Fear of flying, or how Malawi got its new lions

Africa Geographic science editor Tim Jackson isn’t usually scared of flying. But then he isn’t usually sharing a seat with two (partially) sedated lions either. 

It’s not every day I get an e-mail asking me to fly to Malawi from South Africa. So when the message came through to visit Majete Game Reserve, I didn’t take much persuading. Except I hadn’t read the small print. My journey, courtesy of African Parks and Flitecare had one caveat. We were to fly via light aircraft, but the VIP guests were a pair of adult male lions Sapitwa and Chimwala, destined to move from Pilanesberg to Majete. Basically I was signing up to a flight with a pilot, vet, ecologist and lions that needed to spend a good five hours airborne and asleep. Oh, and they hadn’t been fed for a couple of days to make sure they were good and hungry on arrival!

© Tim Jackson

Departure via the Pilanesberg was a colourful affair. It’s not often stars like these fly from the airport and customs, police, security and immigration were out in force to witness their departure from South Africa. We took off from the airport in good time but it wasn’t long before we were in the hot seat. The new cocktail of drugs vet Andre Uys and his vet team had given them obviously wasn’t working as expected. So with the lions showing some definite signs of an early end to their slumber mid-flight we moved quickly on to Plan B. A more tried-and-tested drug combination that saw the boys sleep peacefully for the rest of the flight.

© Tim Jackson

Crossing over the Limpopo River we routed in via Mozambique, making relatively slow but steady progress. We still had four hours of flying ahead of us, when we heard the sad news that our sister flight, with two lionesses on board had lost an individual to hypoxia. Stepping on the gas to speed up our progress, the airstrip at Nchalo eventually came into view some 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Here we were greeted to an even more enthusiastic reception than that in Pilanesberg. The trip, memorable as it was, had gone smoothly for us. And Majete was about to be transformed into Malawi’s first big five reserve.

© Tim Jackson

Read Tim Jackson’s full account of his experiences translocating lions to Malawi in the September issue of Africa Geographic.

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Tim Jackson

With degrees in zoology from the universities of Cambridge and Pretoria, Tim Jackson is mandated to keep his finger on the pulse of the science underlying African conservation and wildlife issues. His insights appear in publications such as Africa Birds and Birding, Safari interactive magazine and in Africa Geographic, where he is the scientific editor. Tim is passionate about travelling and enjoys nothing more than heading into the African wilderness with his trusty camera and notebook to uncover the latest developments and news in the world where wildlife and science collide.

  • Tavia van Deventer

    Flitecare Air Charters was proud to be a part of this relocation process. It was an amazing experience to see months of planning come together with a huge reward – Malawi now has its own Big 5 reserve. Thank you African Parks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.allmon Jim Allmon

    Outstanding! What a great story and helping to preserve these amazing animals for generations to see. Plus our engine upgrade was on this plane to speed the lions to their destination faster than a stock plane would have.

  • Pam Eisen

    Hi Tim, what a wonderful blog. As a lion lover I am just a little bit jealous of your seatmates! I run a website called http://www.petbreederconnection.com I was wondering if I could repost this article for our June newsletter? You’d be in good company as I was granted a wonderful interview with Dame Daphne Sheldrick last year. I look forward to hearing from you and hopefully sharing your story with our readers.

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