In November 2011, I took the decision to finally book a flight to South Africa to realize one of my biggest dreams: seeing lions in their natural habitat and evaluate the possibility of changing my life! Many people told me that I was crazy, that it was not safe, that Africa has a lot of diseases… They tried to convince me that it was not a good idea and to engrave so many doubts in my mind! However, I knew that nobody could stop my desire to see lions in their habitat. That was my call and I had to do something about it. In my opinion, there is nothing worst than the regret of “not doing something for the fear of failing”.
I was looking for a place where I could learn about wildlife, the work of a ranger, assist with lion monitoring and understand if my passion/dream could be transformed in a job. After months of research, I ended up choosing between two places: one was a guiding school with accommodation in a tent, the other option was volunteering with LEO Africa, a wildlife monitoring, conservation and sustainable living volunteer project, with accommodation in a proper house. I told my parents my two options and my dad, who had never been to Africa before, choose LEO Africa for me as he was worried that the lions would get in the tent! I found it quite cute and as I also didn’t feel ready yet to invest in a field guiding course. So, I decided to volunteer with LEO Africa. I couldn’t decide any better! It was the beginning of my life in Africa.
LEO Africa is an amazing project as it is far from being a touristic operation. All the team is highly committed to conservation, wildlife monitoring and sustainable living and after volunteering with the project for two months, I decided to sign up to a field guiding course and I accepted the job that I was offered by LEO Africa as a junior field guide and manager, thanks to my degree in tourism.
My first lion encounter is unforgettable and it will stay in my mind forever. We had been looking for the male lions for the whole day, unsuccessfully. The lions in the reserve were fitted with tracking collars, to be able to monitor and find them more efficiently. This was due to a poaching accident in which five lions were killed in snares and only one lioness survived after months of rehabilitation. Late in the afternoon, just before sunset, we managed to get signal for the lions: finally, we had a direction to follow! That afternoon, I was in charge of the use of the telemetry to look for the lions, while another volunteer was in charge of the spotlight, after sunset to shine around the vehicle while moving in the dark.
The signal started to get stronger and stronger, indicating that we were getting close to the lions. My heart started beating super fast for the emotion and the hope to see these big cats for the first time. Of course I completely didn’t know what to expect, especially at night! Our guide stopped and I started to scan the area with the telemetry, in the dark. The only light available was the one of the spotlight, busy shining left and right of the vehicle. The beep became extremely loud, I was sure, the lions were a few metres from us! Suddenly, I saw eyes at my left, walking towards the vehicle. “Lions!”, I said!
Two male lions appeared from the bush and were coming straight towards us. I was petrified! I wasn’t very sure on how to behave, if the lions wanted to have me for dinner or not. So I just sat on the vehicle quiet, and enjoyed the scene as much as I could (hoping to be able to tell it to someone!). Although I was a bit uncertain of the situation (which I then found out to be safe because wild animals do not see the vehicle as a threat and do not jump on it!), it was the best feeling of my life. My heart was beating super fast for the emotion mixed to the adrenaline and excitement! Monitoring lions in the wild was my forever dream and I finally was the protagonist of it! Male lions are really big: their heads reach the door window in terms of height! They are majestic, powerful, beautiful and their eyes are really magnetic! When the male lions walked towards the vehicle, they both looked at me in the eyes and it was the most humbling and exciting experience of my whole life. Being so close to these wonderful beasts, in their environment, admiring and monitoring them respectfully, was a magical moment.
8 years passed since my first lion encounter, but each time that I go out in the field and I see these magnificent animals, I feel the same emotions. Each lion sighting is unique, special and filled with unforgettable memories. If I listened to all the fears and limits that people tried to instill in my mind before taking my well thought decision to come to South Africa, I would have never experienced all this… In saying this, I would like to thank all the people who tried to advise me because I know that they were truly concerned about my well being and Africa can be pretty scary!
However I am grateful to myself for the courage that I had to take this decision and I have a suggestion for everyone who would like to realize a dream but it is filled with doubts, fears and insecurity:
“A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinion of a sheep”
If you have a dream do everything that is in your power to realize it! You can do it!