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

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Here’s Chapter Two of this work in progress. (Chapter One is here if you missed it earlier.) All of this grew from my reporting from Kruger National Park in South Africa and my book The Man-Eaters of Eden. You can read Chapter Two on my site here.

Chapter Two: The Hunter

Central Tanganyika

1940

           As I walk through this part of Africa, retracing the steps of Osama, my research floats back and an internal voice whispers: 

Rushby passed through here. 

Carrying his little sack. Puffing on his pipe. So austere and stripped down, he declined even a strap on his big double rifle. It caught on the bushes. Slowed him down. The African hunters had taught him that. A Brit by birth, he was inducted into the secret societies of Africa’s black hunting fraternities. They showed him techniques no white man knew. Taught him about muti.  About magic. 

George Rushby by all accounts, is the greatest of white hunters and the fiercest nemesis of man-eaters in Africa.  In the 1930’s and 1940’s he prowled the deep bush of Tanzania – then Tanganyika — and near single handed stopped the worst outbreak of man-eating lions ever recorded in history. 

He is also one of the least known big game hunter heroes on the planet. 

 His name is forever overshadowed in Africa by a British colonel named Paterson – an amateur who shot two lions in Tsavo, Kenya, and is to this day is popularly considered the gold standard of the African hero hunter.   As a writer, he excelled.  He had a sense of suspense and Stephen King-like horror that captivated readers of his book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, a riveting tale that to this day is a good earner for publishers and was the basis of the film “Ghost and the Darkness.” The two lions bedeviling him shut down the building of a railroad bridge and they dispatched at least 38 Asian Indian workers, and probably another 100 Africans.  He hunted them in utter darkness, lost friends, saw the project shut down for a while, all miles from any sort of modern support system. He portrayed the lions as fiends against the great Christian West and Progress.  His accounts landed circa 1902 when the world was at peace and amateur adventurers were celebrated and the press was hungry, hungry for colonial champions.  Paterson was their champ.  

Consider poor, publicity challenged Rushby.   Miles north in Tanganyika, in the middle of the war-time 1940’s.  No one in Great Britain even knew he was there. And he sought no publicity.  Still, his lions killed ten times more than Patterson’s. First dozens. Then scores. Then hundreds. Then more than one thousand – and upward from there. 

Here, prides of lions systematically hunted people.  They were not just man-eaters – the old and slow type, with few teeth, the often inaccurate stereotype.   They were committed man-hunters, working in teams, a highly tuned social network, attacking, then heading out miles overland carrying dead human bodies in relays.  They were not just hunting humans. They had settled on humans as a preferred prey. 

           Looking back at it, researchers would conclude this behavior had run through generations, beginning sometime in 1932 when the man-hunting deaths first surfaced.   The techniques for hunting humans were passed down through multiple generations of one particular lion pride and this training aspect was important.  Lions tend to specialize in prey.  They’ll eat pretty much anything edible and some things you would think not.  But a preferred species – cape buffalo, zebra, antelope, even baboons in some rare cases – cluster at the top of any chart of “most consumed.”  It’s part accessibility. Part palate. Some lions consider monkeys inedible.  Some prefer them. It’s the same with humans.  

Rushby, a reformed elephant poacher, previously had a general contempt for lions.  Elsewhere, he had killed them with ease.  They killed an animal. Ate it. Went out to sleep in a thicket. Next day, you just tracked him. With luck, you could shoot him in his sleep. 

Elephants?  He waxed eloquently on about elephants!    They were the far superior and more dangerous game, he thought.  In his two books about Africa, he makes that clear.  And he makes just about everything clear.  In as few pages as possible.  If he was twice the hunter of Paterson, he was on tenth the writer. His idea of a snappy narrative was: “They were the worst, cleverest man-eating lions ever in the world.  And then I killed them. 

He did far more than what those humble words state – far more in fact than Patterson might ever have dreamed. 

Trekking alone through wild and tangled bush, he pursued the animals for years, marveled at how they defied the old stereotypes of “man-eater” – the old and injured cat, toothless, too slow to catch any other mammal.  These cats were in the prime of their lives and healthy, with silky coats he thought glossier and more beautiful than other lions.  He would sit out for hours over the too abundant bait of dead human bodies,  escape death too many times to note in detail or even count, so routine was it to him. 

But it also was something else, about Rushby.  And perhaps this didn’t play well in the hometown papers.  Perhaps this is why Patterson’s god-fearing portrayal of his lions as demons of the night read so much better to Westerners. 

The world is filled with stories of how science triumphs over the taboos and superstitions of Third World countries. It is a part of the colonial tale and white hunter lore.  Paterson the engineer built clever traps and discouraged help from the locals to dispatch the two devils. 

Rushby’s story isn’t like that. 

The lions he saw as no great demons.  They were animals doing what animals do.  There was no moral judgement to be wrought here. 

And it was not a great and powerful Christian God to whom he prayed. 

At times, he would have his guns blessed by the shamans.  

At others, he would confer with healers and wear charms.   He was inducted into African hunting guilds and orders, underwent the ceremonies, crawled into small huts where he laid his weapons before three statues of animal gods.  

It’s not that he had gone native and wore a loin cloth.  It was a pure act of reasoning, he said. 

Anyone who lived in the bush and hunted there for long knew this to be true, he said.  The “black magic” stuff worked.  Anyone who thought differently was a fool. 

If he thought that before he went for his lion hunt, he thought it doubly and triply afterwards.  Rushby – with some western arrogance still at first — thought it would take a week to wipe out the man-eating lions of Ngombe.  

Seven years later, a near broken man, he was still struggling with it. 

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