I had barely landed at Phinda Airport when I caught my first glimpse of lions.
I peered through the window of the bush plane at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, located in a remote corner of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, and couldn’t believe my eyes. About a half dozen drowsy felines taking shade beneath an acacia tree near the tarmac began to rise from their nap. They stretched, then meandered away from the sound of our propellers. I’ve been on close to two dozen safaris in eastern and southern Africa, and lion sightings rarely come this easy. It’s as if these cats knew I was on a lion-themed safari and were here to greet me at the start of my journey.
I had joined the new Return of the Lion trip from safari outfitter andBeyond because its itinerary goes beyond the conventional game drive and offers a much deeper understanding of wildlife conservation in Africa. I wanted to get behind the scenes and hang out with the people directly protecting the African wild areas facing pressure amid the continent’s booming population, which is on track to double by 2050. And what better way to do this than to focus on the animal at the top of the food chain? One whose presence is not just a symbol for the entire wildlife kingdom in sub-Saharan Africa but also crucial to the survival of the entire ecosystem.
And, of course, encounters with these apex predators always thrill me. It’s no wonder lions remain the most sought-after animals to see on an African safari: They roam the savannas in intimidating prides, the adult males often sporting a dramatic mane. Their roars, which humans can hear as far as five miles away, are a reminder of who’s in charge in the wilderness. And to me, watching lions hunt down their prey feels simultaneously terrifying and awe inspiring. Equally impressive are lions that don’t want to be seen. Their camouflaging colors and stealthy movements help them disappear into the landscape, and only the most seasoned trackers have a chance at spotting them.
I also loved that my trip would be about so much more than lions. We would retrace a game-changing 2015 effort that translocated five lions from Phinda in South Africa to Akagera National Park in Rwanda—game changing because lions had become extinct in Rwanda following the country’s horrific 1994 genocide. And that path between the two countries would uncover a much larger story about the enormous challenges of bringing a decimated wild area back to its natural state.
A South African conservation success story
As we drove from the airstrip to the lodge, it wasn’t long before we found another pride of lions drinking from a tree-shaded stream nearby. There were about a half dozen of them, some juveniles, all crouched down and lapping the water, paying us no mind. They had the right idea: It was approaching noon, and the sun was becoming too intense for a game drive. After a few minutes at the sighting, we pressed on toward our own bush sanctuary.
Soon, we arrived at andBeyond Phinda Vlei Lodge, which sits next to the reserve’s 1,300-acre sand forest habitat, of which there are only 5,000 acres left in the world. Here rare, centuries-old trees, such as the slow-growing Lebombo wattle hardwood, offer a shady sanctuary to wildlife. In the afternoon, we found an oasis in that same forest—in the thatch-roofed main room of Vlei Lodge. There, Charli de Vos, Phinda’s ecologist, and Simon Naylor, andBeyond’s conservation manager for South Africa, put Phinda’s history and lion conservation efforts into context.
About 30 years ago, soon after South African apartheid ended and international tourists started to arrive, Phinda became one of South Africa’s first private reserves dedicated to Big Five tourism. They explianed that the reserve was created out of land, leased from the community, that had previously been used for hunting and cattle. The 74,000-acre reserve was also among the first in the country to introduce lions for tourism purposes in 1992. Today, close to 300 cubs have been born on Phinda, and tourism remains the primary funding source for Phinda’s conservation work.
“The tourism dollar is vital in park management,” de Vos told me. “It’s the main income source when donor funding isn’t always reliable. Whether it’s your conservancy fees or accommodation or concession fees, it’s what feeds directly into maintaining your park and paying for staff salaries, including rangers who go out every day for security purposes.”
Over the past three decades, the reserve has also become a leader in the management of such complex issues as genetic diversity among species and wildlife translocation across borders, which are among the issues de Vos and Naylor spend a good amount of their time working on. To date, the reserve has relocated more than 100 lions to 21 different parks, including those in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, and, of course, Rwanda.
“To me, the biggest issue with lions is managing habitat loss and conflict with humans,” Naylor said. “In southern Africa, where reserves are well secured and well managed and fenced, the biggest challenge is population growth. There are too many lions and there’s not enough space for them anymore. In other parts of Africa, it’s the opposite. The lion numbers are in decline because there’s encroachment on their habitats, which leads to conflict and killing.”
I was struck by the fact that wildlife conservation is never a one-size-fits-all solution in Africa. While Phinda has healthy lion populations and South Africa is running out of space for them, lions are still considered globally vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Countries like Rwanda and Malawi need more of them in order to justify turning land into a conservation area for tourism rather than losing it to agriculture.
I also didn’t realize how far conservationists like de Vos and Naylor must go to maintain the status quo of their park—but I was about to find out. The next day, Naylor, de Vos, and Mike Toft, Phinda’s veterinarian, led me and a few reserve volunteers to the site of our hands-on conservation activity. It was part of my itinerary, which offers guests time on a project with a species based on need—be it a lion or cheetah–collaring, pangolin monitoring, or in my case, a rhino dehorning.
The idea behind rhino dehorning is to deter poachers. Many of those poachers are hired locally by international cartels that kill the rhinos and sell the horns to black markets, mostly in Asia, for their completely fabricated medicinal qualities. (Rhino horns are nothing more than keratin, the same substance of a fingernail, and grow back after being trimmed.) Rhinos are under such immense pressure from poaching in South Africa that Phinda had kept under wraps a recent translocation of 30 white rhino to Akagera National Park in November 2021, in order to deter poaching attempts.
After Toft sedated the rhino with a dart from a helicopter, our group moved toward the area where the young female had fallen. As we gathered around her massive body, which was stomach-down in the grass, I was tasked with holding back the rhino’s ears as Toft trimmed the horn off with a chainsaw. The sedated rhino occasionally raised her head as the chainsaw reduced the horn down to a tiny stump. Bits of keratin—what felt like tiny nail clippings—snowed down onto my hair, eyelashes, and clothes.
As I took in the scene around me, I felt anger rise in my chest as I thought about how such a useless substance was contributing to the erasure of the rhino and heartbroken that we had to remove the creature’s iconic horn to help save it.
A few days later, we’d fully immerse ourselves in Phinda’s conservation collaborations in Rwanda. In 2010, African Parks, a South Africa–based NGO, entered a long-term contract with the Rwandan government to turn Akagera back into a Big Five tourism experience. As part of that effort, African Parks worked with Phinda in 2015 to introduce five genetically diverse female lions from Phinda into the park, along with two males donated from South Africa’s Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife reserve. As at Phinda, our trip to Rwanda would give me access to Akagera’s conservation team, who would interpret the landscape alongside me.
A second chance for Rwandan wildlife
The morning after we arrived in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, we headed east toward the Tanzanian border for about three hours, passing small villages, banana plantations, and untold numbers of waving schoolchildren. When we arrived at the day visitor center, we saw white, sun-weathered empty cages near the visitor center reading DANGER BEWARE LIONS in crimson lettering—the same cages that had taken the Phinda lions on their 30-hour, 2,500-mile journey over land and by air north to Akagera.
After checking into Ruzizi Tented Lodge, we stopped at the park headquarters—the central nervous system of management and security operations, including a K-9 anti-poaching unit and a digital mapping room feeding staff data on what was happening across 430 square miles of protected land.
In 2015, not long after the release of lions into Akagera, conservation and research manager Drew Bantlin was on the Rwandan park’s savanna grassland when he watched an impala saunter up to a lion feeding on a waterbuck. The curious impala sniffed the lion and its prey before promptly becoming part of the lion’s lunch.
“You would think they would have had some innate memory of lions, or at least the feline form being dangerous to them, but lions were just so novel to them,” recalled Bantlin, about the resident herbivores. “But then they very quickly learned.”
Shortly after, Jean Paul Karinganire, the assistant tourism and marketing manager of the park, briefed us on Akagera’s history in the shade of a nearby gazebo. In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, without proper management in place, the park was used for unsustainable hunting, cattle grazing, and squatting, and the last lion seen in Rwanda was in 2001.
Following the translocation, Akagera now has 43 lions, with 6 cubs born in February 2022. The growing population has resulted in several positive changes, according to Karinganire. He explained that most grazing animals only descend into the open plains at night to keep out of harm’s way. As a result, the grassland at Akagera has more time to regrow—herbivores tend to overgraze the land when unchecked. And more carcasses produced by lions mean that hyenas and endangered species such as white-backed, white-headed, and lappet-faced vultures—whose populations diminished when lions were wiped out—have returned.
Before lions were introduced into Akagera, the park continuously operated at a loss, with high operational costs and barely any tourism, Bantlin added. Lion reintroduction was one of the key turning points for Akagera, and today, tourism revenue covers close to 90 percent of all operational costs.
Visitors, more than half of whom are Rwandan, have a range of accommodations to choose from, including self-service campsites, the midrange Ruzizi Tented Lodge, and the luxurious Wilderness Safaris Magashi, which sits on its own private 15,000-acre plot of land by a hippo and croc–filled lake, where we would spend our final night.
The benefits of this healing landscape have extended well beyond the borders of the park and into the community. Ten percent of profits from all Rwandan national parks, including Akagera and the even more lucrative mountain gorilla treks at Volcanoes National Park, go directly back into the rural communities near the wildlife. We saw some of these benefits on display at the park’s new community center, where Fiston Ishimwe showed us around.
Ishimwe, Akagera’s deputy community liaison manager, has seen huge infrastructure developments in this corner of his country since relocating here in 2017 after marrying a woman from the community. “These days the park is always bringing in new initiatives, and things keep improving.” Ishimwe played a crucial role in the creation and launch of the community center in 2019, right before the pandemic.
He walked us through the education, community engagement, and community enterprise efforts next to the park. We visited the conservation education center, a nursery growing edible plants for area residents, and a forthcoming public library in its early building stages. A dormitory and outdoor dining area serve the thousands of students who travel from all over Rwanda to experience the park and partake in sports-related conservation awareness events like soccer competitions.
Later that day, we went in search of the lions helping to make all this possible. On my last trip to Akagera in 2020, while stretching my legs on a game drive, I spotted an enormous dark-maned male lion strutting across the park’s northern plains that—to my inner conservation nerd’s delight—Bantlin identified as M-8, or male lion number eight—the eighth male in the park, and the fourth to be born there. (The park uses labels, instead of names, to distinguish the lions.) This time, the Akagera lions decided to keep their distance: We heard those thunderous contact calls, but they had retreated deep into the dense vegetation and were inaccessible to us.
But nature loves a surprise, and another charismatic feline revealed herself to us on our drive back to Ruzizi. Only a few feet from the camp entrance, an enormous female leopard startled us as she crossed the road ahead. We thought she’d be long gone by the time we cast our infrared light into the thicket, but there she was, sitting in the bushes—one of the largest leopards I’ve ever seen.
The moment we turned off our infrared light, another leopard let out a deep rolling purr somewhere nearby—a contact call, Bantlin explained—and the leopard in front of us responded with deep sonic reverberations that made goosebumps on my arms.
Part of me wished I could observe her majestic spots by daylight, but it would have taken away from that primal feeling—both petrifying and sublime—of sensing a predator lurking in the dark, who is fully aware of these guests in her rugged, beautiful home.
>>Next: These Wild Places in South Africa Go Beyond the Traditional Safari