Lion Queen


One Lincoln graduate is living her African dream

Lions manager at a conservation project in Zambia is not your average graduate job.   But for Lincoln graduate Cara Watts, the office is a national park on the banks of the Zambezi River, 20 minutes from the Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwe border.

With resident wildlife including buffalos, hippos and elephants, it is a far cry from the University of Lincoln’s tranquil Riseholme campus where Cara studied for her BSc (hons) in Animal Management and Welfare.

 

Three years ago, at the age of just 22, Cara secured her dream job working with lions – an ambition she’s held ever since childhood. Her work at Lion Encounter with the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) sees her preparing captive-bred animals for life in the wild in a bid to combat the declining numbers of the species.  

“Being from Yeovil in Somerset, I lived very close to Longleat safari park and when I was small my mum took us to visit many times as she loved the tigers there. For me though it was always the lions and that love has stayed with me ever since and throughout my time at university.” 

After finishing her degree in June 2006, it was not long before Cara found her first volunteer placement working with the big cats – at Lion Encounter in Zimbabwe - and the life-changing experience came to an end all too soon for her. 

“At the end of the placement my parents picked me up from the airport and before we even got home, I told them I was determined to go back to Africa,” she said. 

After some temporary bar work and a job at a kennels, Cara kept her promise to herself and returned to Zimbabwe in 2007 on another three-month volunteer stint. This time, however, she was offered a job as assistant lions manager. Soon afterwards, when a colleague moved on, she became the manager, in charge of 79 lions aged between two and 10 years old. In April 2009, she transferred to the sister programme in Livingstone in Zambia. Here there are fewer lions (17), but her role is similar. 

Cara is in charge of lion handlers and volunteers and oversees all aspects of the animals’ welfare, their breeding programme and their introduction to the wild, which is in four stages. 

First, lion cubs are separated from their mothers and taken for walks in the African bush in groups of two or three until they are 18 months old. They are then taken on night encounters to learn hunting skills up to the age of two years. Next they are released into a large enclosure as a pride, where they live in near-wild conditions. The next generation of cubs, raised independently of human contact, is then released into the wild. 

Recent estimates put the number of lions roaming the African continent at between 23,000 and 39,000 representing an 80 to 90 per cent drop in the population over the last 30 years. While the notion of introducing large, captive-bred predators with complex social groups into the wild is not without controversy, ALERT believes it is an important strand in efforts to prevent lions, currently classified as a vulnerable species, from becoming endangered. 

Cara is responsible for inducting volunteers and training lion handlers, ensuring everyone who comes into contact with the big cats knows how they behave, how to greet the animals and what not to do. 

Another aspect of her job is ensuring a sweep of the reserve is carried out to check for poachers’ snares – sadly an all-too common occurrence as the needs of some poorer human families come into conflict with conservation efforts. 

She’s also had the task of protecting TV crews, as viewers of ITV’s Lion Country series (screened earlier this year) will know. Featuring in a couple of episodes, Cara trained the crew to be around the animals and accompanied them on the lion walks. 

“At first I was a bit worried about the lions’ reaction to all the wires and the sound woman’s big fluffy boom,” she said. “Cats being cats they were automatically attracted to it, but I acted as the crew’s bodyguard and after a while the young lions just got used to them being there.” 

Cara is set to make more TV appearances as filming for the first half of the second series has just finished and the programmes will be aired later this summer. 

The African dream for Cara looks like it will continue well into the future.  

“I absolutely love living in Africa,” she said, “and I have no intention of moving back to the UK. I can’t believe I’ve already found my dream job and I hope to be with Lion Encounter for many more years to come.” 

For information about ALERT visit www.lionalert.org

 

 

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