Published: September 27th 2009August 8th 2009
I woke up early and stumbled across the field in the cool morning air to our bathrooms (appropriately labelled 'lions' and 'lionesses'). I made myself breakfast in the kitchen and perched on the wooden bench outside where I was soon joined by Glenn, Tara, Em-J and our fifth volunteer Iris, who arrived late yesterday afternoon. In addition to us five newbies there are five other volunteers staying on, who have already been here a few days. We seem to be a pretty multi-cultural group and are from England, Ireland, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Australia and various parts of the USA. We've also got an impressive range of ages as the youngest of us is 17 and the oldest 67! It's great to have such a range of people from all over the world and I think it's going to be a really fun couple of weeks.
Carolina soon joined us at the breakfast table and we got talking about the Lion park and South Africa in general eventually causing her to complain we'd ruined her orientation as we'd asked so many questions she'd already used up most of her orientation speech. We followed her up to the restaurant and sat on a bench
in the sun and found she had plenty more to say. We've all been given volunteer manuals filled with information on the park, the different animals on site and instructions on how to make food for them as well as all the general rules and regulations. We've got a long list of FAQ on our giraffes Gambit and Purdy, and the baby Goergina, and best of us we finally got our volunteer t-shirts so we can start looking the part.
When carolina finished her speech we were handed over to Kirsty, a member of staff (who randomly is originally from England and started as a volunteer at the park too). We stopped off in cub world and watched the cubs play while Kirsty explained our duties for each day.
Cub world is where the young cubs are kept. There are two enclosures the public are allowed into. There are four cubs in each, one group of 2-3 month old cubs and one group of 4-5 month old cubs. The cubs are brought to cub world for a number of reasons such as the mothers have rejected them, the mothers are unable to produce milk or have too many cubs or
the cubs themselves have medical conditions which mean they have to be hand reared. Both cubs and lionesses are also sometimes removed from the main lion camps in order to control numbers and prevent inbreeding.
Around cub world we also have an enclosure with three merrkats, larger enclosures for our cheetahs, brown hyenas and wild dogs and of course the giraffe feeding station which backs onto the game drive area.
We walked back up towards the cafe and outside near the car park we stopped to see the animlas in the last of the enclosures. There is an aardwolf, a jackal and a pair of striped hyena. We visited the nursery and were introduced to the staff there, and met two additional cubs in an outside pen, one of whom has recently recovered from cat flu and the other who has a case of foot rot. We also met Nigel, the baby steenbok and a litter of six white lion cubs who are so young they are still kept indoors under a heat lamp and are being bottle fed by the staff.
After our orientation with Kirsty we were handed our first roster. Most of us didn't have any work
shifts until 1pm so we decided to go on the 11.30 game drive. Even those who had an earlier shift managed to get the older volunteers to cover for them so in the end all five of us piled into the safari amongst the tourists and set off. We rattled across the car park and over the cattle grid at Elias Gate (named after the member of staff who usually works there). We drove around the large 'antelope camp' and spotted a few zebra, while I saw my first oryx (also known as a gemsbok). We were given a lecture on the different animals, some of which is already starting to sound very familiar to me, especially the joke about impala being known as 'McDonalds' because of the black 'M' shape on their behinds. We drove onto the hyena and cheetah camps before finally reaching the lion camps.
My first view of the lions was a row of lionesses sitting by the main gate staring out. For an unsettling moment I wasn't quite sure who was observing who. I could just imagine the safety warning; 'pease remain on your side of the fence, do not approach the creatures in the
vehicles, they are wild and can be dangerous.'
The lion park has four 'lion camps'. The first is the pride of white lions. Letsatsi is the male and has three females in the pride, all of whom have been hand reared and are used in filming. Letsatsi is also the biggest lion weighing 300kg.
The second camp is a split pride containing both brown and white lions. The white lions are not albinos, as was often thought in the past. the white pigmentation is caused by a recessive gene and white cubs are born if both parents carry this gene. White lions are no different to other lions except in their colouring. They have white fur with pale brown ear tips and blue-grey eyes. Although now extinct in the wild white lions would be no less able to survive in the wild than their darker cousins. Their supposed lack of camoflage would have little effect as most animlas only see in black and white. It is possible the reason for there being no white lions left in the wild is simply they were highly prized as trophies by game hunters. Like black leopards and king cheetahs they are unusual and
perhaps sought by hunters and poachers for this reason.
The pride in Camp 2 is the only one where the lions have not been hand reared and so have never had human interaction. There are many young lions and a few cubs in this camp who will eventually be moved away as they reach maturity to prevent inbreeding. The main lion for this pride is Sly.
Camp 3 is mostly made up of lions who started life in cub world and since reaching maturity have been introduced to the camps where there is better space and freedom for animlas of ther size.
The final camp contains yet another pride of lions, this one run by Jamu. Jamu used to head the pride jointly with his brother Mouglie.
We didn't drive through the camps in order. I think we started in Camp 2 but it didn't really make any difference as we got to see all the lions. I really enjoyed my first sighting of the white lions. they are so striking. Some of the young ones came right up to the safari truck and sat amongst the cars ahead of us. Some idiot drove over one of the lionesses's tail
causing our driver to leap out of the truck to yell at the man and check the lioness was ok. It was amazing to see our driver feeling along the lioness's tail while she butted her head against him and the others crowded round. He did point out that he's known these particular lions since they were small cubs!
We drove through each of the camps in turn and then returned to the car park. No sooner did we get off the truck then we were given the message we could move tents. We hurried down to the camp and shifted all our bags out of our 'luxury' accomodation and into one of the volunteer tents. There doesn't seem to be much difference so it's not such a hardship. There is however a rumour going round that Tent No. 5, our new home, is also home to a local mouse. The last lot of volunteers insisted they could hear squeaking in the night!
After sorting everything out at camp I hurried back up to cub world to start my first shift of active duty. I met Nicole by cub world gate and she showed me what to do: greet the
public, tear off the cub world portion of their ticket and place it in the pot hanging on the fence, say 'bye' and 'thank you' to people as they leave. Such hard work! The job doesn't really need two people so volunteers either just keep each other company or take turns and each do an hour of the two hour shift. I took the first hour so Nicole could get her lunch and then at around 2pm I was finally free to finally get a closer look at the cubs. I walked in and hung my bag on the hook on the fence for safety. Some of the other volunteers were already in there and told me just to sit down and the cubs would come to me. They didn't. In fact they carried on oblivious to my presence even walking straight over me at times. Having been excluded from playtime I settled for taking photographs and then left the enclosure and visited all the other animals getting to know the layout of th epark and familiarise myself with our resident creatures.
I went back to the cubs and found I could get good pictures of the older cubs by
poking my camera through the interior fence of the enclosures. The older cubs are lovely, especially some of the white ones, they looked so elegant. I have to admit I'm glad I'm not expected to work with any lions older than 6 months. Some of them are really big. In with the older cubs is Princess, a hand reared 6 month old spotted hyena who isn't at all bothered by the fact she's the odd one out. She's grown up with the cubs and continues to live with them.
I stayed with the cubs until I saw Chris and jen walking past with large silver bowls. chris called over that they were off to feed the giraffes and asked if I wanted to join them. I fell in with them and we wlaked to the giraffe feeding station. Gambit soon appeared and harrassed Chris while he tried to put out fresh hay. jen and I managed to lure the giraffe our way with the fresh fruit we were holding. Jen said it was the first time since she's been here that they've given the adult giraffes fruit and usually they just get hay, the pellets the tourists feed them and
the nearby trees of course. We had fun feeding Gambit who seems to like wrapping his long black tongue right around people's hands making them sticky with saliva. He polished off all his fruit just as Purdy arrived and then tried to take hers too. We managed to feed the giraffes more or less equally, washed out hands in the sink outside the cub enclosures and then went back in with the cubs.
We stayed with the cubs until quite late. Jen and Chris were really surprised no-one came to kick us out as usually the enclosures are locked up shortly after 5 when the visitors leave. We wondered if perhaps the staff felt sorry for us as it's been really crowded today and usually the volunteers have a lot more time to spend with the cubs. For whatever reason we were left to our own devices and sat playing with the cubs until quite late. I think it takes a while for the cubs to get to know the volunteers. They were climbing all over the older volunteers and mostly ignoring me. I went in with the older cubs and all four of them piled excited onto Chris. I
sat on a rock watching when fianlly one of the largest cubs walked up and collapsed right on my lap! I felt very honoured. Then a second cub approached while the first set about chewing on my mobile phone which was in my pocket. When the third cub tried to climb onto me I decided it was time to move. They are big, heavy and those teeth and claws are quite impressive! We stayed until after it grew dark and then walked back towards our camp in the dim light.
There are more photos below