LIVINGSTONE, ZAMBIA – Sekelou the lion rubbed his thick mane and whiskers against the palms of visitors who had pressed their hands flat up to the chain link fence.
At the site of their handler, John Munedaneya, the juvenile male and two females rumbled and sashayed around each other. They rubbed their heads against the fence at any willing hands, and the giant cats locked gazes with visitors with their amber eyes.
The trio are part of the second generation of a lion reintroduction program called ALERT, African Lion and Environmental Research Trust, which operates in 20 countries including Zambia.
Lions are going the way of the rhino, but there's still time to save them, said David Youldon, who runs the ALERT operation in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
"We're not an organization that believes in single species conservation," said Youldon, director. "We believe in taking the broader view.
"Having said that, lions to us are the pinnacle."
The conservation program is not averse to using commercial enterprise to support conservation, and it has been controversial for its leashed walks with lions, a tourist attraction at least temporarily defunct.
This year, though, the University of Montana School of Forestry and Conservation is strengthening its relationship with ALERT. UM, which has developed a close tie with conservationists in Zambia, aims to show students that protecting land and animals comes with no easy answers and sometimes happens in ways westerners might consider unconventional – even anathema to the goal.
This year, assistant professor Jennifer Thomsen is in Zambia meeting with UM's contacts, such as Youldon, and making plans for future exchange trips to Africa. Youldon is eager to work with more Montana research students, and Thomsen said introducing future leaders in the field to a program that is contributing to animal protection in a different way is critical.
"I think that's something that students really need to see," Thomsen said.
Tourists used to be able to pay to go on walks with lions through ALERT, but at least for now, the organization has stopped the practice. Youldon said the lions that used to walk with tourists are too big, and the pairs that are now breeding are a step removed from human contact.
Lions are not pets, and the tourist offering has detractors, but Youldon also said demand could revive the attraction. Standing palm to nose-and-whiskers with the deadly predators – behaving as congenial cats through a barrier – it is easy to feel the allure.
Some research shows that intimate experiences with wildlife pay dividends for conservation in the long run, but Youldon said he's seen both sides of the coin.
Sometimes, tourists and researchers who cross his path turn into donors and longtime fundraisers for the cause, particularly those who stay for two weeks or more. But that isn't always the case.
"A lot of people don’t care about conservation at all. 'I went to Africa, I walked with a lion,' " he said.
This year, ALERT is on the brink of hitting a milestone with the apex species: It's on the cusp of freeing its first lions into the wild, the director said.
"We are awaiting the confirmation to proceed with their release into a national park at truly any day," Youldon said.
He isn't at liberty to disclose which park in Africa, but it's a result that's been nearly a decade in the making. The lions being released are the third generation of animals in a phased reintroduction process.
The initial captive parents bore cubs, and the second generation, including Sekelou, still has limited contact with humans. But the third generation of cubs are born in managed fenced reserves without human caretakers.
So far, peer reviewed, published research shows the animals ALERT will release into the wild have the same behaviors and characteristics as lions bred and born in the wild despite some of the program's limitations, Youldon said.
"The idea is always to have a bigger area, but all of the evidence from the research behavior shows they are doing absolutely what they're supposed to be doing," he said.
ALERT considers its stakeholders commercial businesses, government, non-government organizations, charities, academics, scientists and private donors.
Youldon said it doesn't get as many private donations because of its lion walking, but it employs a different funding model. Here, business partners and other contributors offer direct support.
The unique setup might come as a surprise to those behind a school desk. In class, Thomsen said, students are often looking for one right answer, but the lesson from ALERT is that a variety of approaches exist on the ground when it comes to preserving wildlife.
"You need to be creative with how you go about it," she said.
Whether it's grizzly bears or Africa's lions, Thomsen wants the next generation of conservationists to see that ensuring the world's iconic animals stay on the planet is done in different ways across the globe.
This year, UM canceled its Zambia course because it didn't have enough students, but Thomsen is gearing up for an exchange trip in 2017. Youldon has worked with one UM researcher already and met last year's students, and he and Thomsen are eager to work on a joint project.
She feels both uneasy with the controversial lion walks and thrilled with the opportunity to see the animals up close. Overall, though, she's seen a program that's grown to embrace a larger ethic of biodiversity, and she's ready to introduce those lessons to students.
"It's evolved into a much bigger project, and that's the story we need to tell," Thomsen said.