Steve Conradie was excited.
It was July of 2022, and the co-founder of Discover Africa Safaris was out in the bush near the Khwai River in northern Botswana.
For someone of Conradie’s experience, the setting wasn’t anything remarkable. Though not a professional guide, the South Africa native was first taken out to the wilds of Africa in 1976 and had been out countless times since. But for the first time in 30 years, he had his family with him — “they had insisted that I show them what it’s all about.”
Because of his family, this trip was different.
“We were sitting around the campfire, and my brother said, ‘You know, I just really want to see a lion in the wild.’” Conradie said his brother had been to wilderness parks in Africa where you’re in a fenced environment but not in open wilderness like northern Botswana.
Circumstances were coming together to make his brother’s dream come true.
“I had actually heard lions that evening … but they were very far away.” Conradie said he kept an ear out for their calls to each other, and “they were slowly making their way towards us. I lay awake that night … I could hear them getting closer.”
With dawn not far off, the excitement in the camp rose with Conradie’s discovery of fresh footprints in the soft, sandy area of the riverbank where they were camping. The print was the size of a dinner plate. His trained eye knew a big male had recently passed by.
“I called everyone over and I said, ‘Come look, guys, this is what a big lion’s paw looks like.’ … I said to my brother, ‘I think I know where the lions are.’”
So the party of 11, including four children, piled into three safari vehicles, with Conradie leading the way.
“We turned due east … and the sun had just peeked over the horizon, and I hit this big, big glare of sunlight right in my eyes. … I actually had my head out the window watching the tracks to make sure that we were still on their track,” he said.
By now, Conradie was seeing multiple prints as the convoy reached a fork in the track. Considering the sun’s glare, the confusion of prints and difficulty of turning their vehicles around if he chose the wrong path, he decided to leave his vehicle to get a better look. “There’s no way I could do it from the car, and it’s pretty safe if you know what you’re doing.”
With his eyes focused on the ground and the glare still intense, Conradie started making his way on foot. And that’s when things unexpectedly went next-level.
“The whole pride just obviously saw me get out the car, and by the time I took my five or six paces, they also stood up.”
And there was Conradie, out of his vehicle and face-to-face with 16 to 18 fully standing and fully aware lions.
Fascination and potential danger
The members of the Conradie party were hardly the first people to be intrigued about the prospect of a lion encounter. The “King of the Jungle” has a long history as a subject of fascination.
They hold a distinctive place in Egyptian culture, and they roamed the semi-desert areas on either side of the Nile until they began to disappear there during the New Kingdom period of roughly 1550-1070 BCE. And even casual readers of history probably know about the Roman Empire’s often brutal love affair with lions in which they were used as deadly entertainment against other animals and even used to kill people.
African lions are fully capable of attacking, killing and even eating humans, and it’s generally estimated about 250 people a year die in lion attacks. (There are more dangerous animals in Africa. An estimated 500 people a year are killed in hippo attacks, and snake bites kill anywhere from 7,000 to 32,000 people a year.)
Because these attacks happen in mostly isolated areas, definitive numbers are hard to gather. However, the lion estimate rings true with Philip Muruthi, chief scientist and vice president of species conservation and science of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). He’s spent decades studying them and other African animals out of his base in Kenya.
But while people might focus on the animal’s savage power and killing capabilities, it’s the wild lion that’s actually in trouble, Muruthi said.
A vulnerable species
Only about 23,000 lions remain in sub-Saharan Africa, found mostly in Eastern and Southern Africa, Muruthi said. About one third of the world’s lions are found in a single country — Tanzania in East Africa, he said.
“The range is now very fragmented. … For example, in Kenya, which is an important lion range country, you don’t have more than about 2,000.”
Lions are classified as vulnerable — just one step above endangered — by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
African lion populations decreased by about 43% in the past two decades, according to the AWF. Muruthi said key reasons for the decline include human-lion conflict as people expand into hunting grounds and a reduction of lions’ preferred prey such as zebra and buffalo.
“They come to look for food where the people are. They get into conflicts. They are pretty easy to poison.” Muruthi said he once saw the carcasses of nine lions that had been poisoned, presumably in retaliation for lion raids on livestock.
Big cats, rare attacks
An average male lion can get up to 550 pounds (about 225 kilograms), according to the Sacramento Zoo in California. Females, who do the bulk of the hunting, are no slouches either. The average female can weigh in up to 320 pounds (145 kilograms). Only tigers outstrip lions in the wild cat world in terms of size.
Lions’ size and muscle combined with powerful bites and sharp claws can prove deadly in a rare attack. The odds aren’t with unarmed people in an encounter gone wrong.
A study published in the PLOS Biology journal that looked at large carnivore attacks on humans worldwide found that “large felids such as tigers and lions caused more deaths in general, with 65% of felid attacks being fatal.” The study also found that most people involved in the attacks were adults (88%); children were rarely involved.
But don’t cancel your dream safari just yet. Muruthi said tourists are rarely involved.
Andre Van Kets, co-founder and director at Discover Africa, concurred, telling CNN Travel that incidents involving safari-goers are few and far between.
“The large majority of those [attacked] are people living in very rural areas near national parks and game reserves … going from their village to the river to get collect water or walk to school and they encounter lion or elephants, or, you know any potentially dangerous animals.
“Lion or predator attacks do happen in safari environments. But it’s exceptionally rare.”
But rare doesn’t mean never. Muruthi, Conradie and Van Kets all have advice on how to have safe safari encounters and what to do if you find yourself face to face with a lion or an entire pride.
What do to before you get to Africa
Safe safaris begin at home — before you step foot on African soil, Muruthi said.
“We should encourage people to learn about where they are going and what species they are going to see,” he said. Do your homework.
For instance, people heading to a safari fully expecting hours and hours of dramatic viewing of lions running and roaring and killing prey and mating didn’t do their homework. Instead, they tend to sleep and laze around about 20 hours a day.
Muruthi emphasized picking a good guide.
“If you are coming for the first time, go with an experienced safari operator. It might be a bill a little bit more expensive to go with some of these companies, but they have a reputation. … You can visit their website; you can get word of mouth.”
Best plan: Avoid trouble
Once you’re on the ground and out in the wild, Muruthi said the best way to stay out of danger is to follow your guide’s advice and keep your viewing at a safe distance. What’s considered safe?
Out of a vehicle, it’s 100 meters (about 330 feet), Muruthi said. But in many parks, it’s illegal to be out on foot unless it’s a special safari where walking is allowed, Muruthi said. It’s also more dangerous to be out on foot in bush and forest with restricted visibility than in open plains, he said.
Also, invest in a good pair of binoculars and camera lenses for your safari. They’ll help you avoid any temptation to get closer than you should.
Other things to keep in mind to avoid antagonizing lions and being on the wrong end of a mismatch:
Don’t divide a pride: Tourists should never drive their vehicles into a pride and disperse them, Muruthi said. When you do this, “you are not really watching lions; you are watching their reaction to yourself.” Being split up like that can make these social cats angry, he warned.
Never go alone into the bush: Lion-watching and other safari adventures are not a good solo activity, Van Kets cautioned, especially for the inexperienced. You look more vulnerable by yourself, and if something goes south, you’ll need some help to fend off a lion or other animal or to go get help if you’re attacked, he said.
Stay inside your safari vehicle: Van Kets noted many wild lions have actually gotten accustomed to vehicles and might walk very close to them — close enough to touch. Conradie added that “most lions perceive a vehicle [or] a tent to be solid objects. … Do not stick your arm out of the vehicle and break the silhouette of the vehicle.”
Avoid peak hunting times: You have a better chance encountering a lion or pride on the hunt at dawn, dusk and night, Muruthi said. While you should be cautious anytime, these times increase your chances of coming across lions in search of prey. Also remember that lions have much better vision at night than people do.
Be extra cautious during prey migration times: If you’re in East Africa for the spectacle of huge herds of wildebeests, zebras and other animals in migration, just remember this is feast time for lions and other predators, Muruthi said.
Don’t mess with mating lions or their litters: Male lions can get very aggressive during mating, Kenya Geographic warns. A courtship might be fascinating, but don’t get too close or interfere. And mama lions are protective like mama bears — do not get between her and her young.
If the situation is getting dicey
If your presence is starting to disturb a pride or has startled a lion, Van Kets, Conradie and Muruthi all pointed out warning signs you should heed.
Those include low growls, eye contact on the part of the lion, defensive posturing as if it looks like it’s setting up for an attack and an erect, swaying tail.
Usually, these actions are “intended to be a warning signal,” Van Kets said. “Not ‘I’m hungry, and I want to eat you.’ It’s like ‘you’re coming to my territory. I’m giving you a chance to get out of it.’”
The last thing you should do, Muruthi said, is turn your back and flee.
First of all, lions are faster than people and can go anywhere from 24 to 37 miles per hour for short bursts, according to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. There’s a good chance the lion will reach you before you reach a safe spot.
Secondly, fleeing indicates to the lion you’re frightened and now possible prey, turning what might have initially been a mock charge to test you into a real attack.
Instead, the experts all said you should stand your ground, however much you might be quaking on the inside. Muruthi said he heard of a case in which a villager being charged by a lion waved a cloth, which can make you look bigger. Waving your arms might also achieve the same result.
If the lion and you are basically facing off, Muruthi said walk away very slowly, keeping eye contact with the beast until you can reach a safe space or the lion loses interest.
For that extremely rare tourist caught up in an actual attack, the experts said your options are very limited, especially if you don’t have a firearm or can’t use it.
Conradie said that intervention by another member of your party might confuse lions long enough to get away. Lions are used to animals such as zebras or gazelles scattering once they grab ahold of prey. Having someone else intervene could open a short window to escape — another reason it’s important to not travel alone, Conradie said.
If a lion is making contact, Muruthi said “you must fight back. … Raise your arms, make as much noise as you can.” Then just hope the animal just wants to injure you vs. kill you and will wander off. “But in this situation, it’s really hard to prescribe anything.”
Van Kets had one final word of advice for an attack: “Pray.”
A thrilling encounter
Luckily for Conradie and his family back in Botswana, he knew exactly what to do as he unexpectedly faced down that pride with the sunrise glaring into his eyes.
He had good reason to think they had fed that night and therefore weren’t hungry. They weren’t making any indications of imminent attack. If anything, Conradie was the opposite of fearful.
“I was ecstatic because I’d found the lions for my brother. … That was my object. I was not nervous at all. That wasn’t my first lion encounter. They were really chill. I could see quickly that they were just more like, ‘oooh curious.’”
Conradie said that as he stood his ground, his wife and his brother called out to him to let him know they also had spotted the pride. “So there was a little bit of noise around vehicles and the lions stood up — and then with this little bit of noise, they just moved on — very, very relaxed in fact.”
Van Kets and Conradie said they want people to come to Africa and to have safe encounters so people can spread the word about the importance of this apex predator to the African ecology.
Muruthi echoed that point on the role of tourism as lions face increasing pressure.
“Their continued survival is going depend not just on Africa, but also those visitors and the rest of the world.”
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