Sunday May 6- Welcome to Antelope Park!

We were woken up by Denise at 5:45am, shortly after the house alarm went off again.  We got ready, packed our bags and had breakfast, which was prepared by the staff.  Anne met us again at 6:40am and brought us to the bus depot at the Sheraton hotel.  Our double-decker bus arrived at 7:30am and we started our 'supposed' 3 hour trip to Gweru.  The trip took about 4 hours as opposed to 3 because of multiple police check stops and toll booths.  

We eventually arrived in Gweru, the closest town to Antelope Park at noon and were met by an Antelope Park employee who again, loaded our luggage and us into a small vehicle, which took us out of town and onto a gravel road.  Obviously, one would not expect to travel by paved road everyday at all times during the day when in Africa, but the extent of travel grounds was astounding and this was only the beginning.  I have fond memories of my time having an 'African massage' as we would bounce and jostle around while we cruised down endless gravel roads.  Truthfully, it all part of the experience, and since I loved every minute of my trip, this was merely another experience to be had, but THIS road felt like it went on forever and I think it was only about 10km long. 

We arrived at Antelope Park and were brought to our room.  It slept 4 people, had 2 sets of bunk beds and 4 dressers.  Alex and I met our roommates, Katherine from Ontario and Jenny from England, who will forever will be regarded as the best roommates.  Once we were settled into our room, we were shown around the camp area at Antelope Park. 

Antelope Park is a 3000 acre game reserve with various types of game including impala, wildebeest, kudo, monkeys, snakes, occasionally crocodiles, zebra, giraffes, snakes, elephants and lions.  The camp portion makes up only a small portion of the park and includes accommodations for volunteers, guests, and staff, cooking facilities, dining area, laundry facility, washing facilities, and sitting areas.  

After having our introductory tour, we met Dan, our volunteer coordinator, who was going to responsible for laying out our daily duties while we were at Antelope Park.  He introduced us to breeding a rehabilitation program that is the foundation for Antelope Park.  We learned that the rehabilitation program was a 4 stage program, which was aimed at increasing the population of lions in the wild.  The population of African lions has dropped substantially in the last 20 years, and without the 4 stage process created by ALERT (African Lion and Environmental Research Trust) and carried out by places like Antelope Park, we could potentially see the population of lions become extinct in our generation.  The 4-stage program is as follows (kind of- there is a lot more too it than just this):

Stage 1- Lion cubs are born into captivity and are removed from their mother after 3 weeks.  At 3 weeks, they have been able to acquire the passive immunity from their mother from nursing but are still partially blind.  When the cubs first open their eyes, they see humans and believe them to be part of their pride.  After being raised by humans until about 3 months old, the cubs are introduced to volunteers and guests at places like Antelope Park.  The guests and volunteers are accompanied by lion handlers and take the cubs into the bush in the morning and evening for a couple of hours to familiarize the cubs with the bush and to allow them to encounter game.  From 3 months until 18 months, the cubs continue these walks to develop their natural hunting instincts.  Around 18 months of age, the cubs are then brought out during the night, which is when they typically hunt in the wild.  The lions are growing and so they are accompanied by a truck filled with volunteers and guests as they prowl the bush looking for prey.  At about 2 years of age, these lions are combined into a pride.  This pride is constructed based on characteristics and behaviours observed during their time in the bush and compatible lions are put together.

Stage 2- The pride is moved to a 500 acre game reserve that is stocked with prey species but contains no other predators such as hyenas.  The lions are left to their own devices and their behaviour is observed without interaction from humans.  The lions become self-sustaining, hunting and killing when needed, and breeding.  These lion cubs, which are born into Stage 2, are taught by their captive bred parents how to hunt and are considered wild, as they have not had any human contact.

Stage 3- The pride from Stage 2 is moved to Stage 3 which is a 10 000 acre game reserve, complete with other predators so that the lions can learn to scavenge and protect their kills from other scavengers.  Again, the lion cubs born into their stage are wild and have no human contact and are taught how to hunt and survive by their parents and the other members of the pride.

Stage 4- The cubs born into Stage 2 and 3 are moved onto protected land, which is complete with all predators and prey found in the wild.  The cubs live on their own and organizations such as ALERT work with local communities to educate them on the lion and what is destroying their population.

At Antelope Park, they have approximately 100 lions including 4 lion cubs in Stage 1.  Between Antelope Park and Gweru in an area called Ngamo which is the site for the local Stage 2.  There (at the time of my trip) was no Stage 3 or 4 complete because of a lack of funding to complete the stages but the land had been secured for Stage 3 and it is only a matter of time before a pride from Stage 2 would be moved to Stage 3. 

Following our introduction to the program, we were allowed on our first lion walk!  We were placed with Laili and Lewa, 2 female lions cubs about 17 months old.  Lewa, born at Antelope Park and was the smallest of the two cubs, while Laili, only a couple of weeks older, was born in South Africa and moved to Antelope Park to keep Lewa company.  Laili, who looked like a nearly full grown lioness towered over Lewa and was the leader of the two cubs.  

I can still remember that first evening lion walk like it was yesterday. We had been walked out to the middle of the bush and we were surrounded by grass as tall as me which was waving in the evening breeze.  The sun was still fairly high in the sky but was going down quickly and I couldn't see where the lions were or would be coming from.  I don't really know what I expected signing up for this trip.  The information package discussed hands-on work with lions and lion walks but I thought it was all a bit exaggerated to convince people to come to Antelope Park and participate in the program.  So as I was looking around and trying to figured out where these lions were going to be coming from, Alex said to me "Justine, here they come" and sure enough, 2 lions, not cubs (well they were cubs but at this point they looked like full grown lions to me) were walking towards our group of 6 people with two lion handlers following behind them.  I thought it was a joke.  Seriously.  But sure enough, these two beautiful creatures walked towards me, rubbed their body against my leg as they went and just kept walking until they disappeared behind the grass followed by their handlers, who beckoned us to follow.  

Needless to say, it was surreal.  I got to walk with lions, and follow them through the bush, and it was only my first day at camp.  I could only imagine what my next 4 weeks were going to be like!

Following our walk, we made it back to camp for our daily volunteer meeting where we discussed the current day and following day’s events and unwound before dinner. 

After our meeting, we navigated the night until we made it to the dinner area, only to be consumed by darkness as the power went out.  Shortly after the power failure, the candles started to light up and the head torches came on and we had our first dinner at Antelope Park in candle light under a blanket of stars- and I thought my first day could not get any better after the lion walk.  Was I ever wrong!

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