Killer Lioness: Shapi Pan-Wankie National Park Rhodesia, March 1972
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 courtesy Richard Aylward.
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, later changed to Management Unit, and was based at Shapi Pan.
On 28 March 1972, the arrival of a lion pride in the camp environs gave little cause for concern. Their presence was a regular occurrence and it was accepted the unfenced camp environs was part of the range they hunted across. At the time, there were no captive animals being held in the capture pens. The contractor, Paul Grobler, had ceased operations, and with the exception of four guards had given his staff a well-earned break. A National Parks cadet ranger, Richard Dendy, based at the camp had also departed for a 10-day break.
Senior Ranger Willem De Beer who played a key role in the tragic drama which ultimately unfolded, later wrote how he and his wife, Hazel, and Len Harvey and his wife, Jean, chose to spend their time off by remaining in the camp. They would also provide security for the camp because of a worsening of the Rhodesian war situation. At the time of the lion incident, Warden Len Harvey had only been married for about ten days.
The Culling Unit staff dwellings at Shapi were typical of many rustic albeit temporary field camps in the Rhodesian National Parks department of that era. Simplistic buildings constructed from local materials, with burnt mopane poles used 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. Hand-woven reed mats were periodically hung over these openings to keep the interior of the building cool during the hot summer months. At the time of this incident, and again, because of the security situation, when not being used the department issue firearms were locked up in an office gun safe.
At the onset of the staff break, De Beer had noticed, and was monitoring the tracks of a solitary lion. This lion had turned up at camp after the older tracks of the larger pride indicated the pride had departed. Although he and game scout Sgt Freddie never saw the lion, from the spoor they followed they deduced it was either an old female, or a young male. Disturbingly, this solitary lion suddenly became more brazen, and aside from attempting to break into some African staff huts in the compound, also killed all of De Beer’s cook’s chickens. In the process it destroyed the coop.
Concerned about the over familiarity of this particular lion,
De Beer, who was an extremely experienced hunter, and an ex-Rhodesian Army career officer, suggested to Warden Harvey that perhaps they should shoot a wildebeest, and carry out a drag around the camp boundary before hanging the bait about 10km away. The idea being to lure the pride away and, hopefully too, the solitary lion which De Beer was sure was starving. Unfortunately, Warden Len Harvey turned the request down, and by doing this inadvertently signed his own death warrant. Ominously too, De Beer in his daily ongoing checks of the solitary lion’s movements via its tracks found where on the one night, it had entered, wandered around, and spent time inside Cadet Game Ranger Richard Dendy’s vacated quarters. It was fortunate Dendy had gone off on leave.
When following the tracks away from Dendy’s house De Beer then found where the lion had then scooped out a hollow in the sand, before bedding down directly below the opening which served as a window, in an outside wall of Warden Len Harvey’s house. De Beer immediately alerted Warden Harvey, and his bride Jean, to this ominous development. During the previous night neither of the Harvey’s had awakened while the lion was scooping out the hollow below the windowsill. De Beer wrote of how he felt Harvey and his wife appeared more fascinated than fearful by the lion’s behaviour. Neither of them realising that within hours, Len Harvey would be dead.
De Beer’s son-in-law, Colin Mathews, the son of his wife Hazel, from a previous marriage, arrived in camp with four university friends on the evening of 01 April 1972. While in camp they also visited Victoria Falls, and everyone was enjoying a pleasant break. On the fateful night, Len Harvey and his wife, Jean, retired to bed early. As did the De Beer family after a pleasant fun-filled evening. After the generator was switched off the camp was plunged into darkness and was soon quiet, bar the ever-present animal, bird, and insect noises.
De Beer records how he went to bed with a sense of nervous disquiet and foreboding. And then shortly after 23h00 on Monday, 03 April 1972, the starving lion finally made its move. De Beer was awakened just before midnight to the sound of bare feet running past his bedroom in the darkness. He initially assumed it was one of his game scouts arriving to seek assistance. However, and as he got out of bed, he heard a voice filled with terror and hysteria pleading from the darkness, “Please, Willie, come and help! Quickly, the lion is killing Len. Please, the lion is killing my husband!”
In shock at the sight of the blood-drenched Jean, De Beer got his wife Hazel, and Colin’s girlfriend to immediately tend to her. He and his son in law then ran to the office in the pitch-dark rainy night. Unlocking the gun safe and fumbling in the dark, he removed the first rifle he could find, a .243 Winchester which he handed to Colin, and because of the urgency merely grabbed what felt like a heavier calibre, which proved to be a .375 H&H. Armed, they then ran to the lighting plant and started it.
Within seconds everything lit up in the surrounding houses and office. Lingering for a few vital minutes, De Beer checked and loaded both rifles, ensuring each had a round in the breech. In those brief few minutes, he also demonstrated to Colin how to use the scope mounted .243, a firearm normally used for culling impala. De Beer was also concerned to note the .375 H&H magazine was loaded with solid rounds, although given the urgency of the situation, there was little he could do. De Beer explains further, about how the light shining from Len Harvey’s bedroom drew him towards it like a magnet, and no matter how he searched for any sign of movement, his eyes kept getting drawn back to the open window. Releasing the safety catch on the .375 H&H both De Beer, and Matthews, slowly approached the lit-up space of the open window.
Stopping just short of the overhanging beams, De Beer cautiously leaned forward and peered into the bedroom. He neither saw nor heard anything although he sensed the lion’s presence. There was absolutely no sound aside from the background throb of the generator. With the tension almost palpable, and wondering where Len Harvey and the lion were, De Beer slowly eased forward and stopped just short of the windowsill although he was still too low to get a full view of the bedroom interior.
Holding the .375 across his body because of the confined space due to the house wall and the roof overhang, De Beer kept his finger on the trigger and the weapon off safe. Due to the tension, he writes how at this stage he had also become oblivious of Colin Mathews presence. His sole focus was on locating the man-eating lion. He also noticed how the Harvey’s double bed was a shambles, lying at an angle length wise both legs on the near side had snapped off. Indicative of a violent struggle. The bedding too, was strewn all over and covered in blood. It then struck De Beer that no matter how hard his friend Len Harvey had fought, he never stood a chance.
Unable to locate Harvey or the lion, De Beer wondered if it hadn’t exited from the opposite window, with Len’s body. Perhaps to continue feeding undisturbed elsewhere. Somewhat perplexed, De Beer realised the only place in the room he had been unable to check, was the floor space immediately below the windowsill behind which he was crouched. It was a blind spot, and he had no idea the killer lion was crouched, silent, listening, and waiting, not more than eighteen inches away from him. Changing position, De Beer had just leaned further forward into the opening, when all hell broke loose. Attacking from below the windowsill, and lightning fast, the lion launched itself at De Beer. With the talons of both front paws fully extended and amidst a frenzied amount of angry grunts, coughing, growls and snarls the lion grabbed De Beer around the head, neck, and shoulders.
During the attack and with De Beer fighting for his life, he realised it was a man-eating lioness he was up against. Fortunately, the wall afforded protection to his chest area, abdomen, and lower body. Powerless to do anything in her vice-like grip, the lioness then launched herself through the window opening, causing De Beer to drop his rifle. Continuing with her determined attack on De Beer, he heard his nose and cheekbones breaking, and he knew he was bleeding profusely. Attempts to defend himself elicited a more determined attack by the lioness, so De Beer forced himself to lie still, accept the pounding, and bide his time. Although he wrote of not feeling any pain by this stage, he was aware his right eye had come out of its socket and was hanging down. His scalp too, was hanging down over his face blocking what vision he had left. He also wished he had a handgun and vowed if he survived, he would buy the most powerful handgun on the market.
Eventually, and with De Beer having virtually accepted his fate, the lioness began to lick the blood from his face. He described it as if someone was using sandpaper on his raw nerves, although he describes how he felt at peace, and pain free. He believed by that stage he had reached a state of fatalistic despair. And then suddenly, the lioness stopped licking him, and after a short silence, he again heard fearful human screams together with angry grunts of savagery. The lioness had attacked Colin Mathews, and thinking she was also going to kill his son-in-law, jarred De Beer into a state of more wakeful consciousness.
Although unable to see due to his horrific injuries, De Beer could hear what he perceived was Colin being systematically mauled to death. Frantically feeling for something to try and help his son-in-law he managed to grasp the telescopic sight on the .243 rifle he had earlier handed to Colin. Knowing it was loaded he tucked it under his right armpit, and keeping it level with the ground, slowly moved from left to right, following the snarling sounds. When the muzzle contacted a moving obstacle, and because the roaring and screaming were coming from next to him, he sensed it was either the lioness or Colin. Knowing he had to make a last desperate attempt, he held the rifle ready and squeezed the trigger, and then reloading fired a further two shots in quick succession.
Although expecting to be attacked again, he was relieved to feel something heavy collapse across his legs. Not knowing if it was Colin or the lioness, De Beer lay there panic stricken. During this brief uncanny silence, and not daring to move, he waited for what felt like hours before calling out, “Are you there Colin? Are you alright?” Out of the darkness he heard Colin’s response, “Yes, I’m here, except that you’ve shot my hand off and shattered my wrist.” Overwhelmed with relief, De Beer responded, “Don’t worry about your hand; it could’ve been your head! What about the lioness, is she dead?” Colin replied, “I think so, she is lying on top of your legs.”
Colin Mathews recall of the terrifying events of that night describe his experiences after the lioness had grabbed, and then dreadfully mauled De Beer when he had first cautiously leaned through the window opening. He then heard her come through the window opening and continue her attack while De Beer was on the ground. While fumbling with the .243 safety catch, Colin writes about how in an almost slow-motion scenario he suddenly saw the lioness glaring at him, as if to say, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” And then, before he could make a move of any sort, she reared up above him and knocked him flat onto his back. When this happened, he lost the rifle, and after the lioness had raked her claws across his chest, she caught hold of him by digging her claws into his buttocks.
The lioness then started pulling him towards her, while with his left hand he seized the side of her neck, and with his right hand he grabbed her lower jaw. He recalls how fortunately, the lioness didn’t bite him but out of sheer terror he started to scream, although he could see the lioness was agitated, and continued to growl. Despite the precarious situation he found himself in he was determined to keep her jaws as far from his face as possible.
When De Beer recovered the dropped .243 and fired two shots into the lioness, Mathews says he doesn’t remember hearing the shots but does clearly remember a buzzing feeling that ran up his arm and knocked him sideways. This was caused by a bullet that had passed through the lioness and struck Mathews wrist. In the immediate aftermath of De Beer’s shots, the lioness grunted and collapsed at Mathews feet. And then, as he tried to crawl away, she took a savage bite at his left knee, before rolling over and dying.
Although Mathews felt no pain or discomfort, his right hand was hanging by mere skin and sinew. After struggling to get to his feet, and to stop it flapping around, he hooked the thumb into the waistband of his shorts. While he was doing this, De Beer was also struggling to get to his feet, and Mathews describes de Beer as looking like a nightmare. There was blood everywhere and his right eye was hanging down his cheek, with the bone of his forehead exposed and the flesh on his face hanging in strips. With Mathews using his left hand to hold onto De Beer the two of them staggered towards the house, where Mathews mother, Hazel, immediately took charge, and after hurriedly taking stock of the situation, and making De Beer and Mathews as comfortable as possible, left Len Harvey’s wife Jean with the two badly injured men, and then drove to Wankie Main Camp in her little VW Beetle, a distance of about 50 km on rough gravel roads. She was accompanied on her life-saving journey by one of Colin’s university colleagues.
Game ranger Bruce Couper, a good friend of Len Harvey’s, together with ranger Henry Pringle were the first to reach Shapi camp in the aftermath of the tragedy and remembered,
‘I seem to recollect there were always lion and hyena in close proximity to Shapi camp and leading up to this particular incident, there had been a number of complaints from the game scouts about lion giving them a hard time around their huts at night. I remember too, Richard Dendy a cadet ranger at Shapi actually made mention of this problem to me.’
In his tape-recorded communications with me, Bruce Couper (now deceased) also spoke about the lions at Shapi camp having been inclined towards malevolence. This was also borne out by Margaret Peech (nee Haslam), who at one time had been married to the late Rhodesian 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.
Above: Seated at left, Senior Ranger Willie de Beer and Ranger Ron van Heerden at Shapi Pan circa 1965 - Both are now deceased - Photo courtesy P.J.H. Petter-Bowyer.
Policy quite simply being that in a National Park there was to be no human interference with the wildlife. A policy which as we have seen, Len Harvey, prescribed to fully. Indeed, a noble philosophy but one that can also be costly. Ex-game ranger Richard Aylward an ex-department colleague and friend who also saw service at Shapi Pan, once shared with me how after returning to his bungalow he found 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.
In recounting the events of that tragic night Bruce Couper continued with his narrative, ‘Earlier in the evening on the night of the tragedy, we had 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 Mathews, 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 Mathews 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 gently put Willie De Beer, Colin, and Jean onboard. 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.’
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 are 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.
According to The Shapi Tragedy – The True Story (the source for this article), Jean Harvey suffered lacerations, and extreme shock. However, she was discharged from hospitable after a few days, and very sadly she then had to arrange Len Harvey’s funeral, her husband of 10-days. Colin Matthews having his kneecap bitten off by the lioness was also a mistruth that seemed to have done the rounds in the various media of the time. The lioness did bite him on his knee during her dying moments, however, he never lost his kneecap.
When John Herbert, the Senior Research Officer at Wankie National Park completed a post mortem on the lioness a day after the attack, he found that although she had been starving, she was an adult female weighing 220lbs. Her stomach contents included earthworms, chicken flesh, feathers, and human flesh. And yet her canines and cheek teeth were in excellent condition, as was her coat. She was estimated to be between six and seven years old.
We first heard of the attack on the morning radio schedule between our various National Park outposts about five hours after De Beer and Mathews had been casevaced. Our only communication between remote stations was with Boxer SSB radios which had an excellent 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 in the Sapi Controlled Hunting area with our 4-month-old son.
Acknowledgements: National Parks and Wildlife Management. Rhodesia and Zimbabwe 1928 – 1990 by Michael Bromwich (email@example.com)