In June 2014 I travelled to Livingstone, Zambia to spend two weeks working on a lion conservation project. The project is run by Lion Encounter, part of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) founded in 2005.
In 2012, Africa’s lion population was estimated at 32,000 compared to the 200,000 estimate 40 years previous. This dramatic decrease is largely due to habitat destruction, hunting, human conflict and disease. Lion Encounter aims to create prides of lions able to be reintroduced to the wild, together with supporting and educating local communities to prevent future conflict. Growing up hooked on the Lion King and loving animals, this was a project I couldn’t wait to get involved with.
The Eleanor Peel Trust kindly awarded me £240 towards my volunteering project costs. This money was primarily used to fund my yellow fever and rabies vaccinations. After paying these, I had a little money left which went towards my flights.
The first thing which struck me when I arrived in Zambia was how incredibly hospitable and friendly the locals were. I was greeted with the most infectious smiles and big hugs everywhere I went, especially from the children who were amazed by my blonde hair!Shortly after my arrival in Livingstone I was given a tour of the town. I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. There was everything you needed to live comfortably including a shopping complex. However, you didn’t have to travel far to come across the villages with dirt roads, mud huts and no electricity. Regardless, the locals were still beaming from ear to ear!
The volunteers base was outside Livingstone in the Mosi-O-Tunya national park. Between 6pm and 6am we needed guards to walk us from one building another for protection. One evening I walked out of my room and saw a giraffe standing 20 meters away, another night I was woke up by buffalo right outside my door! The base was simple but comfortable, although the freezing showers took a while to get used to.
Wednesdays at the base was known as ‘Nshima day’. Nshima is a staple food in Zambia made from maize flour and water and is eaten with stew (and dried bugs if you fancied them). In the evening all volunteers and staff ate together and shared stories which was amazing. I learnt a lot about the local culture as well as cultures from other volunteers. Particularly well debated points were eating pancakes with maple syrup and bacon and the Cumbrian delicacy of chips, cheese and gravy!
The biggest lesson I learnt during my stay in Zambia came from spending a day painting a local school. The kids were given the day off but rather than spend it playing, all they wanted to do was watch us and help paint. While we took a break during lunch, the kids came alive and were roaring with laughter. They took masking tape from door frames and made skipping ropes with it and played balloon football with our rubber gloves! It made me realise that children don’t need a brand new, expensive Xbox or PlayStation to have fun, just a bit of creativity.
On the other hand, I was exposed to the harsh reality of a lack of resources too. One boy at the school, Tebae, had nasty looking sores on his skin caused by a mite infestation which was poisoning his blood. His parents had no money to afford medication and the mites had infested their home too. Their only option was to destroy their home and build a new one, which again they could not afford to do. As a result Tebae’s health was left to deteriorate. I found it incredibly hard to comprehend an easily treatable infection could cost a 10 year old his life. It highlighted the importance of increasing community and health projects that African Impact are creating.
The project I was on benefitted the local community in many ways. Lion Encounter itself provides at least 50 jobs for locals. It supplies healthcare and teaching interns which is improving access to medicine and education. This in turn is making the locals more employable. Each week as volunteers we were involved with litter picks throughout the national park and made cooking stoves which were donated to the community.
Working with the lions was unbelievable. They constantly test your dominance so it was important to be fully aware during the walks, they’re certainly not tame! It wasn’t all fun and games though. Duties included 5am feeds, pick axing enclosures, chopping down trees and cutting grass with a machete type tool. Usually by 8pm we would all be heading off to bed!
Taking myself out of my comfort zone and embracing cold showers, minimal internet connection and meeting new people from different backgrounds was an immensely empowering thing to do. My confidence has grown massively and I am far more outgoing than I was before my trip. It’s hard to believe before travelling to Zambia I’d never ever been on an aeroplane before! I loved every second I spent in Livingstone. From walking with lions and visiting Victoria Falls to white water rafting in the Zambezi. My only regret? That I didn’t stop longer.