Living With Lions: Trainer Tries to Habituate Namibia's Wildest Cats

Living with Lions

Dave Salmoni is in pursuit of lions deep in the Namibian bush.

A pride is motionless in the golden undergrowth. They are watching as Salmoni walks into the wind, deliberately visible as he stalks these predators.

This is not their ordinary prey.

"Hey! Forget it! Get out of here! Good boy," Salmoni screams as a male lion explodes from cover.

Here in the African wilderness, Salmoni is a man on a dangerous experiment. "This project allows me to do things with lions that have never been done," he says.

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Salmoni is a zoologist, big cat trainer and host for cable channel Animal Planet. He is living for six months at the Erindi Private Game Reserve, a tract of land 10 times the size of Manhattan. Salmoni is attempting something unprecedented -- a kind of rehabilitation of wild lions. His goal is to save this pride of big cats, considered dangerous and problematic to humans, from being killed in retaliation.

"These are definitely the most aggressive lions I've ever been around," he says. "These lions were marked for destruction because they were escaping and hunting people, so people were hunting them."

Living With Lions

Salmoni's goal is to teach these rogue lions to tolerate humans. Recently transplanted from a nearby national park, the pride is at Erindi on a trial basis.

To make Erindi their permanent home, the lions will need to un-learn some of their aggression toward humans. Erindi, like an increasing number of African parks, supports its wondrous diversity of wildlife and habitat through ecotourism. But if every encounter with a tourist turns into a terrifying attack, the lions' value as wildlife vanishes and they are killed.

VIDEO: Lion charges trainer Dave Salmoni

Salmoni has come to habituate these wild animals, and prevent this kind of aggressive behavior.

Salmoni says that humans are, at least in part, to blame for this hostility. "It's probably their history," he says. "If your only interaction with people is negative, like these guys being ex-cattle raiders, being ex-man-eaters and just only saw people when a dart gun was coming out. You learn to hate them."

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"All of this is paid for by people coming to see you," Salmoni says. "So hey, you know what? Tough love, baby. It's coming, and it's coming in the face of me."

Using his skills as a lion trainer, Salmoni's mission is to turn this hostile pride back to having a calmer presence around humans; aware and cautious, but not killers on a hair trigger. Salmoni's strategy is to build trust by having trust, and getting closer on foot to the lions than anyone ever has.

"It's weird to say, you know, trusting these lions," he says. "I trust that they'll kill me, given any opportunity. But, in that, I also trust that they don't really want to."

Laurence Frank, director of the Living With Lions Lakipia Predator project in Kenya, has his own concerns about the project.

"I'm wondering why tourists are even exposed to aggressive lions," he says. "They should be in a closed car where it doesn't matter how aggressive the lions are. I'm not sure what it's doing for the species."

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