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July 17, 2016

A Day At The Lion Park in South Africa

Text by Shashi Baliga. Photographs by Dushyanta Kawdikar

It’s an adrenaline rush like no other when you come face-to-face with a hungry African lion, get to pet a cheetah or feed a baby giraffe

We hold our breath. There he is, this portly middle-aged man who looks like he couldn’t run too fast if a dog were to chase him down a street, standing out there in the open African veld, his hands wrapped around the testicles of a large African lion who’s probably three times his weight. Watching him intently along with us is the rest of his pride — more lions, lionesses and cubs. What is the big guy going to do?

Turns out he doesn’t care too much one way or the other; he stands there unperturbed. And Alex Larenty — animal behaviourist and lion trainer who grew up in an English circus, and is our guide for today — looks towards us, grinning: “He trusts me with his, but I wouldn’t trust him with mine!”

That’s clearly a much practised line and routine for Larenty as well as Jamu the lion, who’s now preparing for the next act: a foot massage. “C’mon, big fella, come to Daddy,” coos Larenty, and Jamu plops down obediently, rolls over on his back, raises his legs and enjoys a toe-by-toe massage. “Where else would he get to go to a foot spa?” explains Larenty.

Don’t let his levity fool you, though; these lions are not pets. They don’t need to hunt because they’re fed by the park staff, but they are wild animals living in the wild. And for all the mutual trust between them, Larenty says that he is very careful about not crossing some lines. “If you don’t respect the lions, you’ll end up in hospital. I hate hospital food; it’s awful, so I respect them.” Here’s a simple example: when Larenty gets out of our cage-like van, he doesn’t walk over to the lions, to their territory. He stands near the van and calls out to them. Not all the lions will come lumbering up; he will play only with those who do.

We are reminded of his advice when a white lion is convinced Larenty has got some food in the van. As he draws himself up on his hind legs and thrusts his face at the mesh of the cage, it is a sight as magnificent as it is terrifying. His mane stretches across the wires, his eyes glint, his claws are out and his mouth is wide open for the meat, showing us his massive teeth. We are fascinated and chastened; he doesn’t look that amiable any more. “So there’s no such thing as a tame lion, is there?” I ask. “No!” is the succinct reply.

But there could be something like a friendly cheetah, a species said to be the least aggressive of all the big cats. “Come here, baby, come to Daddy,” Larenty coos all over again, and a spotted beauty called Cheetanah ambles up to our van. He pets her, showering her with endearments and then announces, “I’m letting her in.” Before we know it, the cheetah has clambered into our van, found herself a nice spot and is gazing out at the landscape, queen of all she surveys.

She has ignored us so emphatically that it’s almost disappointing. But Larenty cajoles her into coming up to us, and says, “Go ahead, you can pet her.” And whaddya know, she starts purring when I do so! Gazing at her exquisitely shaped face is a palpable thrill — though Cheetanah manages to look totally disinterested in me even as she keeps purring. Oh well, we’ve just met, I rationalise.

“We got Cheetanah and her sister when they were one month old after their mother was shot. We’ve brought them up since then,” Larenty tells us. “So you bottle-fed them?” I ask. “No, I’m their daddy, not their mommy!” he shoots back.

You could take a shot at playing mommy or daddy, though, at Cub World, the park’s ‘junior’ section. Here we found some adorable lion cubs abandoned by their mothers. They loll about on the ground as they get petted by visitors (in carefully controlled numbers). They won’t be here long, we’re told. They’re already roughing each other up playfully; by the time they’re three months old, they’ll start getting aggressive. By six months, they won’t let themselves be petted by strangers.

Much more amiable are the ostriches and a baby giraffe. Even children can safely feed the giraffe which doesn’t seem to tire of the special pellets the park provides us. Her surprisingly big tongue darts out at the mere sight of the packet of pellets and we reluctantly leave the gentle young ’un, only because there’s a queue lining up behind us.

It’s even tougher to make our way out of the park; there’s so much more to see and do. It will all have to wait — for our next visit.

Tours de force
The Lion Park, a 45-minute drive out of Johannesburg, is one of South Africa’s biggest attractions and in TripAdvisor’s Hall of Fame. Spread over 500 acres of African veld, it has over 60 lions along with cheetahs, hyenas, zebra, giraffes, wildebeests, ostriches and a variety of antelopes. You can do guided day or night-feeding tours, walk with a cheetah or take Alex’s Special Tour.

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