• Kev Thomas Writes

Lion Attack: Bumi Hills Area Lake Kariba, April 1972

Another deadly lion attack took place on 09 April 1972, a mere five days after Len Harvey’s death, and as the crow flies, probably about 450kms west of Shapi Pan. This attack – one that also ended in tragedy - was never written up other than by way of a fairly brief report in the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) media of that era. Lt. Al Tourle BCR (Bronze Cross of Rhodesia) was a Rhodesian Light Infantry officer, and one of the Regiment’s ex-Company Sergeant Majors. After his commissioning, he’d been posted as OC to the Rhodesian Army’s Tracker Combat Training Wing in Kariba. At that stage of the Wing’s history, it still fell under the command of the School of Infantry in Gwelo.

Above: Rhodesian President Clifford DuPont congratulates Lt Al Tourle on his being awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia – Photo Keith Holshausen collection.

Al Tourle was a ‘soldier’s soldier’ and was highly respected by all of those who’d served with him. He was also an accurate shot, having won a number of competitive shooting competitions, including the coveted President’s Medal (which equated to Rhodesia’s Bisley). In one operational engagement with insurgents, he personally accounted for six guerrillas. This action was amongst a number, for which he got his BCR (Bronze Cross of Rhodesia). The citation reading,

Warrant Officer Class 2 Albert Knight Tourle

1st Battalion, The Rhodesian Light Infantry

For gallantry and leadership in action. On two occasions in engagements against terrorists, Sergeant Major Tourle’s outstanding qualities of leadership and readiness to seize the initiative have resulted in successes for the Security Forces. During one engagement when his troop commander, who was less advantageously placed, could not issue orders because of a faulty radio set, Sergeant Major Tourle redeployed his troop into stop positions on his own initiative. As this involved shouting words of command to troopers around him, he became the subject of concentrated enemy fire but in spite of the danger he continued to direct operations until the terrorist position was surrounded. This action led to the elimination of all nine terrorists contacted with at least six of these being accounted for by Sergeant Major Tourle himself. His complete disregard for his own safety and his very fine personal example under conditions of extreme danger was an inspiration to all.

Tracker Combat Wing not only trained those with the aptitude and fortitude to become combat trackers. It also trained all Rhodesian Army Special Forces’ and Air Force personnel in the art of bush survival. All of the instructors were highly skilled outdoorsmen, as well as being experienced combat soldiers. The training area was a large chunk of Lake Kariba’s southern shoreline, spreading westwards from Gache-Gache to Bumi Hills. A vast, rugged, and wild area, well populated with dangerous game and tsetse fly.

Lt. Al Tourle, together with Sergeants Pete Clements (RLI) and Andre Rabie (SAS) was running an advanced tracking course, about 37kms south of Bumi Hills in the vicinity of Siakobvu within the Omay Tribal Trust Land. The course vehicles had been left at the District Commissioners camp at Siakobvu and the course were a mix of Rhodesian SAS and RLI soldiers, with a small component of South African Special Force soldiers.

Although the Rhodesian winter was yet to make its presence felt, the afternoon into early evening of 09 April 1972 had been abnormally cold with guti, a peculiar Rhodesian weather phenomenon made up of mist and drizzle. The tracker candidates had been split into two syndicates, and while separated by groups but still visual to each other, based up for the night. One of the groups, and despite the normal operational procedures for such a course, made a small fire to dry out and keep warm.

Although the Nagandi area where the exercise was taking place was considered operational, in April 1972, it was deemed passive with the high intensity Rhodesian bush war yet to erupt in full fury. The entire Bumi area is one of haunting beauty. Rugged, broken escarpment country, bisected by hill ranges like the Mapongola and Ndepa. Mopane woodland dominates, although here and there, it gives way to tracts of jesse thickets, mainly made up of four different bush willow species, botanically referred to as Combretums. Amongst them too, are found a variety of other tree types including the baobab. Another dominant woodland type in the higher reaches of the escarpment is the msasa or miombo.

The tribal people who inhabit this isolated area are the Batonka. A primitive river dwelling people, who subsist by fishing. When the waters of Lake Kariba were rising during the late 1950s, after the damming of the mighty Zambezi River, these humble people were moved away from the threatening level of the waters into the hinterland area lying west of the Ume River. In this area, known as the Omay TTL, the Batonka - affectionately known as ‘Tonks’ - continued practicing subsistence fishing along the lake (and still do).

East of the Ume River lies the Matusadona National Park. A pristine, albeit remote Park, its Kariba shoreline known for herds of buffalo, elephant, and a variety of other species attracted to the lush evergreen torpedo grass, the growth of which is boosted by the nutrient rich waters of the lake. A senior game ranger and his staff, who are based at Tashinga on the lakeshore, manage Matusadona. Within the Omay TTL (Tribal Trust Land) too, dangerous game such as buffalo and elephant roam freely. As do lion.

With the day having ended, and the persistent guti hanging at ground level filtering out what little light was left, the tracker students quietly moved about. Like fleeting shadows in the African twilight, they readied themselves for a cold and damp night. Round the flickering flames of the one syndicate’s small fire, talk was subdued. Lt. Tourle had moved slightly to one side, although still positioned close to the students. Major Fred Watts, at the time an RLI Lt and course candidate told me he and Tourle were standing alongside each other. His recall is both officers had their issue NATO 7,62mm FN rifles and were drinking coffee while quietly chatting (there have been conflicting stories, with others present stating the two officers were sitting alongside each other on a rock, and not standing. Either way, it’s purely academic).

Sgt Pete Clements recalls the officers hadn’t been talking for long. He also distinctly remembers getting a quick glimpse of a lioness hugging the ground and digging her rear paws into the damp soil, during the split second before launching herself at Lt Tourle. As she attacked, she let out a remarkably throaty, nerve chilling, and guttural growl. A lioness averages about 280lbs. Hurtling towards Tourle like a tawny missile, she hit him from behind, simultaneously breaking his neck and spine before grabbing him around his chest with her paws.

She then threw him to the ground, at the same time, puncturing his left lung with her claws. All of this was done in one fluid motion, before she began moving forwards with him still firmly clamped in her jaws. As she dragged him across the ground, he was heard to yell out twice for his wife Molly. This reaction surprised Clements, who recounted how he’d have expected Tourle to call out to his men. Given the circumstances however, calling out his wife’s name was undoubtedly a perfectly natural reaction, brought on by the sheer unexpected shock, and pain, of what’d happened with such lightning swiftness.

As the lioness attempted to drag Lt Tourle away from the men, SAS Sgt Andre Rabie (later tragically killed on operational service) deliberately fired two shots in rapid succession into the ground next to her. Pete Clements remembers with vivid recall that when this happened, Watts, with the discipline of a trained soldier immediately hit the deck. Reacting to the shots, the lioness dropped Tourle, and as some of the men quickly moved towards the stricken officer, ghost like, slipped away into the surrounding scrub, where she was immediately lost from sight.

Sgts Rabie and Clements, with the help of some others got to Tourle and found him lying doubled up, and unable to move. Judging from the gaping and bleeding wound in his spine, it was clear he was paralysed. Clements remembers while kneeling alongside Tourle, the officer, and despite his extreme pain and shock requested Pete remove for him, an inchworm caterpillar that was crawling across his face. While this was happening, some of the others got a fire going to give them some working light.

Suddenly, and obviously undeterred, the lioness rushed back amongst the group and once more attempted to grab Tourle. She'd do this three times. It was a nightmare of darkness, noise, dust, hot flying-embers, gunshots, a roaring lion, and howling wind. Punctuated by shouts and screams of anger and panic. Other soldiers in the group fired rounds into the air, and although the lioness slipped back into the brush, she wouldn’t move off, seemingly determined to lay claim to Al Tourle.

Pete Clements mentioned how it wasn’t very pleasant knowing there was a determined and angry killer lion in close proximity to them. Equally frustrating, was not being able to see her. One young soldier climbed into a mnondo tree and refused to come down, until firmly ordered to do so. It was also clearly apparent to the huddled and nervous group of soldiers that none of their rounds had hit the lioness.

Sgt Clements felt it was imperative they got to their vehicles at Siakobvu in order to get help for Al, and called for a volunteer to go with him. However, the incredibly brave Lt. Tourle, despite his horrific injuries, told them it'd be far too dangerous with the persistent lioness still in such close proximity, and not to head off into the dark night. Pete further recalls how a South African Special Force soldier, whose name he thinks was Andre Bestbier volunteered to go with him for help.

From where the course was being held, it was about a 5km run through rugged big game infested bush to Siakobvu. Clements and Bestbier didn’t hesitate, and although fully aware they could become targets of the killer lioness, took off into the dark night. Throughout their run, they could hear lions vocalising around them, however, no attempts were made to attack them. Matters weren’t made any easier by the guti and drizzle that’d been falling on and off throughout the night. Having safely reached Siakobvu the two soldiers then drove approximately 37km to Bumi Hills and radioed the police in Kariba to summons Dr Peter Chatterton.

Due to the inclement weather and bad visibility, a helicopter couldn’t be dispatched that night, so the doctor was brought across the lake from Kariba in a police launch, whilst Clements and Bestbier drove to Katete harbour in their Land Rover and awaited the doctor’s arrival. From there they drove him as close to the scene as possible and then walked in with him, calling on Sgt Rabie to fire shots for them to home in on in the dark. When close to the camp, they called for an Icarus flare to be fired to illuminate their way through the broken rocky terrain surrounding the immediate approach to the position.

Despite incredible courage and fortitude from all of those involved in this night of horror, a night that’d commenced at about 1930hrs the previous evening, the brave Lt Al Tourle eventually succumbed to his injuries at about 0445hrs on the morning after. The Rhodesian Air Force helicopter was only able to make it into the position to uplift the deceased officer at about 0630hrs although visibility was still limited and hindered flying.

Throughout this ordeal, Al Tourle had remained conscious and never once complained of his predicament. At one stage the incredibly courageous officer instructed Sgt Rabie to write a letter for him on a message pad. And so, with the dying Al Tourle dictating, Rabie sat alongside him and wrote down what he said. In a poignant letter from Tourle’s mother to a family member, which I was kindly given access too, she tells of how during the remaining hours of his life, he courageously spent his time speaking about his wife, kids, parents, and brothers.

Above: (Standing at left in sweater) The ever-smiling Lt Al Tourle BCR, who was killed by a lioness whilst he was conducting an intermediate tracking course south of Bumi Hills on Lake Kariba – Photo courtesy Dennis Croukamp.

Tourle’s composure and acceptance of his predicament was a fine example to those young soldiers’ present. As befitting this exceptional RLI officer, he was accorded a full military funeral well attended by military personnel and civilians alike. It’s hard to find men like Al Tourle nowadays. A soldier often referred to by those who knew him well, as ‘the ever-smiling Al Tourle’. Many considered him one of the most professional soldiers in the Rhodesia Army at that time.

At the time of this tragic incident, Rob Francis was the senior ranger with the Department of National Parks & Wild Life Management at Tashinga field station situated on the Kariba shoreline in Matusadona National Park. In e-mail communication with me while I was researching the story, Rob recalled that such was the seriousness of the incident, game ranger Peter Moore, the lake ranger at the time was immediately dispatched in the department vessel HMV Lasana from Kariba by warden Harry Cantle, his instructions; quite simply to tell senior ranger Francis to sort the problem lioness out.

Rob immediately went to Starvation Island where he shot an impala before departing for the District Commissioners camp at Siyakobvu on the Bumi River in the Omay Tribal Trust Land, the closest government rural administrative post to the incident. Once there, an Internal Affairs individual who was 2 i/c to the District Commissioner, met Francis, before taking him to the lion spoor, Rob was not amused to find the spoor the Internal Affairs official was so carefully preserving was in fact that of a baboon!

However, when they went to the actual area where the incident had taken place, Rob found there was a clear story in the sand and with it still being damp from rain showers of the previous evening, was able to confirm the lioness had in fact returned three times after being chased off by the soldiers. It was patently obvious she was a pretty determined cat. Francis dosed the bait impala with strychnine and hung it close to the scene. On the first night after the incident the cat never found the bait or returned to the scene. However, on the second night she took the bait and the following morning, Rob and his men found her dead some way from the bait.

Rob recalls the lioness was in perfect condition, aside from one canine that had been broken off and had a hole in it. He further stated this was how they were able to positively identify her as the culprit that’d killed Al as the bite marks on his body matched exactly her bite (a test obviously conducted by the coroner). Rob’s National Parks trackers too, would’ve been able to confirm the identity of the animal from her tracks.

Despite the broken tooth, which appeared to be an old injury, her behaviour was clearly aberrant, and Francis emphasised this by stating there was a World Health Organization Doctor in the area, a Dr. Cirquanis who was an experienced big game hunter. He too, examined the tooth and confirmed it was most unlikely to have caused this strange and ultra-aggressive behaviour towards humans. The onset of darkness and inclement weather too, may well have played a part. Coupled to this is the fact lion are true Jekyll & Hyde characters because during daylight hours they’ll invariably move off fairly quickly if disturbed by humans or even from a medium sized dog. However, once the sun has set, there’s not much on the planet earth lion fear. In the dark, they seemingly undergo a complete personality change.

Above: Sgt Pete Clements, considered by many to have been one of the Rhodesian Army's foremost combat trackers and tracking/bush-craft instructors.

During the mid-nineteen nineties, Zimbabwe bestowed on Pete Clements their coveted Conservationist of the Year Award: fitting recognition for a man of his calibre, who after the Rhodesian bush war, had turned his attention to wildlife conservation teaching, anti-poaching work and evangelism.

Note: The full Lt Tourle tragedy appears in my book Shadows in an African Twilight with additional first-hand witness accounts from other soldiers who were present. The chapter heading too, is different to the Blog heading I’ve used here. The book is available as a Kindle e-reader or in paperback format from Amazon.

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