In the wild, cubs aged between 18 and 24 months old will follow their mother and other dominant members of the pride and are led to game. Mostly they will watch the hunt from the sidelines, but gradually they will start to take part, usually unsuccessfully as they practice their hunting techniques. As such, we find that our younger lions follow the vehicle and are led to areas where we know there is game. The lions then take over and try to hunt. As the lions approach two years old, where, in the wild, they are now starting to separate from their mother's side, we find that our lions now lead the Night Encounter, with us following and are able to take larger game such as adult impala or wildebeest. The Night Encounter takes place in 3000 acres giving the prey species as much chance to escape as any wild animal. To date no animal has been caught by the lions using the fenceline.
From here on the lions take charge and we do our best to keep up. More often the lions will pick up scent to lead them to game and their technique in hunting improves as they have had a chance by now to practice on different types of game on many occasions. They are now more likely to make a kill away from any lights and vehicles and they are able to take down more challenging prey such as the fleet footed Tsessebe or Hartebeest, or the larger prey more likely to fight back such as zebra or ostrich. Many of our lions have become self-sustaining on Night Encounters such that we no longer need to feed them; they are able to hunt enough on these encounters to sate their appetite.
Typically lions are taken out in groups of two to four and we try and mix up which lions form the group from time to time. Depending on the age and size of the lions we find that some do best if not fed for 3 or 4 days before the Night Encounter whilst others need to go 6 or 7 days before they show signs of wanting to hunt.
As of 31st March 2008 we have taken out 149 Night Encounters and have seen a successful hunt on 46% of those giving 69 kills, although on seven occasions during a hunt two animals have been brought down by different lions in the same hunt giving us a total kill number of 76. Rabbits, duiker and steenbok are the most common prey for the younger lions whilst impala and wildebeest are most common for the older lions.
Although it is accepted that lions can learn to hunt without the pre-release training as used in our release protocols, typically, this takes place over time with the lions hunting individually at first as they are only able to capture prey of a size to sustain that individual. Our release protocol is based on releasing prides and we therefore feel that pre-release training allows the lions to hunt prey of a size that can sustain the whole pride immediately upon release, thus allowing for a greater chance of social bonding of that pride. In stage two, three of our lionesses worked together to bring down an adult eland only four days after release and an adult giraffe only three and a half months after release.
We do allow tourists to be on the vehicle during the Night Encounter. Prior to setting out they are given a safety and behaviour protocol lecture to ensure that their impact on the hunt is as low as possible.