One of the highlights of my recent study trip in South Africa was the Ukutula lion center. This was also on the very first day of the trip, not counting our arrival day. The center is located near Pretoria and sits in the heart of Ukutula’s 260 hectare preserve.

We began our time at Ukutula with a tour of their lion enclosures where we saw the bigger lions. The first enclosure held a large male lion from the Kalahari along with four females, two of which were white. The tour guide informed us that the white females had been strategically placed with this male as the center does not want to breed white lions. The parents of these white females were normal colored lions that happened to carry the trait for this genetic mutation. However, for some reason Kalahari lions do not carry this trait so the females were placed with him to ensure normal offspring. With these lions was proof that the breeding strategy had worked as we were able to see two litters of cubs. One litter was almost four weeks old and the other was barely two weeks. When they are old enough the cubs will be pulled from the mothers to be raised by the staff. This keeps the lions docile enough to use for their education programs.

Next we saw some of their juvenile lions which are used in the lion walks they offer to tourists. If one would like to feel like George Adamson this is the opportunity. One of the young males in this group disproved the myth I had always heard about lions not being able to climb. Although I am sure many of my African readers already knew this myth to be false. 

The real highlight of the day though, especially for someone as passionate about lions as I am, was the opportunity to play with the younger lions. We started with lions that were only a month and a half old. These little ones liked to cuddle with the girls of the group more than anything. While that was fun it was a little mellow for my tastes. So next we moved on to the real excitement.

Our final stop of the day was to visit the older cubs, these ranged from four months to six months and were about the size of your average Australian shepherd. In fact playing with them was more like playing with a dog. I lost my hat to a game of tug-of-war and one girl actually received a bite to the stomach when one of the cubs became to excited. All the while the older lions could be heard roaring on the other side of the grounds.

Places like Ukutula can be great conservation tools by educating people about lions and lion conservation. Also the ability to interact with the lions could make people more interested in actively supporting conservation efforts. However these kinds of places pose dangers as well. They can give people a sort of “Disneyland” mentality about lions and other wildlife. What must never be forgotten is that these are wild animals, and carnivores on top of that. If people become too comfortable with the lions accidents could happen and someone may be hurt or killed. These places also have the ability to distort people’s opinions of proper management. In an ideal world management would not be necessary. But this is not an ideal world. Man has limited the habitat and manipulated the natural system. Hands on management of wildlife is necessary, even the occasional cull or hunt to remove excess individuals or problem animals.

As a lion fanatic this was an awesome experience. Not only did I get some up close photos of lions I had the opportunity for some hands on interaction with the younger ones.

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~

Anyone interested in visiting or volunteering with Ukutula follow the link listed below: