It seems dreamlike, impossible. Armed with a stick and a few instructions ("Be relaxed, stand your ground, never show fear or panic...") I'm walking through the African bush with four young lions. Shoulders rolling, tails low, they look so menacing and magnificent, and so utterly capable of turning me into lunch.
This fear cannot be allowed into my mind. It will show in my body language and the lions will see it. They were born in captivity, reared by their handlers to think of humans as the dominant members of their pride. But they are opportunistic carnivores, and have an unerring ability to detect weakness and single out the easy target in a herd or group.
Two lions bound ahead, wrestling each other. Walking towards them, entranced by their play, I lose track of the dominant female as she drifts off then circles back. "Watch your back!" one of the handlers, Marvin, calls out. I turn. The lion is stalking me, head lowered, with that predatory look that the handlers call "cheeky".
I stand my ground and say, "No!" while Marvin distracts her. The look goes out of her eyes and she comes past me at a slow, nonchalant amble before flopping on the ground. "Has anyone ever been hurt doing this?" I ask. "Just the occasional scratch," replies Marvin. "You can pet her if you like." Following his instructions, I approach from the tail end, talking to the lion in firm but soothing tones, and start rubbing her vigorously on the back and sides. You don't stroke a lion gently. Their skin is eight times thicker than ours and a light touch can be annoying, like a fly on human skin. When she turns to play-bite my hand, I scratch on the ground with the stick to distract her. I give her belly a good rub and she stretches out, making a contented groan.
There are two places in Africa where you can walk with lions and both are in Zimbabwe, a country with the world's highest inflation rate, 80 per cent unemployment, and severe shortages of food and fuel under Robert Mugabe's controversial rule. I had misgivings about going there, but I didn't get so much as a hostile glance and I felt glad to be supporting the tourist industry and the Zimbabwe-based African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (Alert).
Alert is a non-profit organisation which arranges the lion walks and it is championed by such supporters as Sir Ranulph Fiennes. It also works tirelessly for lion conservation, employing local people in the process.
Since 1975, African lion populations have declined faster than any other species on the continent. Illegal hunting, loss of habitat and disease have been the main factors. A 2004 report by the African Lion Working Group puts the lion population on the continent as low as 16,500 and decreasing, with many living in isolated, inbred and doomed populations.
Alert's main aim is to breed lions then release them into the wild. This was the idea of its founder, a Zimbabwean called Andrew Conolly, who inherited some lions and motherless cubs when he bought the Antelope Park game preserve near Gweru in the Zimbabwe midlands, 20 years ago. With his wife, Wendy, he started walking the cubs in the bush.
"It was amazing to see their hunting instincts develop," Conolly says. "It wasn't something they needed to be taught. All they needed was the opportunity."
Andrew is missing his left arm. It happened when he was still learning about lions and long before he founded Alert. One night he went down to his lion enclosure, acted "overly familiar" with them and was probably lucky to lose just his arm. However, he still loves them for the indomitable predators they are. If anything, it strengthened his determination to work for their future. But he knew it wouldn't be easy.
Others had previously tried introducing captive-bred lions to the wild, almost always failing. The reasons were fourfold: individuals were released instead of prides; they weren't given the time and opportunity to hone their hunting skills; they were too habituated to humans; and they had no experience of competing with species such as hyenas.
Alert, in conjunction with a team of scientists, has come up with a four-stage programme to help to rectify these issues. During stage one, the cubs are taken from their mothers at three weeks. This may sound cruel, but mother lions are used to losing cubs, mainly because incoming males often kill all young under the age of one when they take over a pride, to bring the females into heat. Both in the wild and in captivity, these mother lions return to normal social activity within a few hours of losing their offspring.
After removing the cubs, Alert staffers bottle-feed and play with them, introducing them to meat, providing affection and discipline, and, at six weeks, beginning a regime of walks. It's during this period that tourists can help to walk the lions, their $100 fee helping to fund the programme.
For me, walking with the cubs during this phase one stage started to feel familiar and comfortable. I learnt that the lions are lazy. Sometimes you'll only get 20 paces before they flop down. We may associate lions with courage but the cubs are afraid of water, heights, shadows and most living things that move. The main reason for the walking programme is to build their confidence in the bush and to allow their hunting skills to develop. They practise on each other and sometimes on you, laying ambushes and sometimes bounding towards you in a kind of play-charge, at which point you have to raise your arms, say, "NO!"
Like domestic cats, they are much better at climbing up trees than climbing down. They hate being pinched the back of the thigh. Their tongues are astonishingly abrasive, designed to scrape animal flesh from bone.
As the cubs grow older, human contact is reduced to a minimum; instead, the lions are let out at night to hunt. By the age of two, they are killing nearly all their food, operating as a pride, and are ready for stage-two release. This involves transferring a pride into a semi-wild ecosystem of no less than 500 acres; the lions are expected to sustain themselves by hunting. Then they'll be moved into a wilder stage-three area inhabited by hyenas, where they are removed from all human contact. It's the cubs born during this stage reared by a pride in the wild, with all their natural fear and wariness of humans intact which can then, it is hoped, undergo a stage-four release into national parks and other protected wild areas.
Until I arrived, the Alert programme had not yet progressed past stage one, but eight other African countries had expressed interest in replenishing their lion populations this way. So it is on a hot sunny morning that I join about 80 people at the game reserve near Turk Mine, Zimbabwe, to watch the first stage-two release of lions into the fenced semi-wild ecosystem. Emotions are running high. "This has never been done," Andrew tells me. "No one has ever released a captive-born pride into the wild before."
"They look ready," says David Youldon, chief operating officer of Alert. The seven lions, five females and two males, pace their enclosure. The big male, Maxwell, has been in a fight with Phyre, an aggressive female, and both lions bear wounds on their faces. "Not so good for the cameras but normal," David tells us. "It's a hard, violent life being a lion." Sir Ranulph Fiennes, there to lend support, pulls back the gate's release bar and the seven lions pad out into their new 1,000-acre world. The crowd wishes the lions good hunting. Two tough-looking male handlers sob.
Three days later, the news is not good. Phyre and Maxwell are still fighting and the pride hasn't made a kill. It's been a week since they've eaten. Then on day four, the lions bring down an eland, and it seems from all the blood on her face that Phyre did most of the killing. "My baby!" says David, emotionally. "I'm so proud of her it's ridiculous." Two days later they bring down a warthog. The lions are doing as well in their new surroundings as anyone had dared hope. Perhaps the future of the African lion is not as fragile as it seems, after all.
Lion walks are available at Masuwe Safari Lodge (www.africanencounters. com/vicfalls/masuwe.htm) and Antelope Park (www.antelopepark. co.zw). For more information and to make a donation, contact firstname.lastname@example.org A version of this article appears in the December edition of High Life, the British Airways magazineReuse content