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Pride of place

Lions resting in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Image: Lauren Hill.

Lauren Hill meets the big cats and conservationists of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park

 

After a night at the Mweya Safari Lodge, I’m up and on the road before the sun has risen. Beka, my guide and driver, effortlessly steers our four-wheel drive along the sun-baked track that stretches the length of the Mweya Peninsula. This thin strip of land rests between Lake Edward and Lake George in one of Uganda’s most popular areas of wilderness, the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Along this dusty track, I’m told, lions can often be seen lazing. You have to be up early to catch a glimpse of them, though — they retreat to the hidden shade once the stifling midday heat settles.

By the time we get to the Kasenyi Plains, the sun has only just fully risen in the sky and our park guide, Godfrey, seems optimistic. “I think we’re going to see lions today,” he announces confidently as his eyes scan the grassland ahead, “They seem to be near.”

Sure enough, within moments, we quietly pull over to the side of the road — we’ve spotted a pride of lionesses asleep in the long, dry grass. They’re stretched out just metres away from us, lazily basking in the warm sun. One lifts her head to look out across the golden savannah.

Further down the track comes a second lion sighting — a male, this time. I admire the creature’s shaggy mane as he emerges into full view from behind a giant termite mound. Beka spots another lion and expertly manoeuvres the van over the roadside verge and onto the grassland towards them. For a few exhilarating moments we cautiously circle the two majestic animals, keeping our distance but remaining close enough to see deep scratches and wounds — battle scars from a lifetime of hunting for survival.

After leaving the lions to roam the plains in peace, we pull up at a community-run craft centre that overlooks the flamingo-inhabited salt flats of a vast lake. “Before, the villagers here would kill the lions in this park to protect their goats and cows,” Godfrey tells me, “but now they receive compensation when livestock is lost. The community is now involved in the park’s conservation as they benefit from its tourism. As well as hospitals and schools, tourism has brought employment to these people.”

Pointing to a bright array of handcrafted mementos, he explains, “The local women formed a group to make these crafts, which they then sell to raise money for the community.”

The colourful display catches my eye and, moments later, I head towards the counter with a handful of keepsakes, still giddy from my lion encounter and ready to contribute what I can to the park’s conservation and future.

queenelizabethnationalpark.com

 

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