(Work in Progress)A Man-Eater Named Osama: Tanzania’s Desperate Quest to End the Worst Lion-Human Conflict of the 21st Century

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A Man-Eater Named Osama: Tanzania’s Desperate Quest to End the Worst Lion-Human Conflict of the 21st Century. 

Chapter One:  Victim Zero

Mwaseni Village
Deep in the South Central Bush
1,398 Miles from the “Tourist” Belt of the Serengeti
August 2002

The tale was told to me by scientists and by sorcerers, and it can only be fathomed by attention to both.  The beginning of the story?  Perhaps it is more fabulist than factual, but the sorcerers’ version went like this.

A fisherman made his living from the Rufiji River in the deep bush, mud hut region of Central Tanzania and each night after throwing his nets into the waters, after hauling them back into his dugout boat the next morning, after lugging the fish – mostly lutefish — to market and to Mwaseni village to sell them, he would sling his nets on a frame to dry, and then begin again the next day. He worked hard and prospered.

Only this day in August of 2002, when he awoke to begin his labor, the nets were gone.  He thought at first the boys in the village were playing with him.  Perhaps he had given them too hard a time. They seemed lazy to him. Yes, he had money. Because he worked hard and had invested in nets.  They knew nothing of this and disrespected him.  He yelled at them.

So he went through his village on the river and inquired.  Had anyone seen his nets?  If the boys were playing a trick on him, this was all very good but it was past dawn now and the prime fishing hours were slipping away. Already he was losing money.  Could you tell them, he said and say fun-is-fun, no harm done, but enough is enough also, and they’ve had their joke.

All day he waited.  There were no nets.  A slow burn took hold in the fisherman’s mind and the next day he looked at his racks and the nets were still missing.  No one had returned them.

No longer was this a joke.  This was an affront to his dignity – and also his livelihood.  The villagers envied him, this he knew, but this was unfair.

Give me my nets, he told the villagers, making sure that men of influence knew of his displeasure.  Give me back my nets, he told the mothers of the boys he knew were into mischief.

But the villagers shook their heads and told him, no, they did not know where the nets went. What use did they have for them?  Why would we take them?

The fisherman fumed.   The villagers never particularly liked him.  Many agreed the nets should be returned but they were not unhappy to see the cranky fisherman suffering some. They made no effort to find the thieves.

Give me my nets, the fisherman said finally, or there will be dire consequences for you all.

The villagers laughed at him and scoffed   He was one man who already had been humiliated.  If he came for any of them, all of them would come for him.  They did not fear him

Better they had.  Or so this version of the fable goes.  They ought to have been very afraid that he would bring terror down upon them not by his hand but through consulting with a Babu – a shaman.  A “witch doctor” in old fashioned parlance.

Curses abounded in this area of Africa. More than 90 percent of Tanzanians believed that black magic or mizungu was real. One could visit a shaman or traditional healer and ask for a love spell for a young man or woman.  Or a curative for any disease or ailment. Rocks, trees, animal, plants, the water, the earth.  All were seen as containing spirits – spirits to which the Babu could speak and sometimes control.

The fisherman was prosperous and could afford the most expensive spells and curses.  Already, he had replaced his nets.  The nets were no longer the point.  The villagers had disrespected him and mocked him.  They had wronged him and now he would have his revenge.

So it was that the fisherman convinced a Babu, at significant cost, to create a spirit lion. 

A spirit lion spell is cast not on a real lion but on a human. The human then is transformed into a fearsome carnivore that would kill other humans and eat them without mercy or remorse. That human, through lycanthropy, would become a were lion – a feline version of a werewolf – under the control of the shaman.

This is what the fisherman commissioned:  a custom made man-eater who would take the form both of a human and a lion as the mood and opportunity struck him. Or her. No one would know which human. Everyone would fear the lion.  

This the shaman did and set the lion to roam in the vicinity of the village.

Or so the story was told later and told again and again.

In this story, on the science side, there was no one villager or scientist to reconstruct all that happened.  The closest to an all-seeing eye was a young, very smart guide who was also a wildlife and zoology expert. His name was Harunnah Lyimo and he was assigned by academics to research it all. Only Harunnah had an overview of it all. Only Harrunah’s mind could imagine with any accuracy all that happened.

And Harrunah would tell the story as one that mixed science and sorcery, not because he was superstitious but because he knew the importance of understanding mizungu – and that beliefs mattered.

Regardless of the science or the sorcery behind it, it is a fact that the lion soon struck.

On August 31, 2002, near the village of Mwaseni, just east of the Selous in the South of Tanzania, an unfortunate woman was tending fields and sleeping in a dungu – a specially built, temporary shelter in the fields designed to let people spot bush pigs and other pests raiding the crops.  The top story of the structure is a lookout post and a safe haven for sleeping.  The bottom story is the kitchen – and where the elderly sleep if they cannot climb upstairs.

Here, the woman was sleeping with two others, her son and her husband’s second wife safely upstairs, but she felt the need to relieve herself.  Several yards away from the dungu was a latrine. 

Crouching in the dense vegetation was the spirit lion – or so the story went.  This much is for sure:  The lion, accompanied by two others, attacked the woman, killed her easily and then dragged her fifty yards away where the lions ate her completely, leaving only a few bones and rags, then vanished from the scene.

Only later did the woman’s friends realize she was missing and find the grizzly remains.  The attack was reported to the nearest game officer at the next village over, and he in turn reported this to the District Game Officer in Utete – more than 100 miles away.

The District Game Officer – or DGO – arrived in the village and recruited helpers to hunt the lions.  From movies, readers may have a stereotype of Africans carrying AK47 and M16s.  Not here. Not anywhere in Tanzania.  In the deep bush, a DGO is issued a gun and a few cartridges only after someone has made the hundred-mile journey to report the incident.

The hunters considered this death a routine matter.  It was not uncommon, this.  More than 300 or so Tanzanians died from lion attack each year.  Hundreds more died from elephants, snake bites, hyenas, and leopards.  It was the way of the deep bush.  Death by lion was the equivalent of death by car wreck in a western state. The DGO and his helpers worked for several days. They first looked for tracks in this environment —   as different from a Disney portrayal of wilderness as one could imagine.  

 Facing them in this quest was a tangle of both natural and sociological barriers.  not so much a jungle but dense hardwood forests not unlike growths in the north parts of America – save for the flat-topped acacias and the immense baobabs.  Thorns and thickets provided cover – and presented barriers to trackers. Small savannahs broke the terrain as did land cleared for roughly cultivated fields dotted with dogas.

Elephants roamed these lands as well, and the hunters feared these herds as much as they did lions.  Lions?  They stood a chance. Elephants here often were aggressive raiders of grain and crops and both the animals and the villages often squared off against one another. Only well-placed shots could stop them.

The social barriers came as the villagers became spooked by talk of spirit lions.  Often, they were not cooperative.  One went hunting for spirit lions with great reluctance because the act could draw the wrath of the spirit lion.  Say you even talked about the spirit line to someone else.  That “someone else” might be the spirit lion – who then would come at night for revenge. And here’s the catch.  The spirit lion could be anyone.  Including your spouse, your parent, your best friend. Your son.  Your daughter. 

At this point, the spirt lion presence was just a suspicion. No connection to the fisherman was made.  He did not claim responsibility.  Science could explain this attack without a sorcerer’s involvement.   This was the man-eating belt of Africa after all – an area where humans seem to be considered natural prey by lions – and had been for centuries.

Conditions for these tragedies were perfect, scientists would say.  The dense undercover.  Humans placing themselves in lion territory at night. The predictability of latrine use.  And the acquaintance of lions with humans as prey.  The El Nino cycles of the ocean also helped, it was said, making the clime a bit rainier.  And when there was rain, prey needed not gather at waterholes.  Prey roamed.  As a result, so did predators.   And this roaming meant lions were more likely to meet farmers and villagers.

Moreover, the rules of man-eating here were decidedly not based on the western Disney myths that said predators only attacked humans when the lion was injured or starving.

For hundreds of years, some scientists said, lions have hunted humans here.  The great slave caravans passed through here, driving captives to the sea for export – and leaving a chum trail of sick and dead as they cut their way to the ships. Lions learned long ago that humans here were easy prey.

So against these formidable facts and forces, the district game officer and his rag-tag band of volunteers set out to find the man-eaters.

Harunnah knew only too well how this worked.  First they would look for tracks.  If they found one, normally, they would “set up” over the remains of the prey – lay in ambush. But there was nothing left of “Victim O” to return to. The lions would not be back.

Options left?  Set up a tree stand on a well-traveled trail and hope to get lucky. Or you could set up a gun-trap – a weapon that would be triggered by a passing lion.    Or you could beat the bush and drive animals toward a shooter.  This could be effective – if you knew where the lions were.  They did not.

The last resort, if the victim’s family consented, was to poison the remains of the human – and hope the lion ate the poison and died. The challenge here was two-fold.  Burial traditions among the moderate Muslim population did not favor such an approach.  Moreover, there was fear of the spirit lion, but also concern for the human carrier of the lion’s spirt. To poison a spirit lion would be to poison a human.  This might be your brother, your wife, your child – who through no fault of theirs had been chosen as a were lion. 

So the hunters set up a shooting stand and manned it for a few days. No lions passed.  The District Game Officer left. It was unfortunate but not uncommon.

No great to-do was made about it.  These things happened.  No one much talked about it, for fear spirit lions might be involved.

And the matter would have stopped there of course, had the killings stopped.  But this victim was the beginning of months of terror, tragedy, suspense and heartbreak.    

And when the lion struck next, the villagers knew for sure they were dealing with a spirit lion.  This could be nothing else.  A very large, short-maned male lion was ravaging them, striking from ambush, digging through mud-huts, devouring bodies in plain sight of the villagers.

To them, the lion was a mad terrorist, striking at innocents and destroying them.

Osama, the villagers called him.   When they talked about him at all. Even that was dangerous when a spirit lion was involved.   

The first rule of spirit lions? 

You don’t talk about spirit lions.