Chapter Three: “One Pissed Off Pussycat”
The deep bush of Tanzania
Later, Harunnah Lyimo, the bright young scientist who traipsed through lion country, documenting the deaths, would tell me he could only approximate some names because the villagers were reluctant to talk even months after an attack. Spirit Lion Rules, you know. The first rule. One does not mention the spirit lion. Even naming the dead might summon the spirit lion.
(Caption: Post card from Tanzania)
Still, Harrunah logs all. Even if he must use “wife of Said” as a descriptor. Every single death — and as I travel through Tanzania, I often look at Harunnah’s List with its dozens of names and places as if it were a road map.
(Caption: Remote doga where villages guard fields — and lions attack)
There is a merciful pause in the killings in September and for nearly two months, the villagers had reason to believe the first death was just an accident of sorts. But then Harunnah’s list takes us to the small village of Kilimani – about 50 miles east of Mwaseni, along the Rufiji River.
There, on October 24, 2002, 18-year-old Musa Mutupu just plain went missing. He had set out from one doga at night and was walking to his brother’s hut but never got there. People were not sure where he went. Many things might have happened. Was he with friends? Perhaps he had gone to a neighboring village. Perhaps there was a girl. People were off the clocks here. There were no clocks, no punch cards to stamp. No electricity, no cell phones. They were more than off the grid. Here, there was no grid. When night fell, for humans, the darkness was a blanket with only camp fires and lantern spots of light beneath a vast canopy of constellations, planets and the moon. For lions, vision at night worked about the same as ours might on a cloudy afternoon.
(Caption: Harunnah Lyimo)
That Mutupu had been killed and eaten by lions did not cross anyone’s mind until another teenager, identified later only as “the son of Mneka” was attacked by lions three days later as he too crossed at night from his brother’s doga back to his.
Here, there was no mistaking what had happened. It was a death that was witnessed, if only audibly. Villagers heard “a commotion” – the young man’s calls and the lions’ snarls. But they feared to intervene. The village game ranger came, but was too late to help.
Again, the body had been dragged only about 50 meters away – a good sign the lions were not afraid of reprisal — and was consumed by the lions. Only then did everyone connect the dots and understand that Musa Mutupu – the young man gone missing earlier – also had been taken as a meal by the lions. They searched and found the remains of his body and found a pattern was forming. Musa had been dragged only about 50 meters off the beaten path. Harrunah later would call Musa Victim Number Two and the son of Mneka was “Victim Number Three.”
The list had just begun.
A little more than a week later, the lions struck again, and this time, no one could mistake what was upon them. No one could doubt these were serial slayings. The lions appeared to swim the Rufiji river from south to north and on the fourth of November 2002, attacked a doga in a field near Ngorongoro village.
Here, a marked difference: The animals did not wait for the people to leave the structures and did not strike from ambush. They attacked a doga and attempted to break in. And they did this after swimming the Rufiji – a significant body of water.
One other difference here: there was a momentary hero.
Hassan Gegedu heard the noise at his relative’s doga and took action. He rushed to the rescue. Sometimes when you confronted lions, they ran. Not here. The 62-year-old man was killed and dragged into the bush, his body almost entirely eaten. Later, he would be listed as “Victim No. 4.”
He was not a full meal for the lions, however. Each lion needs about 100 pounds of meat a week to live a healthy life and humans, on average, provide only about 80 pounds of that, scientists say. The lions – a small pride of three — still needed protein and at around 11 pm, in the same area, the lions attacked 22-year-old Amir Dibuga.
Villagers heard his cries and responded in force. It was too late. Dibuga – ‘Victim No. 5” — was dead. Game rangers summoned to the sites of the killings tracked the lions to the banks of the Rufiji where the lions appeared to swim to the south bank.
Now a social alarm was silently sounded. Five victims comprised the number that alarmed everyone. It seemed a critical mass, a boundary passed. An etiquette of the two species now had been breached. Courtesies and treaties of old were split open.
These were not just opportunistic killings where humans blundered into the wrong spot at the wrong time. Such occurrences could happen without much note. Call those lions “accidental man-eaters” if you will. Sometimes the Disney myths were true.
But the lions here were seeking out humans, waiting for them near latrines, ambushing them between dogas, breaking into dogas, killing those who challenged them. They had become something else. They were not just man-eaters. They were confirmed man-hunters.
Everyone had a different theory as to why this was happening.
Ardent environmentalists would blame the villagers for intruding into habitat owned by the lions. And this was true.
Villagers, some of them, would blame Tanzania’s conservation laws, which allowed wild animals to wander anywhere they might, protected by law. And this was true also.
Some would fall back on the old saw that the animals were in some way handicapped. They limped or were old or their teeth were damaged and they could only catch slow humans. But here, that seemed unlikely.
Others with more scientific sense would say the wet season was upon the land – made worse by climate changes — and when that happened normal lion prey scattered and was harder to find. Humans were easy to find and lions attacked them and here – in South and Central Tanzania at least, the evidence seemed overwhelming – lions often attacked and ate humans for one reason. They could.
Some few other Western heads with a sense of history and science noted that Tanzania had a heritage of such outbreaks dating back not just years or decades but centuries, to the earliest slave caravans, say around 600 A.D. Humans may always have in some form or another been considered natural prey in South Central Tanzania, one scientist believed. Why not after all? There was no penalty to the game.
Among the people of the villages, many of them if not most of them, did not have the comforts of science and history. They saw it through a distinct prism one, to them as valid or more so than that of modern science. These were spirit lions. Created by shamans. Unkillable.
Accept that version of the beginning. Accept the scientific versions. Both theories shared a common dilemma.
No one knew how to stop the killings.
Osama knew what the hunters and game rangers were planning before the hunters and rangers themselves knew, or so it seemed. One day he struck south of the river, a few days later north. Osama was a shape shifter and could be the man next to you at the village council. You dare not speak of him.
And in that, humans deprived humans of their most valuable weapon: social cooperation. Humans best killed lions through teamwork. And if humans could not talk about the lions, then it boiled down to individual confrontations – which humans near always lost.
If they did talk, they all were agreed on one thing. Osama the lion was a large male, perhaps two or three years old, in the prime of health, weighing a bit more than 500 pounds. He was accompanied by three or four lionesses. It would perhaps be misleading to say this was a “pride” in the sense of Discovery Channel images. Perhaps they were a functional pride that would breed cubs. Perhaps it was just an alliance of necessity.
For sure, it could be said they were effective hunters of humans.
The sixth victim was claimed by the Osama pride on November 12, 2002, near Kipo village, as the rainy season began in earnest. Harunnah logged it diligently.
Sefu M. Mkumbula walked to an outhouse in the downpour and an unknown number of lions attacked and killed him. No one heard his calls, if calls there were, and it was not until the next day that they found his body 300 meters away from the attack site, almost entirely eaten.
The seventh victim was a seven-year-old, claimed eight days later farther east along the Rufiji River in Kipugira village. Said Mwenelwala was not walking to the latrine. Nor was he walking between huts. Nor did he rush to the rescue of anyone under attack.
Here, the lions broke through the walls of a mud hut and stole Said away as his mother and two other children were sleeping. They took the little boy only about 80 yards away from the dogo, showing little concern for attack by the humans. Next morning’s search found only Said’s skull.
Now there were variations on a theme. The eighth victim was a 65-year-old man named Ally M. Lititu and the attack was back in Kipo village. On Nov. 15, 2002, the lions attacked Ally’s ground-level dogo. He screamed and yelled. Neighbors rushed to the scene yelling and this time drove the lions away, but not before the lions had killed Mr. Lititu.
At last, at least, the social organization of the people had thwarted an attack – if only in denying the lions food. But it was not a real morale builder. If anything, it was a convincer on what had to be done. All those people rushing to the aid of one – with no effect. All those people rushing to scare the lions – and left with the uncomforting corpse instead.
There was another social movement now. Call it panic or call it a sensible reaction.
One-by-one, the dogas were abandoned. The people were leaving the fields south of the Rufiji River and returning to the protection of their populated villages on the north side of the river. It was a portentous moment. Leaving the fields meant risking famine. These were subsistence crops, not for export or ethanol. This is what they ate in the winter.
For that reason, a few unfortunates stayed to watch the crops and feed the people. They also fed the lions.
Hatanawe Kibana, a twelve-year-old girl, was attacked when a lion broke into a doga late at night. Others sleeping there screamed and yelled for help, and again the lion fled. This time, the victim, Hatanawe, survived. She had terrible injuries, but she lived.
This too could have been taken as a good sign, a signal that the villagers could repel the lions.
But on November 26, in Kilimani village, at 3 a.m., lions attacked a doga where the second wife of Said S. Matambwe lived with others. He heard the ruckus and calls for help and immediately began shouting and flashing lights.
This attracted the lions rather than repelling them. Said saved his wife’s life but lost his. The lions killed him and began eating him when dawn broke and they scattered, leaving their kill largely uneaten behind them.
Again, a hero had paid the price. Again, it seemed, there was not a lot of upside in challenging this pride.
Still, the relatives and the rangers gathered and thought. The family agreed they could use the corpse as bait.
Around the body of Said S. Matambwe, the rangers placed wire snares. And the rangers also built platforms in trees to have safe, clear shots at the lions if they returned.
They waited into the morning and soon enough, the pride of three lions returned. The three approached the body and began to feed.
Then the rangers opened up. One lion was wounded and ran. A second was caught in a snare. The third – the large, maneless lion known as Osama – escaped without harm.
The lion in the snare was dispatched by the rangers. The villagers then ate the lion – a ritual consumption, scientists said, to attain the strength of the lion for themselves.
All-in-all, they ought to have been pleased with themselves at this point. The hunters and villagers had wiped out two thirds of the pride that had been preying on humans. (The wounded lion most certainly would die.) It would be logical to think that the third lion would take an interest in a new species and leave the villagers alone.
That didn’t happen.
Dennis Ikanda, a Tanzanian scientist and co-author with Professor Craig Packer of a ground-breaking study of man-eaters, explained it this way.
(Caption: Dairen Simpson)
“Whatever harm they were doing to humans before, as a pride they had the social structure to hunt other species,” Ikanda said. “Wounding one lion and killing another destroyed the pride and left one lion.
“The remaining lion had few options,” Ikanda said. “It was forced to find the easiest prey it could, and this turned out to be humans.”
Osama wasn’t about to go away. In fact, now he was virtually forced to come back again, again and again. This wasn’t finished at all. Where three lions had frequently fed on people, one very big lion was about to feed almost exclusively on humans.
“What they did was create one desperate, pissed off pussy cat,” said Dairen Simpson, an American humane trapper who works with Ikanda.