Lion Trouble

Lion Trouble

On the evening of August 23, 1972, a healthy but hungry lion pushed his way through a thornbush fence surrounding a Masai village while the rest of the pride waited outside. Three eight—year—old boys were sleeping in the open next to their goats. The instantly alert goats fled, but the children slept soundly, much too soundly. The hungry lion seized and quickly killed one of the boys; this awakened the other two who scrambled to safety while the victim was being consumed on the spot. The boy's family retaliated by killing a zebra and lacing its carcass generously with poison. Twelve lions feasted on the meat and died; the man—eater was assumed to be among the unlucky dozen.

Since their arrival in the Kenya—Tanzania area in the 17th century, the Masai have been acclaimed as a fierce warrior people whose acts of bravery were unsurpassed. One of their most daring pastimes, for which they trained as a sport and followed elaborate rituals, was hunting the lion with only a spear and a dagger. Use of any other weapon, such as a firearm, was considered cowardly and unfit.

Learning to deal with lions was essential for the Masai, since they subsisted basically on the herds of cattle that they guarded vigilantly. Their herds were considered gifts from the gods, and individual wealth was, and still is, measured by the number of cattle a person owned. Cattle provided their principal foods—fresh blood, milk, and meat—and their building materials—dung and hides. Whenever a marauding lion attempted to dine on one of their cattle, the entire village of warriors would take up knives and spears and engage in a death—dealing lion hunt. The lion was hunted down and encircled by platoons of warriors and, as the circle closed, it would attempt to fight its way through. Although the confrontation usually ended with the lion's death, one or more of the warriors often went with it. The hunts were quite hazardous, especially when more than one lion was caught in the ever—shrinking circle.

Because the government finally outlawed such deadly encounters, lion spearings are no longer part of the Masai way of life. But domestic cattle are still easy prey for lions, whose acquired taste for beef has been sustained by villagers' removal of dead and diseased cattle to areas beyond their compound. The lion typically tries to avoid a confrontation. In a well—planned maneuver, it will enter the village, grab the prey, and carry it off. This is not an easy task for a 400—pound lion with its teeth around the throat of a cow weighing twice that. Nevertheless, by deftly sliding under the carcass, the lion shifts the weight onto its back and holds its tail rigid as a balance. In this way an escaping lion can jump over an 8— to 12—foot thornbush barricade surrounding a village. The Masai agree that without the tail for balance, such a feat would be impossible.

Lions generally tend to avoid contact with humans; usually the old, handicapped, or very hungry lions seek humans for food. However, between 1932 and 1947, lions killed an average of over 100 people a year in just one area of Tanzania. During that time not a single lion was killed in retaliation, or even in self—defense, because Tanzanians believed that man—eaters were being directed by the spirit of a deceased person who returned to settle old grievances. Therefore, to kill one of the great cats would cause countless deaths among the people.

When a game warden tracked down and shot a lioness that had just killed a villager the tribesmen believed many of them would be doomed, so they shunned the man. But as time passed and no harm came to them they started to wonder. Finally several of the bolder villagers began to defend themselves and even to hunt the lions, and the ranks of the lion thinned under the spears and firearms of the vengeful natives. Human hunters also paid a price for their attacks, particularly when, armed with old, unreliable, low—caliber shotguns, they only wounded the lion. Even with vital organs shot away, lions have been known to continue charging until they topple their attackers, leaving them either badly mauled or dead.

Several years ago a park official driving on a road between Nairobi and Voi National Park passed two natives he recognized as relatives of a local tribal chief. He turned around after about three minutes when he recalled that he wanted to give them a message for their chief. He found no trace of the men he had passed just a few minutes before but, assuming they had been given a lift by some vehicle, forgot the incident. Later that afternoon he received a report that two badly chewed bodies had been found in the district. The unfortunate men had been victims of a pair of man—eating lions.

The drag marks and tracks told the story. The lions had attacked the men while they were still on the road, dragged them just 30 yards off the roadside, and proceeded with their meal. All this took place during the eight minutes between the officer's first sighting of the men and his return to give them a message. The lions were probably crouched in the bushes having dinner while the park ranger made several runs up and down the road in search of the Africans.

Park officials discovered that a large pride of lions, deciding humans were the best food for their delicate stomachs, had proceeded to kill and devour local people with apparent relish. The government hired many professional hunters who, although they did take their toll on the lions, were no match for cautious and clever cats. The villagers finally abandoned their homes and moved into Nairobi or other less threatening sections of the country. The lions also moved on; their predatory activities continue but in more remote areas.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning