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At Zimbabwe’s Antelope Park Lodge guests can walk with lions

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Antelope Park Lodge is an oasis of green calm in central Zimbabwe, hidden from the gated and securely fenced animal preserve. Bisected by a slow meandering river with lush water plants and tropical foliage, guests can relax in lawn chairs or in the open air thatched roof and stone dining hall lounge and watch elephants wander along the river. In the evening, the large brick fire pit is a natural gathering spot for an international mix of guests.

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Accommodations are spread throughout the people area of Antelope Park Lodge on both sides of the river with a high degree of privacy, peace and quiet. On one side, they range from camp sites, basic rooms without bath, to river tents reminiscent of safaris, with comfortable beds, teak furnishings and baths. Elegant river lodges, across a wooden bridge from the main public spaces, are set amidst river side jungle and landscaped lawns. The architecturally stunning stone and thatch lodges boast spacious rooms, king size beds, claw-foot baths and private terraces overlooking the river and its wildlife.

Sounds familiar, like many African safari lodges, but that’s where the similarity stops. Andrew and Wendy Conolly, native Zimbabweans, purchased Antelope Park, a private game reserve, in the 1980s. Over the past thirty years they have developed an eco-resort and adventure tourism company, African Encounter, and ALERT, the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust. A non-profit founded at Antelope Park, ALERT actively pursues a four-stage method to stem the rapid decline of these roaming majestic cats.

A well developed volunteer program sustains Antelope Park’s mission, both in manpower and fees. Participants, some of whom sign up for months, develop skills in all areas of wild animal husbandry from lions, elephants, horses to snakes and birds. The outreach extends to community programs within the immediate area of Gweru, Zimbabwe, and in neighboring countries through education, orphan and medical projects.

Daytime activities for guests run the gamut of outdoor adventures with elephant encounter programs, horseback riding, a variety of photo safaris, including one by horse drawn carriage, fishing and boating. The morning lion walk, with cubs, is Antelope Park’s premiere activity. Although for the cubs it’s an opportunity to develop their hunting instincts, for humans it’s an extraordinary experience to get up close and personal with these cats.

Laili and Lewa, barely one year old cubs but already weighing nearly 200 pounds each, play like kittens as they roll around on the ground, licking and nipping each other. “Lions are very social animals. A lion’s natural behavior is to play. That’s how they learn hunting skills,” explains Dan Matthews. “If they don’t play with other lions they’ll play with you. Lewa grew up on her own for the first five months, and she’s was very spoiled.” This may sound cute, but a cub spoiled by too much human contact can be its death sentence. To survive in the wild as a member of the pride, a cub must learn from other lions and develop its own instincts.

Although the handlers guide the cubs toward areas where the prey are grazing in the savannah, it seems that the cubs are taking the humans for a walk. The cubs meander through the grass, over rocks, play, stalk prey, wander down to the river for a drink, chase the birds and, finally, condescend to be gently petted as if they were ordinary 200 pound house kittens.

Antelope Park Lodge, and the ALERT program, provide a valuable, unique, educational eco-tourism experience that make it an essential destination for any visitor to both Zimbabwe and southern Africa.

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