(Note: As I have done for two of my other books, I’m posting here a free online version of Man-eaters of Eden. You can also read the book in paperback or kindle formats via Amazon.com or listen to the Audible book here. )
The Man-Eaters of Eden:
Life and Death in Kruger National Park
An Investigative Safari Inquiring into one of the Largest Consumption of Humans by Lions in Modern History
By Robert R. Frump
© Copyright, February 5, 2005, Robert R. Frump
The rights of the author of this work have been asserted by him.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher or the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Note: The italicized summary before each chapter is representative of late 19thand early 20thcentury non-fiction accounts of explorations.
For more than a year now, I’ve studied lions and man-eaters, and I feel I should know better, behave better, be braver.
But when I hear the sound in the pre-dawn hours, as I walk alone over land as flat and long as a parade ground in the ink-black dark of an African night, something far older than intellect plays out.
Basso profundo, rumbling in from the bushveld, so low it is nearly subsonic, not near, but not far either, comes the roar of male lions. Once, twice, four times in all, a pause and then again, leisurely, measured, dominant, with all the time in the world, fully held whole notes: five more low, slow roars.
The wave of sound reverberates first in my breastbone, then locks up some part of my brain and freezes me mid-step like a lizard caught in the open on a flat rock.
I am not frightened – just frozen. I’ve no clear idea how that happened. Only later do I put my finger on it, in a sentence buried midway through a book about prey species behavior. The freeze behavior is a part of a prey defense mechanism known broadly as “crypsis.” Freezing instantly is an automatic anti-predatory measure hardwired into our systems. A part of the brain called the amygdala contains unconscious memories and fears of predators who threatened our ancestors. The threats in modern times mostly are gone. The amygdala could care less. Let an unexpected sight or sound of a predator pop up, and the amygdala grabs control before conscious thought occurs.
So the lion roars tripped off the trigger of my amygdala and the amygdala froze me mid-step. Motion means detection. Detection could mean death. Useful in ancient times, no doubt, but now, after a moment more, I reassure myself that it is stupid to be worried. I’m inside a barbed wire high fence confinement in the heart of Kruger National Park in South Africa.
I don’t move, though, because in another instant that one comforting thought is sawed apart by others. I’ve done my research too well. The workers eaten at Tsavo long ago were inside thorn bomas – arguably a harder target than these barbed wire fences. The people killed in Tanganyika – more than 1,000 of them six decades ago – often were inside hard mud huts, which the lions shucked through like so many pistachio shells. The wife of the head of Kruger security was killed inside a barriered camp larger than this one only two years prior to my visit here. And the park acknowledges that many of the Kruger lions, if not outright man-eaters, certainly have eaten humans.
These are not good thoughts. Not for what I have planned at least. I stay still frozen in mid-stride, one foot back and one foot front, both feet on the ground. Light plays two hundred yards away from a lamppost where I am supposed to meet Kruger game rangers for a dawn foot patrol. I measure the distance to the light and my eyes are drawn to the nearest trees.
Scientists have charted what can happen to me and my amygdala if things do not improve and my systems do not “stand down.” My pupils will dilate, so I have a better chance of detecting predators. The bronchioles in my lungs will dilate, too, all the better for flight or fight. Blood pressure and pulse will pump up as well. All these things may already have happened, in fact.
Then, in my liver, glycogen will break down, providing a quick source of energy. Adrenalin of course will flood my blood stream, and my spleen will contract in order to send out more white blood cells in case they are needed. The capillaries in my stomach and intestines will contract as well, sending blood to my muscles.
Then things will get stranger. My body will prepare the bladder and the colon for evacuation. And my body hair may stand on end. “Piloerection” it is called. Some think this is a display mechanism intended to make the “prey” (me) look larger. Somewhere in there, a basic decision will be made, often not determined by thought. Flee? Or stand and fight?
And if actually caught by a lion? With luck, from what I have read, endorphins will flood my system, giving me a sort of distanced and not unpleasant dream-like view of my plight. Then again, they may not. Some survivors of lion attacks say they have suffered severe pain. Endorphin doping seems to vary person to person.
I remain frozen for a moment more, hear the roars again and realize they are heading away from the gates of Satara, known as the “cat camp” in Kruger. I chuckle at my inner lizard, take a deep breath, regain my composure, then resume the walk to the ranger rendezvous point.
But for a full minute or two there, I knew a little of what it was like, something of what it must be like for the Mozambican refugees. They were out there now, almost certainly. They have heard the same roars. They would have the same reaction I did. And some of then would have all the other reactions too, including the reactions to attacks.
Unlike me, they have no rangers, no lights, no barbed wire protection. Only the trees or fire. Even then, fire and a tree did little for those four back in 1997 up north near Punda Maria. The Punda pride took them down one at a time, one at the fire, three from the tree. Only the one refugee bobbing about in the thin upper branches survived.
It is way too dark. So are these thoughts. I walk a little faster. A lot faster. But I do not run. You never should run. At the very least, I remember that much. Of all that I have read and seen of man-eaters, I remember that and carefully slow my gate to a more measured walk.
Still, my amygdala and I are moving at a pretty good clip.
Robert R. Frump
Satara Camp, Kruger National Park
South Africa – 4:45 a.m.
July 28, 2002
A casual wave from the bush; a terrible discovery; a ranger takes an oath; questions arise and an investigative safari is organized and begun.
My journey started with a story and a question. Neville Edwards first told me the story and asked the question in this manner.
He was guiding two Frenchmen in the very heart of lion country, when a hand rose up from the bush of South Africa’s wild Kruger National Park and waved a casual good morning hello.
In front, a magnificent elephant bull ambled across the grand vista that was Kruger. Neville’s clients — two very senior corporate VIP’s, out to see their fellow carnivores – did not see the hand. They were pointing up front at the big tusker and talking excitedly. Always, with elephants, you kept a sharp eye and the Land Rover in reverse, ready to go in case of a charge. That and all the other rules of the bush, Neville Edwards understood well, for he was a veteran safari guide with years of experience.
But this hand? This wave? Edwards did not understand it and he could not ignore it. No one should be in the wild of Kruger on foot and this puzzled him. Now the hand was summoning him. With an odd tremble, it seemed to gesture him forward, beckoning.
He brought his binoculars to the spot to see what the person wanted, focused the murky oval field of his vision and it was then that the black-backed jackal popped crisply into view. The scavenger was worrying an arm and the dead body it was attached to. The hand danced above, still waving. Then the jackal changed its grip. The hand and arm dropped and a human head then flopped into view and fell, flopped and fell, impossibly relaxed.
There was a brief moment for Edwards when lucid thoughts crossed his mind. A woman’s hand, he thought, not a man’s, as the fingers were slender. A Mozambique refugee, he knew. The poor woman! She had tried it — tried to walk the Kruger. Dead but not long dead, he thought, as she was still flexible. The lions that had killed her were not far away now, as they must just have 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, a shiver from the base of Edward’s spine tingled up to the top of his scalp and demanded that most basic choice of action: fight or flight?
No choice really. Kruger guides traveled unarmed and the lions were still near. So flight was imperative, away from the lions, yes, but also from the body and a concept where humans were prey and protein and the food chain had been inverted.
Neville 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 and they did not need to. It was Bastille Day after all, and Edwards ever was considerate. He switched to Zulu: “Ifuna siza! Ifuna siza!”
Then Edwards to the amazement and protest of the French floored the landie away from the only game they would see that day. He accelerated, away from the elephant, away from the jackal and most particularly above all away from the woman and the horror for which she stood. Edwards just did not care. The VIP’s were no longer the alpha predators in that part of the world. Nor was he. Nor the poor, poor woman.
Later in that day on July 14, 2000, he poured out a strong drink, knocked it back, swore an oath, “No more safaris! Ever!” and asked himself how this all could have occurred in Kruger, billed always in the books and the posters as “the Eden of Africa.”
In truth, at some level of consciousness, all the players behind the curtain at Eden, even those who had not seen the bloody proof smacked down whole on the table, had been asking that question for some time. The rangers, the safari guides, the field biologists and the conservation managers of the great park — “the Kruger,” as they almost all call it in awe and respect — knew the stories about the lions and the refugees. Bits of bloody clothes found in the middle of nowhere. A lone suitcase, filled, abandoned in the bush. A single shoe. A full water bottle. Footprints that trekked on, then just ended. Everyone knew what was happening. Kruger was the one, best way for poor Mozambicans to enter South Africa with its supply of jobs and relative safety. Kruger presented the longest border with Mozambique and the cover the Mozambicans needed to sneak in.
Edwards was the last professional ranger and guide I talked to at the end of a tourist safari in South Africa and his job technically was “transfer” — getting me and my family safely to the airport to return to the States. The previous days had been spent in the bush — if you could call the “bush” luxury safari camps with showers, hot tubs and gourmet meals all served up with well-educated, literate young rangers who could answer virtually any question about the wild of Africa. I was not intent on a “story.” In fact, I was on holiday in March 2001 thinking to leave labor far, far behind, having just filed two year’s of hard work with my publisher, looking for a break and a visit with a foreign correspondent friend and his wonderful family.
It was a great break. The rangers and their sidekick trackers struck me as the best of men and women — intelligent and attuned both to the wilderness and what they themselves loved. I consider myself a moderate conservationist, a green-leaning lover of the outdoors, an amateurist who knows a modest bit of flora and fauna. I grew up in farm country in the Midwest, where you hunt your first pheasant at age 10. Awhile back, for a magazine article, I spent a week in the wild learning how to track. I can start a fire pretty easily without matches. In a casual unplanned manner over the years, I’ve back-packed through rain forests and up mountain switchbacks, kayaked through rip tides and surf, set foot on glaciers, been dropped near remote lakes by bush pilots, camped in the snow, hiked remote wilderness beaches, built shelters from branches and leaves, canoed through remote lands, been dumped into Force IV waters, and heard howling wolves close by in the wilderness. In short, I knew enough to know that here I knew very little. The rangers and trackers had skills far, far beyond mine. They could see sign and tracks — “spoor” they call it there — in the subtlest of variations of undergrowth and bent twigs. One literally tracked a leopard over rock – a feat I thought impossible until I saw the tracks emerge into mud on the far side of the rock formation. The tracker – a Shangaan – found the leopard four hours later. What was invisible to me popped out in bas relief to him. So it is when you have done something for many years with great interest and passion.
The less admirable aspect of being a ranger revealed itself slowly. We would drive within feet of lions in the daytime and the animals would seem indifferent to our presence, if they noted us at all. Rangers on these private reserves outside Kruger were asked whether humans ever were attacked by lions and they would answer, “Never here. Never here while you are in the vehicle.” Then some of them would pause and add, “Not here. But Kruger? Not tourists but with refugees? That’s another story”
And if you were to meet a new ranger, skip the preliminaries and ask him flat out about Kruger, he would almost inevitably show two reactions in quick succession. First, a look of keen interest and engagement would cross his face, the look of the field biologist and earnest explorer of nature he was. Then would come a suspicious and hurt look and the flat question, “Who told you about Kruger?” This, inevitably, was the look of someone in the tourist trade, I thought, someone who was vaguely threatened. Afraid that “it” would get out. Afraid that it already had.
People did that with enough regularity and consistency that it had the reverse affect, naturally. Then, on the last day of the trip, as it turned out, I met Neville Edwards, who seemed afraid of little, save perhaps that summons from the waving hand under the Acacia tree on a stretch of Kruger lowveld.
The hand beckoned to me as well. My jumble of thoughts took form around that story and the other clusters of conversations, ordered themselves and then marched me off on a trip without my really knowing it at the time. Neville’s story, on top of the beginnings of so many others, was the catalyst. It was the last piece, the last coincidence that convinced me at some level that I might spend some weeks in search of facts and truths in the bush of Kruger and months more in books and papers about the lions of Kruger and the refugees of Mozambique and the crossed paths the two species traveled.
The project seemed on balance worthwhile and more than pulp non-fiction. The first of the seven classic plots of all stories is “Man Versus Monster.” Literary critic Christopher Booker, among others, has said as much. So the story claimed pedigree. Moreover, most stories tell us something about our spot on the evolutionary ladder. This one was just more literal.
Above all, when it turns out that we are being eaten regularly in great numbers by large predators, one could fairly look at the examination of such a situation as instructional to the species. Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto seems to have reasoned in somewhat the same manner. In his book, Millennium, A History of the Last Thousand Years, two of the seven hundred-plus pages in his book deal with the famous man-eating lions of Tsavo in 1898 at the turn of the 20th Century. The disproportionate significance of Tsavo and the significance of Kruger are the same. They posed threshold questions of civilization and “progress.” Lions are not supposedto eat people in man’s modern natural order of things. Yet lions were, at Tsavo and in Kruger too more than 100 years later.
How could that have happened? And what did humans do about it? What did they notdo?
My thought was to examine the Kruger situation dispassionately, without the hysteria of an “expose”. The basic facts were quite broadly known so in that sense there wasno expose. The rangers and the park officials acknowledged the problem, but treated the phenomenon as they might a mad aunt in the attic. Everyone knew. They all heard the mad thumping upstairs. No one in the parlor addressed the situation in polite company.
Certainly, no one would say how many had been killed and it was clear no count has been kept. Record books on this subject should have been closed, I had thought, a hundred years ago. The Tsavo Bridge man-eaters, were among the most famous. Some counts say they claimed more than 100 before the famous British hunter and engineer James Patterson finally shot them. But those were in the days of pith helmets and Empire — the late 19th centuries.
True, in Tanganyika, from 1932 through 1947, lions had killed and eaten about 1,500 humans — considered the “All-Africa record” as one writer put it — before famous white hunter George Rushby dispatched them. But that occurred in the confusion of a global war when one could argue civilization had, well, slipped a tad.
How big was the Kruger kill? No one hazarded a guess even unofficially, though most agreed it had long ago passed measurement by the dozen. It seemed likely to me that given the broad acceptance of the problem and the fact that little was being done to solve it, we might well have a new “All-Africa” on our hands, a record the park officials and South African government were falling over themselves notto claim.
And so it seemed a simple and straightforward story, and in the “modern” world, with its assumption of progress and absolute values, it would have been just that.
But in the postmodern world — Po-Mo World, an artist friend calls it – the one certainty is that absolutes refract to irony. The simple truths I sought soon prismed into neo-gothic complexities and a nuanced noir that Patterson, Rushby, Peter Capstick, Robert Ruark, Jim Corbett and the other great white hunters and adventure writers of past centuries might never have foreseen.
The orbits of monster and hero – of Grendel and Beowulf – had altered. The archetypes of western culture – laid forth in the epic poem Beowulf dating from before 1000 AD — were present. But Grendel the monster and Beowulf the hero circled each other in a profoundly different ellipse. They seemed somehow to have swapped polar charges.
There was a new type of victim, a new type of hero and a new type of monster. In the postmodern world, the victims – the Mozambicans – had few friends and seemed more villain than victim. Grendel – the lions of Kruger — was seen by most as holding the moral high green ground. At an extreme, some went so far as to say a breed of man-eaters were helpful as security and immigration control agents.
And the modern Beowulfs – the rangers — were conflicted at best. It was a bad time to play hero on this post-modern stage. Slay the monster and you got booed. Let it pass and you felt guilty. The rangers, the men and women I had come to know and respect, were caught in an existential puzzle where there were extra pieces. Carefully over the years, they had pieced Kruger together as one of the world’s great parks. But thispart of it? Lions eating humans consistently for years and years? They genuinely and quite earnestly could not figure where those pieces fit in the tableaux of Eden.
So those were the facts and hidden truths I saw at play in the park. And as for me, well, I may have styled myself as the remote and inquiring observer of these matters, and truly that was my intent. I intended no harm to the lions and thought Kruger and the lions should last forever. My youthful hunting days were for the most part, long, long gone. Lions in Kruger as elsewhere still faced incredible pressures from poaching, cruel snares and so-called “canned hunts.” In recent years, outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis infected lions and the disease was taking a terrible toll.
As for the refugees, I wished them safe passage or a long awaited peace and prosperity in their homeland. In the same way that poor Mexicans inevitably are drawn north across the American border, so were the Mozambicans drawn west through Kruger. It was inevitable, an economic osmosis. Strict border controls always work poorly if there is a strong black market demand from a neighboring country. Or a disaster in yours. The refugees here weren’t setting out to steal jobs. They were setting out to stave off starvation and the genocidal campaigns of an endless civil war. All countries need border controls. But whatever the crimes of the Mozambicans, being eaten in Eden was a far too cruel but not unusual, punishment.
So it seemed to me I would be on a balanced path. Even from the start, though, I knew there were journalistic and stylistic landmines out there on that path and that I would almost certainly step on a few of them. Writing that involves science and carnivores splits into many camps. Many scientists and science writers decry attention to the emotions and drama of humans coming into contact with animals that want to eat them. One science writer I admire characterized the fairly straightforward reports about Tsavo written by Colonel Patterson as “predator porn” Two scientist authors of a wonderful book, “Man The Hunted” suggested that a front page story in the New York Times about wolves eating villagers in modern Russia was sensationalist when 300 million people in India were mal-nourished, a story never told.
The science writers and scientists have a point. But they also miss a few small points and one very big one. The small points include their selection of “sensationalist” authors. Patterson and The New York Times pale in comparison to the marvelously purpled prose of Peter Capstick. (“Coming up,” he shouted and yelled at the lion to draw its attention and blew the cat’s head into pudding with his own .458”) But Capstick’s observations are footnoted as sources in many of the same books that decry sensationalism. Why? Because, as it has often been said, the very first unofficial field zoologists in Africa were those who observed animal behavior over the iron sights of a rifle. Hunters absorb animal behavior as a very practical part of their jobs. So Capstick may indeed write, well, vividly (“The man-eater gave a terrific tug and the claws ripped forward tearing De Beer’s scalp loose from his skull until it hung over his face like a dripping, hairy, red beret.”) But his observations and facts interspersed between such dramatic scenes are scattered throughout many of the scientific studies I’ve read on lions. If journalists write the first draft of history, African hunters often have written the first draft of field zoology.
The larger mistake scientists can make is the omission of the emotional dimension of large carnivores capable of eating humans. Perhaps this is because they cannot yet measure the emotion. Nevertheless, it may well be the drama, the adrenaline, the fear or failure, the courage and triumph, that shapes the relationship of our two species and always has.
One thesis by Jonny Loe suggests the importance of understanding the actual nature of the attacks and the emotional response. “During evolution, these incidents being risk-relevant stimuli may have had so strong impact on humans, that preparedness for fear of large carnivores are represented in our gene pools”
The drama of it is not just necessary in this view. It may be definitive. Animals do not evolve because they do double blind tests and mathematical regression analysis to assess probabilities. Humans may inject some reason into the process of change, but oftentimes human behavior is glandular, emotional, drama-charged, caused by “risk driven stimuli.”
Hans Kruuk, a respected professor of zoology, and author of “Hunter and Hunted,” made somewhat the same point in explaining his approach in his book.
“The stories are bloody, and some readers may be put off by the gory detail. Such a reaction is part of our anti-predator behavior. But I think that the pattern of predation is important, as is how common the incidents are, because this is what makes up the threat which, in evolution, has shaped our response to predators.”
I am of the Kruuk school in such matters and it should be noted that some of the stories here are bloody and emotional because some of the human contact with predators is bloody and emotional. It seems to me in fact that without the emotional involvement and the drama of human and predator behavior there would not be places like Kruger, and lions would be mounted museum exhibits, not living in the Eden of Kruger.
So of that approach, I was certain from the start. Yet, there were times when I was in danger of taking it to an extreme. I developed some hidden plans that I kept from family, friends and my guides, too. I came to believe that if I were to do the story right and capture the emotional element of it all, then somehow I needed to walk the park at night just as the Mozambicans did and experience what it was like to be prey
It was a thought that came and went, but one that at times burned so very clear, it seemed to me as if nothing short of crossing the park would let me keep the most basic and simple of a journalist’s code: bear witness.
But there were many other codes at play as well in Kruger that I knew little of at the start. I would learn slowly and imperfectly that my plan to experience the refugee’s plight first hand would trigger ethical complexities as intricate as those faced by the rangers.
In that there is nothing new. As an idle hobby, it seems, Africa everyday upends the reasoned strategies and good intentions of naive westerners. Then those strategies can be bowled back in an altered form to perplex the westerner further.
Or so it seemed to me, looking back at it all later. My plan to experience what it felt like to be prey would fail miserably and make me feel more than a little craven for suggesting it. Then, without any plan at all, I would witness it in a manner different than ever I would have conceived in a situation that placed me a good bit closer to a lion at night than ever I care to be.
Of all those assorted things – the changed relationship of lion and human; my own quiet caldron of bubbling compulsion — I knew little as I started. It all seemed a straightforward story, the oldest story in the world — humans v. monsters. Re-tell and update the story of Grendel and Beowulf. Of course, there would be subtleties in the modern version. Humans would not literally wipe out all the lions. They would adjust systems, alter immigration laws, save the lions and the refugees. I was certain of it. Someone had to have a plan. This was post-apartheid South Africa, the land of Mandela, of truth and reconciliation. I’d find the modern version of the Great White Hunter who slays the Man-eating Beast — by fixing the system. In a world of complexity, this would be simple. My investigative safari would follow a clear path. I would learn about the rangers, the history of the park and the lions, the refugees and how they interacted, and then explain the situation, all in orderly fashion.
And so it was in July of 2002, that my airplane came to touch down on the airfields just west of Kruger Park and – as they say in the old exploration books — with glad heart I began my journey in earnest.
|Author (Left) with Steve Gibson and Neville Edwards|
The park is revealed; two modern rangers and their childhood in the bush; deaths in the park; trial by croc; we encounter a leopard; a surprising revelation by a professional hunter.
Neville Edwards and I rendezvoused near Kruger National Park and plotted the route of the journey through lion country. He was the spotter and tracker on this trip and his boyhood friend and proprietor of Esseness Safaris, Steve Gibson, was at the wheel. They are my guides on this investigative safari, intent on finding answers to questions we’ve formulated after wading through a small library of books and papers about Kruger, rangers, lions and man-eaters. My thought is to take the topics in neat order and order the book in the same manner. We would explore the history of the park and its rangers, understand the refugees plight, examine the lions, describe how the two species interacted and find an answer to the problem. Neither Neville nor Steve is employed by Kruger. They are free-lance rangers and guides who will contract with individuals or safari companies to show travelers the park or other wild areas of Africa and they are knowledgeable but neutral about what Neville later would dub “lion politics.”
For Edwards, the old vow — “No more safaris. Ever!” — lasted for about a day. Safari guides in Africa, like fishing guides in the States, resign almost as regularly as they re-up. Now the great Kruger, a park about the size and shape of Massachusetts, elongated and stood on end, rolled out once again before Edwards. He was again a guide, a ranger, and I was a journalist with a story. Both of us were energized and glad to begin the safari on that July day in the winter of South Africa with its sunny days and its nights as crisp and cool as an autumn in New Hampshire.
These are not the flat plains of the Serengeti we are traveling nor stereotyped Hollywood jungle country. We are in the far northeast corner of South Africa, hard against the Mozambican border, with Zimbabwe straight north from us. For miles, rolling hills and scrubland roll on with yellow and brown thatching grass the exact coloring of a lion. Through this land, Mozambicans have migrated to South Africa for more than a century. They walk through Kruger because the great park comprises virtually the whole border of the two countries and the wildness of the park always provides great cover.
We are following the road near the Crocodile River — the southernmost route of the migrants — and with a regularity that suggests Spielbergian cues, giraffes hobbyhorse by. Then in awhile, elephants heft and lever their great bulk across the grassland. Then zebra, then kudu and whole shy herds of model-thin, lithe impala, on invisible runways, all move at a walk one foot squarely in front of the other warily through the swaying lion-colored grass, which is everywhere.
Superimposed upon these idyllic scenes is modernity. The roads are open to tourists. BMW’s, VW micro-buses, Audi’s, Mercedes, Volvos, Land Rovers, Nissans, and Toyotas, in singles, pairs and sometimes packs, come, go and stop, filled with tourists. Motor drives whir. Cars drive on. More cars stop. Video cams hum. These are the regular rhythms of Kruger and it seems for the most part deceptively safe.
The lions, when we see them much later in daytime, are no threat. They morph up from the thatching grass and seem to be of the grass. They are a trick of the grass, an alchemy. A face forms from the light brown base metal. The head of a lioness, big black ears turned to us and tuned, looks out. The head then melts back to its base, disappears, then reforms a moment later at another angle. Later still, the grasses converge and bulge up the much larger, square-jawed, maned-head of a male lion. The head turns to us in supreme boredom, then puddles back into its constituent element.
A moment later still, the male lion bounds languidly up from the grass and presents its full form. He moves. The lioness takes form and moves, too, but more slowly. He catches her. Foreplay is a growl, answered by a snarl. They mate. Seconds later, they separate. They amble. They mate again. Then puddle into the grass once more.
This is what can be seen from a car window on a normal day in Kruger and scenes like this draw one million visitors per year and tens of millions of dollars and Euros to South Africa. White South Africans, particularly Afrikaners, feel a strong sense of heritage and history in the park and crowd the park on holiday. Yet so large is Kruger and so authentically wild that the visitors seem never to damp its sense of wildness and authenticity. More than 10,000 elephants, 95,000 impalas, 20,000 zebras, 10,000 and 2,000 lions assure wildlife sightings.
There is no danger to the tourists, or little of it. Mostly the tourists are ignored and the cars have surprisingly little impact on the wildlife of the park. Cars and Land Rovers, big hard-shelled objects with a foul smell and no known protein value, do not seem to bother the lions and one can, given the right circumstances, quite commonly approach within feet. Edwards has had a lioness lay in the shadow of his Land Rover, even jump to the hood and rest its head on his windshield for a nice snooze.
There is no danger to the tourists or little of it but this does not mean all is safe or that lions are the only threat. A young Kruger ranger was killed only four years ago when he stopped his night safari for a break. He walked ahead of the group of tourists and sat down on a bridge railing, rifle in his lap. A leopard came from under the bridge and took him from behind. He died instantly, his rifle clattering on the bridge decking. The tourists had trouble driving the injured and starving animal away from the body.
A year earlier, in the heart of “civilized Kruger,” a woman park ranger — the wife of Kruger’s security chief — was jogging alone within the protected enclave of Skukuza. A leopard ambushed her 20-yards from her home and killed her. A child of a Kruger employee met a similar fate in 2002 and in that same year a leopard stalked and attacked a ranger chopping firewood. The leopard sprang, the ranger swung. The man lived to tell the tale, amazed that such an ancient weapon as an axe and more ancient instincts saved him and killed the leopard.
Nor are big cats the only danger. The thin veneer of civilization can relax even seasoned rangers. They forget Eden is wild. Sometimes they are lulled and quite literally wade into trouble as several of them discovered in 1976. On a wonderful sunny Sunday summer day in November, Thomas Van Rooyen Ryssel and a good friend, Louis Olivier, joined some ranger colleagues and their families for a picnic along the Sabie River near the Skukuza camp, the ranger headquarters of all of Kruger.
The Sabie ran shallow and near crystal clear here. The picnic was on the bank of the river, but Thomas and Louis and some others waded across to a small island and thought nothing about it. The water did not even reach their knees. The rangers on the island talked, fished, joked, smoked and laughed on the island for a spell of time and then set out to return.
Frans Loubser, a park engineer, was leading the way, but as chance would have it, he turned back just at the water’s edge to talk to another Kruger colleague farther back. And so it was that Tom Ryssel walked first in the water, wading back from the island to shore.
Three steps in and he could have sworn he had placed his lower leg into some sort of an iron trap or snare. It was not painful, really just this feeling of immense pressure. It was strange that anyone would place a trap here. But then he was upended, swept from his feet, and, with his butt bumping the shallow bottom, he began sluicing through the water at a rapid speed almost as if being towed behind a speed boat. He had three thoughts. This was a croc. I should jab its eyes. Louis will come and get me.
But his friend Louis was not quick to the rescue. Louis Olivier had been putting away some fishing tackle when he heard Tom call out and fall into the water and begin splashing about. This was the fellow who would be his best man in a few days and Louis thought it a sick and inappropriate joke for a ranger to make with the families present and he meant to have a word with him.
But then Olivier and the others saw Tom moving impossibly fast through the water. The crocodile began spiraling, twisting Tom in ways that humans simply don’t bend, and the rangers knew. They all saw the crocodile then. It was enormous. At least a thousand pounds or so, they figured.
There was no saving him from where the croc was headed. All the croc needed to do was get the ranger into deepwater and it could easily drown its prey.
But then Tom reached out and jammed his fingers and thumbs into the eyes of the crocodile. The eye pokes made the crocodile swerve away from the direction of the jabs and back toward the island. Here, the predator had two disadvantages: shallow water and its grip on the ranger. The dentition of crocs lends itself to holding large prey, not killing it outright. Teeth do not penetrate the way a lion’s canines might to reach and rip through vital organs or arteries. This particular croc no doubt had killed mammals far larger than a ranger and its jaws easily could crush smaller animals or a man, if the grip was right. But to kill most larger mammals, it needed deep water so that it could drown its prey by taking it to the bottom. There, crocs often perform a “death spiral,” twirling about rapidly until the disoriented prey drowns.
At the very least, this croc needed to submerge Tom’s head, but its grip on Tom was on his lower legs. The croc had poor leverage and the ranger was doing a good job of keeping his head up and out of the water. In this knee-deep part of the stream, with its hold so far down on Tom’s body, the crocodile simply could not get Tom’s head underwater and drown him.
After the eye gouge, the big animal lay still and seemed to Tom to be conjuring its next move. All the while it held tightly to Tom’s legs. Then it began again moving toward the deeper water.
Louis meanwhile came to understand the true situation and anticipated the croc’s move. He ran down the island and then into the water so that he blocked the crocodile’s path to the deeper parts of the Sabie. When the crocodile kept coming anyway, Louis improbably tackled the creature, grabbing it about its body between its front and rear legs. With strength he later could not explain, he stopped the croc and turned the half-ton creature back toward shallow water, all the while still holding on to the animal.
The croc accelerated his swim and scramble through the shallows and the three of them – the croc, Tom and Louis – were all moving through the water back into the shallows at such a high speed that the water seemed to roar past the men’s ears.
Generally, a battle between crocodiles and any large mammal is determined by terrain. In deepwater, the crocodile is king; on land, a mammal such as a man or a lion, might have the edge. Here, the terrain of shallow water was half-way between land and deepwater. The croc could still drown the prey, but the men could maneuver well enough without having to swim. In sum, it was an even playing field: neither the croc nor the men had a clear advantage.
On the plus side for the men was social bonding, teamwork, tools and the inventiveness and adaptability of the human mind. Louis attacked with the only tool he had. Still holding onto the animal, Louis fumbled for his pocket knife. He then moved under the crocodile and sought out the softer underbelly of the croc. But the underbelly was not very soft at all and the little knife was useless. He threw it away in disgust. He grabbed hold of the crocodile once again, with his arms around its midsection as it swam and scrambled in the shallows with his friend in its jaws.
Others were joining the fray. Hans Kolver, a pilot, jumped into the water next to the crocodile’s head and Tom shouted at him to attack the croc’s eyes. Kolver did, sticking his fingers into the eyes of the animal as if in an old Three Stooges movie short. But each time he jabbed, the crocodile would savage Tom and shake him furiously. Those on shore could hear the pop and snap of the ranger’s bones when this happened. Then the crocodile shifted its grip on the ranger up from his leg and seized Tom squarely across his abdomen and back. Tom was still whole, but half of him hung out either side of the animal’s jaw, like a hoagie held horizontally in a hound’s mouth. Now the croc had more control and better leverage to force Tom underwater.
Hans scrambled onto the back of the animal, seeking to again gouge the eyes. Tom too continued to fight his attacker, straining to poke at the eyes. Louis was still holding the animal’s mid section, trying to slow the animal down.
None of it was working. The croc was unstoppable. The eye pokes were annoying, but just that and the weight of three men was really nothing to it. The crocodile headed for a part of the river entangled with vines and filled with reeds. There it ridded itself of Hans. He was brushed off by the overhanging vines and tree limbs. Worse, now the crocodile could pin Tom underwater, against the bank and the vegetation. With better leverage on the man, the crocodile was able, finally, to hold Tom’s head under water and it would only be a short time before the ranger drowned.
But Louis, holding the crocodile’s midsection, saw the problem, released his grip and ran to Tom. He grabbed his friends head and forced it up out of the water so Tom could breathe. The croc levered Tom down, Louis pulled him up. The croc held Tom down, Louis pulled his friend’s head up. Then, Louis moved quickly to the rear of the croc, grabbed it around the base of its tail and again with strength he did not know he had, dragged the struggling thousand pound croc away from the vegetation and reeds back to clearer and shallower water.
Louis’s plan, if plan it was, was to lift the croc up on the shore, but that sort of strength no human has. And the crocodile flicked its tail and sent Louis flying through air, as he would describe it later, “like a tattered rag.”
This was enough to convince Louis that they could not handle the croc unarmed. So he ran toward Tom’s car to retrieve his friend’s revolver. Halfway there, he remembered they had left the revolver back at the rest camp. Why bring a weapon to a picnic?
He came to a skidding halt, reversed directions and ran back. He grabbed hold of a thorn tree on the bank extended his body and dangled his legs toward Tom and the croc. He told his friend to grab his legs and they would try to lift him out. A helicopter pilot, Dickie Kaiser, joined the fray then and helped Louis pull on Tom. Hans was back in the fight as well and all three hoisted the croc and Tom upwards.
It seemed for a moment to work. The crocodile and Tom were lifted nearly clear of the water. But the croc was not letting go and the incredible pressure of this tug of war was all focused on Tom. They risked literally tearing the poor ranger in two.
Someone had brought the men a collapsible spade by that time, an entrenching type tool, and they began hammering on the crocodile with this now. The croc thrashed about and knocked the spade out of Louis’s hands. But in doing so, the croc rose up out of the water, fully exposing its eyes to Hans. And at that moment, Hans pushed the points of his fingers of both his hands squarely into the reptile’s two eyes with well angled and forceful jabs.
This time it worked. The croc let go of Tom. It was over. Final and done. Hans and Louis had saved Tom.
But a half second later, the croc turned on Hans, clamped its jaws on his arm, and dove. Both croc and Hans disappeared underwater. They were moving rapidly away before anyone realized that Tom was free and Hans was caught.
Corrie Kaiser, the helicopter pilot’s wife, had brought from the picnic area a substantial carving knife and pressed it into Louis’s hand. At about the same time the croc and Hans surfaced several meters away. “Help, he has me,” Hans cried once.
The croc then shifted its grip, moving up the arm until it had Hans by the shoulder and the upper arm, gaining excellent leverage to plunge the man underwater as it swam away.
But Louis too again was moving. Knife in hand, he ran past the croc through the shallows to cut it off from deep water. Again, the croc did not stop. Louis charged it head on, intending to do great harm with the larger knife but found that it did no better than his pocket knife. It bounced off the croc’s tough skin as if the knife were made of rubber.
Louis was, it is safe to say, in some form of altered state. As the crocodile lit out for deepwater, with Hans’s head under the water, its prey secure, swimming as fast as it could, Louis Olivier ran through the water and jumped astride its neck on the fly. Like a bronco rider, Louis settled himself on the croc and then raised the sturdy knife and buried three quarters of its length into the animal’s eye.
The crocodile instantly let loose of Hans.
But Olivier did not let loose of the crocodile. He tightened his grip on the animal’s throat with one arm and continued stabbing at the eyes as the mammal and the reptile sped downstream together. Finally, in the end, the crocodile twisted and swam in a spiraling motion and twirled. Hans was dislodged by the torque of the water, and the croc this time had lost its appetite for ranger and fled.
Tom watched this all helplessly, holding onto a tree. He saw his friends were all right. Hans had a broken arm and injured shoulder, but he was okay. Then Tom looked at himself. He felt little pain though he knew he should. He noticed that one foot faced directly backward, and before the others could see this, he reached down and twisted his foot and shattered leg back to a forward position. There was still no pain, really. His midsection too was horribly mauled and torn open, of course, and he held himself in as if clutching a robe closed. It seemed if he were neatening up a bit before visitors called.
His friend Louis, so superhumanly strong just moments ago, was now weak as a kitten, suffering from shock and exhaustion. He could not carry Tom, so he began dragging him along the ground to their Landie. It seemed a personal and private matter between friends. Others helped and from there, it was a chopper and a hospital and nine months of recovery for Tom, who rangered on with his friend for many years thereafter, and not surprisingly later named a son Louis.
There are four morals to the story. The first is that humans, and rangers in particular, can be incredibly brave, resourceful, loyal, compassionate and at times, too, careless.
The second is that rangers and park employees are a lot better at preserving wildlife than destroying it.
The third is that emotions – fear, loyalty, anger, hatred, love – play front and center stage in the relationship of predators and human pretty, whether scientists can measure that factor or not.
The other simple moral is this: Eden kills.
Kruger is not a zoo, deer park or exhibit, however placid it may seem. It is nature, or close to nature, because in the state of nature, organisms kill. Mammals, insects, reptiles and raptors are killed and kill every day of the year at Kruger. Otherwise, Kruger would not be Kruger; it would not be wild and natural.
All the creatures of the Kruger seemed in their own way aware of these rules, save one. Humans do not think of themselves as animals. Some may understand clearly at moments such as birth and nursing that they are mammals. Still others may style themselves figuratively as fierce corporate predators or name a team after one. Yet hardly any of us ever see ourselves as prey.
But in Eden we are, or can be. Even highly trained rangers, those with the very best bushcraft, can in an instant forget this fact and run afoul of Kruger’s inhabitants. There can be times that all of modern technology and the cooperative society of humans may not be able to save them.
Edwards and Gibson are descendents of this tough breed and know well the dangers. It would not be difficult at all to see Neville and Steve performing the same acts as Tom and Louis, one for the other. They are accustomed to a world of risk and willing to accept it as the inevitable downside of the reward for the lives they lead. If you are blessed, and can economically make a life in the wild work for you, then you accept the dangers. The risk and danger are most definitely one part of what makes them feel alive.
They know too that the roads we drive over, the plains we are viewing, are killing grounds at night for more than just warthog and impala. People die here regularly, and the specter of the dead young woman still haunts Edwards.
But it was daylight and safari time in July 2002 and Edwards was working with his old friend and they could not help but laugh and smile like school boys playing hooky. To watch them is a study of human hunting skills and camaraderie that is as natural and entertaining as the bush itself. And to understand the situation in Kruger today with the lions, it is necessary to understand the rangers and guides, people like Neville and Steve. Men and women like them have been the architects and masons of Kruger, the molders of this particular part of “nature.” Their behavior and that of others like them is the first clue in how the current situation came to be.
The two grew up in farmtowns, mining communities and the bush land and learned bush skills from the locals and an affection for the original Africans that transcends race or ethnicity. It is a long-running buddy movie, this one — think Butch and Sundance in Africa. Edwards is the extrovert, Hollywood handsome with square jaw and rugged ringlets of dark blonde hair. He hatches plots in a light accent inherited from his Irish-English ancestors and refined in South Africa. The plots, the plans, the nature notes come in interrogatory form, begging understanding and collusion, in a manner that could be described as literate Croc Hunter. “The white rhino?” Edwards says, always asking, never stating. “When it goes to the bathroom? It is likely to come back to the same spot or latrine? This marks its territory?”
And Gibson – the quiet dark haired one with a fast gun look that masks a gentle sense of humor and the courtliness of a Confederate officer when he is around women — will look at his old friend as if Edwards were Gracie Allen, shake his head at his friend’s patter and add, tersely, with a smile, “Goes to the bathroom?” mocking his friend. He adds to me, “The ‘latrines’ are called ‘middens’. Don’t call them latrines in your story.”
Often, in an excited moment, they break into Zulu and Edwards, in his early 40’s now, will yell in Zulu — NANGO!— and punch Gibson — hard — in the shoulder as if they were still kids. Gibson will flash a cobra-like stare — and then the corners of his mouth will twitch up at his old friend and he will shake his head ever so slightly in appreciation and smile. When they were eight years old the two would pack onto bicycles and head toward the local school, from miles out in the bush. Mid-way there, their parents would pass them in their Landie, smile and wave. With the parents convinced the boys were going to school, the eight-year-olds would turn their bikes around and head for a day in the bush catching snakes and stalking antelopes with slingshots. Parts of both men are still there — racing away from school. Both are intelligent, educated men who could be making far more money in city jobs. But some part of them is anchored in the wild. They have chosen to do what they love and have always loved.
We talk. The miles unwind. I ask Neville what NANGO! and the punch means, and he pauses and says, “Later? I have to put it in the proper context? So you will understand?”
The two men scan the bushes and grassland of Kruger, the rocks, the veldt, the tracks or spoor, the dung. They talk in Zulu, then in English. We see the tracks of humans in the road, but whether bad-boy tourists outside their vehicles or refugees, we cannot tell. Both are likely to be wearing western running-type shoes. Not even starving people cross the Kruger barefoot, if they can help it.
Then, near some rocks, Neville hisses in a whisper. “Steve! Steve! Slow! Tracks! On the right! Cheetah! No, leopard. Leopard! Leopard. Look at her! Pull left now. Look at her. Ahhh, she’s beautiful. She is beautiful. Just lookat her. Slow! Slow! Now? Now? If we just wait? She’ll cross. I’ll bet she’ll cross. I know she’ll cross. She wants to cross. Reverse! Yes, yes, yes, stop! She’s going behind us now, she’ll come behind us.”
And a leopard, among the hardest of the big cats to find and the easiest to scare away, passes a whisker from our vehicle, moves to the bush on the other side of the road and oblivious to us, twitches her tail as the squirrels and birds sound a warning. She moves. She stalks. The flipping metronome of her tail marks the moments. We watch her as she hunts and then disappears into the bush without a backward look.
Tourists spend days searching for the mere glimpse of a leopard. Private game reserves who are known for leopard sightings command a premium of hundreds of dollars per visitor per day. We have found one in less than an hour and stayed with it for a full 15 minutes. Shortly, we pass an open safari vehicle with a young Kruger guide at the wheel and ten tourists in the seats behind. He asks the two veterans if they have seen wildlife.
“Nothing much,” Steve says.
“Only a leopard,” Neville chirps and jerks his head in the leopard’s direction.
The tourists mouths gape open. The young guide tromps down on the accelerator and the big safari vehicle zooms away in that direction.
“Have to have a little fun,” Neville says after a pause.
“He’ll never find it,” Steve says.
“The young guys?” Neville said in that interrogatory style that asks for understanding. “Only years in the bush gives you experience? He’s not going to see what we see? Won’t for years.”
That is the sort of skill the two men have, and a mini case study of how mankind does indeed generally fare better in the overall contest with lions. Good teamwork, bonding, good bush craft, good sense and good technology mean both men could probably survive a walk through Kruger unharmed. Armed, they could handily stalk and kill anything threatening to them, including lions.
But they don’t. At one point, deep into reading about the exploits of great white hunters of years gone by and their face-offs with charging man-eaters, I ask Gibson what it was like to kill his first lion, assuming it must have been some sort of rite of passage for someone growing up in the bush. He is silent and grimaces slightly as if he has bitten down too hard on one side of his mouth.
“You’ve never killed one?” I say finally.
He shakes his head “no.”
“Why,” he said, “would I ever want to kill a beautiful animal like a lion?”
“Why would I want to kill anything I cannot eat”? he asked after a pause.
This is not anomaly and he is not playing to my green-ness. Gibson is as tough as they come, not some vegan holy man. He was conscripted into an elite military unit in his youth and knows any number of ways to kill any number of animals or people. But the philosophy of most rangers is to use their skills to observe and appreciate wildlife and leave the wildlife and the eco-system unharmed. They are a special breed — not “green” in the hyper political sense. Both Neville and Steve are licensed professional hunters and will guide hunters they believe are ethical hunters. If hunting is managed correctly, they believe, then it can sustain nature. In Africa, after all, humans were indigenous and had for thousands of years played the role of an alpha predator. In Africa, mankind is not an imported “exotic species” as it is in North America. “Nature” isn’t really natural here if humans do not play some predatory role. And the case is made by some serious conservationists that hunting paradoxically gives endangered animals an economic value that will assure their existence.
But Neville and Steve would as soon guide as hunt. They love wild animals and nature without having to look at them over the sights of a rifle. They have a wonder of the wild. They are representative of a new generation of modern managers and rangers.
This new notion of theirs — of conserving species that have been sworn evolutionary competitors of mankind for the alpha predator niche – is so well-established on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet and in Hollywood that we forget just how counter-intuitive and recent a development it is.
The breed of men and women has evolved over many decades for more than a century, but if ever there was a bridge-species between hunter and conservationist ranger in South Africa, a “missing link” between bloodthirsty meat hunter and sensitive ecologist, then the missing link would be Harry Wolhuter.
The fate of the modern lions and the Kruger rangers and guides, and the manner in which their lives, deaths, politics and future are intertwined, all can be seen as dating back to Harry and a tale of no little drama.
For Wolhuter was the proto-ranger. Without him, the park and the lions might never have been and the lions might never have been saved. The story of what Harry did to the lion and what the lion did to him is a dramatic story worth telling in full with the drama intact. For without the drama, with what the lion did to Harry and Harry did to the lion, there might very well never have been the Kruger National Park we know today.
|Dual Male lions|
A ranger in search of poaching policeman; a fall from a horse; a terrible fate awaits; some luck and pluck; the importance of a good lion dog; the birth of a new breed of man.
he place where Harry met his lion was not far at all from the spot where Neville saw the hand waving from the bush. Both are close to the Mozambique border in the south third of the park. High rolling hills meet the flatland of the lowveld. The thatching grass is the dominant vegetation, with low trees spotted here and there. Little of the terrain here has changed from the day 100 years ago almost to the day when Wolhuter rode by. Neville, Steve and I stop and stare out across the tableaux toward Mozambique and it is not hard to imagine the scene a century back.
It had been dry in the winter of 1902 and Harry was leading a party of pack animals, dogs and local black African rangers in a quest for water. Wolhuter, 27-years-old, tall and as tough and thin as the young ironwood trees that spotted the veldt, was on patrol for poachers. The rangers of the time were trying to make a statement about preserving game, so it made no difference if the poachers were Africans who had lived there for centuries, Afrikaners who shot for meat, or the British who shot for sport and trophies. The poachers in this case were thought to be police officer-sportsmen from outside the park, and if anything Wolhuter wanted them even more than the meat hunters or the snarers. The arrest of a few powerful westerners who were also policemen who thought themselves above the law would make a strong statement that the rangers were fair and serious men, intent on stopping the slaughter of game.
He had planned to halt at one water hole for the evening, but the hole was just dust. Parched, and intent on catching the poachers, Wolhuter pressed on at night. He rode alone on horseback to the next water hole and told his men to follow him on foot with the pack animals. One dog, a big terrier named Bull accompanied the ranger.
They were passing through an area that had recently been burned by the numerous brush fires, when Wolhuter heard animals moving in the night. There was a velocity, a presence in the grasses that he took for antelope or some other grazer.
But then, very close to him, he saw two lions. Neither was cowed by his presence and may not even have known he was there. Both were transfixed by the horse, which they were stalking as if it were a zebra.
Wolhuter spurred the horse in an attempt to run through the lions and he drew his rifle from its scabbard at the same time. But as he did so, one of the lions, a large male, jumped up on the back of the horse and bumped the ranger hard. The horse bucked and threw Wolhuter from the saddle.
He began his fall, rifle in hand, as the alpha predator. But the rifle tumbled from his grasp as he fell and he landed not as a predator but as prey.
Wolhuter was now in far worse a predicament than poor Tom and Hans fighting the crocodile. In that confrontation, the social skills of humans won the day, along with the crude technology of a butcher’s knife.
But Harry had lost allhuman advantage. His technology, the rifle, was lost in the grass and as for social advantage, his score there ran to negative numbers. The lions were highly socialized. There were two lions against him and the lions were accustomed to hunting together. Wolhuter had lost his gun and was utterly alone.
This second lion broke the ranger’s fall, then grabbed him by his right shoulder and spiked its teeth through bone, tendon and muscle. Wolhuter felt excruciating pain and cried out. The lion, also a large male, shook him as if cracking a whip. Wolhuter then remained quiet and limp. Through it all, he was aware that the horse had escaped and was pounding down the road. The first lion chased the horse. The dog, expert in harassing lions without getting mauled, chased the lion chasing the horse, believing no doubt that Wolhuter was still astride his mount.
But Wolhuter’s procession was much slower than that odd race. He was being dragged to a gory, gory end as the lion searched for a nice spot to stop and begin to feed on Wolhuter. He had seen this pageantry all too often in the bush.
Harry lay face-up toward the lion, face buried in the mane, back to the ground. His heels plowed furrows in the dirt and each time his spurs caught, the lion worried his shoulder and growled. Wolhuter remained still, feigning death. He heard a low, purring sound from the lion, a sound of content not unlike that of a housecat with a mouse. The smell of the lion – “wet kitty” Capstick once called it – engulfed his senses. The lion, with claws still extended, sometimes stepped on him as they moved, tearing his legs and ripping further his dangling right arm. Wolhuter, afraid the lion would stop and finish him off, remained silent even though each step of the lion brought more excruciating pain. Moreover, he was quite aware that lions regularly began eating prey while the prey still lived, usually starting on the intestines.
Even with those thoughts in his mind, he was able to summon up a coolness and calmness. His right arm was crippled but his mind was clear. He thought of a magazine article he had once read that said if you struck a house cat on the nose, it dropped what was in its mouth. He thought for a moment of trying that, but played it out in his mind a few steps. Even if the article was correct, his conclusion was always the same. Ranger hits cat on nose; cat drops prey; prey runs; cat catches and kills prey.
Plan B did not seem much better. He carried a sheath knife on his right hip – an ever so primitive piece of human technology — but he could not reach it easily. He did not in fact know for sure it was there. He’d swiped the damn thing from a store. Well, exchanged his old knife for it, really. He saw this fine knife in a store and the ignorant store owner was using it to cut cheese from a block on the counter. Wolhuter took his lesser knife and placed it on the cheese cutting block, and pocketed the better knife. No one was the wiser. And he viewed it as a liberation of a good knife, not a theft.
Always and forever, though the new knife was slipping out of its sheath whenever he dismounted. The liberated knife did not fit the old sheath well. He was certain it had dislodged this time as he fell. Whenever he needed it, the knife was gone.
Slowly, with his left arm, he reached behind his back in a yoga-like position around to his right hip. The knife was still there. Very carefully, he gripped the handle with his left hand.
His thoughts now were upon a simple choice. Go along for the ride and succumb? Or try to do something with the sheath knife?
But try what with the knife, exactly? He could not conceive of a happy ending there. Certainly, he could stick the lion and make it drop him. Then what? Certain death, he figured. The huge animal would attack him and that would be the end of it. He could not kill a lion with a knife. But better that way, he thought. Give a fight at least. And then die quickly with a bit of honor.
The lion continued dragging Wolhuter, his boots still furrowing the dust. Then, still holding the knife, Wolhuter felt slowly, cautiously along the lion’s chest until he felt the pulse of a beating heart and a space between ribs.
Wholhuter’s boots and spurs had plowed furrows in the ground for 90 yards. The lion soon would stop to begin feeding. So Wolhuter reached around with the knife in his left hand, backhanded, around the lion’s front left shoulder. Then he stabbed the lion twice, backhanded, in the chest at the pulse.
The lion roared loudly but did not drop him. Still in the lion’s mouth, the ranger vibrated like a piece of wax paper held to a comb as a kazoo. There was no Plan C, but instinctively Wolhuter swept up and stabbed at the lion’s throat.
The lion dropped Wolhuter then and stood there roaring at him. The ranger scrambled to his feet, resisted the urge to run and faced the lion.
Harry began cursing at the lion with a passion and words he did not know he possessed. He brandished the knife and yelled at the lion, calling it all manner of names, spouting blasphemy upon blasphemy that came from where he did not know.
The lion roared back and held its ground. Wolhuter braced for the charge he knew must come. Then saw blood geysering from the lion’s mane and seeping from the chest wound. Then the animal slumped its head as if it had suddenly grown heavy. It retreated, growling back at Wolhuter, as it departed. Then the ranger could hear moans and a throaty roar that turned to a cough and then a death rattle.
Wolhuter felt an incredible sense of elation and joy and triumph– until a horrible thought occurred to him. The second lion would soon return.
It would never catch the horse now. Lions were good only for short charges. The horse no doubt had outdistanced the lion. The lion would return to the kill — to him.
Wolhuter cut off his curses in mid-shout. He would ceate a fire. He tried to set the grass on fire. But each match fizzled out held to the grass. In the midst of a drought, the grass was too wet with dew.
Then he looked for trees. He must climb, he thought. But every tree he found he could not scale. His right arm was ruined, and he was weak from loss of blood. Finally, he found a scrubby tree growing at an angle. He stepped up the ramp-like trunk of the tree and grasped branches with his left hand. He got out as far on one limb as he could and then lashed himself to the branch with his belt, afraid he would faint from loss of blood. He looked down. He was a scant twelve feet above the ground — a hop, skip and a jump for a lion.
He looked down again. He could hear the second lion now, and then see it, too. The lion was following Wolhuter’s blood spoor — the scent his own blood had laid down — to the tree.
Soon the second lion was looking up at him and measuring the distance to this strange piata. If a weakened Wolhuter could climb the tree? The lion would have no trouble. The lion started up the slope of the trunk. Wolhuter yelled, cursed, and waved his arms. The lion paused. But just for a moment. Wolhuter yelled again and the lion backed up again, but not nearly as far as it had the first time.
Stone, steel, fire, knives, and guns all helped mankind generally stay out of the jaws of lions. And to that, in Wolhuter’s case, should be added one other important human advantage: the friendship and loyalty of dogs.
As Harry stared down at the lion and fought for consciousness, Wolhuter’s lion dog, Bull, did some mid-course corrections. He had galloped after the lion chasing the horse and then past the lion when it gave up the chase. When the horse slowed and eventually stopped, Bull seemed finally to figure it out. The horse was riderless. The big terrier reversed direction and sprinted back to the site of the attack.
There, he found the lion halfway up the tree after Wolhuter with Wolhuter weakly flapping his arms and yelling. The dog did not hesitate. It struck the lion hard from behind ripping into the heels and the butt of the big cat, barking and growling. The cat wheeled and Bull was gone, tail tucked in tight, sprinting just out of reach. A game of cat and dog commenced and it was a game the dog was very good at. The rules were simple: Nip, harry and bark, but never attack for real and never close with the lion and all its superior “technology” of teeth, claws and heft. Dogs trained by Boers — masters of guerilla warfare — did not make the mistake of directly confronting lions. Or if they did, the dog made the mistake once.
Every time the lion started for the tree, Bull attacked from the rear. Every time the lion turned, Bull sprinted away. The dog could not kill the lion, but the lion could not catch the dog. The game went on for hours, with Wolhuter fading into unconsciousness held high above the ground by his belt. Barks and growls and roars and yelps would awaken him. Then he would fade.
Finally, he heard the tinkle of bells on his pack horses. The “relief column” of his men had reached him and he was saved. The second lion retreated.
His rescue force thought him delirious when he said he had killed a lion with a knife. He showed them where to look for the animal’s body and the converts then helped Wolhuter walk five miles to the next water hole where, finally, he got his drink. He would ranger on for another 45 years.
Wolhuter put Kruger and the lions of Kruger on the world map. The incredible tale was front page news in London and worldwide, and the world suddenly was aware of the preservation effort there.
At a time when the park was young – still a “reserve,” really — and the concept of conservation just forming, the incident gave the warden of the park, James Stevenson-Hamilton, publicity and political capital. He used it not to take vengeance on the lions that had savaged Wolhuter but to help save the lions and other species.
It may be a stretch to say that Kruger would never have been were it not because of Harry. Someone somehow might have pulled it off. But thanks to Harry and the lion, it was a lot easier. The world now knew that there was abroad in Africa a new sort of hero, the wildlife ranger who certainly could kill a lion, barehanded with a knife if need be, but whose better angels told him the world was better served by saving animals.
The lion horribly savaged Wolhuter, but the ranger did not change into Ahab and consume his life in a quest for revenge. Be clear on this: Wolhuter was not an ecological saint. His shoulder healed poorly but he worked so he could just hold a rifle. Then he did wage a deadly grudge game against lions. But it was precise and brief. Wolhuter then dedicated himself to preserving wildlife for the next four decades and noted proudly upon his retirement that his son would serve as a ranger, too, protecting the offspring of the lions that nearly killed his father.
The public was intrigued with Wolhuter and Stevenson-Hamilton, men who hunted down and arrested poaching police officers, not just the local natives, so that wildlife was saved. Stevenson-Hamilton and Wolhuter leveraged that intrigue for all it was worth.
While it is over-simplistic to say it, these men were in a sense the first great white anti-hunters of South Africa. What they did changed forever the relationship of men and lions in this part of the bushveld.
In order to save the lions, the new anti-hunters must kill them; the genius of Stevenson-Hamilton and some roots of ecology; the rangers save the lions; the lions save the park. The balance of refugees, lions, tourists and rangers is established.
would like to think we are made of such stuff,” Gibson said one night as we talked about Wolhuter. “But the truth is I am not sure anyone is anymore.”
I am not so certain about that. I think at least a little bit of the social DNA of Wolhuter and Stevenson-Hamilton is present everywhere in the park. I think it is present in the rangers, visitors, Steve and Neville and the lions, too. I want to trace a straight line from the current social DNA of the tourists, of the rangers and of Neville and Steve back to where Harry walked away from his lion, but a slight detour down a slightly curvy path of my safari is needed to give context to the present, its participants and the past.
Neville, Steve Gibson and I linger for awhile near the spot where Wolhuter rose to glory. Ours is a much easier trip than his. There is no real roughing it for us and no need for it. We stay within the fenced camps of Kruger at night in spare but comfortable concrete buildings that resemble thatched African huts – only with plumbing. In the mornings, we eat breakfast in a park concession, then drive the roads of Kruger, eating a packed lunch, then heading back into a secure Kruger camp for dinner and the evening.
|Sarah Saton-Frump – Ranger Trainee|
My whole family is in Africa again, just in different spots at different times. Suzanne, my wife and photographer, has her own photographic safari scheduled and will also join Steve, Neville and me for part of her stay. Sarah, my daughter, then an adventurous 17-year-old, is taking a three week university course on game rangering in the wilds just west of Kruger. Ever-good parents, we ask the professor whether we can inspect her tent and see the camp.
“Not a great idea now,” he says in a whisper, and nods toward the tent, and moves his hands down in a dampering motion. “Bull elephant in musk I’m afraid. Shouldn’t really go much closer or make any fast movements now.”
We gaze over and indeed there is a huge tusker sniffing at the entrance of a camp tent. Suzanne and I exchange dubious glances. Sarah says aloud to herself in a slow quiet voice, “This is going to be so great.” After a moment or two, we leave her there with, a sexually aroused and cranky elephant, assurances from the professor and a cell phone that may or my not be able to contact anyone in this part of the bush.
As Steve and Neville and I drive on, my thoughts are more on Sarah in the tent and I feel like I am a long way from any danger of confronting any lions. Still, when I get out to water a bush, both Steve and Neville post themselves on watch at opposite ends of the compass. They are looking earnestly for any dangers. Once we are outside the cars, we are exposed. There is no joking here, and my one attempt falls flat. They do not drop their eyes from surveillance and they do not laugh or say anything. They are deadly serious and the dangers are real.
Ecotourism is seen as a future growth industry in South Africa, as is hunting, although to a far less emphasized degree. Both Steve and Neville – the spiritual descendants of Wolhuter — are members of professional hunting associations that oppose the “canned hunts” that often are held for trophy hunters. There are “lion farms” in South Africa and “antelope farms” as well where Americans and Europeans will pay up to $50,000 to “hunt” an animal in an enclosed space. A friend of mine signed up to hunt an eland, a valuable antelope “trophy,” not knowing just how canned the hunt was.
“There were maybe 30 acres surrounded by a white fence, no brush or undergrowth or cover, and the dark antelope was clearly outlined anywhere it went. I told the guy who ran it I wanted a hunt, not an execution, and walked away from it.” He also walked away from his $10,000.
Others are not so scrupulous. The BBC a few years back ran an expose of hunters shooting from cars at lions who were so domesticated they had to be shooed away before being shot. The tame lions wanted their ears scratched. Other “guides” would market the black market thrill of killing a real Kruger lion. Reportedly, they cut holes in the Kruger western fence, stake out a ripe zebra or antelope, and lure a park lion pride out for clients, who blaze away.
Steve and Neville condemn that sort of “sport” that does not contain “fair pursuit.” Moreover, they have found the larger part of their business is in guiding tourists on viewing or photographic safaris. They have had some high profile clients. When the Hollywood movie “Ghost and the Darkness” was filmed in South Africa, Neville showed star Michael Douglass around the park. Both Steve and Neville’s businesses were family based, with Neville and his wife working out of Hoetspruit near the park running a bed and breakfast in tandem with the safari business. Steve and his wife Sharon formed Esseness Safari farther south in Empangeni.
Somewhere along the line the relationship of Steve and his wife went south and they divorced. Before we started the safari, he had a brief afternoon with his kids. The youngest daughter of about age six clung to his knee and beamed out at passersby with the happy smile of a cat having eaten a dozen canaries. His older daughter, about 12, talked with her father with a presence and grace that seemed beyond her years – a young swan-necked Audrey Hepburn in her beauty. Steve’s ex stood nearby, smiling at the scene. She now runs her own tourist travel business. Whatever the cause of the parting, the post-divorce seems to be working out. Dad and daughters have a wonderful connection, it is clear.
Which is not to say Edwards is happy about everything. The dream of a family owned business is on the rocks and so is his life of working in the bush. He has a first rate job as director of a cultural center, but that is not the same as guiding. For this trip, he needed to take vacation leave to team up with Steve.
“Not to sound mean about it,” he says, as we make conversation covering dozens of miles in the bush, “and, I don’t know how to say it other than that the divorce took everything . I’m starting over.”
In a way, he has had to “go corporate.” There is a sense that this joint safari with Steve – not a common thing for them – is also a good time for bonding and buddy talk that might get Steve over the hump of being single and removed from the bush life he loves.
“What you should really write about,” Neville says more than once, “is not just the parks and the lions, but the relationships, the friendshipsthat endure through the toughesttime, the love and the bonds people form.”
A short time later Neville yells, “Nango!” again and Steve is braced for the punch and already smiling. This trip with his old wingman may be doing more for Neville than adding a few dollars to his bank account. The old stories, the retelling of the tales, is a shoring up of old bonds and it seems of Neville himself.
Certainly old stories are in abundance. There was the time when they were just 10, known to everyone in the town and the bush from tribesmen to tradesmen as amusing little terrors who streaked through town and the bush and town on bicycles wreaking harmless havoc. They would appropriate the coupons from front porch bottles and enjoy the thick cream-topped milk from local dairies. Then it was off to a nearby dam on a farm that formed a large reservoir and lake.
“I think it was the danger factor,” Steve reminisced one day. “Playing with our destiny –according to our own set of bush rules that attracted us to the dams because these dams were complete with pythons and crocodiles. Yet we used to swim, kayak and fish in these dams all the time.”
Their own set of bush rules. They were not suicidal. They did not jump into a croc filled lake. They watched, they learned, they observed. They took calculated risks. Some of their adventures were mischievous, even vandalous. They were ace shots with sling shots and would pepper the local buses with small stones, or sometimes sniper out a window of an empty bus with an airgun.
But there was a valor, too., and not just the sort that set them swimming with crocs and pythons at age ten. Come night, they would creep into the bush and find the camps of poachers. As the adult men, all armed, slept, Steve and Neville would collect the poachers’ snares and illegal fishing nets, carry them away and destroy them.
Their ownset of bush rules. They might carry off the poachers nets one day, but refuse to inform on them another. The two young boys were known to hang out at the dam and so when one farmer found that 21 of his ducks had been poached from the lake formed by the dam, Neville and Steve became the suspects. The community, their parents, the tribesmen all accused Steve and Neville. They took the fall – groundings and restitution. They knew the real perpetrator but have not given him up to this day. They could not, under their set of bush rules. Was he black African friend? I speculate. Would he have had worse punishment than you? My query is met by smiles and the silence imposed by bush rules
Soon Steve and Neville were traveling widely with Gibson’s father, a gold miner. And there were trips too with a family friend, Mike Edwards, who was a government game and tsetse fly control officer. Sometimes, the trips were three or four weeks long and the men and boys were totally immersed in remote bush. They needed to shoot meat for themselves and their considerable entourage of policemen, trackers, and bearers. It was here that Gibson learned tracking and hunting skills that would last him a lifetime. He began the trips when just ten. At age twelve, under the direction of officer Edwards and to protect a village’s crops and provide meat, Steve killed his first elephant.
If Neville is in post-divorce out-of-the-bush hangover mode, his time with Steve seems curative. His skills as a guide and naturalist need no restoration at all. He points out game I would have missed on either side of the road, or stops to show us various tracks or sign.
Nowhere in this region do we see a monument to Harry or his lion. Nor of course is there any monument for the woman Neville saw that July day 2000, which is very close to Wolhuter’s kill. The question I have on my laptop computer screen is how the men like Wolhuter preserved the park and a culture that preserves men like Neville and Steve, as well as the lions. I need to find that straight line of social DNA running from Wolhuter and Stevenson-Hamilton to Edwards and Gibson. The answer comes just a little way down the road and the line linking Steve and Neville to the past becomes straighter and clearer.
We pass by a monument, some thirty-feet tall, carved into a rock in a smaller but still grand imitation of Mount Rushmore. The visage is that of Paul Kruger, one of the most famous Afrikaners. It was Kruger who proposed legislation for the first reserve, but in fact, if statues were built in proportion to the size of contribution made to the park, Warden Stevenson-Hamilton would command the Rushmore-like status and Kruger would be more a book-shelf bust. This fact is only now being more widely recognized in the post-apartheid era because Kruger was an Afrikaner legend and Stevenson-Hamilton was a Brit – a Scott to be more precise.
He seemed an odd candidate to become one of the most influential conservationists of the century. He stood only five foot four, nearly a foot shorter than Wolhuter, and was an avowed trophy hunter.
He would have been surprised as well, for he had little idea what lay ahead for him in July 1902 as he crossed the Sabi River into what is now Kruger National Park. There was no real sign that he had crossed into a game reserve, for that matter. There were no animals. No lions. No antelopes. No zebra or giraffe. Not even tracks or sign that he could see or spin a tale around.
But of all the things that James could not see on that day the most significant thing unseen was that the river was for him, at age 35, one of those markers of personal history or mythology which, once crossed, set his destiny for the next 46 year of his life.
Instead, James Stevenson-Hamilton, sporting a dapper beard and immaculately trimmed mustache, was at times gently grumbling to himself, as he often did, debating internally whether he had done the right thing or the wrong thing about this or about that.
The thoughts, recorded in his diary, went like this. He should have stayed in Scotland and revived his estate. He should have been married by now and produced some heirs. He could have asked for more money on this job. He should have waited them out a little longer.
There were only two things he knew for certain on this trip. The first was that he was absolutely at home in this wilderness, every bit as comfortable as Wolhuter was. So assured was James in the Scottish heather, in the bush or on the battlefield, that it was said men forgot his diminutive stature a half-minute after meeting him.
The second sure thing he knew was the ephemeral nature of the new appointment. This wardenship of Sabi Game Reserve was nothing more than an interlude for him. He was at play, really. James was a British cavalry officer and upper class landed gentry. He would take another turn in the army; or he would head back to his family estate, Fairholm, in Scotland. He would make a go of it there, somehow, and do something gentlemanly, even though the mines and the factories of the industrial age were even then encroaching on the Scottish heather he knew as a boy. These were the serious personal matters he pondered in his log on a regular basis.
This job was not one of those serious matters. It was a lark. He liked being outdoors. He liked the African wilderness. He liked good stories to tell, and could tell a story well. He liked being “self-reliant” and had an egalitarian respect for self-made men to a point where it might be easy to mistake his attitude as that of an American or an Australian.
This was particularly true after the dust-up with his commander, Major Thursby Dauncey. Dauncey lead James and his men in the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. More than once, James had clashed with Dauncey and considered him inept. Toward the end of the war, Dauncey went too far. He had told them to wait, then to attack, then to withdraw. In the confusion caused by Dauncey’s indecision, the resourceful Boer commandos had picked off one of James’s men, a favorite of his squad.
After that incident, James filed formal charges of incompetence against his commander, seeking his removal from field command. Dauncey in turn had James arrested and jailed, though for what he could not say. The officer superior to both men had ordered them to cool off. Dauncey went on leave; James took the wardenship, thinking to come back when Dauncey left the Dragoons.
He fingered a scrap of handwritten paper in his pocket — the only official document memorializing his “commission” as warden — as he drew nearer to the reserve. Again, he mentally kicked himself for accepting too soon. The job paid 500 pounds per year. If only he “had had the sense to ask for it,” the man would have gone 600, James thought and then later wrote in his journal.
The reserve had existed since 1898, but truth be told the war had delayed any real preservation of game. In fact, both sides, the Boers and the Brits shot the game for provisions. But the man who hired him noted that James was so “brimful of pluck and resource” that he thought Stevenson-Hamilton might actually accomplish something.
So first James took leave from the Inningskills Dragoons.
Then he crossed the Sabi River and forever and completely for the rest of his life took leave from his senses.
“…the Sabi ‘witched’ me away from the world,” he one day would write in his log of what was then known as the Sabi Reserve. “The Sabi is a courtesan and her delight kept me in dalliance…”
Later, he would try to describe what had entranced him so that first day.
“The sun, low in the west, is gilding the bare pinnacle of Logogote, and is lending fleeting shades of delicate pink to the three peaks of Pretorious Kop — border beacons of the land of mystery beyond.
“Eastwards, far as the eye can see, stretches a rolling expanse of tree tops, in the foreground a medley of green, yellow and russet brown but with increasing distance merging into a carpet of blue-gray…
“Wildlife is just awakening from its afternoon siesta. Francolins are calling around, and from a nearby donga comes the sudden clatter of a guinea-fowl; bush babblers are chattering among the trees, their cheerful din serving to render yet less definable the vague sounds which here and there are beginning to rise from the distant forest.
“It is the voice of Africa, and with it comes to me a sense of boundless peace and contentment.”
The new job came at a time when he had spent years in military service, had served years fighting the inglorious Boer War, had suffered for years seeing his men die and witnessing the works of stupid commanders at work. At home in Great Britain, the mines and industrialization relentlessly closed in on the old family estate. After a few weeks in the new job, he penned the simplest of passages to describe a world where he was on his own and alone in nature for weeks at a time and where the war, bureaucracies, and the world of encroaching industry and mining were far, far away.
“This life,” he wrote, “just suits me.”
Once smitten by the Sabi, James traveled through its far nooks and crannies, just as intensely as he had the family estate in Scotland as a very young boy. Carts and wagons pulled by oxen with James riding ahead on horseback would forge through the bushland for weeks at a time as he surveyed and mapped and took a census of animals and man. But more than the game, more than the lions, more than the birds or the snakes or other reptiles or the people, it was the sheer sense of place that charmed him.
Soon, as he was wont, he began to see the area in terms of a system. Perhaps it was the military strategist in him. But it was not the first time he had thought this way. While hunting earlier in his life, once with Theodore Roosevelt, he was distraught to see areas ravaged by over-hunting, by agriculture, by herding. But when he came to a “natural” spot, an area untouched by civilized man, an area large enough for the animals to migrate and move about, he felt great joy to see how the animals and the grasses and the trees and the predators and the prey all were connected, swaying together naturally in an exquisitely balanced mobile of natural forces – what years later would be seen as a balanced ecological system.
And that, he thought, was what was needed here. He had made the conversion from hunter to naturalist at Sabi, and his daily notes and observations were serious, intense. They lead him to one conclusion. The reserve must grow, must become much larger, and must in fact be huge to allow the more natural range and migrations of the prey and their predators.
And so resolved, there was little James would not do to establish it.
The expansion came easily enough in some ways. It was worthless land, after all. Tsetse flies swarmed over livestock, oxen and horse. These foreign mammals died by the thousands. Only three our four horses of a hundred showed immunity to the sickness. Malaria plagued the human settlers in the summer months. The land could not be worked, so the land companies willingly placed their untilled acres under the reserve’s care. Soon land was assembled quite larger than all of the Netherlands.
But the challenge was not in gaining the land. The challenge was in policingit. Scraps of paper in one’s pocket did not make a reserve, particularly when the regular police outside the reserve, the constabulary, defied the entire concept of game rules and sponsored armed social outings.
James and Wolhuter, his first hire, soon decided they needed to change that state of affairs. The two sat down and plotted it, the ranger a full two heads taller than his boss. They needed a test case, an example, to show they were serious. The idea of chasing the privileged white policemen poaching on the land was Stevenson-Hamilton’s but it was thoroughly embraced by Harry as well.
On a number of levels, he was concerned about the lion attack on Wolhuter. The high officials certainly had escaped capture and punishment that day, for one thing. And Poor Wolhuter needed months of rehabilitation to function well again.
But later, James nailed the police poachers of the South African Constabulary, brought them to trial and convicted them.
“Makes you want to toss it all in,” James wrote in his log when they received stiff fines instead of stiff prison stays, but the rest of the lowveld and most of Africa were jolted by this celebrated and precedent-setting case. It was a national story. This was not to be a native-bashing warden who blamed the indigenous Africans. Nor was Stevenson-Hamilton a poseur, giving the wink and nod to his countrymen-sportsmen, while hunting regularly himself. He drove straight and directly toward the local power structure — and broke its back. Poachers, even if they were white policemen, now knew they had their very own predators chasing them.
The other quarry James chased was lion. Even after his conversion, he really had no choice.
Conservationists at the turn of the century often were so-called “repentant butchers” – hunters who had seen the light. They worked to save the very animals they once had shot in great numbers. The antelope, the buffalo, the giraffes and wildebeest, all had shrunk to perilously low thresholds.
The conservation effort that set out to save the valued game did this – logically, so it seemed – by eliminating anything that killed the favored game species. Hence, poachers were arrested and sports hunting prohibited.
The same policy held true for other animals that killed the favored animals, but in this case “elimination” was the literal goal. Carnivores that preyed on the game species were held in the utmost contempt. Crocodiles were described by one conservationist as nothing more than “animated traps” that should be exterminated. The same held true for leopards, hyena, smaller carnivora, raptors and in particular and especially the lion. They were all considered un-needed and in a real sense evil villains. It was at the time the prevailing thought and had been for centuries. In the epic poem Beowulf, dating from before 1000 AD, the monster was not just another joe trying to make its way in the world who just happened to stop at the mead hall for some fast food and a thane to go. It was evil. The Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf puts it this way:
“In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.”
Like Grendel, the lion was seen not as a normal animal or even an undesirable animal. It was God-cursed. Greed, not the natural order of things, propelled lions. The animal’s rank at the top of the food chain meant it was even more evil and accursed than the other carnivores.
So lions were shot on orders even by the rangers. Everyone agreed this was the right thing to do. The Boers, the Brits, the Africans. The ethnic groups often could agree on little. But they agreed on this. Lions were like very big rats. They were to be trapped, poisoned, run-down by dogs, ambushed by trip guns, speared, snared, and hunted from horseback until they were gone for good.
Most everyone believed this, that is, except Stevenson-Hamilton, the head of what was then called Sabi-Sands Game Reserve.
He saw it differently and instinctively grasped the essence of ecology. Almost from the beginning, he believed that lions served a useful purpose in keeping nature in balance and that they should be left alone. Otherwise, Kruger would be little more than an artificial “deer park.” The antelope, zebra, wildebeest and giraffe needed predators to keep everything in balance.
But even Stevenson-Hamilton could not stop killing lions in the political climate of the early 20thcentury. Preserve managers frequently were attacked by ranching interests as “creating a breeding ground for lions.” The sportsmen wanted antelope protected. The two groups were politically dominant, and even the “greens” of the time agreed. They all demanded an aggressive campaign of lion extinction so the “game” could live.
Said Kruger ranger and author G.L. Smuts:
“Stevenson Hamilton and his staff were not popular and a general hate campaign was being waged against their conservation policy. Public opinion was strongly anti-carnivore and in 1905, speaking at a meeting of the Transvaal Game Protection Society, a Mr. Kirby stated: ‘the Reserve is simply a lion breeding concern, and not a protection for game’.
Twenty years later, the criticism and hatred was little changed, “I would like to draw your readers’ attention to the scandal of the Sabi Game Reserve, where they have been breeding lions for the last twenty years” stated a 1925, letter to the editor of Farmer’s Weekly. The writer estimated 5,000 to 10,000 lions were in the reserve. Stevenson-Hamilton counted only 600 at that time.
It would not actually have had to been a terribly aggressive campaign to eliminate the lions in 1902. Some said there were only eight lions in the whole park in 1902 but the highest count was just 30.
What saved them was Stevenson-Hamilton’s showmanship and sleight of hand. Like Steve and Neville, he had his own set of bush rules. He would kill lions when necessary to appease political interests and ranchers. He would do this with great fanfare and publicity and stage photos of lion skulls and proclaim himself a great lion killer. Old photos show row upon row of bleached out lion skulls with their fanged overbites, lined up by size like a grim class picture.
In fact, he and the rangers did kill a lot of lions. Said Smuts: “The number of lions officially killed inside the park between 1902 and 1969 was 3,031. Perhaps 4000 over the 67 years 1902 to 1969.”
But often Stevenson-Hamilton ordered “show killings” as a political necessity. And at times, hunter that he was, he also killed them himself. He would claim later to have personally dispatched more than 150 lions. Those deeds immunized him against charges of being soft on lions. Always, though he was careful to make sure enough lions remained.
Park officials years later would conclude that only this benevolent deception saved the lion from extinction in South Africa. Only a “stealth” conservation campaign kept the species alive. Stevenson-Hamilton wrote in 1903: “it will unfortunately be necessary to not only reduce carnivores to their proper relative proportion numerically but at first event to a lower figure , in order to give prey animals a chance to increase.”
Smuts noted, “In these early years it was also policy to keep all carnivorous reptiles and even predatory birds in the reserve within reasonable limits. At no stage, however, was the aim to eliminate a species but rather to reduce the impact of predators in general. In addition to boosting depleted game numbers, the carnivore control programme served an important public relations function with regard to irate neighbors and landowners who wanted more lions to be shot.”
But a key element, Smuts noted, was not what Stevenson-Hamilton did, but what he did not”.
Annual reports show that although the accepted policy was to destroy large carnivores, few were actually shot during the first year of the Sabi Game Reserve”— So the lions survived and mated and grew under Stevenson-Hamilton, but they were still less than a desirable species in the 1920’s. The preserve still existed only for sportsmen and the thought was that at some future date — Stevenson-Hamilton stalled and stalled as to when exactly — hunters finally could enter the preserve and their fees would pay for the preserve. The government was growing restless subsidizing the preserve.
Stevenson-Hamilton found another way. In the 1920’s, he convinced a railroad to schedule a stop near what is now called Skukuza — the park’s current governing center. The railroad company had scheduled passenger train tours of South Africa and Stevenson-Hamilton begged them to simply add a few hours in Kruger. Tourists would go out in carriages and view the antelopes and gawk at the giraffes.
But as it turned out the tourists found then as now that the main draw was not “game” as the white hunter defined it. Antelopes were just fine, yes, yes, but what the tourists wanted to see were the lions. Soon, the lions became the era’s equivalent of radio crooners, by far the most popular draw in the park. To add a little touch, some of Stevenson-Hamilton’s staff would dress up in a lion skin and scare the bejeebers out of the tourists as they sat around a campfire. Others were saying, yes, they had seen elephant, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, leopard and a rhino, but the trip was a complete failure without seeing lions. Where were the lions? They had come for the lions.
The Park, which is to say the lions of the park, were the most popular part of the train stops. And soon that gave way to the logical thought of expanding access to the park as automobiles grew ever more prevalent and more roads were hacked through the wilderness.
There was one catch in the “car theory.” No one, including Stephenson-Hamilton, was certain what would happen when the tourists in cars met actual lions – particularly if they allowed cars to enter the park unescorted. The rangers had from time-to-time still killed lions, but for the most part by the 1920’s, the lions had lost most fear of humans. So long as most contact was during the day time, everything seemed fine. The lions were “habituated” to humans – used to them.
“Stevenson-Hamilton was also aware that once lions had been hunted during the day and one or more had been wounded or killed, the others generally became shy and often confined their activity to the hours of darkness, subsequently become valueless to the now important (tourist draw),” Smuts wrote.
In other words, Stevenson-Hamilton encouraged the habituation so lions would not shy away from the road. He wanted them to be comfortable with humans nearby.
Good things can come of that and very bad things as well. Some years back, a highly skilled professional hunter who had done everything right was dragged from his tent by a lion and killed. Just a few years back, a British college student on safari in Kenya forgot to tie down his tent flap. He awoke in the night with a lion staring at him just a foot away. He did what most of us would do: ran. Whether the lions were looking for food or, more likely, just curious, the running triggered the reflexes of the lion in the tent and the pride outside and the youth was caught and killed.
About this time, on the safari, this particular bit of research comes back to me and I think of my daughter in a tent west of Kruger. Because she was the only young woman in the class, the professor assured me she would have her own private tent. That seemed nice then, crazy now. I try her cellphone and it rings until I leave my message of concern. Twenty minutes later she calls back, out of breath slightly.
“Did you get my message about the tent,” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says “sorry I have to catch my breath. I’m thirty feet up a tree, the only place I can get good cell reception. There’s this one spot… ”
Nice of me to think about her, she says, and I’m very cute to be concerned. But she reminds me that she is both smart and no one’s fool and handles guys just fine. First night out, she appeared at the next tent over, cot and clothes in hand. “Hi guys,” she said. “I’m your new roommate. I get dressed over in that tent, sleep over here. No problems? Great, this place looks about right.”
She sets up in the back of the tent. There are three college age Afrikaner boys already ensconced. Two of them near the door are each the rough size of a Coke vending machine. My worries for her recede but do not disappear. Always in the wild, you manage your risk and hedge your bets but habituation has brought trouble for even veteran rangers.
Capstick, in “Death in the Long Grass,” told the 1972 story of a lion pride that had taken to killing chickens in a safari camp. They were within the borders of Wankie National Park in what then was Rhodesia. Nothing could be done to the lions unless they attacked humans, and they did not seem prone to that – just the occasional chicken. The lions seemed habituated but harmless.
At the camp were Len Harvey, an experienced game warden, and his new wife, Jean. They were honeymooning and stayed in a mud hut. Nearby was another ranger, Willie De Beer. His wife, daughter and her husband, a young college student named Colin Matthews, stayed in another hut.
Both parties were armed with quite adequate rifles, but because of rebel activity at the time, the rifles were required to be locked away. No one was terribly concerned about the lions and the chickens were no big loss.
But it seemed that at least one lioness had associated the spot with food and at around 11 p.m., as the Harveys slept, the lioness hopped through the window of the mud hut. It attacked Jean, biting her through the small of her back. She cried out and Len awoke. There was no flight in this situation, only fight. He attacked the lion. With no weapons, he punched, scratched and wrestled with the lioness.
The lioness left Jean and turned on Len Harvey. He yelled to his wife to run and she did. Halfway to the De Beer hut, she stopped and turned back, thinking to help. And as Capstick put it, “the sound that came through the darkness left no doubt that Len Harvey was beyond help.”
In their underwear, De Beer and his young son-in-law unlocked and loaded two rifles. De Beer made sure the safety was on. He took the heavier .375 H&H, and gave Matthews the lighter .243 Parker Hale – a smaller caliber but with a very high velocity. The veteran ranger carefully cased the hut where the lion lay. He sneaked up to peer inside the window. He thought about firing blindly into the hut, but feared Len might still be alive. He slipped off his safety and cautiously called out Len’s name. Nothing. Still, he felt he needed to see the lion before he shot. He knew it was all too common in these situations for helpful hunters to kill a human rather than the lion.
He stuck his head and the rifle into the hut window and saw Harvey’s legs, still and covered in blood. It was at this time that the lioness batted out one paw and sliced De Beer’s forehead to the bone. Shocked by the pain, blinded by his own blood, he fell back. Then he asked Colin Matthews to tie a ripped tee-shirt around his wound. It kept the blood out of his eyes and back De Beers went intent on dispatching the lioness.
He was more cautious this time but the lioness was bolder. As he neared the window, the cat reached out with a paw and caught him behind the head, drawing him forward toward her jaws. She was trying for a bite on the skull, which would dispatch De Beer for good. The ranger yelled and in agony dropped his gun inside the hut. Then he pulled away with such force that the lion’s claws came loose – but only after leaving deep grooves in De Beer’s scalp. Blinded by his own blood, he teetered backwards and fell. The lioness this time jumped through the window to finish the job.
De Beer’s was nearly unconscious and completely sightless now but knew to cover his head with his arms. The lioness bit down on his arms and began to drag him away. She chewed as she dragged him, the bones in his hands and arms broke under the pressure.
Just a few feet away, the young Colin Matthews watched the grisly scene. He was a college student. He had never hunted. He did not know guns, or know that a “safety” existed. He tried but could not fire the rifle. He struggled to help his father-in-law as best he could, and then literally put his foot into a bucket. He fell then, and so did the rifle.
The lioness looked up to see what was causing the calamity and charged Matthews head-on. His foot was still in the bucket when the lion was upon him and he instinctively put his right arm into the lion’s mouth and grabbed the animal’s tongue.
His arm, of course, was mauled and broken quickly. Neither man seemed to have much chance now. Neither had a gun. Both were terribly wounded.
But the semi-conscious and still sightless De Beers could hear the struggle nearby and groped about until he found the barrel of the rifle that Mathews had dropped. He pulled on it, but it was stuck. The lion in fact was standing on it. He yanked it free somehow, slipped off the safety and listened trying to figure out where to shoot.
From the growls and the screams, it seemed to him that the growls were higher than the human sounds, and so that is where he shot first. Then, with broken hands, he shot twice more.
All was quiet then. The lioness slumped down dead finally. De Beers and Matthews helped each other struggle back to the women. De Beer’s wife drove the three injured people thirty miles, where they were evacuated by helicopter. All survived, but Len Harvey, as they all suspected, was dead on the hut floor. As to the lion? De Beer’s blind shooting had struck her first in the lungs, the next in the shoulder and the third in the right cheek.
Any single incident like that back in the 1920’s might well have sealed the fate both of the lions and Kruger National Park. And to be certain, they were not sure how it would turn out when they branched out from the train trips and opened the park to tourists in cars. The earliest visitors were assigned a ranger, but volume soon made that impractical. Then it was thought that each car should carry a rifle. That too turned impractical. A loaded rifle is difficult to use in a car and a pistol would largely be ineffective. It became apparent that the greatest danger to tourists carrying a loaded rifle in a crowded automobile was not from lions but from tourists carrying a loaded rifle in a crowded automobile.
“When it was first decided to allow tourists to enter the Park, unescorted, in their own cars, it was not known how the lions would take it,” Stevenson-Hamilton wrote. “Personally, I thought it likely that they would give the roads a wide berth; being highly intelligent creatures, it was hardly to be supposed that they would deliberately put themselves in the way of possible danger.
“On the other hand, those whose ideas of them were culled from traveler’s tales and nursery stories, quite naturally pictured them as ravening, homicidal maniacs, whose chief aim in life was to lap human blood, were only to likely tear our visitors from their cars.”
As the good warden noted, the lions proved both theories wrong.
“Having made up their minds that motor cars were neither good to eat nor a potential danger to themselves, they almost completely ignored them,” he wrote.
It is a phenomenon known to most tourist areas where the habituation to humans has been gradual. It allows for incredible viewing at very short ranges and a good part of what makes the true tourist safari attractive, even magical.
It also is a source of debate among modern rangers to this day as to why it is so. Some state that the lions simply do not perceive the humans in the cars, unless there is motion or a human “breaks the profile” of the auto or landie. Others think this is ridiculous. “Do you really think an animal that can spot a limping zebra from half a mile away cannot distinguish you and I looking out the window?” one ranger asked.
Stevenson-Hamilton was at first convinced that the lions were dumber than he thought and that “the smell of the petrol and oil drowned the human odour; that the semi-obscurity wrapping the people inside, their heads only visible from the level of a lion’s eyes, effectually concealed their identify. I became further confirmed in my belief after having tried occasionally the experiment of getting out of the car on the opposite side of it from the lions, and then suddenly showing myself in the roadway.
“When I did this the previous sleepy and unconcerned animals always sprang to their feet and with grunts of alarm made off at full gallop, indicating thus to my mind that once they recognized a s human being, their natural fear of him immediately showed itself.”
So lions were dumber than he thought. Yet Stevenson-Hamilton never was a careless observer. Nor was he arrogant enough to think that a conclusion once set could not be challenged, and as he wrote, “later observation led me to alter this opinion.”
“There was, I began to realize, something more subtle in the lion’s attitude than I had previously suspected. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, even for those who have had much contact with wild animals, to guess how their minds work or to imagine how ordinary things appear to their eyes; but it may be hazarded, since all animals judge external from their own experiences of them, that the lion perfectly well realizes there are human beings inside the cars, but, by some queer train of reasoning, never having known them to be enemies while sitting in one, thinks that, so long as they stay like that, they remain automatically friendly, but the moment they get out, they resume their natural hostile role.
“Sometimes I have got out on the running-board and seen the lions spring up ready to bolt, only once more to lie down quietly the moment I again re-entered the car,” he said.
So there it was. A small observation in field zoology perhaps from a man with no formal scientific training, and yet one that had enormous impact on Kruger and all other parks and future eco-tourist resorts. These lions, during the day time, were habituated enough to permit incredibly close access via automobile or Land Rover. They knew humans were present but judged that they posed no danger. It is, perhaps, not unlike how herds of zebra may pass by a daytime pride of lions within striking distance, knowing that the lions are sated or sleepy and not interested in the hunt.
Or so it seemed. And so it almost always was. Stevenson-Hamilton noted that the only serious injury to a tourist was one who had disembarked from his auto. And the injury – a serious goring – came from a sable antelope not a lion.
The lions from the start were the draw. “To the majority of the visitors the main, one might even say the sole, attraction of the Park has been the lions,” Stevenson-Hamilton wrote. And it could be frustrating for him at times, as it would be to any naturalist.
“When two cars meet on the road and the occupants stop to exchange news, the first mutual question invariably is, “did you see a lion?” sometimes, “Did you see anything?” which has the same implication. I once asked a man if he had come across much along the road. “Not a blessed thing,” he replied. “But,” I said, rather surprised, “I have just been along there myself, and I saw any number of impala, some waterbuck , and a few rather fine sable antelope.” “Oh, those,” was the contemptuous rejoinder; “yes, I saw themall right, but I did not see a single lion!””
By this time, however, there were so many lions, few tourists were disappointed. The preserve soon became a park, with its main purpose letting the public view wildlife in a natural state.
Kruger National Park, James Stevenson-Hamilton, and the lions, had by the late-1920’s created the two essential ingredients for survival: a political mandate, and funding. But what Stevenson-Hamilton needed as the automobile age dawned and prospered were roads and bridges to give even more tourists even more access. And here, he found another unique solution.
For decades, Mozambicans had traveled across the park to the mines and fields of South Africa. The Shangaan tribe particularly were prized workers. There had been few problems with Mozambicans and lions in this era because the workers traveled in daytime and Shangaan were “bush smart,” said by some to be the world’s best trackers. The Portuguese government, which “owned” Mozambique, in effect would rent out the workers. The colonial government also required the workers to pay the Portuguese for a permit. Many of them sought to avoid these payments by simply crossing the park. Mine owners were only too happy to receive them – and avoid the fee to the Portuguese government.
It was this set of affairs that prompted another spark of genius within Stevenson-Hamilton. As the refugees crossed the park, he would detain them. He would give the workers a choice: Work on building roads for two weeks in the park and obtain an official work permit from him for the mines or spend two weeks in jail and get the work permit in that manner.
Most of the Mozambicans welcomed the deal to work. They actually sought to be caught, because the fee of two week’s work for Stevenson-Hamilton’s work permit was far less expensive than the Portuguese charge.
The road-building was recognized by Stevenson-Hamilton as key to the success of the park. He wrote:
“In 1928, 122 miles of road had been completed; in 1929, 382; in 1930, 450; and by 1936 approximately 900. The tourist traffic rose in like proportion from three cars with a dozen visitors in 1927, to over 6,000 cars and lorries , carrying about 26,000 in 1935”
Today the tourist traffic far exceeds one million each year, much of it following roadbeds laid down by the Mozambican labor.
Thus did Stevenson-Hamilton balance all things.
He had established an ecology of nature by saving the lions. He had established an economic and social “ecology” as well by funding the park with tourist dollars. The deal with the immigrants and the roads they built redoubled that deal and set in motion a productive cycle. The Shangaan Mozambicans built more roads; more tourists came; more lions were protected by more rangers paid for by more tourists who used the new roads to see the increasing numbers of lions which required more roads and more Mozambicans.
The key part, the major shift, was that the visitors now underwrote the park. The political sway of hunters and ranchers was over. The future of the park now lay with those who wanted to save the lions, not exterminate them.
The “lion war” of the first part of the 20th Century had been won. Threatened as a species, lions thrived in Kruger National Park. The tourists had saved them.
Or, if you viewed it another way, the lions had saved Kruger National Park by assuring a steady stream of tourist traffic and Rand funding its upkeep.
Whichever way you viewed it, the relationship between humans and lions had changed. Perhaps it was not clear at the time, but there it was just the same.
Just as there was a new breed of ranger in the park, now there was a corollary: a new breed of lion that had no reason to fear humans. And in addition to those two new breeds was a third – the first “greens.” These were tourists who were captivated by nature and adored the wild and would protect it vigorously. Each group and both species depended on one another.
The change at Kruger and other parks or preserves throughout Africa about this time was of immense significance in the relationship of the two species. In “The Iliad of Homer,” Achilles addressed his adversary Hector famously and proclaimed that there “can be no covenant between men and lions…” But of course in a larger sense there always had been. The covenant was that once we were lion food. Then we were rivals, competitive alpha predators, vying for the top rank on the food chain, circling each other warily over kills, killing the other when the chance presented itself, much as hyenas and lions do now.
Only in this most recent era did humans decide to make lions their buddies and bond. Only in the last half-century or so did humans feel safe enough to indulge themselves in exploring the more mystical and spiritual connections to their former carnivorous competitors.
And place all cynicism aside. There isa mystical and spiritual connection. Among green champions, the rangers, the tourists, the guides, hunters, the scientists, anyone who has spent time near lions in the wild, there issomething between humans and lions, some special bond or understanding, some unnamed, unspoken covenant that all-alike feel when they encounter lions in the wild.
There is the “look” tourists have when they view lions in the wild. It seems akin to the hypnotic state brought forth by the embers of a campfire. In both, humans seem to seek a timeless connection. There is a communion, a wordless memory of prehistoric nights. It struggles to be heard as the seekers stare through the fire, through the lion, through a portal to an ancient and ageless understanding that nearly can be, but never quite is, spoken.
Even the experts struggle with the concept. The famed field biologist and lion man George Schaller theorized that the contact of early man was more with early lion than early ape. Lions lived in prides and hunted, often in a coordinated and cooperative manner, just as early man lived in tribes and hunted in teams. Genetically, we might have descended from apes; ecologically and socially, we evolved more from interaction with lions. A study of lions, Schaller suggested, “mirrors man as much as any of the recent ones about monkeys or apes and mankind can learn more about itself and the evolution of its social systems through lions …than by examining some vegetarian monkey.”
So perhaps we see lions as teachers. Dr.Hans Kruuk agrees, in a manner of speaking. He notes that in the wild predators and prey alike study the big predators and seem at times transfixed by them. He too attributes this to a natural impulse to learn from a threat, from a rival.
Veteran park zoologist G.L. Smuts could speak only of ‘the sensation’ I and others experience when we are in close proximity to lions.” Randall Eaton, a South African scientist once noted that “The lion is us…We need wilderness in our world to expand our awareness and tame our lion hearts.”
Choose your explanation for the new covenant: scientific, economic, spiritual or just plain recreational. The new covenant not only worked, it produced prosperity and satisfaction for the rangers, the tourists and the lions and for several years, the Mozambicans. The social DNA – the manner of viewing game and reacting to lions and wildlife not as a predator but a desirable presence, of feeling both danger and delight, of seeing the lion also as an economic positive – ran directly from Wolhuter and Stevenson-Hamilton to all of them, tourist, ranger, Mozambican, Steve and Neville.
The view would change substantially for Mozambicans, however. They viewed lions with awe and respect, and for awhile the park and its lions were an economic boon to be certain, but there would come a time in the 1950’s that they would be bound by a different covenant altogether.
For tens of thousands of years, lions and humans were co-predators, facing off over their respective kills, just as lions and hyenas do today. But the Mozambican immigrants would reach a state where they were no longer bush-smart workers, but weak, defenseless refugees from war and poverty, drought and pestilence. The Mozambicans would no longer be dominant over lions or even co-predators with lions.
Their new covenant with lions would be this: The Mozambican refugees would become purely and simply meat. They would be transformed into a prey species.
|Impala in Kruger|
The forces that have drawn Mozambicans to South Africa for a century and more are revealed; the case of brave John Kohza; his terrible plight and fantastic flight; how refugees were forced by apartheid to travel at night; the terrible wars and plagues and famines and droughts that have increased the refugees’ numbers. The park lions, no longer fearful of humans, treat the trek of refugees as a great migration of easy prey.
ell the tales of the friendship and the bonds of the bush, Neville had said, and as we roll through Marloth Park, you can tell he and Steve have forged bonds everywhere we stop. We are raveling back through the south of the park, spotting game as casually as a motorist might spot sparrows in the suburbs, when we drive over the Crocodile River and leave the park.
The request to find and interview a Mozambican refugee leads us to Iyzona Lodge in Marloth Park just south of Kruger. The two men are greeted as family by Paddy Buckmaster, the owner of the lodge, Pauline, his wife, and John Khoza and a young beatuful woman who is Khoza’s daughter.
“Oh Neville, and how are you doing with your cobras?” Pauline says. “Has he told the cobra stories, the stories about the spitting cobras? He runs into them everywhere”
As has she, truth be told. A few years ago, she entered the laundry room and a Mozambiquan spitting cobra was coiled in the corner. The cobras can spit venom into the eyes of predators and prey, blinding them for short periods of time, or permanently if cold water and medical care is not administered quickly. The cobra nailed Pauline squarely in the eyes before she knew it was there quite. It beat a hasty retreat and she stumbled toward the lavatory and washed the venom out before calling for help. She received immediate medical care but still she was blinded for a bit and recovered her full vision only gradually over a period of some days.
“Later?” Neville says simply, but everyone insists.
His was even a hairier tale than Pauline’s. He was up on a ladder painting his home and lodge in the good old now dead days when he was still married, with a brush in one hand and solvent-soaked cloth in the other. He had not noticed the cobra in the tree, and the cobra had not noticed him. When it did, the snake nailed him squarely in both eyes, which was bad enough, but what Neville did next made matters far worse. He reflexively mopped his eyes with the rag soaked in a strong solvent. He now was blinded both by the venom and the paint solvent. He required hospital care. For awhile, it was touch and go as to whether he would see again.
But we get only the one cobra story with the promise of others later. We are after all searching for Mozambican refugees who have made it across Kruger and established new lives in South Africa. The goal here is to understand what drives them across a lethal fence, past the rangers and army patrols, and into the fiercer threat of the lions. Steve and Neville know of one man who faced all of those threats more than once.
In fact, we do not have to go far to meet him. John Khoza, Paddy Buckmastser’s right hand man and defacto younger brother, is the refugee. He is settled in South Africa now but it was no small thing for him to accomplish.
His ancestors would have had an easier time of it. The threat of the lions is relatively new – a product of the second half of the 20thcentury. For decades, the flow of Mozambicans through Kruger National Park was a “given” and there were no problems with the lions. The human treks were as regular a part of nature as the migration of wildebeest or zebra during dry seasons. There was an irresistible draw from the ever-so-strong South African mining and farming economies. An economic osmosis pulled Mozambicans through the thin membrane of Kruger and into the mines and ranches. So built-in to the culture was the crossing of the park that it became a right of passage, a sign of manhood among Mozambican youths. “Jompejozi,” they would call it when they jumped the border. Or they would tell friends they were “goin’ west to Jonni” — to Johannesburg — and nearly every young man would make the trip if he were to be thought of as a man.
But what changed it from an arduous but uneventful commute to a life-threatening trek was a force that would reshape South Africa for decades. A nationalist movement among the Afrikaners swept the nation in 1948 and soon wrote racist distinctions into law. Apartheid changed everything in Kruger. The once common migration of black Africans across South African borders, active for nearly a century, was forbidden. The borders between the park and Mozambique gradually were fenced off. Then the fence was electrified with lethal voltage and the border patrolled.
There is no sense that this stopped the flow of immigrants or even slowed it much – though a hundred are said to have died on the wires. The demand for their labor was still strong; their need to work in South Africa was as acute. Many of the mine owners and operators and ranchers winked at the law, and the immigrants hardly blinked at the new barriers. The closing of the border worked about as well as the U.S.-Mexican effort – which is to say, not well.
What was changed was the manner in which Mozambicans traveled. Patrols and helicopters would spot them in the daytime. So the Mozambicans began traveling only at nighttime when they were harder to see and most of the guards and rangers were asleep.
The lions, of course, were very much awake and in fact preferred to hunt at night. Thus was a new confrontation formed. The Mozambican migration may have been an irresistible force but it was about to meet an un-moveable carnivore – an African lion that had no fear whatsoever of human beings.
Still, they kept coming. Years later an ardent anti-immigration government official threw up his hands in frustration. “Lions do not stop them, hippos do not stop them, crocodiles do not stop them, nothing can stop them.”
To understand fully why that is so, it is best to meet an irresistible force in person.
John Kohza, even as a young boy had a bearing of good will and intelligence. Big brown eyes peered out from an inquisitive brow. He seemed to be forever questioning his situation, looking for the right good choice among options that mostly were bad. Perhaps hidden in that demeanor, or just below its surface, was the other thing, the intense drive and determination that would send him on his paths in life. One might call it will, or even willfulness at special moments.
During my visit, John sat on a rock slightly elevated above us as he told his story. The flat raking light of early evening and a setting sun cast long shadows and imparted a golden texture to the air, the plants, the buildings, the river and just beyond the river, the trees in the park. I could see Cape buffalo in the park less than 300 feet away and John would gesture toward the river, toward the park and toward Mozambique as he told his story. Neville and Steve squatted on the ground nearby, jumping in to translate when John’s English failed him or my questions needed elaboration in John’s native language.
He was among the first of the modern surge of refugees through Kruger back in the 1970’s. As always, they were pulled there by the South African economy. They were pushed there by the poverty of Mozambique. South Africa, they would say, was the America of Africa
What pulled many of the Mozambicans through the park too was family and tribal kinships. Decades ago, when the park was formed, many of the Shangaan tribe were expelled – literally driven from Eden. Some went east to Mozambique and some went west to Mpumalanga Province in South Africa just west of Kruger. The Shangaans called Stevenson-Hamilton “Skukuza” — the one who turns things upside down. For the white conservationists, the nickname was a compliment. He had turned slaughter into salvation. For the indigenous, the nickname described what he had done to their lives. By the mid-twentieth century, if one were Shangaan and traveled over the river and through the woods to see family, Kruger was that woods and the Crocodile was that river. It was natural for families to get together. Kruger was the commute.
There were few recorded notices of dust-ups with the lions pre-apartheid. Yes, Africans and Europeans alike occasionally ended up inside a lion. But it was not systematic. The one ominous exception was at the outbreak of the Boer War in 1898. The mines shut down for a period of time and the Mozambican workers were simply given the boot. They made a forced march through Kruger, with many sick and unfit to travel. The lions soon began picking them off – and then a British sentry or two as well.
Stevenson-Hamilton noted this in his log. He thought the phenomenon easily explainable. Lions and all other carnivores will take easy prey first. The long columns of sick and dying workers had taught the cats that the refugees were there for the taking and the habit expanded to the occasional Englishman on lonely guard duty.
Similar conditions were brewing in 1972, but with a number of important differences that would move the man-eater meter considerably. By the 1970’s, the refugees were not just seeking work, they were fleeing from their home country and a war with the Portuguese colonial government.
Moreover so regularly were there natural catastrophes in Mozambique that the word “catastrophe,” with its implication of rare occurrence, did not seem the correct word. With great regularity, Mozambique cycled through famine and flood. For months, sometimes a whole year, no rain would fall. Corn would wither. Cattle would die. Then, when the rains would come, they came too hard and too fast. They would sweep away fields, herds, villages, people and the very soil that only yesterday had been so dry it blew in the wind. Locusts too might suddenly ruin a good year.
And these catastrophes, which came almost like seasons in Mozambique, would pulse swarms of refugees across the park into South Africa.
Times had changed for the lions of Kruger as well, of course. Wolhuter had noted the phenomenon in the 1920’s. Even after his run-in, he had been accustomed to riding out into the park with nothing more than a fly swatter to keep the insects at bay. But after he saw lions stalking him, he revised that casual approach and always carried a rifle. Once he tested his theory that the lions were actually after his horse – not him. He dismounted, expecting the lion to run for the hills. But the lioness kept coming, stalking Wolhuter on foot, until he fired his rifle.
The lions were no longer fearful of man. A generation or two of lions had grown up in the park knowing mankind as a passive, even benevolent force. Men and women rode in cars and gaped at antelope, warthog, rhinos and lions in the daytime hours. In their cars, the people were safe and seen by the lions as harmless. But a man on horseback or on foot, could prompt a different reaction. The association with large spear-bearing hunting parties or white men with guns was lost to the protected lions. In fact, the men who carried dangerous weapons mostly protected the lions from poachers. True, poachers took their toll. Cruel snare traps did as well. Bovine tuberculosis was a problem and infected hundreds of lions in the park. But the worst experience with most humans in the 1970’s was to hear the pop of a dart gun, stumble drunkenly and then wake up with a hangover, a dose of antibiotics and a tracking collar.
So these were the conditions John Kohza faced in 1972 at the age of 15.
He was from a good family in a small Mozambique village and his father owned many cattle. John was smart. And he was a favored child. He was the pride of his young mother.
Disease — John does not know which — claimed his mother when he was ten. The loss hurt, of course, but his will or willfulness offset the loss. He resolved to be educated on his own and began attending school on his own. His father, well-to-do, encouraged him. Others would watch the herd.
Then disease — John does not know which — killed his father and orphaned him at 15. John and his older brother would have been affluent by Mozambique standards and American law, but in Mozambique the cattle passed to his uncle and of all the adoring relatives John possessed, his uncle was not among them. His uncle saw John and his brother as rivals to the herd. John had to drop out from school. All day, he was forced to work and at night there would be only a bowl of mealies, of corn. Then famine struck Mozambique and the bowl of mealies became haphazard. He was malnutritioned, without a future. His uncle was starving him out of any claim to the herd and there was no other food or job to be had. That is when he and two friends decided to do it, to take the only option they had: to cross the Kruger. JompejoziAt 15, it was time to be a man.
There are three strategies for crossing Kruger and two professions that have grown up around the crossings. The first strategy is no strategy at all. Just walk west at night. This is the simplest form of “going west to Joni.” Often, it ends badly.
The second is to obtain muti,magicfrom the local traditional healer. Often this is a totem, like a hyena’s tale, guaranteed to repel lions, though it is difficult for consumers to collect on the warranty when one malfunctions. (“The hyena’s tail?” says one ranger. “Yes, it works very well on humans. Not so well on lions.”) Still, the market for muti is good.
The third strategy, and by far the most effective, is to hire a guide. Passports at the border cost around $50 — a tough sell on an annual income of $300. A guide can be had for less. Often, he will take 20 to 30 across at great profit, and even then there are no guarantees. “If you become sick, if you are carrying a baby, if you are old and cannot keep up?” said a ranger who knows this technique. “Then you are likely to be left behind. The guide cannot take a chance.”
John was lucky to know a guide named Fredie. Luckier still to know lions. He had herded, and herders must of need come into contact with lions. He knew most importantly what not to do, but Fredie told them anyway. “You must not run from a lion. If you run, the lion will kill you.”
|Evidence of Refugees Deaths|
So, at 2 a.m., on a dark July night back in the 1970’s, when the migration already was underway, John and his small party found where a wart hog had burrowed under the fence. They wriggled under and set out across the very southern end of the park. At night, they could see the lights of towns beyond the park border to their left. That was their low tech compass and GPS . In day, they found a shady tree in a remote part of the bush. They talked then and slept.
“You do not take food, you do not worry about water,” John said. “You do not take clothes or worry about what you will wear. You are starving. You move with purpose through the bush. You move with purpose. You stay off the roads and away from the helicopters, the rangers on bicycles, the army patrols and the tourists.”
They would see elephants, and move cautiously. They encountered Cape Buffalo and one night — ever the herdsmen — threw rocks at the very dangerous animals to move them on. And then, the second night, the lions found them. Said John:
“I stopped. I froze. We all did. I faced the lion in front of me. But I knew too there were at least two or three to the rear. Always, there are lions to the rear. We stopped. We waited. We did not move. We were absolutely still. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes passed. Then we did not count the time.”
And eventually, seeing no obvious vulnerabilities, seeing no trigger signs, the lions moved onto easier, surer prey. It was the “stand” rangers and zoologists speak so much about. Make a stand against a lion, remaining motionless, and as often as not, the lion will eventually move on. And for John it worked.
It was a scene and a process repeated again and again, many times a night when they were in the park. But always, the former herdsmen knew to make the “stand” firm and true, giving no sign of vulnerability, no attack trigger.
And eventually, they made it to the Crocodile River, swam that appropriately named body of water, survived it, and were free in South Africa.
John Kohza found good work on a farm. By South African standards, he was at the bottom of the barrel. By Kohza standards he was on top of the world. Perhaps he was at the bottom of the barrel, but at least he was not at the bottom of the food chain.
He had food to eat. He had a job.
He was in short a happy man. By Mozambique standards, he was blessed. He was blessed until the day, many years after his crossing, in 1985, that a uniformed man stopped him as he walked, picked him out, John does not know how, and asked him for his papers.
John had none. The man put him in a truck. The truck drove him to where Kruger joined the Mozambique border. He was placed in a holding area with dozens of other men. They were all going back, back to Mozambique, where the droughts, floods, civil war, and starvation were killing ever more people in the 1980’s than they were in the 1970’s.
John milled around in the crowd and then inspected the perimeter of the fence. There was nothing out there, only the bush. They did not need a heavy fence. They did not need to charge it with electricity. No one would jump the fence and run toward the lions of Kruger.
John looked at the fence. He looked at the guards.
Then he was through the fence and running through Kruger. He was running for his life and did not look back.
What made John run was the fear of returning to a Mozambique that was far, far worse than even the very bad conditions he left in 1972.
What made the prospect of returning to Mozambique induce such fear was a confluence of every pestilence known to man short of earthquake and volcanic eruption. Political, economic and meteorological curses all aligned in one devastating front and swept the country for years.
There was not one flood, not one drought, not one brief war but year upon year of all. The drought and flood cycles continued on what seemed an increased frequency. Locusts at one point literally descended upon the agrarian country. Pure water was scarce. Malaria and mosquito control were non-existent.
But perhaps worst of all was the human-wrought pestilence.
The Mozambique liberation movement — the Frelimo — won its independence from a brutal Portuguese colonial government in 1974 after 11 years of fighting. Overnight it seemed, 100,000 Portuguese farmers, industrialists and merchants packed their bags and their capital and left.
“They did not leave a light bulb,” one writer said of the exodus.
The economy had not completely imploded when Frelimo established a Marxist government. It joined the boycott of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and it was said, funded anti-apartheid guerilla movements in those countries. Those still very powerful states in turn helped finance an anti-Marxist guerilla force within Mozambique called Renamo.
Frelimo and Renamo fought and in fighting, both sides “impressed” Mozambican men into service. Renamo, particularly, was known for massacring villages that were reluctant to send men. Family structures were fractured, tribes and villages dispersed or destroyed.
The US State Department, not known for its opposition to those fighting Marxist governments, officially pronounced in 1988 that Renamo had perpetrated “one of the most brutal holocausts against ordinary human beings since World War II.”
The unofficial words were far more telling. They came from the refugees and soldiers, talking to relief workers:
Said Augustin, a refugee:
“One night we heard a loud knock on the door. We didn’t open it, so it was kicked in. Bandits, Renamo soldiers, burst in. They used the bayonets attached to their guns to stab my mother, father and brother. I ran into the bush where I hid until the next day. When I returned, I found that my parents and my brother were dead and that the bandits burned our house down.”
Said a drafted thirteen-year-old Renamo soldier:
“We went into the house where a woman was there with her baby. The bandits (Renamo) gave her a knife and ordered her to kill her baby. She refused and the bandits screamed and screamed at her. Finally, she stabbed the child… While we were returning to the base, the bandits got angry at captives who couldn’t keep up. Some of the bandits took axes and killed those who couldn’t continue. They chopped off arms or legs and cut up the rest of their bodies until they were dead.”
Said an 11-year-old boy from Sofala:
“The bandits came to our house and told my mother to give them food. My mother told them we didn’t have any. They beat her until she died. All this time, they were holding my father back. They left and took my father with them. He didn’t come back…I think they killed him.
I was alone with my younger sister and four brothers. I couldn’t get other people to help us get food because nobody had any. I began to go into the bush and search for roots that I brought back to feed my sister and brothers. I had to keep going farther and farther into the bush to find enough roots. While I was away, my sister died. Then my brothers began to die one by one. Then my last brother died. I left that night. I walked for two days and to nights until I was safe….”
Famine was upon the land. Landmines were everywhere. Massacres of villages were common. People died, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands and finally by the hundreds of thousands. Mozambique by any measure became one of the poorest nations on the globe with per capita income below $300 a year.
The results were inevitable. Thousands of the refugees turned west to South Africa and to Kruger. No longer were they pulled by the South African economy. The famine and the persecution pushed them toward Kruger. They crossed fields of landmines to get there, but did not stop. They came to a lethally charged fence, but did not stop. They came to Kruger and knew the lions were there, but did not think about stopping.
“When you are starving,” Neville said one day, as we looked out across the Crocodile River at Kruger, “the lions and the park are an acceptable risk.”
And of course, the converse is true. When you are a lion, and you see weak starving people walking, stumbling and dying in front of you, there is no risk. There is only easy prey.
Thousands crossed the park each year in the 1970’s, but in the 1980’s and the 1990’s the traffic was ratcheted up by the war, the plagues, the floods, the droughts, the famines. The capture rate in the park in 1982 was about 2,000 per year. By 1985 the capture rate was 1,500 per month — about 18,000 for the year. The actual traffic through the park was immensely more. A map created by the US Committee for Refugees shows a broad arrow running from Mozambique directly through Kruger and it is labeled “200,000.” It is likely a conservative number. The total number of all Mozambique refugees — those literally driven from the country — was about 45,000 in 1984. It rose to nearly 220,000 in 1985, to 350,000 in 1986 and to more than 900,000 in the plague year of 1987.
By 1990, it had increased by another half million and by 1993, the total number of refugees — many of them passing directly through Kruger — stood at 1.7 million.
It was a great migration of mammals, not unlike the seasonal movements of wildebeest. And in Africa, whenever there is a great migrations of mammals, there is also a great convocation of carnivores – a predator’s ball. They gather to pick off the weak, the lame, the old and the sick. The prey species can be wildebeests. Or Mozambicans. The carnivores do not care.
“Exactly,” said a zoologist named Gerrie Camacho who has studied lions all his adult life.
“Exactly,” said Dr. Willelm Gertenbach, the head of conservation for Kruger in 2002.
If caught in South Africa, any Mozambican was immediately deported back into the maelstrom of Mozambique, only to join the mass migration of the starving, wounded, old and poor, moving first across territory larded with hundreds of thousands of landmines, and then back into Kruger where they faced the lions.
And so John ran.
He was at the edge of the camp and at first he thought no one had seen him. Then he heard footsteps close behind him. When he turned, he saw only two other refugees. “Take us with you,” one gasped, and what was he to do? Take them back instead?
The three ran through the bush. Antelope scattered. No lions. Zebras snorted and then would bolt. No lions. John feared running over a pride of lions in his haste. Antelopes would occasionally do that. The dozing lions would instantly switch on and sometimes catch antelope in mid-leap. It was the trigger point mentioned by rangers — a reflex so fast it seemed to fire from the muscle itself, not the eye and brain.
The men ran, then hid. John was certain someone would be following. He could not wait until dark. He could not afford to guess whether they were following. He ran again and bore left. He must get across the Crocodile River, he thought. He must get across and then lose himself in the agricultural workers of South Africa, in the great farms and work forces walking the roads each day to the fields, in the diasporas of refugees.
And then he was there, on the banks of the Crocodile River. He arrived there suddenly from over a rise, and of need drew up very sharply to avoid entering the river. When he did that, he could hear the slap and splash of crocodiles entering the water — entering their river. He paused, looked back, saw the two other refugees and said, “We must swim.”
The two men recoiled in horror. “I cannot swim!” one told John. “Wait until dark and then come back with a rope and pull us across.”
“No! We must cross now!” John said. “We will be caught! Swim!”
And with that, he dived into the water and swam furiously. The Crocodile River was about 100 feet wide at the crossing and John looked just straight ahead and drove directly through the water in a frantic crawl. If the crocs got him, they got him. He could do nothing about it. He could do nothing more about that than he could the two refugees back on the bank of the river. He could only take the choice he had in front of him. If he made it? And found a rope? Perhaps, but now only the far bank was on his mind.
Nothing stopped him. Nothing pulled him under. He made the far bank, lifted himself up and did not turn to encourage the refugees or offer encouragement. He made for the road and for the fields. He was moving with force and purpose.
He made the road just outside Kruger Park and looked for any other workers walking the road. He needed to blend in quickly and scanned the road each way. Around a near curve, came an armored Land Rover moving fast. It moved faster when the policemen inside it saw John and before he could run, he was looking at the muzzle of an R-5A South African assault rifle.
“What are you doing?” the officer with the rifle said. “Where are your papers?”
John was dripping wet within feet of the river. He had fallen into the river and lost his papers, he told the policemen. The one barked a laugh and the other grabbed John and frog-marched him at gunpoint to the Land Rover. They placed him in the back seat and told him to stay there. One radioed in their capture while another smoked and looked out over the river dreamily into Kruger.
John looked out from the Land Rover at Kruger on one side and on the other the fields of maize, of mealies, they called it, of corn. He had been so close.
Was still close, actually, if you looked at it in a different way. If you figured the odds and took a calculated gamble. The fields were just a hundred feet or so. He looked at the door of the Land Rover. It was not locked. The one man was on the radio. The other with the rifle looked still toward the Kruger landscape, smoking.
John flung the door open and bolted. He ran for the corn fields. He looked directly ahead. This was like swimming the Croc. If it happened, it happened. If they shot, they shot.
He heard a shout. No shots. He heard the rhythms of their feet in sturdy boots running after him. Still no shots.
Then he was in the corn, the maze, through the “mealies,” — away from the white officers who pursued him. He ran through the standing corn, out of the corn into a clearing, into a large stand of corn again and into a long cleared corridor of stubble that ran for a spell through the field. He turned his head once and could see them behind him. They were long-legged, large young white men and they were gaining on him. John was a short man, just five foot four inches. He could hear their heavy boots clopping hard on the cultivated ground as they gained.
Ahead of him, he could see workers. They dropped their tools in the field and turned toward the chase. He rounded a bend in the field and the cleared portion and for a moment the pursuing officers behind dropped from view. The field workers became animated. They were motioning him. They were Mozambique. “Go here, friend!” one said and pointed toward the standing corn. “Go here!”
John jinked to the left and ran through the standing corn. He was short. The corn was tall. He was invisible after traveling thirty feet into the corn. In the clearing, the white men turned the bend and faced two cleared paths through the field. The workers as if one pointed toward the right-hand bend and the white men followed the fingers, running down a curving route that never gave them a clear field of vision. They ran right past where John stood motionless hidden from view.
John walked through the field of corn and into the vastness of the great South African veldt and was free again. He worked for construction for awhile and then ran into Paddy Buckmaster, who built his lodge on the banks of the Crocodile River right on a sweeping curve of the river that exposed a fantastic tableau of Kruger, water buffalo, and sometimes lions and crocs as well. The two men became close and Paddy would say to John, “Listen, John, I know you are Mozambican. There are things we can do for you for citizenship.” Even with Paddy, John was steadfast. “No, I am South African,” he said.
Even after apartheid fell, John declined Paddy’s help. Then one day, a local policeman, a holdover bully from the days of apartheid who had no love for Paddy or John, detained John and scheduled him for deportation.
An infuriated Paddy Buckmaster and his attorney showed up and Buckmaster demanded, “What the bloody hell do you think you are doing to that man. He has worked for me for 15 years.”
The attorney attacked as a doberman might and the policeman backed off very quickly. Paddy and the attorney were able to establish permanent citizenship for John. He has a wife and six children now and drives a spotless four-wheel drive truck.
“John?” Neville says simply. “You’ve done well.”
I make a proposal; the habits of successful man-eaters are reviewed; tigers and lions are compared by two experts. how lions behave and are attracted to human prey; the modern myths of lions and humans revealed; we meet a modern Wolhuter; his brave battle on behalf of lions; his individual struggle with a specific lion;
he warden of Marloth Park drops by to chat with Neville, Steve and me. He has hunted and still hunts lions but ducks his head slightly when he says it. “I’d rather not, but the hunters pay the rent, you see, for the conservation and all.”
The spookiest ever he has felt, he says, was once when tracking a lion with a client where the tracks were fresh and clear. The men moved in a wide circle, and then they came back upon their own bootprints – overprinted by the pug marks of a large lion. The lion the men were tracking had turned the tables, circled behind them and was tracking them.
“We never saw him,” the warden said. Steve and Neville nod in agreement, indicating they have been in similar places. “But I tell you at that moment, every piece of me was alive and looking for anything that moved in the bush.”
Everything moved, of course, but not the lion. The men returned empty handed that day, glad to be alive.
We talk to John Khoza some more and to his daughter. His seems an incredible story. But the incredible part of the story is that his is not an uncommon story at all. It is repeated thousands of times each year, sometimes with happy endings, many times not. John is an Everyman of the immigrants. Nothing in the near world or future will ever stop Mozambicans from migrating through Kruger to South Africa. They are the irresistible force.
To understand the unmovable object – the lions – my safari follows the literal tracks of lions but also takes a turn here and there on a paper trail down the path of what is known about man-eating lions or – a nuanced but important distinction — lions that may happen to eat a man.
In the modern Kruger, tourists and game rangers alike avoid testing the lion’s skill at attacking humans by applying well what they know about the nastier habits of lion.
“When you get into trouble with a lion?” Neville says with the inevitable inflection turning it into a question. “You may find that it is very hard to get out of trouble? So the best thing to do? What you really should consider first? Knowing enough not to get into trouble to begin with.”
First and foremost, they say, avoid the night. It is at night, of course, when the refugees follow the paths we follow now. And it is at night that the lions hunt. Tourists leave the park or retreat to the barb-wire encircled compounds and campgrounds and are allowed out only in the daylight. Lions will kill in the daytime. They are opportunistic and if a meal drops in their lap — a man falling from a horse into a lion’s mouth, to choose Wolhuter’s unlucky example — lions will dine at high noon. Typically, though, the serious hunting is done at night.
It was at about this point, I know not exactly when, that it seemed particularly important for me to be there, in the night, when the serious hunting was done. How else could a journalist get it right? How else could proper witness be borne?
I had to walk Kruger. It would be tough to face my peers and friends without that part in the piece. It would be more than tough. It would be impossible not to take the walk because it needed to be in the story.
So it was that I came to inquire ever so disingenuously of Neville and Steve what I would need to cross the Kruger at night. What would they recommend, if I were to mount a night expedition on foot? What would it take?
“I’m a professional hunter,” said Steve Gibson. “I am not a professional fool.”
Edwards, evermore the diplomat, nevertheless uttered a rare obscenity. It is the only curse word I hear from him during the entire safari.
“If you are talking about walking the Kruger at night, you are asking for real shit!”
His face had turned slightly red, but I didn’t take the hint and pressed on. It was my risk, after all. What would you do? How would you do it? Would we just sneak in? How would we do it? Theoretically?
“Theoretically, if we could get permission? I would put you and me in the middle, and we would have rifles? I would have four rangers on the points of the compass out from us 20 feet armed with shotguns? We would be certain to run into lion, and something or someone would be certain to die.”
“On those terms, would that be something you really would wantto do?”
I make use of a meaningless mumble that neither confirms nor denies what I would like to do. Truth is, I had not thought of the ramifications, save to myself. Clearly I have violated the Steve-Neville code of the bush. Other codes as well. Edwards has a duty to protect his clients, to keep them from harm. It wasn’t going to be he and I just sneaking under a fence from bush-to-bush playing kick the can with some big kitties. Ethically, he could not expose me to that risk and keep his license. He would have to go in armed and at near platoon strength. More than that, I have violated the Steve-Neville code of the bush in another way: proposing a foolhardy gambit without considering consequences that could cause some serious and senseless harm not just to me but innocent animals and rangers too.
But the trickier part of my journalist’s instinct – the one with the devil’s pitchfork instead of the halo, the one that is despicable but some days undeniably useful — thought I also thought I might get Neville to do it, to do some revised version of it. He had not said no, just posed the ethical question. Would I still want to do it?
Well, yeah. I did. But the thought had been for me to put my head in the lion’s mouth, so to speak, not to literally endanger rangers — or lions. I had to think about that now, carefully. Every foreign correspondent has a local “fixer” – someone on the ground in-country who knows the culture and the community. You made sure you had good fixers, and then you listened to them. Correspondents who have good fixers and listen to them live; those who don’t, or don’t listen, tend to die. Or so my foreign correspondent friends who are still alive tell me about those who are now dead.
I knew I had good guides – my version of fixers. And the prospect of walking under those conditions had its own intrigue and drama. Helluva scene, really. Good plot and action. Armed men versus animals. The certainty of making contact. I could not deny the attractions of a good story, a mini-drama. Probably nothing would happen to me.
And of course I was not the first to ponder the ethics of a forcing a confrontation for entertainment of the folks back home. In the early days of film, wildlife features were hugely popular. An American, Paul Rainey, had made several successful films in the early 20thCentury. What he and most other filmmakers of the time had never done was capture a lion in full head-on charge. It was a dangerous duty for a white hunter to accept not just because the lion was charging the hunter, but had to be lined up with the cameraman as well. Finding the lions, provoking the charge, assuring the right camera angle and the death only of the lion was a formidable goal.
The best hunters of the time – brave and legendary men who had their own codes of the bush — turned down Rainey’s requests, thinking them suicidal in nature even when the hunters were offered rates far beyond their normal fees. It was some time before Rainey met up with Fritz Schindelar, a man with a mysterious past said to be an aristocrat and ex cavalry officer. Whatever his history, his reputation in Kenya was as a skilled and fearless man, the best polo player in the region who often rode standing on his saddle. He was also a crack shot, with heavy rifle or shotgun and a regular guy who got along well with aristocrats and gun bearers alike.
He listened to Rainey’s proposal, understood the dangers, and accepted. His assignment was to bait a lion by riding his swift polo pony past the animal, and draw it along toward the cameramen who would film the charge. A platoon of hunters would fire on the lion before it did harm to the cameraman.
They found scores of lion and killed more than 11 of them, but none at the right angle or approach to the camera. Finally, Schindelar believed he had cornered a particularly game lion in a thicket of tall grass and brush. The cameramen set up their gear. The plan was for Schindelear to ride into the brush and cover, goad the lion, and then turn and run the fast, agile polo pony back toward the camera.
Schindelar charged up to the edge of the grass and then sped away, attempting to lure the lion, to goad it. The lion stayed at bay.
Then Fritz came at a different angle to the brush and cover, not knowing exactly where the lion was, but again hoping to bring it toward the camera.
Impossibly swift, the lion came from nowhere. Its charge nearly knocked the horse over and threw Fritz from the saddle. He recovered his stance and as the lion charged him, fired both barrels of his gun at point blank range, missing with both slugs. The lion knocked him to the ground and savaged his abdomen, then turned on the rest of the men. A volley of rifle fire brought the lion to the ground, dead. But it took Fritz Schindler two more days to die, despite frantic efforts by Rainey to transport him to a hospital. “My god what a mighty blow,” were among some of his last words.
Was that in a sense what I was asking Neville to do? Play Schindler to my Rainey? I had no camera or filming in mind, but in all matters the cases and the ethics involved were very similar. The very real reason for the concern by Steve and Neville was not that we would somehow stumble upon a pride of lounging lions, but they would almost certainly stumble upon us.
At night, the prides don’t lounge. They lunge. They move forcefully through the bush in hunting parties that are all business. They may specialize in and prefer one species of prey, but in their night-time sorties, they are opportunistic. They are looking for warthog, impala, wildebeest, buffalo, and zebra, and anything else that might turn up – like us.
And almost certainly, they would come upon us. The Kruger lion population is dense. There are 300 prides in Kruger, roughly, with seven to thirty lions in each pride and more than 2,000 lions total. They weigh anywhere from 250 to 500 pounds each and can be more than ten feet in length. They are equipped to charge prey over short distances, and then seize and hold with massive shoulders and muscular front quarters.
They have the equivalent bulk of a linebacker and they need the proportionately equivalent fuel of course. Each lion must eat about 5,600 pounds of food each year or more than 100 pounds of meat each week. They are ever so well-equipped to obtain that sort of poundage by killing very large animals. Long fangs and sharp claws can dispatch prey, though neither weapon is always the direct cause of death. A swat of a paw often does the trick to smaller animals. (Imagine taking a sucker-punch in the temple from a 400 pound heavyweight with six-inch razor sharp brass knuckles protruding from the fist.) A bite to the neck or the head or chest does the job of course. But big grazing animals often have their necks broken. Smaller antelope often are held by the throat and strangled. Other times, lions might grab larger antelope by the nose and mouth and suffocate them.
Yet the most deadly lion weapon may not be fangs or claws or muscular bulk but social organization. Lions are the only social cat. As John Kohza remarked when he faced down lions in front of him, “Always there will be lions behind you.” Somewhere, back in the antediluvian past, both man and lion learned that social organization benefits the individual organism. It is not uncommon for solitary cats to attack animals twice their bulk. But working together, a pride can take down large animals — a ton of buffalo, for example — with less risk than if one cat attempted it. Many cats on one hunt downing one large animal that provides many meals has an advantage over many cats on many individual hunts downing many smaller animals or risking a solitary attack on a large animal.
Socialization gives the lion an advantage in its predatory niche. On my first safari, I found myself in a Land Rover with an African game ranger and a visiting ranger from India who guided for tiger in his home country. Both men were educated field biologists.
“You’ve got to answer the question I had when I was ten years old,” I tell the two men. “Which is the most ferocious and dangerous cat, the lion or the tiger? Put them together, who wins the fight?”
“There is no doubt that in one-on-one combat,” says the African game ranger, “that the lion would lose. The Bengal tiger on average weighs about 550 pounds — a 100 pound weight advantage.”
“But,” the Indian guide adds, “in the real world, if they were somehow in the same range, there is no doubt that the lion would gain the predatory niche. The tiger is mostly a solitary animal and the lion hunts in prides. There is no doubt that lions would drive tigers from the niche at the top of the food chain.”
There are many myths about lions and their relationships with mankind. They run the gauntlet from cuddly Disneyfications and “Born Free” characters with names, to the demonization of man-eaters.
Perhaps the biggest myth among mankind is that lions naturally fear men and turn to eating humans only when forced to through injury or old age. Any deviation from this concept is seen by some as aberrant, even criminal, the actions of a psychopathic killer who has broken all rules and is “unnatural” or a “rogue.”
The truth is quite a different thing. Certainly, some old lame lions do eat humans. And injured tigers and leopards may be more prone to eating humans because they have no pride or social structure to fall back on as do lions. Most recent leopard attacks on humans in Kruger were attributed to the age of the cat or to the fact that the attacking cat was injured and starving.
But researchers from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History — Julian C. Kerbis Peterhans and Thomas Patrick Gnoske — recently concluded in a paper that lions eat humans for one main reason.
They can. Hey, they always have.
It is a flip oversimplification of their conclusion, but not by much. The main diet of ancient lions in fact was hominids and ungulates — early humans, apes, and antelopes. Our forebears were not an accidental appetizer or side dish. They were a main course.
“For most of their history, extinct and living humans, have represented little more than a vulnerable, slow moving, bipedal source of protein for big cats,” said Peterhans, who is associate professor of Natural Science at Roosevelt University, a Field Museum adjunct curator and co-author of the study on man-eating by lions published in the Journal of East African Natural History.
Over time, social organization and technology changed that. But it took a good long time. Mankind did not one day discover fire and the club, flick a Bic and drive all of liondom to the desert.
In a paper on cats, evolution and sociability, Randall Eaton suggested a few years back that early man was at best “co-dominant” with lions for many centuries. So daunting a competitor was the lion that early men fought among themselves, favoring “intraspecific” warfare. In other words, tribes of men fought each other for turf because that was easier than taking on another species as tough as the lion.
Stone, sticks, fire, then bronze, then iron, steel, gunpowder, bullets, traps, snares, poison, dogs, horses, language and human social organization eventually prevailed. Most modern day lions have learned to avoid man — the spear-bearing Masai, the rifle-toting hunter. Yet all this is learned behavior. Even 25,000 years ago, writes G.L. Smuts, a Kruger naturalist, Cro Magnon man was having a tough time of it with lions and was far from dominant. In evolutionary terms, this is the blink of an eye. Lions very quickly learn to hunt man when the sense of danger disappears and opportunity presents itself.
“The question most people ask is I would say turned about?” Edwards said. “It is not really a question of why lions would eat people? Look at man, look at me. What do I have? Dull teeth? Short fingernails? No hide, no hair to speak of. I cannot run fast. I cannot smell the air well. I have no hard hooves or anything really that could do harm to an animal.
“So the question really isn’t why lions would eat people,” he said. “The question is why would they noteat people.”
Peterhans and Gnoske concluded much the same thing: “The amazing thing in modern times is not the high number of lion-human kills,” they said, “but the lownumber. It is not uncommon for conditions to favor lions preying on humans and we should not be at all surprised that this happens with regularity.”
“Let’s take stock of what we can about early humans,” wrote anthropologists Donna Z. Hart and Robert W. Sussman. “They were tasty items for cats, dogs, bears, hyenas, raptors and reptiles.”
The proof of this in modern times is brutally clear but not widely known. In Tanganyika, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, three generations of a lion pride hunted men, women and children so systematically that they treated villages like pantries. The pride would enter a village when hungry, select a hut, tear through the roof and eat the inhabitants as casually as we might open and eat a tin of nuts. George Rushby, the famous white hunter who eventually killed most of the lions, found the animals to be in their prime, with luxuriant, silky coats. The lions had so “selected” humans as the preferred species that a lion would charge through a herd of cattle — and kill only the herdsman.
The famous Ghosts of Tsavo, a pair of male lions that may have killed as many as 130 railroad workers, similarly were found by researchers to have been capable hunters of “normal prey.” For a number of reasons, the pair had learned to hunt and eat humans and did so just as if mankind were a tribe of slow and dull-witted warthogs. A human provides about 50 pounds of meat to a lion and humans made up a good portion of the 200 or so pounds of meat the two lions needed each week. In each of these cases, it seems as if the lions involved truly were man-eaters, that they had selectedhumans as a favored prey species, not just taken a human as the opportunity presented.
The selection of a favored prey then is passed along through a generation or more of lions. Authors Chris Harvey and Pieter Kat found that similar prides might develop vastly different preferences based on coincidence. In the Mogogelo region of Botswana, a pride had learned to hunt and prefer baboons – highly unusual behavior in lions. The writers’ theory is that the pride discovered that baboons would flee to a tree upon seeing a lion but would jump to the ground if one lion charged and started to climb the tree. This lesson lead to an easy meal for the pride.
Yet in nearby Santawani, a lion pride virtually ignores baboons and seek more traditional lion prey. Once, a baboon missed a branch, fell from a height and died directly in front of the Santawani pride. The lions sniffed the carcass but simply did connect baboons with meat. They moved on leaving the body untouched.
In each of the famous man-eater cases, humans helped the situation immeasurably by ignoring the Law of Unintentional Consequences. In Tanganyika, men seeking to control the spread of livestock disease shot -out all the natural game to form a several mile disease free buffer. The lions ate what they could: first cattle; then us. Tribes people were psychologically disarmed from defending themselves because they believed in a lion version of werewolves. The African version of lycanthropy was this: The man-eaters were not mortal. They were men changed into lion demons by shamans who wanted to punish the tribes people.
In Tsavo, it helped that human endeavor had for decades, perhaps centuries, “provisioned” the lions with humans as food. The slave caravan routes passed through, with a horrible toll. Those who were sick were abandoned. Lions learned to scavenge the corpses. It was an easy next step for the cats to take a weak or dying human – and next perfectly healthy specimens. The caravans kept coming, decade after decade, marking a trail through the jungle of the dead and dying. It was almost as if the caravans were chumming for man-eaters, then training them to eat humans.
But the slave caravans did not pass through Kruger. And neither has the game been shot-out. Far from it. Natural “provisions” should supply adequate meat. An abundance of natural game occurs. More than 150,000 impala, 32,000 zebra, 25,000 buffalo, 14,000 wildebeest, and 5,000 giraffe roam the park.
And yet, the lions kill humans in Kruger with great regularity. The land we are driving on now is a nocturnal killing ground, of that there is no doubt. Lions, like other predators, instinctively take the easy prey. And the easiest prey these days quite often is a refugee.
All of that made a compelling argument for staying out of the park at night save for two classes of people: desperate refugees and over-earnest journalists. For a journalist, the worse it sounded, the more attractive was the prospect. Despite the conversation with Neville, despite Steve’s flat-out rejection of the proposal, I noodle the idea of walking through the park at night. If not Neville or Steve, perhaps the next guy we were visiting would be my man. After all, he was, by all accounts, the Wolhuter of his age.
|Gerrie Camacho: Lion Man|