Antelope Park Zimbabwe – Raising Awareness or Just For Profit?

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Walking With Lions At Antelope Park, Zimbabwe

When you hear about rehabilitation programs and release projects in Africa you have to take it all with a VERY healthy pinch of caution. Release often means that one day if all the stars should align and an entirely different management team is involved we might, might, MIGHT maybe consider involving ourselves in developing a long, expensive and exhaustive program to rehabilitate and release whatever animals we have.

Sometimes however it is simply a money grab.

So I went to Antelope Park in Zimbabwe wondering what to expect and after 2 days I left with no clear picture as to which side I land on. I just ended up more confused.

Here’s the info about my visit in the hope that you can decide for yourself.

NB: I wrote this post first very soon after visiting Antelope Park in May 2017. I've edited it a few times over the past few years, the latest being in December 2020. Everything I mention is my view based on my experiences in the park with ALERT and the information available to me since that point.


About Antelope Park

Situated outside of Gweru in Zimbabwe, Antelope Park is a private game park that has won three World Tourism Awards for being Zimbabwe’s leading private game reserve, from 2016 through 2018.

Antelope Park has a variety of accommodation options, however as I was on an overland truck at the time, I was of course camping. They also have a cafe and restaurant that serves good food and has Wi-Fi if you are interested. The cabins look to be very nice.

They have a variety of animal experiences, including elephant walks, snake education, game drives and bush walks. At the time of my visit (2017), their main experience was Walking with Lions. I can no longer see that on their website and there is a statement saying:

“* We will be putting a stop to our lion walks at Antelope Park from May 2019. This is so we can focus on the later stages of our release program.”

While that statement might be true, I would imagine that stopping the Lion Walks might also be in response to some less than great publicity they received about this activity.

I never offer my opinion on something I’ve not done and while I was not 100% on board with what I thought they were doing, I made the decision to make the assement myself and not rely on second hand information,

I had asked some serious questions before committing to doing the lion walk and I had also committed to doing an hour with the research team inside their lion release park. The premise of the lion walks is to raise awareness of the plight of the African lion, and the walks were said to be important in the cycle of learning for the cubs that would end up in their semi-wild ALERT group. This group will breed completely wild lions for their rehabilitation and release program. (I will explain ALERT a little later).

The Lion Walk at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
The Lion Walk at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe

What Is The Lion Walk

Basically you get to do an early morning walk with some juvenile lions and their handlers for about two hours. During the walk you learn about the lions, how they learn hunting and socialising techniques, and of course get your photo taken along the way. I would be lying if I said I didn’t love it. OMG to be walking with half a dozen lions for an hour or two was amazing.

However – The walk can only be done with lions up to about 18 months old and then of course they are too big, too wild and could kill someone. It’s at this point that new lion cubs are brought into the walk and the older ones are taken off the walks.

What happens to these lions next is the concern.

Some you are told, do go into their ALERT program and are studied by the researchers, and then breed to produce completely wild lions that are designated for release and repopulation of Zimbabwe’s lion numbers. Others however do not.


How Antelope Park Started The Lion Walks

This explanation of Antelope Park’s history is my understanding of the processes as it was explained to me, so if I have something slightly wrong – it's my mistake.

The park has been going for about 20 years, although its current form of working toward a lion release program has been in existence for about 15 years. Originally the owner was given 5 lions which had been family pets and in trying to donate these lions to various national parks he discovered that ANY lion that has ever had human interaction is not wanted.

Without the fear of humans national parks are of course concerned that the lions will approach vehicles and cause challenges with no fear of consequence. After trying for 5 years to find a place for these lions, he realised they were going to be staying with him for the remainder of their lives.

With this in mind he set about making their life as comfortable as he could. They of course bred, other lions were donated and after a long and involved lead up ALERT was created. I do explain ALERT a little later, however while I couldn't find out exactly when Antelope park started the Lion Walks, they had been going for quite some time when I visited the park in 2017.

Walking with a lion in Africa is without a doubt an amazing experience, and I would imagine one of Antelope Parks biggest money earners. It has the possibility to raise a great amount of awareness for the plight of the African lion however the process itself is in my personal opinion fatally flawed.

Raising lions to be aware of humans and having them interact with humans is effectively restricting these animals to a life of being caged. It makes zero sense to expose these young lions to people when in the long term you are supposodly raising them to be released into the wild. I do not understand that!

Yes some do go through to the ALERT program however a lot do not and spend their life in restricted areas ONLY because we've spent 2 hours with them. I did go willingly on the walk. I will readily admit that, however like others I suspect I had no real concept of what that meant for most of these young lions.

We were given a great talk on the ALERT program on arrival at Antelope Park and I naively thought it meant that all the lions in the facility would end up living in some kind of park or private reserve. I thought initially that Antelope Park had much more land than they do and again, naively, thought that the lions they couldn't place straight away would live out their days in a private game park on the premises.


ALERT

ALERT stands for Africal Lion & Environmental Research Trust.

ALERT is the foundation that manages and runs a program to rehabilitate, release and reintroduce lions to national parks across Zimbabwe. As explained to us, ALERT was initially created by Antelope Park for the purpose of rehabilitating and releasing lions into private and public game and national parks around Africa. That is my understanding.

When I was visiting the park in May of 2017, during my time with the research team, I was told that the very first release would take place on the 3rd July that year (fingers crossed). The plan was to release four young lionesses to an area which had been donated to ALERT, the location of which would remain private to protect the pride.

They did say that the lions were to be released into what was an abandoned local Zimbabwean national park. ALERT had gone in and started animal-human conflict resolution with the local villages, had started paying the rangers (who hadn't been paid for 3 years before that), had rebuilt an air strip, had reconstructed the facilities and have trained new staff for the park.

I say “were” to be released because at today's date (October 2023) I can find no evidence that this ever happened. ALERT’s website talks of the reintroduction phase, but all that has is information on data collection with no mention of any of the lions from ALERT’s Antelope Park base ever being reintroduced to a national park or game reserve in Zimbabwe.

So 6 years since I was there and still no release that I can see.

A young lion at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe
A young lion at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe

In May 2017, they estimated they have spent 3.5 million dollars toward these 4 lionesses being released which is a decent chunk of money!

To see the cumulation of 15 years work felt like an absolute privilege and I felt so very fortunate to have been on site in the months leading up to such a momentous occasion. This was a comment I’d written out at the time:

Researchers, vets, volunteers, interns, BBC film crews and local handlers have all been working toward this moment for over 15 years. How incredible is it that the trust has single handidly reinstated a national park which hopefully will help the local community embrace the possible success that it may offer. Speaking to Yvonne the head researcher today I can see that if nothing else they have single handedly rebuilt a national park and the release of 4 lionesses is considered almost secondary to that.

Quite the achievement under the Mugabe government. Come the 3rd July they will dart and drug all four. They will be flown in a plane each (I'd kill to be on one of those flights) with a vet and a lion handler to their new home. There is another pride of lions in the area but there is also a young single male that they are hoping will hook up with the ladies and form a new pride of their own.

They plan to land the lionesses in an enclosure in the area of “young single male” and to monitor them for a few days. Ideally they will establish a bond through the fence with him so that by the time the enclosure is opened they are already considering a life together. So wherever you are on the 3rd July cross your fingers, pray to your gods or send incredible thoughts of support to the amazing ALERT team. Imagine if this works – it will be established that lions can be released and the knock on effect of that is immense.

At this point I have to mention that Antelope Park and ALERT are very different entities and while the Lion Walks are no longer offered on Antelope Park’s website they are mentioned on ALERT’s website in the rehabilitation section.

Here’s the info I found that explains the process for lions on the Lion Walk.

Rehabilitation Phase:

  • Captive-bred lion cubs are taken on walks into a national park or game reserve from 6 weeks of age with trained handlers, interns, volunteers and guests. Cubs are retired from this phase at approximately 18 months of age
  • On these walks, cubs develop a natural play, social and hunting behaviours. The interaction with a complex natural environment also facilitates cognitive development.
  • Natural hunting behaviours are developed and tested on walks, with cubs being able to hunt small (warthog, kudu, duiker, steenbok, impala) and large (wildebeest, zebra, other game species).
  • Phase 1 is currently taking place at Fuller Forest and Antelope Park.

The fact that the main Antelope Park website no longer offers the Lion Walk as an experience, but the ALERT website does, is very concerning to me. At the time we all left with a sour taste in our mouth with regard to what happens to these lions once they hit 18 months of age and are no longer suitable for the Lion Walks?

I didn’t personally do it, but another guy on the truck did the Lion Feeding and he mentioned being very concerned with the number of lions in cages at the back of the feeding area. Lions which I suspect haven’t made it into the ALERT group and are now just caged and used for feeding displays.

Now that ALERT is in place, some of the lion walk cubs have the opportunity to be moved into Stage 2 which is a large area that they effectively learn to live wild. Those lions themselves will never leave the park as they couldn't be released (after their human interaction).

Their offspring (as they are born in the wild) do have the opportunity to be wild released, and lets not forget the cubs that do make it from the lion walks to the research group do have the chance to live out a reasonably wild existence, albeit in a huge enclosure.


My thoughts in 2017

After doing a lion walk and spending two hours one on one with the ALERT team on the ground with the wild lions, I was initially really conflicted about Antelope Park which is an entirely new experience for me. I'm pretty much 100% one way or the other about most things, however I could see the awareness that the park is creating which is in turn enabling ALERT to have 4 lionesses ready for release (if they ever were released).

My major concern is the breeding for lion walks that has created a bottleneck of adult lions that they don't yet have the capability of keeping in a wild enclosure. Of course my gut instinct is that nothing should ever be bred for human interaction, but the effectiveness of the program in increasing awareness of the plight of the african lion can't be ignored.

So I come away sad that lions are being bred that ALERT doesn't have the land or means of supporting outside of small enclosures, but also inspired to do my bit toward seeing the very first ever release program not only come to fruition but thrive. By supporting ALERT I felt I could contribute to that.


Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.


My thoughts in 2023

Seeing that Antelope Park have responded to the backlash against them breeding lions soley for a profit making exercise and have removed the activity from their website, BUT have it still existing on ALERT's website is a clear indication to me that they are well aware that what they are doing isn't ecologically sound.

The fact that I can find no information whatsoever that today, 4 years later, not a single lion has been released into any park in Zimbabwe or elsewhere, supports my opinion that these Lion Walks are purely a money making venture.

I am not ashamed that I participated in a lion walk, because I never would have asked the questions that I did at the time and have done since. It has taught me to be a lot more inquisitive up front and if the questions I ask prior to me being involved in any animal based activity seem to be not answered or brushed aside I will not participate.

I still have my fingers crossed that ALERT will be allowed to actively persue their mandate and that Antelope Park will not express any hold over ALERT's activities at all. I don't know that to even be the case but it seems too closely related to be a stand alone unit.

Lions in the release group at Antelope Park, Gweru, Zimbabwe
Lions in the release group at Antelope Park, Gweru, Zimbabwe

Moving forward…

How can you help??

Honestly I am no longer sure. I don’t want to donate to ALERT until I see hard evidence that they are in fact going to reintroduce lion families into the wild, however I'm conflicted because how will they get there if they don't get the support.

I don't like the use of the word “release” on ALERT’s website. I feel it's very misleading. When they say “release” they are talking about the lions that go into the areas currently at Gweru and Livingston that to date seem to have just been monitored and moved no further along the process. To most people release implies “release into the wild” but that's not how they use that term.

After having heard about the likes of David Attenborough, along with other very well known researchers and conservationists that have visited the park and then become involved with ALERT, initially I was impressed.

They are 100% privately funded through sponsorships and donations and at the time I visited, were raising funds to purchase land for the purpose of removing ALERT away from the proximity to the park. We were told that their wild lions are still in danger of getting used to humans simply from their proximity to Antelope Park and its people.

By having more land, separate to the park, they could give these lions a much greater chance of being release worthy! If that is the case, why can you go into the release area in a jeep with the researchers to watch the lions? Wouldn’t that fall under the “human contact” purview?

That is now another thing that has reduced my faith in the entire program. I feel like it's just a money grab at this point and that they are taking actions that oppose the information they gave me.

I understand that viewing the lions from a jeep at a distance is entirely different to walking with them, and I guess that is what is going to happen to most of these lions. They are going to go to a national park where tourists drive past them in jeeps, so no harm no foul I guess.

It does seem odd to me though considering the desire to separate the lions from human contact completely. Surely if you want to do that, you have to actually do that. With remote monitoring and camera's now I honestly feel like way more monitoring could be done remotely which would in turn lessen the human to lion exposure.


In Summary

It's hard to correlate a tourist attraction with a conservation project, but on the surface they seem to be making it work. Under the surface however there are just too many contradictions. I remember leaving the park so excited about the July 3rd release date and I even emailed around that time to see how it had gone.

I never received any response and to date cannot find any information that even a single lion has been reintroduced to any national park or reserve. I would LOVE to be wrong about this so if anyone has any info on actual reintroduction activities I would be very keen to hear all about it.

I love the idea and the practices that have been put into place, however unless they are going to actually put lions back into the landscape of Zimbabwe, is it just a money grab for the park??

Lets hope not.

Being watched by two male lions in the release group.
Being watched by two male lions in the release group.


2 thoughts on “Antelope Park Zimbabwe – Raising Awareness or Just For Profit?”

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