We had quite the excitement in the South of the park on Sunday: an escaped lion created some major upheaval. A beautiful male lion got out of our stunning Kruger National Park. People driving on the N4 highway between Komatipoort and Hectorspruit saw him on the side of the road early in the morning.
Now that is something you don’t see every day! Luckily they managed to find the lion and dart it from the SANParks helicopter. At noon the vet and a reporter brought the lion back home to Kruger through Malelane gate. The lion was sound asleep in the back of their bakkie!
I could see that they were in a hurry to get the lion released, but they allowed me to take a quick few photo’s before they drove off. Man, I would have given my proverbial left arm to be able to come with to the release site…
The escaped lion looked in excellent condition. In the pictures on social media, he was stunning. And big! So big in fact that they could not close the tailgate of the bakkie! That must have been a crazy sight: a bakkie driving on the highway with a sleeping lion in the back! Only in Africa!
The situation with this escaped lion from Kruger reminds me of a hectic situation in Lower Sabie a few years ago. I was just a ‘tourist’ back then, visiting my friends who worked and lived in Lower Sabie at the time. (you can read about that and about how Steven and I eventually ended up together in my first blog The Ranger and The Flight Attendant)
My one friend was a guide there. He had the morning off and we decided to go for a bit of a game drive and explore the area between Lower Sabie and Muntshe Mountain. When we got back to camp, it was all chaos, madness and mayhem.
There was a huge traffic jam on the no entry road towards the section ranger’s house. People were looking at something through the fence in the day visitors area. We looked at each other, slightly puzzled; a no entry is supposed to be just that: a no entry. What on earth were all those people doing there then? All of a sudden my friend’s phone started beeping and buzzing non-stop. He had more than 15 missed calls and text messages: There were lions in camp!!
The lions caught a waterbuck against the fence, close to the gate in the early hours of the morning. People leaving Lower Sabie were treated to a very special sighting not even 20 meters from the gate! Which obviously resulted in a huge traffic jam.
Unfortunately, some people tend to get a bit, mmm how can I say this nicely…. People tend to get a bit crazy when it comes to lion and leopard sightings. Before long, the lions were completely boxed in by the electrified fence on one side, and cars and safari vehicles on all other sides. From what I heard from people that were there, the lions tried to get away but were totally blocked by people in their cars.
The only way out for them was to follow the fence and try to sneak out behind the cars. Something must have spooked three young lions because they jumped over the cattle grid and ran straight into the open gate. And from there into the overgrown day visitors area.
This meant all hands on deck for all rangers, the duty manager and reception staff. They closed the camp for incoming visitors and issued a warning to all people to stay inside. Especially to the people in the campsite, which is right across from the day visitors area.
This is more or less when my friend and I got back from our game drive. He quickly went to go put on his uniform and he also fetched his rifle. One of the other senior guides in Lower Sabie was already on the scene and so was Steven! They had blocked the road running past the day visitors area from both sides and were keeping people at a distance.
The SANParks Vet was on his way from Skukuza with his team. The plan was to dart the lions and to release them back into the bush a distance away from the rest camp and people. Skukuza is about 50 kilometres from Lower Sabie so it took them over an hour to arrive.
What I remember clearly from the time we were waiting for the vet is that a lot of people, unfortunately, did not listen to any of the instructions given by the rangers. There were children riding their bicycles in the camping ground. People were still parked on the no entry to try and get a glimpse of these poor lions. These people were really not helping the situation. A situation they created in the first place by boxing in the lions against the fence.
I can only imagine these lions must have been scared. First by the cars at their kill. And then to find themselves in an enclosed area with the scent and sounds of humans close by. So we were all very relieved when the SANParks vet and his team arrived! Time to get the lions back in the bush where they belonged!
A SANParks bakkie had blocked the no entry on the other side of the fence and was controlling the traffic. One of the vet’s assistants cut the fence around the helipad and they drove in with their Landcruiser. They found the first two lions quickly and darted them.
We had a look at them before the vet’s assistant took them to the bush to release them. It was fantastic to see a lion up close like that. The vets assistant was in the back of the bakkie with one of the lions. He explained that they had taken some blood for research and he was monitoring the lions while they were asleep. You don’t want a sleeping lion to all of a sudden wake up while you are right next to it! That would be a bit of a disaster!
It was a bit harder to find the third lion. The Landcruiser spooked him and he ran from the day visitors area to the staff village. The staff village in Lower Sabie is adjacent to the rest camp, separated by a little waist-high fence. So now, there was a lion in the staff village. Everyone there also received instructions to stay inside.
There were not many houses in the staff village at all, but the bush there is very overgrown. Which makes it extremely hard to find a scared lion. So after chatting to the vet, they decided that Steven and his colleagues would walk in one line other from the far side of the staff village to the other end, where the vet and his assistant were waiting with the dart gun. The team hoped to flush the lion out and to also dart him successfully.
One of Stevens colleagues closed the gate to the staff village and asked everyone to keep a safe distance. We waited and waited. And then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. We heard a gunshot. And then another one. And a few more after that. I could feel the colour draining from my face and I was cursing under my breath. That did not sound good at all.
After what felt like forever, Steven and both his colleagues came back to where we were waiting. All three of them looked very shaken up. Steven told us what happened. At first, they could not find the lion. They had been everywhere in the staff village. The last place for them to search was a particularly dense piece of bush close to where the vet was waiting. They carefully went in there. By the time the vet saw the lion, it was only about 2 metres away and almost on top of him. No dart will take effect that quickly so, unfortunately, the vet had no choice but to shoot the lion.
This was an outcome that no one wanted. Everybody involved was heartbroken. The rangers, vet, everyone worked so closely together and tried so hard to release all three lions. It all came together nicely with the first two lions but the third one sadly had to be shot.
I have to be honest. I was angry and upset. This all could have been avoided. Simply by giving those lions some space at their kill. I found a little comfort in the fact that the vet was going to take the lion back to Skukuza. They were going to test it for bovine tuberculosis in lions and use it for other research too. And after this incident, they electrified the cattle grid at the gate. So hopefully this will not happen again.
This incident happened years ago. And I have considered writing about it a few times since I started my blog. I was in two minds about it, because of the sad outcome. But after the escaped lion from Kruger was returned safely on Sunday, I decided that this also was a story worth telling. Even though it only had a happy ending for two of the three lions. That, unfortunately, is also part of the harsh reality of working with wildlife; with animals in general.
It is not all just sunshine and roses…