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

Living with LionsCourtesy Animal Planet
Trainer and zoologist Dave Salmoni is attempting to tame the wild lions of Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia. At 550 pounds, Brutus is the dominant male in the pride.

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.

VIDEO: Kevin Richardson and Dave Salmoni embark on their own missions to save lions.Play

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 LionsPlay

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 SalmoniPlay

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."

Trainer: 'I Trust That They'll Kill Me ... I Also Trust That They Don't Really Want to'

VIDEO: Lion Smothers Man with Kisses Play

"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."

In an act of bravery, or bravado, Salmoni is confident he can walk with this pride and eventually habituate them to the Erindi staff and tourists. For the six-month project, a team of Animal Planet cameramen is Salmoni's sole link to humanity, and to safety. But as he addresses his crews, it's clear that Salmoni imagines a different worst case scenario than they do.

"If I'm underneath the cat, get the jeep to drive over the top of me to push the cat off," Salmoni says. "Warren, make sure I'm breathing. Make sure your plan doesn't preclude the cameraman's. I don't want to wake up in the hospital and find out we didn't get the shot."

But that's not what worries Warren Pearson, his medic.

"If a lion's running at him and hits him hard, that's literally the worst case scenario -- massive blood loss," Pearson says.

In the event of an attack, Salmoni considers his cane to be his most effective weapon: an unassuming wooden stick that could save his life as an instrument of first defense. He practices with the cane to strike at a moving rock target suspended from a branch. A fill-in for what could be a charging lion's jaws.

"I hit it when it's in the upswing, like the mouth would be," Salmoni says. "To get it in, they've got a gag reflex in the back of their throat, so if I start pushing it as hard as I can, he has two choices: He can try to keep coming, he'll pass out, and if he doesn't, he'll gag and run away."

Veteran cameraman Russell Bergh is already laying odds on how long Salmoni can last in a head-on assault.

"In my experience of lions, my money would definitely be on the lion," Bergh says.

After each day's taping, Salmoni is left alone with a radio and his four-wheeler.

Tracking the Pride's Dominant Male, a 550-Pound Lion Named Brutus

"At nighttime, your territory goes completely away," Salmoni says. "You can actually see it happening. When you're sitting here and the sun's going down and darkness starts coming over, it's almost, you can feel it in your body. Your body just goes on high alert."

Darkness brings terror.

Outside, the only tent in 275 square miles of African wilderness, a lion is investigating a strange campsite.

"Brutus is in camp right now. I don't know how much sleep I'll be getting tonight," Salmoni says.

A zippered tent and a can of pepper spray are Salmoni's only protection from Brutus. At 550 pounds, he is the dominant male in the pride. And, now, Brutus knows where Salmoni sleeps.

As Africa awakens at first light, Salmoni finds Brutus's track marks in a nearby path.

"If a lion is charging, that's five strides," Salmoni says. "Five strides take less than five seconds."

But, as the days wear on, it's becoming clear that approaching Brutus' pride on foot could be as elusive as his paw prints now fading in the sand.

Tracking lions in the dense scrub is difficult. Thorny branches don't allow Salmoni to get close enough to walk near the pride. And, in Africa, even the trees have teeth.

"Ow, are you kidding me? I hope I get charged right now," Salmoni says as he gets caught up in the thorny undergrowth. "That will serve me absolutely well."

The lions finally reveal themselves a few weeks later, their intention deadly in the grassy savannah. It is a stunning warning not to trespass when Brutus and the pride's dominant lioness surround Salmoni on his four-wheeler.

"I'm really stuck in a crap spot now," he says. "Now, I've got to start showing some aggression. This is way too close."

For Salmoni, every day is a walk along an ever-shifting line between communication and confrontation.

"Lions always charge in a certain, specific way," Salmoni says. "They drop their head down, open their mouth for some audio, come up, and try and get their hands around my head. There isn't ... you get one shot."

Or, if you're really lucky, two shots.

Salmoni: 'These Are the Craziest Animals I Have Worked With'

Ten years ago, Salmoni sensed the vice-like hold of death when he was mauled on stage by a captive male lion. One he had loved and trusted.

"That cat taught me everything you need to know about wild lions," he says. "How amazing it can be to have a relationship with a lion. And he also showed me, in a split second, you screw up once, I'll kill you. ... A lion's got you, in his mouth, and he's tearing you to bits."

It's a lesson Salmoni has brought with him to the Erindi project. Even near his campsite, bones from the lions' recent kills bleach in the sun. The remains of death are littered everywhere in the bush, a reminder of what Salmoni is risking by being here.

But his attempts to create a relationship with Brutus and the pride have so far yielded only charges, and the project's habituation deadline is nearing.

"These are the craziest animals I've ever worked with," Salmoni says. "I thought I tried everything. I was doubting myself. I thought, maybe I can't. Maybe these lions just don't like people."

The lions do not. But they do like eland -- a large kind of antelope that inhabit the savannahs of eastern and southern Africa. And when the lions have a windfall hunt, Salmoni sees the huge eland carcass as an opportunity.

"I can see from here all the lions' claws went into the rump," Salmoni says. "There are some deep, deep ones. This one was obviously running away, and the girls grabbed on to the bum. The perfect stranglehold."

And as Salmoni becomes desperate to get closer to Brutus, he makes an approach so outrageous it can only end in his deliverance, or death.

Salmoni tries seating himself at the lions' dinner table.

To find out how Brutus reacts, watch Tuesday at 10 p.m., as "Primetime's" "The Outsiders" returns in its season debut.

And to see more of Salmoni's project, watch the Animal Planet series "Into the Pride," airing Aug. 13 at 8 p.m.


Dave Salmoni

Lion Guardians

Erindi Private Game Reserve, Namibia