Sweni and the Lions

by Marie Dahl (September 2014)

So this morning I was lying in bed thinking about how to approach this post. While thinking of opening lines, I just happened to fall back into sleep and had an interesting dream about a big male lion chasing down a vehicle with me and a guide in it. The guide was not faced about the big cat’s rapid approach, but I managed to persuade him to bring a rifle, as we stepped out of the car. As it sometimes happens in dreams – the scenario changed quickly and suddenly the big cat had disappeared, and so had my guide. As I looked around I saw yet another guide – this time a female guide who was playing with a little lion cub. She called me over and invited me to give the little cub a belly rub. Worried about my first guide and the missing male lion, I declined. I looked back towards where I had come from and saw the big beast haul the first guide out from under the vehicle. Luckily, the guide turned into a wildebeest and all was well in my dream again…

What I found most interesting about the dream was that it explains most people’s relationship with lions so well. Basically, we’re scared of them, when they are on the prowl and we find the cubs cuddly and cute.

But do we really need to fear lions? In my humble experience: Certainly not! I’ve had many encounters with lions in their habitat on foot. Only once have I been growled at — an experience I remember well, because the trembling sound felt like it came from inside myself; so deep and so powerful. Most of the time, however, you should feel privileged to view lions on foot, because chances are that they will run away, as soon as they sense that you are in their neighborhood. This was exactly what happened when I recently went on the Sweni Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

The Sweni area in Kruger is renowned for its enormous lion population. Scientists and laymen alike have recorded lion prides consisting of 30-50 members in the area, although scientific literature generally suggests a maximum of 40 lions per pride. The two guides at Sweni had experienced these super prides themselves, and happily told us stories around the campfire about their many years of encounters – once the lions even ventured inside the fenced camp!

Well, nothing quite as dramatic as that happened when we were on trail. Luckily not, I might add… The best bush experiences in my opinion are the ones where both human and wildlife are comfortable with the situation. We must remember that we are visitors in their habitat and we should at all times respect their boundaries. With lions it is difficult though, because they are so skittish and wary of humans, so by the mere sight of us they run off.

I prefer viewing an animal in its natural habitat, not disturbing it and preferably leaving it without it ever noticing I was there, but this ideal scenario is at the best of times difficult to accomplish. One of the key factors is having an experienced guide, who knows how to approach potentially dangerous game, such as lions. Many guides these days, however, want to get as close as possible to optimize the viewing for their guests and in the process scaring off the animals. We experienced this several times on the Sweni trail. The first to run are the big male lions – the mere sight of a human and they are off! The females are a little braver and will stick around a little longer, but will generally move off, if further approached. We rarely got closer than approx. 250 meters from the lions, before they ran off.

There are numerous factors involved in how an animal will react to a human approach on foot (a vehicle approach is a completely different story). A healthy individual will have no reason to stand his or her ground and risk getting hurt by a human, which in recent history have been a severe threat to lions. An injured lion, a sick lion or a lioness with young cubs on the other hand is a very different matter – they’ve got every reason in the book to defend themselves against any threat and should be avoided as such. Again an experienced guide is essential, because they will quickly realize the difference in behavior and know which animals to avoid approaching.

I’ve heard many great guides over the years say that you don’t really need to carry a rifle, when walking in the bush. If you respect the animals, read their signs and keep out of their way, they will generally leave you alone. There’s a always a risk of bumping into that one odd one out – an animal that doesn’t fit the general behavior, but then again the risk of getting hit by a bus in a big city is probably much higher… So what I mean is that if you take proper precautions the bush is as safe a place as any to take a walk. —Even when there are lions all around you, as we experienced. We had numerous encounters with the Sweni lions, but in most cases we had to use binoculars to actually view them, before they ran off.

However, as soon as dusk falls the ballgame changes completely; all roles are reversed. The daytime cowardice cats turn into the rulers of the night, and any human on foot is now fair game. The night is the time of the lions, as we were made well aware, as they began their nightly roaring shortly after dusk. A lion’s roar can be heard up to 8 kilometers away, and at times it sounded like there was a competition going on just out side camp. The sounds were coming from all directions – and we joked that you could hardly throw a stick around Sweni without hitting a lion.

Normally I’m not that interested in lions; As you can probably appreciate from the above they are not that interesting to watch, when you are on foot. But it’s curious to note that people are far more interested in hearing about lion encounters, rather than the times we were charged by an annoyed elephant or a surprised hippo (both of which unfortunately happened on this trip!)… But that’s a different story all together.