A heartwarming moment as a man receives a tender morning cuddle from the fully-grown lion he once rescued as a frail cub, showcasing a deep, enduring bond formed from care and compassion

It’s good to start the day with a hug – but not many would choose to share their display of affection with a fully grown lion.

Conservationist Valentin Gruener is more like a father to nine-year-old Sirga, though.

He rescued her as a sickly cub in 2012 when she was abandoned by her mother and the pair have since developed an incredible bond.

They walk, play wrestle and even swim together at the Modisa Wildlife Project in Botswana where Sirga lives with German Valentin, 34, and his partner Sarah, 33.

‘I guess Sirga thinks of me as a best friend.

‘She loves to give me a big hug. She does rub her head on mine a lot, just like a domestic cat,’ Valentin said.

‘Sirga has never been aggressive towards me but I have huge respect for the power she has.

‘I am sure she is aware that I am very different.’

Apex predator Sirga has known Valentin Gruener her whole life since he began raising her after she was rejected by her mothe

The nine-year-old African queen of the jungle was born after her parents were captured and moved to a rehabilitation camp for killing livestock.

But Sirga’s mother stopped feeding her and she faced certain death without Valentin’s help.

Almost a decade on both man and big cat share an unbreakable bond.

And Sirga’s natural feline head rub greeting is so common for Valentin he said it has eventually given him a cauliflower ear.

The Modisa Wildlife Project was co-founded by Valentin with the aim of conserving 7,500 hectares for the benefit of wildlife and local people.

It also offers accommodation to guests from all over the world to come and experience the incredible African bush.

They walk, play wrestle and even swim together at the Modisa Wildlife Project in Botswana where Sirga lives with German Valentin, 34, and his partner Sarah, 33.

Valentin said: ‘I guess Sirga thinks of me as a best friend. I doubt that she sees me as anther lion but simply her mate who she has spend the last 10 years with.

‘Sirga loves being out in her 2,000 hectares together with me, hunting is her favourite activity but not so much the killing part but the stalking up to animals quietly and then giving them a good chase.

‘Often it never even gets to the chase and Sirga simply stalking up close and we sit and watch while the animals have no idea we are there, that is her favourite time I think.

‘She also loves to stand up on her hind legs and give me a big hug every time I see her.’

Valentin continued: ‘Sirga roams her area and acts just like any wild lion. She does hunt and I sort of join her.

Sirga’s mother stopped feeding her and she faced certain death without Valentin’s help. Almost a decade on both man and big cat share an unbreakable bond.

‘Of course, I cannot chase and take down an antelope but as lions mostly hunt in prides she needs a little bit of assistance when she catches bigger prey because she cannot hold it down from behind and get to the throat to kill it at the same time.

‘To end the suffering I then simply cut the throat of her prey while she holds it down.

‘She is also used to educate people, not only about lions but also all other Wildlife and about conservation work.

‘Her following on social media is getting pretty big and to also get information to people who cannot visit here I am also doing a podcast about the Kalahari which is called the Kalahari Diaries in which I try to highlight in an entertaining but informative way about some of the conservation challenges in southern Africa.’

Sia

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