Staring into the Eyes of a Lion

What do African game reserves and marine protection areas have in common?

Before jumping to a short answer, think about wild elephants, lions, rhinoceros, leopards and giraffes roaming broad savannas of Africa. Imagine that the reserve program, established by government and private concerns did not exist. Imagine the elimination by poachers of what is left of African wildlife.

I’ve spent the last four days at the Buffalo Ridge Game Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. The evening of the first day, I was gifted with a face-to-face encounter with a pair of lions who had set up a honeymoon suite near a watering hole, a large elephant rolling in the mud and a herd of rhinoceros that rumbled in the dark. That was after the giraffes and the zebras.

Madikwe has the unique distinction of being one of the few game reserves in the world to be proclaimed purely on the grounds of being the most appropriate and sustainable land use for an area. The reserve consists of 75,000 hectares of vast plains of open woodlands and grasslands, and is host to almost every game species.

It was developed under a multi-venture program of government, private sectors, and local communities as a way to create jobs and establish eco-tourism in the region.

Once perimeter fencing was completed, “Operation Phoenix,” one of the largest game translocation exercises in the world, was undertaken. Between 1991 and 1997, more than 8,000 animals were released into the park from all over the world. The lions came from Namibia, elephants, the United States, and culling operations from Kruger National Park.

More than 28 species have been released into the park, including elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, cheetah, Cape hunting dog, spotted hyena, giraffe, zebra and many species of antelope and herbivores. Leopards already populated the reserve.

Game viewing at Buffalo Ridge takes place with pre-dawn and a sunset drives of about 3.5 hours. “Hunters” pile in to Land Cruisers and set off on the dirt roads that wind in and out of grasslands and trees. Guides from different lodges share sightings via two way and CB radios, with the exception of rhinos, which are kept secret for their own protection.

I have taken up residence in the front seat next to our guide, Lazarus. From there, I can ply him with questions and have a nearly unobstructed view for photographing the animals.

That we see any at all surprises me. We drive long distances with nothing but greenery; the land appears void of life except for birds (which are beautiful, varied and brightly colored). Then suddenly, a herd of zebras appears in the tall grasses, as if they have been waiting for us all morning. Mingled with them are impala and wildebeests.

“Safety in numbers,” Lazarus tells us.

It’s harder for a lion to sneak into a large group of animals unnoticed, and lions, as it turns out, are rather lazy hunters. They are most successful when able to utilize the advantage of surprise.

This is no zoo. This is an environment where every plant, animal and insect forms an essential part of an intricate web of survival. In Madikwe, as in other game reserves, life and death are complimentary for the existence of the natural system. Every animal is a potential meal for another.

Giraffes, tall and lanky, nibble on the top branches of trees in one corner of the valley. Females, I discover, have narrower horns than males. One giraffe sits on the ground.

“He’s sleeping,” Lazarus tells me, adding that giraffes can never lay their long necks completely flat or they will choke to death.

The prize for me is the lions, both the husband-wife couple, and a small group of five brothers and sisters. We come upon them resting in the shady grass, and Lazarus stops the vehicle closer to the cats than I had ever imagined possible. We are eye to eye with the lions; though aware of our presence, they are not threatened since we follow strict game drive rules.

It’s the reserve system that has made this close encounter possible. The animals’ natural habitat has been restored, and the birth of baby elephants, zebras, lions and others continue to flesh out Madikwe’s population. They are predators one to one another, but they are not threatened or hunted by man.

In Laguna’s Marine Reserve, there are no fences to cordon off the waters, but the no-take zone will function as it’s own policing perimeter. With luck, fish that have been reduced in numbers or eliminated altogether will be able to return and flesh out our personal aquarium.

Next time I’m snorkeling, maybe I’ll look into the eyes of a parrotfish, and for certain, I’ll remember the eyes of the lion.

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