I know what you are thinking: very catchy title and trust me I love the song as well. However, on a very chilly night many years back I truly wished the lion was sleeping.
In December 2001, I was incredibly fortunate to get a year contract with SANParks and specifically in Kruger national park: my favourite place in the world. I was first stationed in the Letaba section, up in the central part of the park. Working and living in Kruger had always been a dream of mine so needless to say, I was very excited.
After two years at Pretoria Technicon ( now known as Tshwane University of Technology) studying Nature Conservation, a lot of students applied for experience training opportunities all over the country and specifically SANParks. I was extremely fortunate and grateful to have received a contract in Kruger. During my practical year, I was stationed at the elephant hall for environmental education programmes for one week. The following week I was with the section ranger for conservation management experience.
Every opportunity was golden to us and with the help of incredible mentors, we gained so much experience during our year. From working on windmills and boreholes to elephant capture and education programmes for school children from the neighbouring villages. We were literally game for anything and even the administration like log sheets and reports and radio sessions where great experience for us.
An opportunity came up for me and Murray, my fellow student who was also doing his practical year in Kruger, to attend the annual lion capture and surveys in the Shingwedzi and Vlakteplaas areas. We couldn’t wait!
We drove up together and fell in with the game capture crew and state vets. There were 5 teams and each team situated themselves a number of kilometres from each other. On our way out we had to get lion bait…. Zebra. As there were massive herds around this was not difficult and the baits were given to each team. After wishing each other luck each team set off to their sites. The zebra was dragged a bit to leave a nice scent trail. At the site, we cleared an area between the caravans and a nice big tree to which the bait was chained. Obviously, me, Hein and Murry were in our element.
We chained the carcass to the tree and set up metal gates on the opposite side of the bait to ensure the lions fed with their bums facing us for easy darting targets. We then hooked up massive speakers and we were given a very important job taking turns… when the tape stops take it out turn it around and press play. So I put the tape in and over the loudspeakers the most awful bellowing of a buffalo calf boomed out into the silent bush. So the scent trail is out and the sound would bring lions to us in no time. Well, that was a loooong night. And surprisingly no lions came to visit.
The buffalo tape was something to get used to. At one point in the early hours of the morning, I must have fallen asleep. I woke up startled and confused and realised something was wrong. Quickly I looked around only to notice the buffalo sound had stopped! I had gotten so used to the sound that when the tape stopped the silence woke me up. Very quickly I popped the tape and turned it around. I looked around to see if anyone noticed but luckily no one did.
The next night was very successful. We were on the Lebombo mountains and managed to attract a whole pride of lions. It was incredible to be part of the team and see how they work. When we had set up the bait camp and cleared the area the vet got his darts set up and we then sat down to wait. One of the state vet technicians started a little fire and we sat around chatting when suddenly we heard a growl. I jumped up to looked and told Oom Att. He casually looked over and said “Great! Let them fill up a bit before we send them off to dreamland.” And he carried on braaing boerewors on the fire.
After a few minutes, when all the lions were on the bait and settled in, the state vet then climbed into the caravan. From the rear window and with the help of a spotlight, darted lion after lion. This was a comical sight! When the dart struck, the lion would jump into the air with a loud growl. Some lions even nipped the lion next to them thinking he was bitten in the bum.
After all the lions where darted, we gave them enough time to get drowsy and flop over. Then we had to go and find all the lions. This was tricky because some lions would walk off and fall asleep in the bushes. Cautiously, we would move forward and make sure the lions were sleeping before we loaded them on the bakkies. How would you do this you ask? And trust me I did ask… “Well, you pull the lion’s tail and if it growls then it is not asleep…” That was the answer I got. Reassuring hey?
Years later, when I was telling a friend of mine this, he laughed. He told me the night they were on a lion capture, he pulled a male lions tail and the big guy jumped up, gave a loud growl and ran off into the night. When he told the vet this, the whole team went quiet. The vet told him that he did not dart any males that night!
So after all the lions were collected and brought back to the caravans the work started. We weighed each lion, measured them, marked them and tagged them. Blood, tissue and hair samples were taken as well. After every bit of information was gathered on each lion and meticulously recorded and the lions had their ID chips in and brand marked, we let them sleep it off. We had to keep a close eye on them to ensure no other lions came in and attacked the drowsy lions until they were fully awake and able to walk in a straight line.
One of the evenings we had a challenging situation. Somehow we ran out of bait and we did not have enough daylight to get another zebra. So we decided to “borrow” some zebra from the other teams. We drove to the neighbouring teams to pick off a few pieces for us to use. I had to cut a rump from one team and a head and neck from another. On our drive out we came across an incredible sighting of a coalition of six huge male lions running down the road past us towards one of our teams. We decided not to borrow zebra from them. They were going to be busy very soon.
After securing our few little pieces of zebra meat, one of the Rangers wanted to check up on the team that was expecting the six males. Oom Att was happy to keep an eye on the bait and radio us if we darted any lions. Besides, he had just put his boerewors on the fire.
So off we went to the next team. When we got there the guys were frantically working. They had already darted two of the males and the rest had fled unfortunately before they could dart them. However, while they were busy with the males, two more females came in and they darted them as well.
With the two males left by the carcass, one of the lionesses decided to pass out right in between the two kinda awake males. I stupidly asked, “So what do we do now?” The answer was not what I expected. I was told: “Well, we have two young strong students to help recover the lioness!”. With everyone looking at me and Murry it was obvious: We had to go in there. So, armed with a canvass stretcher me and Murry as thin and as stealthy as possible, shuffled towards the lions. The rest of the crew was standing by if any problems arose. They assured us that the males were still very drugged and not able to coordinate any type of attack.
As we shuffled closer, the male on my left was sitting up and with a drowsy expression on his face, he fixated on me giving a continuous low growl. I kept an eye on this guy and pushed the stretcher and Murry closer to the second guy who, in a drug-induced state, was lying on his side still chewing on the zebra. It was comical and a bit scary all at once. So Murry and I had a few choice words and very quickly lined up the lioness and the stretcher. Now adrenalin does give you superhuman strength because between me and Murry we flipped that lioness onto the stretcher like an expert omelette chef and carried her 180kg body as if we had a small bag of potatoes on the stretcher.
The team members were all in hysterics. They said they have never seen guys carry such weight while trying to look like telephone poles!
Until we meet around the fire again!