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  • Kev Thomas Writes

Killer Lioness: Shapi Pan, Wankie National Park (Now Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe)

During the 1960s and 1970s, various contractors tendered annually to the Rhodesian National Parks Department in a bid to be awarded the license to harvest the meat and hides from the lucrative elephant and buffalo culling operations. Naturally, the ivory from these culls remained the property of the department. It was later sold on public auction and the monies accrued channelled back into wildlife conservation. Len Harvey, a respected 58-year old veteran game warden, was in charge of the first culling contractor’s camp. It was originally called the Culling Unit and was based at Shapi Pan.


Len’s name is synonymous with many others who from the middle sixties were known Rhodesian game warden names, during the early buffalo and elephant culls in Wankie National Park. Other well-known names from that era were Willie de Beer, Ronnie van Heerden, ‘Tinkey’ Haslam, brothers Paul and Clem Coetsee, and Robin Hughes (sadly, all now deceased). Richard Harland in his book African Epic (Rowland Ward) has also recently written about the exciting life of the first contractor to be awarded this sought-after tender, namely Paul ‘Kambada’ Grobler. To not digress, and in the aftermath of the tragedy related below, the Culling Unit was relocated to Umtshibi. A rail siding originally called Waterloop. The unit would also change its name to the more appropriate Management Unit which adequately described and embraced the varied jobs carried out by this section. This included fire management and soil conservation.


However, and to stay within the historical window of the incident I won’t expand further on the unit’s changing role, aside from mentioning that during the course of its history, the unit would be successfully headed up by Cliff Freeman, Willie Koen, and Clem Coetsee. At the time of the incident, Warden Len Harvey, who many felt would remain a confirmed bachelor, had only been married for about ten days. His new bride, Jean, was with him in the rustic game rangers’ quarters at Shapi. It was an idyllic setting for a newly married couple, and had been their choice of venue for their honeymoon.


Above: Typical game rangers quarters at Shapi Pan, note the open doorway and windows. Warden Len Harvey lived in an identical abode, about fifty meters behind the one depicted. The killer lioness probably gained entry through the open doorway of Len Harvey’s house - (Photo credit Richard Aylward).


The Culling Unit staff dwellings at Shapi were typical of many rustic field camps in the Rhodesian National Parks department of that era. Simplistic buildings constructed from local materials, with burnt mopane poles for the walls and roofing timbers. The roofs were thatched with combed grass, harvested in the vicinity. They were comfortable dwellings which had openings left in the structure for windows and doors. With maybe a hand-woven reed mat hanging over the opening to keep the interior of the building cool during the hot summer months. At the time of this incident, and when not being used, the department issue firearms were locked up in a storeroom. There was no real need for them to have been anywhere else.


Rhodesia was already fighting a low-intensity bush war that was set to erupt more viciously in the far northeast of the country on 22 December 1972. However, in the depths of Wankie National Park at that time, the insurgent threat was not perceived to be high. Although during August 1967 Shapi Pan had been used as a small FOB (Forward Operational Base) during Operation Nickel after a combined ZIPRA and SAANC insurgent incursion into Rhodesia.


Also, in camp at the time of the lioness attack was senior ranger, Willie de Beer and his wife Hazel. Willie was an extremely experienced hunter, and an ex-regular Rhodesian Army career soldier. His son-in-law Colin Matthews, was also there with four university friends. All were enjoying a pleasant break. On this fateful night, Len Harvey and his wife, Jean, retired to bed early. As did the de Beer family. After the generator was switched off the camp was soon quiet, bar the ever-present animal, bird, and insect noises. Shortly after 23:00hr a large lioness hurtled through the open window of the Harvey’s hut, and landed on Jean. Her hysterical and panic-ridden cries immediately awakened Len.


Above: Seated at left, Senior Ranger Willie de Beer and Ranger Ron van Heerden at Shapi Pan circa 1965 - (Photo credit P.J.H. Petter-Bowyer).


Len, very bravely, and driven by desperation for the safety of his new bride, immediately attacked the lioness barehanded. At the same time, he shouted for Jean to exit the hut. Lion are extremely powerful creatures and having now focused her fury on him, the 260lb lioness quickly got the better of Harvey, before sinking her fangs deep into his shoulder and then his throat. While he was undergoing this horrific ordeal, Jean managed to exit the hut via the rear door, and began running the approximately fifty metres towards the de Beer’s quarters.


However, before arriving there, her concern for Len drove her to stop, and then retrace her steps back towards their hut. As she drew close, her shocked and numbed mind realised the futility of the exercise. The sounds emanating from their dwelling told her there was little she could do to save her husband. Turning around, Jean once more fled towards the de Beer’s hut, shouting ‘Lion in the house, lion in the house!’ Willie immediately awakened his stepson, and instructed him to run and start the small Honda generator. After which he ran to the storeroom, where the guns were. De Beer grabbed a .375 H&H and a .243 Winchester, quickly loading both bolt-action rifles with soft-nose bullets, before handing the .243 to Colin Matthews, who’d by this time re-joined him. They then both ran to Len Harvey’s hut, and when they reached it, de Beer cautiously approached the dark hole in the wall that represented the hut window. During his approach, he was understandably worried Len Harvey may have only been unconscious, and he couldn’t risk shooting in case the bullet killed him. So, he quietly called Len’s name. The response from inside the hut was a throaty warning growl.


Above: The late game warden Len Harvey, standing at extreme right. Len was killed by a lioness in his quarters at Shapi Pan camp. With him in the photo is Rhodesian farmer and hunter Mich Misiewicz (atop the elephant), and a Hungarian client, Fred Ratki. The elephant would've been part of the reduction quota for that season in the Controlled Hunting Area. - (Photo credit Julian Misiewicz).


Clutching the .375 with the safety off, he carefully ventured closer to try and fire a killing shot. Gritting his teeth, he moved even closer. Until his head was beneath the thatch overhang, and inside the opening which represented a window. Willie didn’t see the lioness, or the powerful paw that suddenly slammed into his skull from the wall of darkness near the window. Claws tore into his scalp, and dug into his skull, causing a sheet of blood to cascade down his face. Almost blinding him. However, he managed to throw himself backwards as the lioness came out through the window, and continued to attack him. He also managed to get off a quick un-aimed shot, but it was to no avail and in the struggle he dropped the .375.


Still conscious, de Beer at first attempted to fight the lioness off with his bare hands. When this failed, he tried to protect his mutilated head by covering it with his hands. No sooner had he done this than the lioness clamped her jaws over his head and attempted to drag him away. She then attempted to eat him alive, her powerful jaws breaking and pulverizing the bones in his hands and fingers, as she tried to gnaw on his skull. Although he was in an extremely bad way when awaiting casualty evacuation later, de Beer would recall to Bruce Couper and Henry Pringle – the first of his game ranger colleagues to reach the scene – that the more he tried to fight the enraged and determined lioness, the more ferocious her attack upon him became.


This ferocity in the face of Willie’s attempts to fight back bare-handed eventually led to his trying to remain still. At the same time endeavouring to protect his head by covering it with his arms. The ploy worked as the lioness’s aggression seemingly slackened off. While his stepfather was being mauled, young Colin Matthews tried to move round the lioness so as to get in a killing side shot. Unfortunately, he tripped, and while falling backwards dropped his rifle, but quickly recovered and grabbed de Beer’s rifle previously lost during his struggle with the lioness. Colin then tried to use it to kill the lioness, but hearing the noise of the young man attempting to ready the rifle, the lioness looked up from her savaging of de Beer, and then with a frightening roar, dropped de Beer and charged the terrified Matthews. During a later interview from his hospital bed, Matthews recalled how he had shoved his right hand into the lioness’s mouth and grabbed her bottom jaw. While he was doing this, the enraged lioness was clawing his legs and buttocks. Willie, meantime, semi-conscious, blinded, and suffering from horrific pain and blood loss, realised the huge weight that had been pinning him to the ground was no longer there. His distressed and numbed brain registered on the anguished and agonised cries of his stepson.


Again, and with unbelievable bravery, he rolled over onto his stomach and with his totally pulverised and broken hands began feeling around in his darkened and bloodied world for the dropped rifle. He inched closer to the lioness, now mauling Colin with deadly intent, and eventually found the .243, but with hands made clumsy by broken bones struggled to lift it, until with a Herculean effort he got the rifle up. It was then a case of trying to judge where the lioness’s head was, due to being blinded by his own blood and torn scalp hanging like a curtain over his eyes. Hearing the growls of rage and grunting as the lioness mauled Colin, de Beer was able to roughly estimate where the beast’s head was and using this as a guideline, edged closer and fired a round into the animal’s head. And then, as quickly as his damaged hands allowed, followed up with two more shots. One bullet, passing through the lioness’s mouth, shattered Colin’s wrist.


Both men, in excruciating pain and shock, were then helped back to the de Beer hut by Willie’s wife Hazel, who after hurriedly taking stock of the situation, left Len Harvey’s wife Jean with the badly injured Willie and Colin. Hazel then drove to Wankie Main Camp in her little VW Beetle, a distance of about 50 km. De Beer, who was totally allergic to antibiotics required 222 stitches to his head alone, and underwent months of skin and bone grafts, but miraculously didn’t lose his eyesight. Colin Matthews also underwent lengthy surgery and numerous skin grafts.


Game ranger Bruce Couper, a good friend of Len Harvey’s, who as previously mentioned, together with ranger Henry Pringle were the first to reach Shapi camp in the aftermath of the tragedy remembers, ‘I seem to recollect there were always lion and hyena in close proximity to Shapi camp and leading up to this particular incident, there’d been a number of complaints from the game scouts about lion giving them a hard time around their huts at night. I remember too, that Richard Dendy a cadet ranger at Shapi actually made mention of this problem to me.’ Bruce Couper also recalls here about the lions at Shapi camp having been inclined towards malevolence which is also borne out by Margaret Peech (nee Haslam), who at one time had been married to the late game warden ‘Tinkey’ Haslam. She mentions in her book, My Place in The Sun that Haslam during his tenure at Shapi Pan had expressed concern about the over familiarity of the lions in and around camp. So much so Haslam had taken it upon himself to shoot one, and as a result, had been severely reprimanded by HQ for doing so. Policy quite simply being that in a National Park there was to be no human interference with the wildlife. A policy which Len himself, who Margaret Peech described as a mentor of her husband Tinkey, prescribed to fully. A noble philosophy indeed, but one that can also be costly.


Ranger Richard Aylward who also saw service at Shapi Pan recollects returning to his bungalow on one occasion, only to find lion pugmarks on the floor inside his dwelling! An inquisitive lion had obviously decided to investigate the interior of his home during his absence. All of this however, was peripheral to the whole incident and as is often the case in the aftermath of tragedy, more was probably made of it by way of hindsight than had been made of it before the fact. Game rangers, like many others who work in close proximity to dangerous game in the wildlife field, often become unintentionally blasé about it.


Bruce Couper in recounting the events of that tragic night continues with his narrative, ‘Earlier in the evening on the night of the tragedy, we’d all been having a few drinks at the Waterbuck’s Head in Main Camp and from there we’d gone to bed. Later in the night, I was awoken by the noise of a vehicle with its horn being sounded as it drove in through the main camp boom gate and headed directly to Warden Boyd Reece’s house. It later transpired it was Hazel de Beer in her little VW Beetle. The next thing, I was being called from my house and told there’d been a lion attack down at Shapi and it was thought Len Harvey was dead and Willie de Beer was also on his way out due to injuries sustained during the same attack. There was also talk of Colin Matthew’s, de Beer’s stepson being in a bad way. I was instructed to get Henry Pringle and the ambulance, with Sister Mapondera, and to get down to Shapi as quickly as possible, where I was then to establish radio communications with Main Camp. Sister Mapondera went in the ambulance with game scout sergeant major Manwere driving. Henry and I went down in a separate vehicle with an instruction from Boyd Reese to secure Len’s body in case of further attempts by lion to tamper with it. We also had to protect those staff members still there from further attack. So, we went down there, and upon our arrival, we found the generator still running and the lights on. We first went across to where Willie’s house was, which to say the least, was at that stage a bit traumatic for us. Willie didn’t look particularly like he was going to come out of it. He was more or less scalped. We couldn’t really tell where else he might have been injured because there was blood everywhere. When I saw the bullet damage to Willie’s stepson, Colin Matthews’s wrist, my first stupid reaction was that the easiest thing to do was to cut a little piece of skin off and get rid of the hand. That’s what seemed to be left, his hand was just hanging by a piece of skin, which was keeping the two pieces together. Sister Mapondera, who I thought might have been out of her depth in a situation like that, did the best she could have done under those circumstances and it was impressive. Leaving them, Henry Pringle and I went back to where Len’s house was. On walking in – I can still clearly remember; I don’t know if you would call it a scent or an odour in the air. As we walked through the door and looked into the bedroom, Len’s body was lying on the floor on the left-hand side of the bed…there was blood everywhere. It was fairly obvious without going near the body that Len was dead. The lioness was outside of the hut window where Willie had eventually shot it. We then went across to the office and turned on the old SSB radio and tried to establish communication with Boyd Reese back at Main Camp. By that time of night or early hours of the morning, the static made it a bit difficult to get messages through or audible messages through, but we managed to get a report through for a request the Air Force at Wankie bring in a chopper and medical assistance. The police Section Officer from Dete, Colin Lowrie, I think it was, was already on his way because of it being a sudden death. We in the meantime got the labourer’s collecting brush and firewood because in the event of the choppers coming in, aside from lighting up a bit of an LZ the blaze also gave them a beacon to fly onto. We kept our communications going through to Main Camp as best we could. Even after the police arrived, and with the vehicles and us moving up and down between the houses and the office, there were still lion around. You could hear them. They weren’t particularly close but not too far away either. Presumably the lioness was a member of a pride. Even the labourer’s shouting, talking, and cutting branches, didn’t seem to make the lions move away. Although it probably wasn’t more than an hour, I suppose at the time it felt like it took forever for other people to arrive. The police were the first, and then the chopper arrived, and with our fires lighting up the LZ the medics moved Willie de Beer and Colin. By that time, our role sort of started to wind down and the sun was also coming up, so we more or less packed up and returned to Main Camp.


The late Bruce Couper, in recounting this story to me made a point of emphasising how the African nurse, Sister Mapondera, who only had the most basic of equipment to work with, played an extremely important role in stabilising and keeping Willie and his stepson alive. Eventually, they were placed in the expert hands of trauma surgeon Doctor David Hay at the Wankie Colliery Hospital. Couper is of the opinion too, that had it not been for Dr Hay, de Beer may well have died so severe were his injuries. Miraculously too, Dr Hay managed to save Colin’s hand which was reattached. In talking to other ex-National Parks staff who had known Dr Hay, they’re all of the opinion that as a trauma surgeon, he was way ahead of his time. It was he too, who had saved badly injured Warden Ollie Coltman after his severe goring by a wounded buffalo. The late Peter Hathaway-Capstick in his book Death In The Long Grass makes mention of Jean Harvey also having been mauled and spending time in hospital. I haven’t been able to verify this. Bruce Couper did recall she was admitted to hospital for a short while, but more for shock, and not due to having been mauled. Another area of contention is Capstick’s mention of Colin Matthews having his kneecap bitten off by the lioness. This too, I haven’t been able to verify. Again, Bruce Couper couldn’t actually recall it as having taken place, and when I originally wrote this article for my book Shadows in an African Twilight, my attempts to contact Colin weren’t successful.


To be fair, we must also understand that in an incident of high trauma, darkness, plenty of blood, and extreme shock, each person who bears witness to those events will have a different take on the happenings when they think back. Particularly so after thirty-six years. Couper most certainly doesn’t deny Matthews may have lost a kneecap; he just couldn’t recall it. What he did recall with absolute clarity and said he’d take to his grave with him, was the odour that met him and Henry when they entered Len’s bedroom. A peculiar smell, a cocktail of lion and human blood.


I first heard of the attack on the morning radio schedule between our various National Park outposts, this was about five hours after de Beer and Matthews had been evacuated. Our only communication between remote stations was with Boxer SSB radios which had a very good range and were fitted into our vehicles. The Zambezi Valley has a healthy lion population and we slept lightly for a while after the tragedy. Thin canvas tent walls are not the best protection against a determined lion, and at the time, Brenda and I were still living under canvas.


Above: Our camp in the Zambezi Valley's Sapi Controlled Hunting Area at the time of Len Harvey's death. Once the sun had set, lion prides were frequent visitors.


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