The Return of the Man-eater
Men’s Journal, January 2003
By Robert Frump
Neville Edwards was having a bad day in the bushveld. The 40-year-old guide was escorting two clients on a safari through South Africa’s Kruger National Park, in the heart of lion country, in July of 2000. The two very senior corporate French VIPs on the seat next to him were out to see their fellow carnivores, but Edwards hadn’t been able to show them so much as a rodent.
Finally, two hours out, he found a magnificent bull elephant and steered his Land Rover within throwing distance. While the VIPs pointed at the big tusker ambling across the grand vista, Edwards stayed alert. Elephants made grand game viewing for tourists and the bull was indeed putting on a “show” – flapping his ears and kicking up dirt. A mock charge could follow and a good trumpeting gets the adrenaline flowing.
But Edwards was a consummate pro, with 20 years in the bush, and he kept the Landie jammed in reverse, with one foot on the depressed clutch, just in case the bull actually charged – as they did indeed sometimes do. Instinctively, he scanned the bush around him, snapping back to the elephant at any sign of motion. It’s a basic truth of the bush that what you’re looking for always comes from where you aren’t looking.
On a slow sweep behind him, he saw a hand rise up from the bush and wave a casual good morning. He snapped back to the elephant, then to the hand. With an odd tremble, it seemed to beckon him forward. He snapped again to the elephant and then warily brought his binoculars back to see what the person wanted.
Most certainly, the hand should not have been there. Thanks to nine decades of conservation management, Kruger National Park, just slightly smaller than Massachusetts, in the northeast corner of South Africa, hard against the border of Mozambique, had been transformed into “the Eden of Africa.” Each year, a million visitors came to Kruger to see elephants, zebras, kudos, and herds of lithe, model-thin impala on “self-directed” safaris. But most of all, they came to see lions. There were more than 2,000 of them in the bush, and no human should have been out there on foot.
As he focused his binoculars, a black-backed jackal popped crisply into view. Then Edwards panned up and saw that the hand was attached to a body that the scavenger now was worrying. Above, the hand still danced, waving. Then the jackal changed its grip. The hand and arm dropped and a human head flopped into view and fell, flopped and fell, impossibly relaxed.
There was a brief moment when lucid thoughts crossed Edwards’s mind. A woman’s hand, he thought, as the fingers were slender. Probably a refugee from Mozambique. He’d heard stories of them walking across Kruger and falling prey to lions, but he’d never seen any proof, until now. The poor woman wasn’t killed long ago, as her body was still flexible. However many lions had attacked her, they couldn’t be far away. Probably they had just let the jackal in to clean up.
Then Edwards lost it. The jackal began gulping, as jackals do, gorging all it could in case the lions returned. At the sight, Edwards fumbled for the radio and keyed the mike. He started to yell to base camp in English, “I need help!” – then thought better of it in case the French might understand. They had not seen the body and they didn’t need to. He switched to Zulu: “Ifuna siza! Ifuna siza! “
Then, to the amazement and protest of his clients, he sped away from the only game they would see that day. Edwards just didn’t care. At that moment, on that piece of land, he and the VIP’s were no longer the alpha predators. In the middle of Africa’s greatest feat of conservation, humans had become a prey species.
Always in modern times, for more than 100 years, Mozambicans illegally have crossed the area that is now Kruger. For food, for family, for a future, they came first to work in the gold mines and on farms in prosperous South Africa. Then in the 1970’s, many more fled the war of liberation from the Portuguese. Freedom came in 1972, but there followed a brutal 20-year civil war that displaced millions and sent tens of thousands streaming across Kruger to South Africa. Floods, droughts hastened the exodus. “Going west to Joni” was the way the refugees put it, to Johannesberg and the economic promise of South Africa.
Crossing into the park never was easy. Until the end of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990’s, the fence along its border carried a lethal 3,000-volt charge to keep poachers and illegal immigrants at bay. Always, desperation finds a way, however, and refugees learned to short out the fence or go through gaps cut by poachers.
In the south of the park, refugees walked on the little-traveled roads along the Crocodile River. In the middle section, they cut right through the bush near the campsite of Satara. And in the north, near Punda Maria, the habit was to follow a series of power lines that snaked across the wilderness, resting by day in remote bush country and walking the lines at night to avoid border patrols.
Some walked west on their own, often carrying muti, a magic totem such as a hyena’s tail that they’d bought from traditional healers. Muti was guaranteed to repel lions, though it was difficult for consumers to collect on the warranty if the totem malfunctioned. Other refugees hired guides, who escorted groups of 20 to 30 at a time across the park. But that method also lacked guarantees. If you became sick, or if you were carrying a baby, or if you were old and couldn’t keep up, you were likely to be left behind.
Soon after the heaviest migrations began in earnest, park officials – rangers and guides and poacher patrols – began to find tattered bits of clothes. Other times they found a shoe, a wallet with Mozambican currency, a lone suitcase, perhaps some blood, and sometimes the human corpse left from a kill.
When a crossing was done successfully, it was done as John Khoza did it. Khoza grew up in a family of herders in a small Mozambique village. His father owned many cattle. Disease – Khoza does not know which – claimed his mother when he was ten, and his father when he was 15. He and his older brother would have been affluent by Mozambique standards, but the cattle passed on to their uncle, not them, and their uncle had little use for his nephews. Khoza would herd all day, and at night there would be only a bowl of cornmeal. Malnourished and futureless, he and two friends decided to do it, to cross “the Kruger.”
Khoza was lucky to know a guide named Fredie. He was luckier still to be a herder, since he’d come into contact with lions and knew never to run away from one. So, at 2 a.m., on a dark July night in 1972, Khoza and his small party found where a wart hog had burrowed under the fence at Kruger’s eastern border. They wriggled under and set out across the southern end of the park. “You do not take food, you only worry about water,” Khoza says. “You do not take a gun or they will arrest you as a poacher. You do not take clothes or worry about what you will wear. You are starving. You move with purpose through the bush. You stay off the roads and away from the helicopters, the rangers on bicycles, the army patrols and the tourists.” When they came upon elephants or dangerous cape buffalo, they moved cautiously and – ever the herdsmen – threw rocks at the animals to move them along.
Then, the first night, the lions found them. “I froze,” Khoza says. “We all did. I faced the lion in front of me, but I knew there were at least two or three to the rear. Always, there are lions to the rear. We did not move. We were absolutely still. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes passed. Then we did not count the time.” Eventually, seeing no obvious vulnerabilities, the lions moved on to easier prey.
This scene was repeated four times that first night. During the day, they hid from view and rested under trees. The next night, they moved again, and again the lions found them several times during the night. But the herdsmen stood firm, careful not to trigger an attack. After two days and nights in the park, half-way across it, they turned south to the Crocodile River and swam their way into South Africa. Khoza is now a legal resident and the father of six. He drives a four-wheel-drive truck to and from his job at Izinyoni Lodge just south of Kruger and is wealthy beyond the means of the average Mozambican. But he no longer walks at night.
Success stories like Khoza’s in the 1970’s were a carrot enticing migration, but it was the stick, not the carrot, that drove the massive waves in the 1980’s and 1990’s. From 1987 through 1992, when the civil war was at its most brutal, between 250,000 and 500,000 refugees fled to South Africa, most through Kruger. In 2002, ten years after the civil war ended, conditions still drive Mozambicans toward promise and away from some of the worst human conditions on the globe. Mozambicans have an annual per capita income of about $250. They live on average only until age 43. A million people died in the wars. Hundreds of thousands more fell to starvation and disease. Mozambique is the only country to sport an AK-47 on its national flag. A land mine might also be appropriate, since more than a million of them are scattered throughout the countryside.
It was under those circumstances that Johanna Nkuna and her three daughters set out one day in July 1998 from the small village of Shikwalakwala, located east of Kruger in central Mozambique, and slipped through the fence into Kruger. They planned to walk to Soweto, where an uncle lived. They would rest in remote bush country during the day, while at night following the power lines that snaked across the wilderness.
Johanna and her girls fared well for most of the trip, but in the bush near Punda Maria, a big fenced camp in the north of Kruger, close to the western border of the park and their “exit point,” they heard noises and growls coming from the bush. A pride was hunting. The lions advanced, snarling at the girls, heading instinctively toward the young, testing for vulnerability.
The “stand” you make against a lion is all-important in such situations. Lion experts say that you should never run from a lion, nor should you ever threaten one. But few lion experts are mothers, and none of them were there that night near Punda Maria. Johanna Nkuna charged the lions, yelling and waving her hands, and the pride took her.
The sacrifice gave her children a chance. They juked and scattered, running for their lives in three directions. The two older girls eventually turned east, running the lines back toward home. Eleven-year-old Emelda instinctively ducked into a small hole in a large termite mound. From there, she huddled up for the night, listening to her mother’s screams, the lions’ snarls and growls, and then the more horrible quiet.
The next day, she crept out to find her mother’s mostly eaten corpse. She walked down a road aimlessly, in shock. As a safari vehicle with tourists and a ranger pulled even with her, matching her slow pace, she neither acknowledged them nor fled nor stopped walking. “What are you doing alone in the park?” a ranger asked in the Xitsonga language as they crept along. And slowly the story came out.
No one knows for sure how many refugees make it safely across Kruger as John Khoza did, or how many fall prey to lions like Johanna Nkuna. No records are kept, and no single entity is in charge of keeping count – not the South African or Mozambican governments, not the Kruger police, not the park rangers – and none of them seem anxious to be in charge. Tourism is the No. 1 industry in this part of Africa, and no one wants to scare the customers away. Not that man-eating lions are necessarily bad for business “People want to know the place is real,” Steve Gibson, a guide and the owner of Esseness Safaris says. “Reports of man-eating lions give the place an authentic feel.”
But as more refugees continue to migrate through Kruger, ominous evidence continues to accumulate. Most recently, in March 2002, a lion killed an illegal Mozambican immigrant just outside Kruger and carried the body through the town of Phalaborwa on a Saturday night. Dr. Willem Gertenbach, the head of all conservation efforts within Kruger, says that only one or two bodies are found each year, but that the number of deaths is almost certainly much higher than that. The torn bits of clothes, shoes and suitcases are found on a regular basis, with no explanation and no bodies. “Some people say, well, perhaps they were scared and dropped these things,” says Albert Machaba the head ranger in Kruger’s Satara area. “But how do you drop clothes that are tattered and torn like that? What refugee would leave their shoes? No, I don’t think that is what is happening.”
What is known is that roughly 4,000 refugees are caught each year by 220 Kruger rangers and about 600 South African army border patrolmen, which posits the following game theory query.
Team A is the rangers and patrolmen- 820 primates with relatively inferior eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell operating in a wilderness that is about 300 miles long and 50 miles wide. They operate during the day, when illegal refugees are in hiding. At night, when the immigrants are on the move, Team A retreats to fenced-in camps.
Team B is the lions – more than 2,000 quadrupeds with highly acute eyesight, hearing, and senses of smell. The night is their home. They are on the hunt when the refugees are on the move. Protein is their quest, and the refugees are the weakest, most vulnerable protein source they encounter.
When Team A catches 4,000 refugees per year, how many will Team B catch? To kill 100 humans per year, the Kruger lions would have to catch only 2.5 percent of what the rangers and patrolmen catch – a figure that Gerrie Camacho, a scientist and lion advocate in the Mpumalanga province near Kruger, agrees is reasonable, if not conservative. Since 1972, that would be 3,000 humans killed and consumed by lions. The probability is that this number is low, that the 820 rangers and soldiers, even with the advantage of jeeps, airplanes, and radios, would not catch 40 times more refugees than the 2,000 lions.
The celebrated Ghosts of Tsavo – two maneless lions that brought a British bridge-building project to a halt for months — were responsible for killing 130 people at the turn of the last century. A more obscure but far deadlier pride in Tanganyika killed 1,500 between 1932 and 1947 – considered the “all-Africa record,” as one writer phrased it. Even without precise statistics, carnage caused in Kruger makes the kills by the lions of Tsavao and the lions of Tanganyika look small, and qualifies “the Eden of Africa” as home to the largest case of man-eating lions in modern history.
The only good thing about being eaten by a lion is that it apparently doesn’t hurt very much. Dr. David Livingstone, an explorer and missionary, was seized in 1844 by a lion and later wrote, “Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. It produced a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain, nor feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe in that they see the operation but do not feel the knife. This placidity is probably produced in all animals killed by the carniovra; and if so, is a merciful provision of the Creator for lessing the pain of death.”
“That’s absolutely right,” says Gerrie Camacho, a conservationist who is the director of the Mpumalango parks lion project. “You do feel everything. It is as if you have been seized by a vise. Such strength! You know you are powerless against it. You feel your muscle ripping and tearing. You feel your meat separate from the bone. You feel all that, but you do not feel pain or really care. You are in a dream state, not unpleasant at all.” He speaks from experience, and it gives him a unique perspective on exactly what is going on in Kruger.
When Camacho was a young man in the lion business, in July 1988, he and other conservationists were attempting to tranquilize and treat a pregnant lioness that seemed to have an infection. They lured her into a large fenced-in area just outside Kruger, but the pride followed, making it impossible to treat her. One day, the pride left the area, leaving the sick lioness and one young male alone within the fences. Camacho and Johan Vander Walt, a colleague, rushed to the area. Vander Walt parked their Land Rover in front of the entrance to keep the pride from re-entering. Camacho ran to the lioness, thinking he’d simply scare away the young male. Young males are skittish, and when Camacho began yelling and flapping his arms, the lion rushed toward a hole in the fence to rejoin the pride.
Something turned him, though. Perhaps he lost sight of the fence gap. Perhaps it was the Land Rover. His escape seemingly blocked, he wheeled and charged back toward Camacho. Hoping it was a mock charge, Camacho, who is six-feet-four, made his stand. He “looked large,” hooting and waving his arms above his head. But this was no mock charge, and the lion hit Camacho head-on, knocking him backward as if he were a beer can struck by a flying anvil. Fortunately, Camacho was thrown up against a tree and remained standing. Had he gone down, he almost certainly would’ve been killed. The lion had to settle for Camacho’s right calf, which he seized in his teeth while raking Camacho’s upper body with his box-cutter-like claws. When the lion tried to move its grip up for the kill, Camacho began pummeling his eyes with big roundhouse lefts and rights. “It was the only soft spot I could reach,” he says. The lion’s smell – a sweet and powerful odor of urine and defecate – engulfed him.
Vander Walt watched in horror, but was more alarmed when the pride, hearing the sounds of the attack, began streaming toward the hole in the fence. Vander Walt knew that if they got back in, they would make short work of Camacho. Normally, there would be a rifle clipped to the dash of the Land Rover, and Camacho sometimes carried a .375 magnum on his belt. But they had hurried here to seize their chance to isolate the lioness. Both the rifle and Camacho’s revolver were back at the camp. Vander Walt desperately searched the Landie and came up with. . . a tire iron.
He ran toward the fence, waving it at the pride, making as much noise as he could. The lions, confused and stymied, retreated. Vander Walt then charged toward Camacho, yelling and swinging the tire iron wildly. Camacho was still punching the lion frantically. In the end, it was all too much for the young male. The blows to the eyes. The madman with the tire iron. The retreating pride. He let loose of Camacho, lit out for the hole, and it was over.
Camacho received sixty-four stitches to his calf, leg, and arm. After spending several weeks in rehab, he was back in the field searching for lions – but not vengeance. “In no way could that lion be held at fault,” he says. “I was stupid. I caused the attack.” Camacho’s opinions carry a lot of weight in the region, in part because of the scars he bears from the attack, and in part because he’s spent ten years reinstating lions into wild areas of South Africa. He’s a scientist who knows first-hand the dangers of the bush, and he contends that when lions kill humans in Kruger, they are merely doing what comes naturally.
“What you are saying about the lions and refugees is true, but you must not be sensational and call them man-eaters,” he says, “or suggest that they have a taste for human flesh. Man-eaters should be individuals or prides that specialize in hunting humans as prey, and that focus on any humans, even those within the safety of the camps. The lions in Kruger do not set out to kill humans. They are opportunists.”
It is crucial, Camacho says, to understand that the lion is two animals. Man is diurnal, and the tourists who drive through Kruger on safaris see the lion in its passive daytime mode. At night, however, when refugees walk west through Kruger, the lion becomes a fearsome carnivore that walks the bush in highly organized hunting parties looking for protein. “If a large group of vulnerable refugees comes predictably through every night, the lions will see that there is easy prey, and they will kill it, and this will stay in their memory.”
When around lions, “you are always on a thin edge,” Camacho says. But there are two conditions where humans are likely to become lion prey. The first is when humans intrude in the “comfort zone” of the lion. Even a passive day-time tabby will attack if someone in Kruger is foolish enough to leave the Land Rover and stick a camera in its face. Like Hannibal Lechter, lions tend to eat the rude. The second condition is when human behavior “triggers” the lion to attack. These triggers are hardwired into the lion psyche, and like kittens to a dangled string, they respond aggressively to certain signals- crying, running, limping. “I was in a Land Rover one day just a meter away from a very placid lionness when a small child began to cry,” Comacho says. “Instantly she was alert. Lions are experts in spotting weakness. This is how they pick their prey from a herd. They are constantly scanning for vulnerability. So at night, if you are a refugee, the lions will size you up. If you are too small, you are vulnerable. If you are overweight, you are vulnerable. If you limp, you are vulnerable. If you are alone, you are vulnerable. If you are any of these things, then you may trigger a lion attack. It is the same to the lions as if you are a squealing pig. ”
Camacho first saw evidence of how lion attacks can be triggered in Kruger in July of 1998. He was in the bush with Greg Nelson, a documentary filmmaker who was producing a series called Free of Fear, a camera crew, and two American veterinarian trainees. They had lured lions with bait and hyena calls, but had tranquilized only two of them, even though their methods had always attracted an entire pride. So where were the other lions?
Someone on Nelson’s crew said he heard what sounded like a human cry a few hundred yards away. There, in the middle of the road, they found the fed-upon corpse of a refugee. It was clear from the tracks what had happened. The refugee was wearing an athletic shoe with a brand name raised on the sole. He’d been taking casual steps, imprinting “Fila” in the dust of the road. Going west to Joni, slowly but surely. A bit farther on, the tracks of a large lioness emerge from the bush as if merging from an entrance ramp. The two sets of prints proceed unchanged for a while, the “Fila” imprints spaced leisurely, the lion’s pug marks following behind. Judging from her gait, she appeared to be curious, open to opportunity, but not charging.
Then the athletic shoe tracks break into a run – he must have heard her growl or cough behind him – and her tracks show the trigger point: Instantly, the slow walk becomes a short, bounding run, then a leap. There is an area that clearly suggests a scuffle. Both the man’s shoes are stripped and thrown to the side. Then he regains his feet and races, barefoot, for his life. The lion tracks – now with claws extended – follow for twenty feet, and then there is a great deal of blood. The corpse is little more than a rib cage and a smear of red, its teeth exposed through missing lips in a ghoulish rictus.
Shocked and repulsed by what they found, the men pulled the Land Rover over the body to keep jackals and hyenas away from it. Between them, they had hundreds of nights sleeping in the open bush, and at that moment they were sincerely afraid of lions for the first time. Camacho was so shocked that he staggered away, walking back through the bush to the tranquilized lions. He stumbled on the first one, literally stepping on her, then changed direction and bumped into the other, which was recovering, eyeing him warily. Camacho recovered his senses and walked back to the group assembled around the corpse. With too much gear to return home, they had to sleep in the bush. They circled the Land Rovers, pioneer style, and Camacho crawled under his, where he slept fitfully, dreaming of lions and smiling corpses.
Still, reflecting on the incident, Camacho says, “Yet again, this was not the fault of the lion. The lion did not seek the refugee. The refugee walked into her turf and triggered the attack. You cannot call her a man-eater in the classic sense of the word.”
Whatever its causes, very little has been done about the problem. There have been no anti-lion uprisings, and on a continent where more than 20 million people are infected with AIDS, where genocide by machete cuts down hundreds of thousands, where malaria claims hundreds of thousands more in South Africa alone, public officials aren’t preoccupied with the lions in Kruger. In part, this is because everyone understands that the lions are the rock stars of eco-tourism. Moreover, some South Africans view the immigrants as border jumpers who steal jobs, and the lions as a sort of biological razor wire, a way to literally put teeth into the border-patrol efforts. And then there are the lion politics. Should members of a protected species be killed when doing what comes naturally? “Some people say, well, the lions were here first, and man comes in and creates a problem, so why must the animal suffer?” Dr. Gertenbach says. “That’s a difficult statement to make. There are human rights.”
And sometimes, lions do pay a price. In 1997, a pride of five was darted and killed in Kruger’s northern section. “They had become too aggressive,” says Dr.Gertenbach. “We could tell they were man eaters. In one stomach, we found a wallet with Mozambique currency.” Albert Machaba says, “We would’ve been their next targets. Even though we were fully armed, when we were in the bush, they were watching us and waiting.”
The shooting of lions has none of the glory it carried during the days of the Great White Hunter. These are not brave sorties into the bush after fleeing demons. They are executions. The act is anathema to the rangers, who are sworn to protect wildlife. Three Mozambican brothers were attacked in the park in May 1998. Two came to Machaba and begged him to help the third, as they could not drive the lioness off by themselves. From 500 meters, backed by several rangers armed with rifles, Machaba could see the lioness had killed the man and was feeding on him. He sighted down the scope of his .458 magnum, enough gun to bring down an elephant. Heart shots and head shots are the most humane and lethal, and Machaba put the cross-hairs on the head. He squeezed, the big gun bucked, and the lion fell dead across its prey. “It was a sad day,” Machaba says. “Sad for the man. Sad for the lion. But when we catch them red-handed, we must kill them. There is no looking away from that.”
Yet the laws of lion justice are loosely written and even more loosely enforced. “When we know a lion has become a man-eater, we must shoot it,” Dr.Gertenbach says. “But if it isn’t absolutely clear, we give it the benefit of the doubt. Besides, we are not equipped to solve this problem. We’re already short-handed in performing our primary duties – patrolling for poachers and snares, and maintaining the park for the animals and the tourists.”
Which is not to say Dr. Gertenbach hasn’t tried. In 1998, he suggested that buses be set up on the border and visas issued. But the South African Home Office balked. He also supported a barter system with refugees along Kruger’s border with Mozambique. The refugees provided crafts, which the park sold in gift shops. They were given food in return, and agreed to stay in their home country. But the program ran afoul of South African customs policy and was tangential to the problem at best.
Machaba has taken a different tack. When he arrived in the Satara area in 1998, he began crossing the border each month to visit the local officials in Mozambique. “You must educate the refugees,” he tells them. “Travel in large groups. Use guides. Do not set fires to keep warm.” His education program may be working. In the central Satara area, Machaba hasn’t found a corpse since arriving in 1998. But problems in Mozambique persist. A flood in 2000. A horrible drought this year. “If the drought continues, I expect there will be even more refugees,” Machaba says. And as long as there are refugees, there will be man-eating lions in Kruger. “Even if conditions in Mozambique get better, there are many families and tribes people who are split by the park,” he says. “They will always cross.”
The only legal way to step one rung down on the food chain is on a sanctioned “night drive” through Kruger in a big safari vehicle with staggered stadium seats that can accommodate 20 tourists at a time. Instructions are brief: Stay inside the open vehicle. Do not break the profile of the truck and show your human self. No noise. Do not talk. If you do, we are told, the game will run. Follow the rules, and lions generally ignore vehicles, even inches away.
Powerful, hand-held million-candlepower spot lights bleach the near roadside. The blackness of the African night swallows them a few feet into the bush, but they can scour the near terrain, catching the eyes of all the creatures. A set of green eyes. Kudo. A rock that moves. Elephant. Yellow eyes. A serval cat. We peer into the bush, looking for the alchemy of lions formed from the grass, just as they were in daytime.
When we see them, however, it is not in the bush, but on the road. In ordered single file, a hunting platoon of 11 lions move languidly down the road. These are not your daytime lions. They are panther leo nocturnal. Lithe and powerful, they swagger, all balls and confidence, like an urban gang patrolling its turf.
We pull even with them and are among them. Motor drives whir. Camera strobes freeze the cats. They stare at wheel level but ignore us, an arm’s length up and out from them. What happens then perhaps is seen through a lens of too much information, too much listening to Gerrie Camacho and his talk about comfort zones and trigger points. Yet we see what we see and hear what we hear.
The coiled potential for violence begins to undo the passengers. There are lions everywhere, a few feet away. Human invulnerability is stripped. First, it is a woman in the back. In a tremulous voice, she says in a South African English accent, “Driver! Please. Turn back. I am afraid they will jump in the car!”
An older man, joins in. “Yes! Yes! Turn back please! They are too close!”
Then, on the brink of tears, rattled badly by the adults, a young girl of about eight says in the shakiest of voices, “Let’s do go home. Please! I am very afraid. They are going to jump onto us.”
There is no response from the driver, but the lioness nearest us twitches and instantly looks up. She has been angling toward the vehicle. Perhaps she truly sees it for the first time, and that is the cause of her alertness. Or perhaps she has heard the trigger of the child. Her face looks both piqued and confused. She looks up and backs onto the downward slope of the road, her back legs feeling for footing, coiling under her. The spotlights shine in her vision, and within the beams she hears more fear. Her hindward legs bend more as she backs away. Footing? Or a leap? It’s impossible to tell. But there’s no doubt that she is searching.
More of the adults are chorusing now, asking the driver to leave. Some stalwarts half-shout, “No. Stay!” and blaze away with their cameras. All of them are breaking the rules. The girl sniffles and begins to sob. The lioness again twitches in response. Her face is intent, fearless.
“There, there,” the girl’s mother says. “They’re just as scared of you as you are of them, my dear. There is nothing to worry about.”
There is no indication that this is true. The lioness is stone-faced and stalwart, still interested, ripped with coils of muscle. But the woman’s voice seems eternally invulnerable and it calms us all. As the driver begins to pull the vehicle away, the lioness backpedals down the shoulder of the road. There is an embarrassed silence, but a moment later, it’s as if the panic never even occurred, as if we did not briefly feel like prey. We ascend confidently back to the top of the food chain and accept the myth that there was never anything to worry about. Yes, the lions were scared of us. It is our muti.
As we drive away, the platoon troops down the road again in single file. Then they do something I recognize from my pheasant-hunting days back home in rural Illinois. As kids, we would go out in groups, proud that we were trusted with shotguns. We would find a field of standing corn. Walking single-file along one side, we’d space ourselves out to cover the most ground, and with a signal or a nod, we’d enter the corn to begin driving the game before us.
The lions move to the bush alongside the road, and at some silent signal, they space themselves. Some look from side to side to gauge the span, while others trot ahead to spread out. When they are comfortable with the intervals, when they are spread out to cover the ground, they move as one and lope into the bush. They are on the hunt now, looking for easy prey, heading east toward Mozambique.