walking (they become a bit moodier as they age), they are moved to the nearby Botlierskop to live the rest of their lives in peace.
I was incredibly lucky on the day, I arrived for my 7am walk and found that the other people booked for that slot had cancelled, so I had the lions all to myself! It was a wet and rainy day, which may sound unpleasant, but the lions are naturally more active and playful in the cooler weather, so I was lucky enough to watch them run, leap, climb trees and wrestle with each other.
The lions I walked with were named Rambo and Gina. They were truly massive but at 16 months old they were still technically cubs. I felt nervous when first approaching the lions, but soon felt quite at ease, even when they got close enough that I could feel their breath on my skin.
The handlers are all obviously very attached to these lions and are very passionate about their work. An added bonus is that they are all pretty accomplished photographers and they go out of their way to make sure you go home with some pretty spectacular memories.
The walk costs R590 ($59) which is considered expensive by South African standards, but for that money in Australia I would be lucky if I could buy three movie tickets, so it was definitely money well spent.
What do you think? Would be brave enough to walk with these big cats?