Night of the Lion
Above: The late Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) National Parks warden Olli Coltman with a man eating lioness he'd had to shoot. The remains of its victim can be clearly seen.
When sitting round an African campfire on a moonless windy night, man-eating lion stories tend to get our attention, evoking images of ghost-like tawny beasts appearing in the dark of night, laying waste to our frail human forms and making good their get-away after bone crunching grunts and snarls. Charles Guggisberg wrote in Simba: Life of the Lion. “Man cannot run as fast as a zebra or a gazelle, he has not the horns of the sable antelope or the tusks of the warthog, and he cannot deal terrific blows like the giraffe.” In other words, people are easy pickings. Even though Africa’s lion populations have been drastically reduced in the past decades, lions still regularly eat people; it’s not uncommon for them to kill more than 100 people a year in Tanzania alone.
During the British colonial era in Africa, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) had always claimed to have the largest and most aggressive lions. However, and because of the coverage given to the notorious man-eaters of Tsavo most folk tend to think they were responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other lions. Granted, they killed about 130 Africans and Indian labourers who were building the railroad from Mombassa to Nairobi. They also killed a white hunter sent out to try and tackle the problem by entering his rail coach compartment, and dragging him out.
Zambia’s lions though, had a far worse reputation during the bygone colonial era than did East Africa’s Tsavo lions. On far northern Lake Mweru there was an old boma (government outpost) called Chiengi, about 160kms from Mporokoso, and it was in this area that some man-eaters would periodically set up a reign of terror, and despite every effort on behalf of the authorities those lions were never beaten.
One particular lion, missing half his tail, and which regularly killed tribes’ people in the vicinity of Chiengi Boma became known as Chiengi Chali (Charlie) or ‘the White Lion’ on account of his light colour. During 1909 alone he killed ninety locals and became a bit of a celebrity (Africans have a rather macabre sense of humour that tends to rub off onto PHs). For a long time attempts to bring Chiengi Chali to book failed and on one occasion he actually leapt into the courtyard of Sealy the District Officer’s house, but escaped before Sealy could get in a shot.
Efforts to bring Chiengi Chali’s reign of terror to an end were stepped up, with fires being lit, and guards posted, all to no avail, he just went on killing. Chiengi Chali was not intimidated by very much, and broke through the thatched roofs of village huts or forced his way into already lit up doorways. For a long time, too he managed to avoid trap guns but stole the bait attached to them. Those who saw him reported him to be a large lion with an abnormally pale hued coat. Eventually though, it was a trap gun that killed him and he was found to be a mature male in his prime with fine teeth. And not the senile man-eater of legend.
In parts of Zambia and as is the case in parts of northern Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the African tribes’ people are ancestor worshippers and often believe that a man-eating lion is the reincarnation of a deceased chief. Obviously, this leads to reluctance by the tribes’ people to hunt the man-eating beast, or at times, to even report a killing thus giving the killer lion free rein to continue with its nefarious activities.
Chiengi Chali apparently had this form of protection, for not long before his reign of terror began a dying chief had told those gathered around his bed that he intended returning as a lion and would kill his enemies. Chiengi Chali’s first kills took place not long after the chief’s passing and remote tribal dwelling Africans aren’t given to believing in coincidences.
Mporokoso boma was built in 1898 and historic records show that it soon developed a sinister reputation. The first white victim to fall prey to a lion was a Mr. W. R. Johnstone; he was a government official and had the reputation of being a careful hunter. One night in his quest to put paid to a man-eater, he was sitting fifteen feet above the ground in a tree. It didn’t help because a lion leapt up and dragged him out of the tree. Badly mauled and with it being during the days before penicillin it wasn’t long before he succumbed to his injuries.
Records also show that lion killed an average of ten tribes’ people a year at Mporokoso, and during 1918, another white official was killed. This time a Mr. E. W. Vellacott who responded to a report about a woman being attacked in her garden, he wounded the lion with a prison warder’s gun, and then naively followed it into long grass and was badly mauled. One of his employees attempted to drag the lion off Vellacott by pulling on its tail, whilst another speared it to death. A doctor from Kasama tried to save the luckless individual’s life; however, he was dead within a fortnight. A poet, Cullen Gouldsbury was also mauled by a lion near Mporokoso, but he survived.
According to written records lions throughout this region were man eaters, and seemingly treated humans with utter contempt, and a complete lack of fear. In 1920 a solitary man-eater appeared near the White Fathers Mission at Kapatu in the Kasama region. It was subsequently wounded by one of the fathers, escaped, survived, and by the time it was ultimately accounted for had killed and devoured eighty-five people.
Another notorious lion that wreaked havoc on the Great North Road also in the Kasama district was Mishoro Monty. Between 1926 and 1929 he killed more than one hundred people, and was ultimately poisoned. In 1943, and again in the Kasama area Namweliyu the ‘Cunning One’ put in an appearance. Many considered him the boldest of all the man-eaters because he had no qualms about entering villages during broad daylight and dragging off hysterical victims. He also had a strange habit of biting off the legs and arms of those he killed, thus allowing him easier passage through the bush with just the human trunk in his jaws.
Namweliyu never visited trap guns or returned to the scene of his kills. Eventually after Namweliyu killed an African woman and her husband who tried to save her, the District Officer, Mr. James Lemon decided to watch over the remains of the woman and her husband, in the hope that the lion might break its habit of not returning to a kill. Climbing a tree, he waited, and was rewarded, for on this occasion the lion did return and Lemon killed it with two shots. At the time of his death Namweliyu had killed forty-three people.
Uganda game warden Captain C. R. S. Pitman visited Zambia between WWI and WW2 to carry out a wildlife survey and to try and solve the mystery behind the man-eating tendencies shown by the Zambian lions. Aside from finding that the lions had an abundance of natural prey he was unable to find a reason for their aberrant behaviour and wrote in his report, ‘I was thoroughly puzzled by the Northern Rhodesia situation’. Capt Pitman claimed size wise Zambian lions were the heaviest, with 500lbs being average on a lion not yet gorged.
Tanzania during the colonial era was about the only other colony to match Zambia’s grisly killer lion statistics. Between 1946 and 1947 twenty man-eating lions in the Ubena district of Tanzania reputedly killed about five hundred people before they were all destroyed. Further south in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), lion preferred to wreak havoc with livestock rather than human beings.
During 1912, Liebig’s, the huge cattle ranching enterprise in Southern Rhodesia called upon one George ‘Yank’ Allen to help protect their 20,000 head of cattle from lion attack. Allen was a rather colourful if not eccentric Texan who never spoke of lion as lion, he called them ‘dawgs’ and instead of saying they ‘roared’ in the night he would have it that they ‘bawled’ in the night.
Yank Allen had been earning £7 a lion, however. Liebig’s offered him £10 a lion and provided his labour and transport free. He hunted on his own, not trusting his native help, who he said, ‘Trembled all over at the sight of a lion’. And although he also used trap guns Allen’s favourite calibre was the .303 service rifle, which would have been the Lee-Enfield. Also called the 303 British and originally developed during 1887, although by the time Allen was using it there had been a few changes.
In 1910 a 174gr pointed flat-base bullet was adopted and the velocity increased to 2440 fps. It became known as the MK V11 round and was still in use when the .303 was discontinued. The MK V11 bullet had an aluminium or fibre filled tip with a base of conventional alloy. And although this made the bullet longer than normal for its weight, the projectile was stable in flight but tumbled easily on contact, which in turn increased the wound potential.
Allen was fairly contemptuous of lion and claimed leopard were more dangerous. On one occasion, he had his clothes ripped off by a leopard and losing his rifle in the melee, killed the leopard with his knife. He treated his wounds with permanganate of potash. While in the employ of Liebig’s he killed fifty-five fully mature lions on their Nuanetsi Ranch giving him a return of £550, a considerable amount of money in those days. Eventually, at the time of his death he'd reputedly killed in the region of 300 lions.
Probably the most famous South African lion story is about the struggle between game ranger Harry Wolhuter and a lion in the Kruger National Park during August 1903. Not long after shooting an old lion that had killed an African woman and her child, Wolhuter was returning from a patrol and was riding along after dark, with his staff following some distance in his wake with the pack donkeys. He had some good dogs with him and one of them; ‘Bull’ followed him when he decided to ride ahead of the pack donkeys.
Some distance ahead of the donkeys a lion attacked his horse, unseating him in the process. Toppling off the horse he virtually fell into the jaws of a second lion, which promptly picked him up by the right shoulder and dragged him off. His horse meantime escaped the first lion and tore off into the bush with the lion still in pursuit, and ‘Bull’ in turn harrying the lion. Wolhuter had a sheath knife but could only use his left arm although whilst being dragged along he eventually managed to reach the sheath and grasp the knife. Deciding to stab the lion in the heart although being pulled along on his back, he carefully felt across the lion’s chest in order to gain access to the left shoulder, and then struck it two heavy backhanded blows with the knife.
With the lion reacting by way of a furious roar Wolhuter then struck upwards into its throat and given the amount of blood that spurted all over him, he felt that he had struck its jugular vein. When this happened, the lion released him and slunk off into the dark. Wolhuter then stood up and shouting loudly chased the wounded lion off, after which, and with little of his strength remaining he managed to climb into a tree and using his belt, tie himself to a branch, where his game scouts later found him.
When compared to parts of east and central Africa man-eating lions have never really been a big issue in southern Africa. However, during the early road-building program from Karoi to Chirundu circa 1937 to '38, in Rhodesia's Zambezi Valley section of the program, lions played havoc. Over a number of months they killed numerous workers, both black and white. The Batonka and Vadoma peoples' tribal tradition of leaving the elderly and infirm tied up in the bush at night because they'd become a burden on the family unit's meagre resources hadn't helped the scenario in any way.
The whole intention of this inhuman practice was to allow the luckless victim to be devoured by the larger predators. There's little doubt this gruesome method of getting rid of one's elderly parents and in-laws quickly led to lion and hyena learning the frail human form afforded far easier pickings than do their normal prey species.
Although I have been unable to verify exact figures, in some areas of Mozambique’s Niassa Province lion have reputedly killed about seventy tribal people over the previous decades. Many of these deaths go unreported because of remoteness and the previously mentioned issue of ancestor worship.