Release day.

27 08 2011

The morning of 26th August 2011 started just like any other.  The staff arrived at around 6.30am as a bright sun rose over the horizon, and the day began with the usual lions walks for Lion Encounter Zambia’s youngest cubs out into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.  But of course this day was to become unlike other days.  This was release day.

At 1.20pm local time everyone piled onto all available vehicles and headed out for the short drive north to the Dambwa Forest.  Marquees had been erected, banners displayed, route signs hammered into the ground to guide our visitors, water bottles put on ice; everything was ready.  The six female lions in their holding boma paced as they watched the hubbub of activity as the final preparations were made before settling down to observe the comings and goings.

After one final check to make sure the three water holes in the site were ready the Lion Encounter team of staff, volunteers, interns and facilitated research students prepared to greet the now arriving guests to witness this landmark event in the history of Lion Encounter and ALERT in Zambia.

Among the invited guests were the 60 or so staff of Lion Encounter Zambia who were joined by representatives from the sister operations of Lion Encounter Zimbabwe and Antelope Park.  Next to arrive were those from another sister project, our African Impact community program from Livingstone town.  The numbers grew considerably when we were joined by; members of the rural communities that surround our operation site including Chief Sekute himself, representatives from the many suppliers that keep the Lion Encounter operation functioning day to day, from the Zambia Wildlife Authority, Forestry Department, town council and other government agencies, from a variety of Zambian media organizations and from the many tour agents that send guests to the program.  All in all around 150 people came together for this special day, our second lion release in the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild program within a year.

The final guest to arrive, escorted by the ALERT C.O.O., was the guest of honour, Mr Peter Mumba, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Tourism, the Environment and Natural Resources.  As he took his seat overlooking the holding enclosure and the release site the main event of the day began.

Richard Leach, GM of Lion Encounter Zambia hosted and started by giving a grateful thanks to those that had joined us.  He invited Andrew Conolly, founder of the program, to say a few words.  Andrew spoke about the huge support from the government of the Republic of Zambia, from the local communities to the project site and from the tourism operators in the region, without all of whom this entirely self-funded venture would not have been possible.  Specific thanks went to the staff that have worked so hard to prepare these lions for release since they first arrived at the Livingstone project back in October 2008 and the thousands of man-hours by hundreds of people that have gone into making this spectacular release area ready for them.

Richard next invited David Youldon, ALERT C.O.O. to speak…

I would like to reiterate the warm welcome to you all as you join us here for this landmark day in the history of Lion Encounter and the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust.  We recognise here today the culmination of years of dedication, passion and co-operation, without which, this release would never have been possible.  

This programme started from humble beginnings, as one man’s vision.  Over time that vision has evolved and is now a constantly developing reality here in Zambia.

This release exemplifies our continuing commitment to combatting one of the most underexposed and ill-expressed problems in environmental conservation; that of the rapid decline of this continents’ most iconic symbol; the African lion.  The lion is synonymous with Africa; the king of beasts, recognised as one of its most potent emblems, whose history is so richly intertwined with the history of those who have lived before us. It represents centuries of tradition, millennia of culture, and aeons of life on earth.

This regal and powerful animal reflects the values held most dearly by this community, this nation and this continent; strength, pride and courage; and yet its demise continues, unabated.

There is no more perfect metaphor to emphasise what the environment is enduring around this incredible continent, than the plight of the African lion as it struggles to survive against increasingly unfavourable odds.  The time to act is now. We all must come together and with one voice vow to protect this precious gift to mankind, and we shall learn to understand its intricacies and frailties so that we may co-exist alongside it.  

These beautiful animals are integral to the well-being of Africa’s unique and special ecosystems, but we must embrace and act on that knowledge, as such action will underpin a more sustainable way of life for us all.

Africa’s lands, so rich and diverse, are not owned by us, but rather they are leant to us.  Whilst each of us may enjoy this natural heritage only for a short time, it is our solemn responsibility to those who come after us to cherish it; and ensure that it remains able to nourish us and them.  Our efforts today may represent a small step, but it is a step in the right direction, and it is a step of immense significance that cannot be measured in Kwacha, Dollars or Euros, but as a demonstration of how communities and wildlife can live and thrive together.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of Lion Encounter, all of whom continue to work tirelessly and with devotion as we strive towards our final goal.  And I would like to thank you all for being with us here today as we celebrate this achievement; I also hope you will all join us, with collective pride, to look to the future of lion and environmental conservation, hand in hand with the aspirations of this community, of the people of Zambia and of Africa .”

The final speech was made by Mr Peter Mumba, the Permanent Secretary.  He highlighted the support of Government for the efforts of Lion Encounter and ALERT in all aspects of the work that we do, for lions, for other wildlife species and for the communities that benefit from our actions.

And then the moment arrived.   Richard Leach invited Mr Mumba to step forward and at precisely 5.26pm local time the gate was opened and the six lionesses took their first steps towards a self-sustaining existence.

The youngest pride member, Temi, was the first to leave the enclosure quickly followed by the rest of the five girls.  Whilst the number of onlookers was clearly a distraction, the girl’s started to head off down the boundary before stopping to scratch at a tree, jump around in play and began sniffing the air.  We wondered whether that had caught the scent of the small herd of impala that had been spotted only a few hundred metres away feeding on the new shoots rising from the burnt ground after a recent fire at this end of the site.

But now we must leave these lions to their own devices; to fend for themselves, free of humans.  The invited guests joined staff at our Boma for a celebratory drink before Chief Sekute brought proceedings to a close.  He thanked Lion Encounter for bringing employment to his community, for the support that we have provided his people, but above all for bringing wildlife back to his chiefdom.  His words of encouragement to Lion Encounter and ALERT from our community were some of the most powerful of the day; for only if man and beast can thrive alongside each other does wildlife have a secure future.

And so Kela, Kwandi, Leya, Loma, Rusha and Temi spent their first night together as free lions.  Researcher Jacqui Kirk has the highly envied job of now following this pride over the coming weeks and months to record their successes, their failures, their play, their rest, their squabbles and their bonds.  We will bring you that story here as it unfolds in the life of a pioneering lion pride.

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5 responses

27 08 2011
Laura

Amazing! Well done all and look forward to hearing more news as the pride settles into their new home.

27 08 2011
Rosie

Congratulations to all for all your hard work in making this happen, keep up the good work !!

27 08 2011
margaret undery

Well done David, and to all the team. The dream goes from strength to strength and may that continue. love Mum xxx

27 08 2011
Debbie

Congratulations, keep up the good work, I just know the pride will settle well. I can’t wait until I can return but in the meantime keep sending the updates

15 02 2012
jessie

Amazing! Its really fresh when I can read something positive about these amazing creatures. I look forward to visiting Africa and volunteering in this project!

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