Lutalo and his sister Aisha arrived at SanWild when they were merely three months old. The two small cubs had been exploited by being displayed at various shopping centers in Johannesburg so that the general public could have their photographs taken with them.
Sadly, in order to keep the cubs calm and easy manageable, drugs were used repeatedly to calm them and as a result, Lutalo developed an allergic reaction to the drugs. His owners’ rushed him to a local veterinarian that took pity on the cubs and phoned SanWild for assistance. He informed us that should any further drugs be used on the small male cub, he would most certainly die. This particular veterinarian did not support the commercialization of lions held in the many captive breeding projects and expressed his wish to work with SanWild to try to ensure a better future for the two small cubs.
An urgent email was sent to our list of dedicated donors and soon afterwards we received the response we were hoping for, someone who was willing to supply the funding which would enable SanWild to purchase the two cubs.
The two young cubs quickly settled at SanWild in their own large outdoor natural habitat enclosure. From day one a decision was made to not try and tame down the cubs anymore, but to allow them the freedom they needed to get over the traumatic experiences they had while being intensively handled by humans all of the time. Within days they both lapped up milk and started eating the chopped up meat that was provided for them at regular intervals. At night they chose to snuggle up in a built up sleeping pen and if it became necessary for us to capture them it was as easy as to simply close the sleeping pen’s door.
- Lutalo and his sister grew up pretty wild and soon the two cubs instinctively started “hunting” in the large enclosure. Their prey items started with rats and mice and it was quite cute to see Aisha running away from her brother with a large rat she caught. As they grew older a larger enclosure was constructed adjoining their camp and the two lions were eventually allowed to cross over into the 6 hectare enclosure. The pair’s hunting instincts improved and Lutalo perfected a technique to catch guinea fowl under thicket. He would wait patiently for the birds to move under the thick layer of branches to feed and then he would strike with lightning speed when they could not get airborne. He killed numerous birds in this manner and it was his developed taste for the birds’ meat that caused his accident we believe.
A report that Lutalo was nowhere to be seen came in early that morning. His sister Aisha could be seen some distance away sitting down in the bush softly moaning. She would get up walk halfway to the camps fence and dash off back again to the same spot in the camp repeatedly. Something was wrong and thinking back now at the very close emotional bond shared by this brother and sister still make my skin crawl. This is when I first realized the very strong ties that existed between members of a lion pride.
With great difficultly Aisha was lured into the adjoining smaller camp and at great risk to our own safety we entered the camp on foot to look for Lutalo as the thick bush made it impossible to navigate with a vehicle. He was spotted at the exact spot where Aisha held up for some hours. He was injured, but still able to walk, but at that point he was in such obvious pain that the last thing he was interested in was to even try to attack us. He could put any weight on one of his back legs but it did not seem broken at the time. A veterinarian was called to dart the lion after which he was transported to a veterinary clinic 60 kilometers away to do the necessary X-rays to determine the extent of his injury.
In the meantime we inspected the site where he was lying to try to find out how he got injured. Broken branches and scratch marks showed that the almost fully grown lion had climbed into a tree and had lost his balance to come crushing down to the ground breaking branches as he fell.
The x-rays revealed that Lutalo had shattered the femur head in his one hip. This in my opinion spelled disaster and I was convinced that this lion, of which I had grown so fond, would have to be put down. Our local veterinarian scheduled an appointment with a veterinary orthopedic surgeon at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute – South Africa’s primary veterinary training facility in Pretoria.
Early the next morning shortly after 05h00am Lutalo, myself and our veterinarian were all packed into the small aircraft with a very nervous pilot who did not quite trust the sleeping lion lying next to him in the passenger seat of the small aircraft. Fortunately his nerves lasted until we landed at the Wonderboom airport from where the veterinary orthopedic surgeon collected his patient.
X-rays were done again, but this time with a specialist machine that also gave 3D impressions. When I looked at the surgeon’s face while he was studying the x-rays he smiled to himself and for me desperately searching for any sign that Lutalo would be okay a small ray of light went up. The good news was that a femur head amputation would be attempted on the adult lion, but nobody knew exactly how successful the operation would prove to be or if the lion would be able to live a normal life afterwards. Only time would tell.
In an amazingly high tech and almost bloodless operation 3 hour operation the femur head was removed and the wound stitched closed using internal stitches so that the lion would not bite at the wound to pull out stitches.
We arrived back at Wonderboom shortly before sunset for our return flight to Phalaborwa airport. By this time our pilot were feeling a lot more comfortable with the sleeping lions, but insisted every 10 minutes or so that I checked in the torch-light to see if he was still sleeping okay. At this stage Lutalo had been kept under sedation for close on 14 hours and I knew I would only relaxed when we got back to SanWild.
By the next morning Lutalo was up on his feet and although he still did not put weight on his leg, he moved around with his sister seemingly without any pain. The distress he was in the morning after he broke his femur was not observed anymore and I felt quite relieved. Maybe this lion did stand a chance to make a full recovery after-all?
Six months later Lutalo was back to his old normal self. Walking on his leg as if nothing had ever gone wrong, as if he had never broken a femur at all. His recovery superseded all my expectations.
When Jespha’s pride arrived at SanWild, the three sisters were placed in an adjoining enclosure to Jespha and Aisha and soon the lions were socializing on the common fence. Tension filled the air as the date approached to allow the five lions to mingle with each other seeing as they had been held in separate facilities (with an adjoining fence). We were extremely relieved to see the almost fully grown lions accepted each other and formed a new pride
Today Lutalo and his sister are two stunning adult lions and we are so proud to know that we were instrumental in giving them a safe and secure life with others of their own kind.