As Valentin Gruener walked with his colleague Mikkel Legarth in Botswana, he spotted a lion on the ground. But while many people, fearing danger, would choose to back away from the big cat, Gruener decided instead to stroll right up to the animal. Then the lion pounced – and what happened next is almost unbelievable.
But it’s perhaps no surprise that Gruener was willing to get up close and personal with a lion. After all, the conservationist from Germany has been interested in Africa’s wildlife from an early age – with a particular penchant for the big cats there. He’s also helped helm campaigns on behalf of animals in his time.
Then, while in Namibia in 2009, Gruener met likeminded Dane Legarth. And, together, the two men founded the Modisa Wildlife Project, which they set up in Botswana. The organization is now headquartered at the country’s Grassland Bushman Lodge, situated on the border of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The Modisa Wildlife Project itself was launched in 2011 and aims, as its website states, to “create an authentic learning experience for people to make a difference in wildlife preservation and experience the habitat and culture in a close, personal way.” In particular, the project has worked at relocating lions from areas where they have been threatened by farmers.
Indeed, although Botswana possesses a great deal of bush country, the uptake in farming there continues to bring lions and humans into closer contact with one another. And, unfortunately, the increased proximity of the animals to cultivated land can put the big cats in real danger.
Specifically, in order to protect their livestock and their livelihoods, farmers are allowed to shoot and kill lions. Many have certainly chosen to take up arms against the animals, too, and this policy has accordingly led to a decrease in the numbers of lions in farming regions.
To try to remedy this situation, then, the Modisa Wildlife Project works in conjunction with the owner of Grassland Safari Lodge, William De Graaff. Together, these two associations rehome endangered lions by transporting them to a specially created sheltered reserve – thus helping to ensure the animals’ safety.
In particular, the big cats are relocated to an 10,000-hectare area that has been sectioned off from surrounding farm land; this space also houses a sufficient number of animals for the lions to feed on. As a result, the felines at the reserve can live in a natural way away from farmers.
But transporting lions means getting very close to the big cats, as Legarth has explained. In a 2013 article for the Daily Mail, he is quoted as saying, “In Botswana, all lions are protected by the government – like swans being the property of the Crown in the U.K. This also makes moving them a problem.”
The conservationist continued, “What we have now are 10,000-hectare plots with ten to 15 lions in a fenced enclosure.” He added, “They are wild lions, but we do have to feed them. The first time you walk up to a lion, all [of] your body is telling you [that] this is not something you should be doing.”
And watching the moment that the lion pounces in the video is no less nerve-racking. As she flies through the air with claws and teeth exposed, it seems at first as if Gruener’s love of big cats may now cost him his life. However, what happens next is probably not what you’d expect.
Rather than lacerating Gruener, Sirga, the 110-pound lioness in the footage, just paws at him like she’s playing. Then she leaps at him a couple of times before being merely swatted off. Apparently unfazed by the interaction, she is subsequently seen running on ahead of the two conservationists.
And as the video continues, Sirga can be seen playfully interacting with her human friends. She pounces on Gruener to give him a big hug, completely encompassing his head with her giant paws. The lioness then climbs over him as if she’s a domestic cat.
In another scene, Sirga appears to be attacking Gruener’s arm with her teeth; the sleeve of his hooded sweatshirt is already ripped, perhaps from their previous encounters. Gruener commands Sirga to stop, however, and she seems to understand, as she quickly retreats. Further footage shows the big cat chewing on Gruener’s leg.
And as the video continues, Sirga is seen running and jumping affectionately with the two men who have raised her. At one point it even looks like they are playing fetch, as Gruener carries a stick in his hand and pretends to throw it.
Then, towards the end of the clip, Sirga crouches on the ground, apparently having been commanded to do so, as Gruener walks off ahead. Once he begins to run, though, the lioness heads off after her friend and again jumps around Gruener without harming him when she reaches him.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Gruener and Legarth have such a connection with Sirga, however, as they were the ones to rescue her. The Daily Mail quotes Legarth as saying, “A pride had three cubs, and two were killed before Sirga was abandoned without food. It happened on our land, and we could not stand by and watch her die.”
Now the conservationists have a special bond with the lioness – although they are careful not to get her too used to human contact. Legarth continued, “We didn’t want Sirga to become like other lions in captivity, constantly fed by streams of tourists. She only interacts with me and Valentin.”
And the Danish wildlife lover added, “Wild lions are scared of people. The problem comes if you release a lion that is used to people in the wild; that can cause problems. With Sirga, we want to release her to the wild eventually as a wild lion – not as one that has met lots of people.”
When Sirga eventually leaves the confines of the reserve, though, she’s well-equipped to fend for herself, as Gruener and Legarth have helped her with her hunting skills. In the meantime, the lioness has seemingly been happy to invite her human friends to dinner. Legarth has said, “She hunts her own food, taking antelopes. And she will let us be near her when she eats it, which is remarkable.”