Lions in Zimbabwe: Politics and Volunteering

In April 2010 I took part in my first volunteering project at Antelope Park, based in Gweru in Zimbabwe. When I announced my decision to friends and family their emotions were mixed. I heard why am I going to the middle of Africa and if I lost my mind to handle the lions… YES, you read well.

And before you assume anything – read the full article. The issue of lions, politics, and volunteering in Africa and is way more complex than just a simple good or bad statement.

Lions in Zimbabwe: Politics and Volunteering

Lion Alert

After a lot of cases describing animal abuse in Asia and recently, unfortunately, in my beloved South Africa, people have the impression that EVERY animal activity is bad, which isn’t always the case.

Some places in South Africa started using lions, the same way elephants are being used for rides in Asia. It comes as no surprise that every animal contact and especially lion walks are considered bad.

The lion population in the last 30 years has declined by 80%-90%, from an estimated 450,000 down to 20,000-30,000.

Why Aren’t All Lions Being Released Into the Wild?

Unfortunately, not all lions can be released into the wild. There are various reasons for that. They could have come from a place where they got abused and never learned how to hunt. A release would ultimately mean a death sentence for them.

But that’s not all. In the last few years research has shown that most of the lions left in the wild are infected with potentially fatal diseases. Not to mention hunters paying bribes to shoot lions, even in national parks.

Therefore, similar to the case of white rhino that requires 24/7 guarding against hunters, lions need to be protected too. It’s sad, but it’s true.

“ALERT has no intention of releasing captive-bred, human imprinted lions into the wild.  Rather, captive-bred lions undertake pre-release training on lion walks that tourists may choose to join, to enable their release into fenced natural areas.  In these release sites, the pride raises cubs free of human contact. It is these cubs that are intended for release into the wild.” Read more here.

Bulawayo International Airport
Bulawayo International Airport

 My Experience at Antelope Park

When the plane started approaching Bulawayo airport I thought ‘Are we really going to land here?’ It was nothing there, just a grass field. Later on, I’ve realized that Bulawayo airport looks like an abandoned shed with two entrances with no doors, supposedly for departures and international arrivals.

The next morning I had to take a bus to Gweru by myself. Surprisingly, the bus was much more comfortable than American buses. Sam – the lion project manager picked me from the station with his truck explaining me everything about the handlers working in a park.

He told me about their funny names like Lovemore, Jealous, Bigboy. In Zimbabwe even ‘Iloveny’ is a name when the parents saw one of the famous American ‘I love NY’ T-shirt.

Aren't they cuties?
Aren’t they cute?

walking with lions in Zimbabwe

Antelope Park

Antelope Park is specialized in breeding lions, that are slowly becoming extinct in Africa. Obviously, it’s main mission is to help lions survive, working directly with Lion Alert mentioned above.

However, the park earns money on its unique range of activities, such as lion walks, elephant swims, and African horse rides. Where does the money go? I won’t tell you it goes to the lions 100% as at the end of the day it’s a business, but a huge part of it does. This is when my role came along.

Note: Elephants are orphaned and that why they’re semi-wild (in an enclosed 3000-acre game park with the natural environment). They’re free, come and go as they please and NEVER carry a heavy seat to ride tourists, no weapons and hooks to harm their skin etc. They might, however, approach you and handle you a dry lion poop – I was told a sign of appreciation.

Unfortunately, not all places in Zimbabwe handle elephants that way. The main Zimbabwe Tourism Authority website shows an image of three elephants, heavily loaded with seats and three people on them. These animals don’t appear to be free. That’s not what’s happening at Antelope Park.

lion walk

As a volunteer, I was involved in a bunch of activities. The main activity, however, was taking lions for a walk starting early in the morning: no collars, no leashes, no enclosures.

It’s an unforgettable feeling when the lions were coming to me behaving like kittens – touching with a head, walking around the legs without leashes and reacting when I called them by name!

There was no fear coming from volunteers because they were not going to bite, they were listening to people. Moreover, we were supposed to prepare meat for younger cubs and feed them with a baby bottle. These lions were not to release in the wild.

Cubs enjoying their walk
Cubs enjoying their walk

There were two abused lions brought to the park from another place and were afraid of everything. Whatever happened to them before, it definitely wasn’t right, as poor lions couldn’t even handle a zebra passing by in the distance.

Every day we were sitting in their enclosures trying to play with them with lion’s favorite toy – a dry elephant poo wrapped in leaves.

They can be really playful :)
They can be really playful, but I had to keep pushing him away – they shouldn’t be doing it.

Volunteer’s duties also included delicately speaking dirty activities – like cleaning the enclosures or repairing fences. Believe me, lion’s poo stinks very, very bad!

An interesting activity was also meat preparation… that was basically chopping the whole cow into pieces for those lions not to be released into free space and therefore non-hunters.

Meat has arrived!
Meat has arrived!
Carrying the meat to the enclosure :D
Carrying the meat to the lions 😀
And... the meat is gone!
And… the meat is gone!

My Views on this Lion Project

Lions I’ve worked with weren’t abused or kept captive, it was not a ZOO. Nobody posed with lions for photos against their will (something I witnessed with tigers in Thailand). They’re also not trained or drugged to pretend that they like it. And while tourists could interact with the lions, it was their (lions) decision, not humans.

My trip was actually recommended to me by my university at the time. Back then everyone thought it was all good. However, the current state of Antelope Park is questionable.

Back in 2010 when I visited, things seemed fine in terms of handling the lion program. But 10 years later, there is much-confusing information online which caused an endless battle, and I’m not sure if I could make up my mind and say whether it’s legit or not anymore.

What I can see that Zimbabwean Tourism does support some bad activities, while Zambian Tourism Board suspended all encounters after being bombarded with social media attack.


What I can say though, is that if you want to donate money to a good cause support GG Conservation. I know trusted people there and I can vouch for it being legit.
lions in zimbabwe

My Thoughts on Zimbabwe After the Trip

Every Sunday all volunteers were going to visit a local town of Gweru to meet locals. We had some mattresses on the truck, but it didn’t help to jump on it on every whole of the Zimbabwean road.

However, it seemed like we became the biggest attraction for the people in Gweru – a group of white people on a meat truck driving through town. Truth to be told, we looked ridiculous.

Heading to the orphanage on a meat truck!
Heading to town on a meat truck!

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Zimbabwe is an amazing country, with even greater people. Unfortunately, the political situation in the country isn’t good.

“The government of President Robert Mugabe continues to violate human rights without regard to protections in the country’s 2013 constitution. It has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation. Police use excessive force to crush dissent and violate the basic rights of civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and government opponents. Widespread impunity for abuses by the police and state security agents remains. President Mugabe has undermined the independence of the judiciary and of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) through verbal assaults on the two institutions.”Human Rights Watch

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, at least in my opinion. I might be totally biased, but that’s not Zimbabwe’s only problem. After endless conversations with locals, I realized that the government is one thing, but the presence of British-Zimbabweans is another issues.

One would say that these people, some born and raised in Zimbabwe, are locals too. And they are, but their lives are way different than an average black citizen of Zimbabwe.

White people keep using black people to work for them, underpaying them a lot. Some people were paid as little $2 per week to work in terrible conditions, in order to serve white people.

They can’t protest, they can’t complain as they have families to raise. But this treatment surely isn’t ‘fair’ to them.

I was invited to the house of a woman who worked at the park. When we got there it turned out it’s not actually a house, but two sheds for over 20 people to live in. Compare it to giant villas with even bigger swimming pools where white immigrants in Zimbabwe live (yes, I visited these houses too).

However, for a very long time, I haven’t seen people that happy as those two families living there. With a smile on their faces, they served each of us a slice of bread with jam while cooking sadza – traditional Zimbabwean meal, and scud – the local beer.

To me back then it was surely eye-opening, coming from the world of my university “friends” who due to the elite status of the school were very privileged. They complained when the meal wasn’t spiced enough, but these people were happy to even put scraps on their plates. 

During the meal, I had to sit on the ground to respect the tribe’s customs. Women sat on the ground while men got a place on the bench.

After the meal, some women started playing some music on hand-made instruments. We were all taken to dance and sing with them for the rest of the afternoon. Those people seemed to be the happiest family on the planet earth.Zimbabwe

Would I go back to Zimbabwe? Yes, definitely, but probably not on an organized trip.

I’m aware that if a Western company arranges a safari to Victoria Falls or any other place of interest in the country, local workers will not be paid much for that. The government will get some part of the money and the rich British will take the rest.

Is Zimbabwe alone in this? Nope. I experienced a similar issue in Sapa region of Vietnam (when people of Hanoi were using them) and the most obvious example: Cuba.

What are your thoughts on Zimbabwe and lion controversy?

19 thoughts on “Lions in Zimbabwe: Politics and Volunteering”

  1. This was an interesting post its seems also an amazing experience when i bet you have learn a lot of it 🙂 good for you

  2. A few years ago after a trip to India I was looking to volunteer in Africa at a place just like this one. Sounds like an awesome experience apart from smelling like a dead cow. Watch out for the spam comments; a couple above. The more you let in the more will come. All the best. Tim

  3. Looks amazing! Do you think lions are happy there? I just arrived from elephant camp in Thailand (and I am writing post on my blog about that in this moment :)) and I have both – negative and positive – thinking about keeping wild animals in some parks, camps etc. Other question – did you have to pay for that?

  4. While this sounds a wonderful experience for you, I was very surprised about your comment that you had to spend time with some new lion cubs to get them used to human company. I feel that wild animals should remain wild wherever possible. I’m also bemused as to why volunteers spend time walking the lions. Surely they are perfectly capable of exercising themselves. Sorry to put a downer on this but it does sound like the lions are there for your benefit rather than there own (or rather so that the owners of the park get your money.)
    If they are successfully breeding lions, however, than that is wonderful. Hopefully your money from volunteering is funding some good work. I’d love to know if they are releasing any back into the wild, although they couldn’t do this with any humanised animals of course, which raises the question, what happens to these lions when they are too old to walk with people?
    Ethics aside, you have some adorable pictures here. The lion cubs are extremely cute and I can understand why you would want to spend time with them.
    Do shout though if you’d like any more info on any of the issues I’ve mentioned.

    • Oh I totally understand your concern, so let me explain everything. This park is totally different from those in Asia where animals are being abused – I don’t support them! Lions in Africa (unfortunately) are under protections now, because Asian companies are catching them… 🙁

      About the lion cubs: when I was there we received two cubs who were abused by humans and we were trying to make them trust people and also get used to hunting. In the park we were also taking lions for a hunt at night to make them used to the fact that they do need to hunt for their own food as adults. Unfortunately, if you let the lions roam freely they when they’re cubs they will be in danger of stupid humans capturing them for whatever reason. After the cubs turn 2 years they retire from walks and the ark releases them when they’re ready – I actually witnessed a release of a few lions. People who work there (mostly locals) are really loving the lions and they do this job for $2 a day so, they’re clearly not doing this for money. But I obviously understand you concerns, I’d be concerned too if I just heard about it.

      • I had similar questions as Kathryn after reading this. However, I am still unsure of a few things – I know from orangutans that humans can actual teach and show them how to gather food, swing around, etc. Is the same true for lions? Does a lion cub needs to be taught by humans? Why would or should they learn how to trust humans? Sure they may be hunted, but that cannot be good enough reason to get them more used to humans and keep them enclosed.
        I actually did do a lion walk with Lion Alert in Zambia. In hindsight I wonder if that was a good idea. Because there is a difference also between volunteering somewhere or just paying money to have your picture taken with a lion even if he is roaming free.
        I like how you addressed the issue, but somehow I am still not convinced that some aspect of these projects are a good idea for the animal.

        • Yeah, I think the issue here is about the tourists as lions obviously don’t get used to a person so quickly. However, the money has to be raised somehow 🙁

  5. Thanks Anna. That is reassuring. Sadly I’ve heard so many bad things about so called animal sanctuaries in both Asia and Africa that I’m super suspicious of them all now. I don’t like feeling so cynical but I guess it’s a symptom of the world we live in.

  6. btw. do not confuse releasing lions into big enclosure with releasing lions into the wild. none of the lions have been released to the wild and as Dr. Luke Hunter commented on your park: ““They’ve spent however many millions of dollars charging folks like you to go and cuddle their lion cubs and they haven’t released a single lion.” . Here is also what antelope park replied to the question on trip advisor: “Yes, we haven’t YET successfully released a lion into the wild”… so… what releases have you seen exactly?

    • Hi leoloving people!
      Just happened to stumble into this…and as much as I’d love to say AP has released lions…they have NOT. Into bigger, lovely enclosures, yes. Do they have better lives than in Asia? I think so, until they’re 2y then is ” back into your cage together with 10 others of the same sex. This you won’t see if you visit the breeding program, they only show the front…
      Talking of salaries…those lionhandlers( fantastic guys) work very long hours and should be payed better. Mr C earns a Lot of money on us naive volunteers…we are told a story and by the end of the 4 weeks, overwhelmed by the beautiful lions, the fantasitic walks and the time spent with them, our specific questions are never answered…if only the money went into the right places. I do believe the lions can do it! They have proved it many times, that they can manage on their own despite being handled by humans. Their Cubs that hasn’t been touched are the ones to be released, if any. Politics and money rules sadly. If only they had made more release enclosures! So that the easily bred cubs could get going! And the 180 odd lions could get a sniff at least of the good life, even though in captivity.
      So; no more AP volunteers Means no more Cubs to just end up at breeding program.
      Over and out from Sweden
      Biggest fan of 3AC’s, 2L’s and 2 E’s which by the way are still there…

  7. Hi Anna,

    I am a Zimbabwean and I have visited Antelope Park a few times with family and friends from around the world. I do like the place, so much to see and do. I have never volunteered there so not 100% sure what happens but I do believe that they are doing good things at AP.

    Great post.


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