What luxury items do you bring along when you plan to live alone with lions in the African bush for six months? Animal Planet’s predator expert Dave Salmoni chose wisely, bringing pepper spray and a crook. “They tried to attack about 30 times a day for the first little while,” says Salmoni, the star of the new five-part series Into the Pride, in which he risks his life trying to help “problem” lions at the Erindi Private Game Reserve.
These ferocious lions were facing a death sentence: Transplanted from the largest national park in Namibia, they were known for cattle-raiding and their aggression towards people who flocked to the area for ecotourism. If they weren’t calmed down, they would be destroyed.
“I felt that with my background I was one of the people in the world that could probably go over there, and actually teach these lions that people can be trusted,” he tells PEOPLE Pets. But immersing himself in lion life proved a lot trickier than he originally anticipated. “It was a sharp learning curve where I realized all of my methods I employed in the past weren’t working,” he says. “These lions were going to kill me.”
As the big cats looked at him as prey, Salmoni, 31, who prepared for the wild with a strict workout regime, tried to forge relationships with the pride and used his body to show the lions that people are a formidable opponent. “You stand your ground and make yourself look big, make a lot of noise, and get ready for a fight,” he says. “Lucky for me I was able to convince them that I was tougher than they were.”
It took more than four months, but soon the lions stopped trying to attack. By the end of his stay, he saw a dramatic change in their behavior. “It’s a basic principle of getting them to trust,” he said. “They had to build trust by watching me become predictable – watching me do the same things over and over again.”
Although the conditions were grueling – he lived in a tent, ate soup as a regular meal, and had no real contact with people for months – the Toronto native says he would do it again in a heartbeat. “This was a great opportunity for me to disappear and find out who I am,” he says. “I am one to do something I believe in. I always said that my career is for saving animals. Conservation first, and if that makes good TV, awesome.”
Click on the video above to see Dave Salmoni handle a 4-week-old lion cub and talk about his time in the African bush. Into the Pride premieres on Animal Planet tonight at 8 pm ET/PT.
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