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ECM investigation reveals record of deaths, prior injuries from "lion walks," Africa's latest tourism attractions

By Miriam Raftery

May 7, 2011 (Rancho San Diego) Updated May 9, 2011: --A lion attack near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe has injured Rancho San Diego resident Colleen Garbaczewski. Garbaczewski, an executive with Pacific Coast Rentals and active community volunteer, had taken a “lion walk” with her husband when the attack occurred.

An East County Magazine investigation reveals that lion walks, in which tourists are encouraged to walk alongside and even pet “tame” lions, have resulted in other serious injuries and at least two deaths.


Garbaczewski was participating in a lion walk at MASUWE near Victoria Falls run by www.lionalert.org.  According to a press release, she and her husband were aong eight guests walking with 17-month-old cubs.  A male cub stopped walking, turned and looked at guests.  Garbaczewski glanced back and the lion cub jumped on her back, knocking her to the ground. She suffered scratches, bites, and a possible fracture to her leg, according to the release.


Lion Alert is described as a "rehabilitation program" by Brent Williamson, managing director of Adventure Zone. Although her tour was not booked through Adventure Zone, the company does book lion walks through Lion Alert and Williamson agreed to respond to ECM's inquiry sent to www.Afrizim.com.  


"Our lion walking activity started in 2005 with our partners Antelope Park," Williamson said, noting that Antelope had had a breeding program for lions that was costly too maintain. Africa's lion population has declined over the past 20 years from 250,000 in to around 20,000 and is now considered a threatened species, he noted. "The goal of our walking with lions program is to raise awareenss of this fact and to raise finance to support the rehabilitation program, which is the first of its kindi n Africa," he said, adding that guests are briefed on safety and informed that the hand-raised lions can be dangerous.


In response to an e-mail from East County Magazine, Williamson responded, "This unfortunate incident is the first major one we have had to date," adding that around 75,000 people have participated in the activity.  But he added, "There have obviously been other smaller incidents where the lions have scratched people and the one playful lion of ours had a habit of nipping people on the buttocks."  Lions that engage in such behavior are removed from walks and moved into stage two of the rehabilitation program, he said.


"In this situation we had no warning as to this young lion's behaviour change and as such we could not anticipate the attack," he said, adding that staff reacted quickly to save Garbaczewski's life by "forcing a stick into the back corner of the lion's mouth, ensuring that he could not bite down," then freeing the victim and summoning emergency services.   One of the handlers also hit the cub on the head twice with a stick, causing it to release Garbaczewski, according to the press release issued by the park.  The lion has been removed from the walking program.


"The Golden rule with lions even if they charge in the wild, is to never turn your back or run, just walk back slowly or they think you are prey," advised Ann Pearse, consultant to African Safari Tours.

View a lion walk video.


While this may be the first serious injury at this particular facility, online research conducted by ECM found disturbing details about serious attacks at multiple facilities in Zimbabwe opened in recent years to allow visitors to walk among wild animals.


“A foreign tourist died in August 2005 after an attack during a `lion walk’ at The Lion and Cheetah Park, a game preserve near Harare,” Zimbabwe’s official state travel site states . “In February 2007, another foreign visitor was seriously injured during a `lion walk’ with young lions at the same park.” The site adds that two foreign visitors were also killed during by an elephant on a “safari walk” in Hwange National Park in 2007.


In 2008, a British teacher was savagely mauled by a male juvenile cub while on a lion walk through a Zimbabwe game reserve, the London Telegraph reported. “She was pinned to the ground as the lion sank its huge teeth into the back of her head, leaving her screaming in terror.”


The British victim, Kate Drew, 28, suffered deep cuts that came close to her brain, requiring 28 stitches. “I was scared enough when he pinned me on the ground so when I looked up and saw two more coming towards me I though `Oh my God I’m a goner,’“ Drew said.


Three of Africa’s leading lion researcher wrote a statement sharply critical of lion walks in 2006.  The letter, written in objection to the Alert Safari Encounters program in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, expressed concern that such captive breeding programs could lead to extinction of lions in the wild since an increasing number of cubs would be needed for such operations.


Moreover, the researchers warned, “The purported conservation value of a captive breeding and release program for lions has not been demonstrated. Indeed, many aspects of the proposed program appear ill conceived.”


For example, hand rearing of lion cubs could result in imprinting on humans and decrease their natural avoidance instinct, while increasing dangers to people. “ Indeed, semi-tame lions may be as dangerous as wild lions. Recently (August, 2006) in South Africa, three 2½ year-old lions escaped from a game farm and killed two worker,” the three scientists noted. “The lions were obtained as cubs and raised by hand. In Tanzania, wild lions kill nearly one hundred people each year, the majority of them villagers."


The researchers concluded that alteration of lion behavior through captive breeding, hand rearing, and release of semi-tame animals or their habituated offspring is "both dangerous and irresponsible when considering the safety and welfare of humans and their livestock."


The Zimbabwe government warns against participating in walks with lions or other wild animals. The government’s travel site advises travelers to “keeping a safe distance from animals at all times, remaining in vehicles or other protected enclosures when venturing into game parks.” Zimbabwe officials also advise finding out whether operators are licensed and trained before signing on for any wildlife viewing excursion.


Despite these incidents, Williamson defends the lion walk programs.  "It is important to note that this incident was an isolated incident which we have taken very seriously and we will do our best to ensure it does not happen to anyone else in the future as it only makes our taska of rehabilitation even harder to accomplish," he observed.  He added, "It is more dangerous crossing a road in London or any main city than it is to partake in our activity or to partake in any safari in Africa; the incidents are few and far between considering the number of visitors involved."


Aside from the obvious dangers to humans on a lion walk, the activity poses risks to the animals as well said Bobbi Brink, founder of Lions, Tigers and Bears, a big cat rescue facility in Alpine, California. “The most important thing in rehab is the last amount of contact possible,” she said. While a breeding program to replenish animals diminishing in the wild may have merits, Brinks said that having close contact with humans can put the lions at risk. “If you’re feeding and petting and building trust with an animal, when you let it out in the wild the first thing it is going to do is seek out humans."

A mountain lion in her rescue facility had to be taken into captivity after a resident began feeding it, she noted, while a bear that was eating food in a campground became a public nuisance and must also remain in captivity.  In Zimbabwe, where attacks on people by lions in the wild have also posed problems, there is also the danger that a lion accustomed to human contact could be shot. 


Lions, Tigers and Bears is not a breeding facility and the rescued animals in Alpine are not released into the wild. Those include lions and tigers rescued from people who had tried keeping the big cats as pets before realizing they couldn’t adequately care for the exotic animals.


“People have this infatuation with feeding and loving these animals,” Brink observed. “If people want to feed lions, come here and they can do it safely with a fence between them and a long pole.“


As for Garbaczewski, who lives in the Singing Hills area of Rancho San Diego, she is recovering well and expected to be home soon, ECM news partner 10 News reports. Her injuries are not considered life-threatening. Active in a local charity that supports children with Downs syndrome, she is also involved with Canine Companions, a group that trains service dogs.


“Keep her in your prayers for full recovery,” Nancy Pat Adema posted at the Church of St. Luke website in San Diego.



Another lion attack

ECM has received the following email from a reader who says she also suffered an attack by a lion at the same facility.  If anyone has an answer to her inquiry as to where one can complain about such attacks, please post your remarks below.

I was hit by a lion with a resultant severe right tibial plateau-fracture with extension into the knee joint Aug 19, 2011 at the walking with the lions faciltiy in Zimbabwe/ Victoria Falls.  steve, the director, was attentive for 1 day and has since not gotten back to me. My vacation has been shortened by 2 weeks, I underwent painful serious surgery, and will be out of work for at least 3 months unable to walk and in severe pain with an inability to bear weight in the right lower extremity. Who would I contact and is their any national review safety board?  I appreciate your assistance and can see from your prior articles that you do not just ignore such incidents and facility poor oversight.

Nancy Feldman Weingart