I touched a lion for the first time in my life at Lion Encounter in Zimbabwe. Paul Dube, who has worked here five years, took me around, warning me to always use a stick to distract the young lions, never to run if there is trouble. They will chase you down and kill you, he said.
The conservation park, on the edges of Lake Victoria, is an attempt to repopulate Africa’s wild with lions. Their numbers have been sadly dwindling. There used to be 250,000 lions roaming the wilds of Africa. Now there are fewer than 40,000. In some places, there are no lions left at all.
Dube and his staff of about 60 study the lions at their park — the big cats there are more used to human contact. But they are quickly weaned of dependence and they learn to survive as they would in the wild. Once they are able hunters — when they are about 18 months old — they are released into the bush.
I doubt I will ever get another chance to get so close to these magnificent yet ferocious creatures, save in captivity. Their skin felt like sandpaper — rough and rugged enough to take varnish off wood. I don’t know why I expected them to be soft and furry like the tabbies I once had.
When they yawned, you could see the teeth that can tear apart an antelope, even a zebra, though I was told the giraffe’s kick can kill a lion. A few days later, when we saw adult lions sleeping in the bush at Chobe National Park, a terrible fear set in my heart. And I wondered what I was thinking for having gotten so close to one.