VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe I hoped in fact expected during a journey with friends to southern Africa to see the "big five" from a distance: elephants, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and lions. And indeed, safari guides and their back-country vehicles pretty much made that dream come true.
I didn't expect to be stroking and speaking softly to a pair of young male lions as if they were big kittens.
Although they looked lionesque, with a "teenage" hint of mane, a walk with brothers Echo and Etosha through the bush was certainly a highlight of the trip.
The conservation organization Lion Encounters' "walk with the lions," on the Masuwe Estate in southwestern Zimbabwe, was much discussed as our tour group approached Victoria Falls. Tales of little cubs (and sometimes scratched tourists) gave some of us doubts. But in the end, two friends and I decided to make the leap.
We expected cubs and a small group of fellow sightseers. We were surprised when our little trio was shoehorned between two larger groups because of unforeseen delays and problems getting across the Zambia-Zimbabwe border.
We three were the only outsiders on this walk with Ian, our Zimbabwean guide, a couple of additional handlers, and Etosha and Echo, two 16-month-old "boys," as Ian liked to call them. They were "my boys," he said.
After we were ferried in a van from our hotel to Masuwe, Ian introduced himself and outlined Lion Encounter's effort to help save the threatened African lion. Once, as the Web site safpar.com notes, there were an estimated 250,000 lions on the continent.
Today it is believed there are fewer than 20,000.
Projects like the Lion Encounter Programme, founded in 1972, are trying to replenish and preserve the big cat's population, while realizing the numbers will never be what they once were. The rising human population, new land uses, lost habitat, diseases, diminished prey and an ingrained native view of lions as an enemy mean a lot of work and education are necessary, Ian said.
The conservation effort follows a series of steps, he said.
Cubs born to lions in captive breeding programs are taken to be raised on reserves like the Masuwe Estate by people who feed and nurture them until they are about 18 months old.
"At the end of the day, they think I'm their mother," Ian said. "If I call them, 'Hey cubs,' they come and follow me into the bush."
This is the stage Echo and Etosha are in. They have their own "home," a fenced enclosure, but they are allowed to wander, except when they are coaxed into a walk with volunteers and tourists, whose fees help fund the project. There are otherwise no fences, Ian said. The Masuwe River and nearby roads serve as their range boundaries for now. The boys also have begun to hunt some prey on their own.
The next stage will be to introduce the two brothers into a wild protected reserve, in Zimbabwe, Mozambique or another participating country. There they will be placed in proximity with potential mates. Hopefully, the young lions and lionesses will form new prides, Ian said, and Echo and Etosha will be virile, strong defenders of their lion families.
If indeed new prides are established, the next generation of cubs should not require help, Ian said. They will not know the human touch or human intervention. They will be wild.
For now, Etosha and Echo are somewhere between childhood and wild adulthood. They certainly aren't cubs anymore, but they're mostly obedient, with a little grumbling. And there seems to be a bit of sibling rivalry: When Echo is getting some attention, Etosha wants the same.
At one point, my two friends were posing behind Echo, petting him as he lay in a shady, grassy spot. Etosha walked up, stepped over Echo and sat on his brother. Echo snarled, rose up and my friends backed away. The boys almost seemed ready to come to blows. Minutes later, resting at another spot on the lion walk, Etosha was affectionately licking Echo's face.
As we walked, the party and lions would stop to rest in the afternoon heat. The lions always seemed ready for a catnap.
Ian explained the Encounter program further as we paused. He stooped, picked up one of Echo's paws and pushed out a large, sharp claw to show that his boys were ready for pretty serious predatory or defensive action. He talked about how their paw pads worked, front and back, when the lions accelerated and when they wanted to stop.
As the hourlong walk came to an end, the lions stopped and lapped at a watering hole, the remainder of a creek no longer flowing.I almost wanted to join them for a parting drink.