Born Free

On our second last morning at Shamwari, we went to the Julia Ward Big Cat Centre, part of the Born Free Foundation, which was set up in 1984 by the two actors from the film of the same name – which I remember seeing. The foundation is dedicated to keeping wild animals in the wild, and specialises in rescuing animals kept in horrendous conditions or as pets, until they are not ‘pet-like’ any more. They then transfer them to spacious ‘natural’ enclosures so they can live a life closer to the one they were intended to live.

The Shamwari sanctuary was founded by the family of Julie Ward, a wildlife photographer who was murdered in Kenya, most likely by cronies of the head game warden, because she photographed something she ‘shouldn’t have’: poaching by the authorities. Her family bought and donated the land, and they can now house up to 12 animals in large enclosures designed for big cats. None of these cats can return to the wild, so they have a home large enough for their needs, in an environment as close to natural as possible, with three meals a week, and regular housekeeping. Our volunteering job is to be the housekeepers and clean out one of the cat enclosures.

Before we start, we are introduced to the project by one of the caretakers of these magnificent cats, who gives us the history and aims of the foundation. He explains where the animals have come from:

Two leopards from Somalia war lords who used them as guard dogs

A lion was brought in from a shocking Romanian zoo

Two white lions were rescued as cubs, and cannot be released, because they would be attacked by the resident lions, and wouldn’t be able to hunt – no camouflage, they would stick out like the proverbials on the savannah.

Another two lions were raised by idiots, and were so malnourished they grew up stunted and with poor motor coordination.

Anyway, back to our guide – it’s not long before I am in tears. The sheer madness of humans and their relationship to other species breaks my heart. He’s a bit taken aback, but I can see he’s not far from his own tears: he clearly cares deeply, despite his jokes about the rugby.

On a table on our way out are some rather gruesome exhibits – it’s not clear to me immediately what they mean. There’s a part of an elephant trunk, the foot of a raptor, and some other pieces, along with some metal implements, and wire. It suddenly dawns on me what the implements are – huge metal traps and tripwires. It horrifies me to learn that the various animal parts have been severed by a trap. Just the thought of an elephant losing a length off it’s trunk is enough to set off the tears – that particular animal would have starved to death.

On to more pleasant things – housekeeping for the cats.

As soon as we drive to the enclosures a few of the residents come round to check us out. Are we food? No – so they disappear again. Our mission is to clean a lion enclosure, and this big boy comes close to check us out as we all pile out and choose our chore:


Cleaning the lions’ den of all the bones, hooves and hair


Weeding the antechamber to the lair

Scooping out the stale water and cleaning the trough

C and me, we choose the lions den. Partly because it’s in a concrete bunker, and it’s a very hot day. But also because we’re not vegetarians, or squeamish, so the prospect of clearing the remains of some creature and hosing out the debris doesn’t really phase us that much. On with the gloves, out with the left-overs.


Judging by the feet, and informed by our guide, this used to be a horse. One of the local farmers had this horse with very bad laminitis and (I seem to remember) African horse disease, which isn’t a problem for cats. This is where their food comes from: sick or fatally injured livestock, or game – not live, fortunately, that would be animal cruelty.

By the time C and I are finished, the place has stopped smelling like a slaughterhouse, and is more like a butchers shop. Far more savoury.

The others have done a sterling job with removing the weeds and refreshing the troughs.

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Since we only have time for one enclosure, we have the time to walk around the fences to see the residents, who are in various states of repose in the shade of the bushes, doing what cats do best – sleeping.

The two malnourished ones just watch us for a little while, until the boy raises the energy to walk to the water trough to have a drink.

The two white lions are only a few feet away from the fence, so we got a close and personal viewing. The female is facing us, making growling noises. Very cute until you realise it’s a “not happy Jan” noise, and she’s wrinkling her nose at us and showing her teeth. Suddenly she leaps up and lunges towards us, to a collective gasp, and several people jumping back. NEVER run from a charging lion! That definitely makes you prey. But I tell you what – even with the wire between us and her, it was an adrenaline pumping experience, and I am not sure I would make a stand in the face of this girl coming at me. Quite chastened, we regard her with considerably more respect from then on.

Further round, we come to the leopards – who are nowhere to be seen. Our guide calls out to them, and starts his engine, hoping to call them over from where they are snoozing. And just suddenly one of them materialises out of the grasses two meters away from us. Wow – what camouflage. You wouldn’t stand a chance if you were in with them and they decided on a snack on one of your body parts – you wouldn’t know they were there until you were hanging in a tree as left-overs.

But how magnificent they are. The second one comes slinking down the fenceline, and we have the joy of seeing two of them for a few minutes. They definitely aren’t intersted in any of the housekeepers; eyes are firmly focused on our guide, the dispenser of the food. Once they realise the truck isn’t meals on wheels right now, they both dematerialise into the scrub again.

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What an experience. We were only 10 meters from the wild leopard in the main reserve the other night, but never saw as much as a whisker. Seeing them in the wild is rare to say the least – they are solitary for the most part, and mostly evening hunters. So this is the closest most of us are going to get to a wild cat, and personally, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Or more grateful that organisations like Born Free exist, and are willing to provide a retirement home and care to these creatures, many of which have suffered greatly at the hands of homo sapiens.

By the way, no humans were harmed in the process – we were not let loose with the animals.

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