A family friend had to travel to South Africa for work. He asked me to join him. I was in my last and hardest quarter in my undergrad at the University of Washington; yet I couldn’t resist the chance to travel and see a part of the world that was about as far away from Seattle as you could get.
It was a long flight, and I found it challenging to try and stay caught up on homework and classes from so far away. Yet one experience made it all worth it: at the end of our trip, we were some of a lucky few that got to go out on a lion capture in the game preserve.
They were capturing lions to move and introduce into another park. The Park Rangers took us out in an elevated Jeep to watch the process. They took us to a part of the park with fewer animals and showed us how to use the dart gun. They even had a fake stuffed lion for us to shoot at. The scariest part was realizing that the whole time there was a gentleman with a rifle standing on top of our jeep protecting us since we were in a game preserve.
A small group of four lionesses were tracked via a radio collar so we knew roughly where they were in the park. They tied a gazelle carcass to a tree and played the sound of a squealing baby pig over a loud speaker. The explanation given to us was that sound was like a free lunch to a lion.
We waited for 20 minutes, and then we saw the lions approach. They were the exact color and height of the savannah grass. You could barely see them until they approached. As they neared, they smelled the gazelle and set about eating their dinner. A lions tongue is rough enough to lick sinew off a bone, so the sound I heard was something I will never forget.
After two of the lions were darted and put to a temporary sleep, they were transferred to a secure area. The Rangers drew blood for genetic mapping and gave them a quick physical exam. They then let us touch the lions while they slept. Their paws were as large as saucers, and I learned that they have a small claw in the tip of their tail, possibly from when they were a tree-climbing cat. The local lore was that they used the tiny claw to get themselves riled up as they whip their tail around before they pounce.
It was an amazing experience to be so near such beautiful and powerful animals. It has stuck with me. And I also now thoroughly understand why they tell you not to get out of your car while in the game preserve.