Rational Fear

As human populations expand and lions’ prey dwindles, the poorest people—and hungriest lions—pay the price.

The myth of the Great White Hunter has resonated for well over a century in Europe and North America. David Livingstone, the famous explorer and missionary, traveled through eastern and southern Africa seeking to eradicate the slave trade and to spread Christianity throughout Africa. Livingstone largely supported himself through his writings, and his books contained florid accounts of the man-eating lions he killed in what is now Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). In the 1890s, about two decades after Livingstone’s death, Colonel J.H. Patterson was sent to Tsavo, Kenya, by the colonial authorities to deal with an outbreak of man-eaters during the construction of a railway from Mombasa to Kampala. The lions proved to be difficult quarry, and his subsequent book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, spawned no fewer than three Hollywood films: Bwana Devil (1952), Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959), and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996).

Indeed, popular culture has been quite obsessed with the notion that white men are somehow the only reliable agents for protecting helpless villagers. Certainly The Man-Eaters of Tsavo had a disproportionate impact on this perception, with Colonel Patterson being the only man who could rescue the railway crew. Yet at least twenty-eight of the scores of Tsavo victims were laborers from India who had likely never owned a weapon in their lives and any of the victims might have fared better with Patterson’s means. In the 1932 outbreak, George Rushby relied on his Tanzanian assistants as well as his experience as a hunter to finally end the terror in Njombe (see “Man-Eaters of Tsavo,” November 1998).

Typical outhouse

Typical outhouse of poles and grass in background offers little protection.

Photo by Hada Kushnir

The falsehood at the heart of the Great White Hunter myth is the notion that African villagers will forever remain helpless and that only outside expertise can protect them against the forces of nature. It is certainly true that when you are very, very poor and cannot afford anything more than the clothes on your back, there is no way that you can buy your own guns to shoot the marauding lions or erect fences to keep the pigs out of your fields or even provide adequate lighting around your house at night. And certainly the scale of rural poverty in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique is heartbreaking.

But the fact is that very simple technology now makes man-eating lions almost trivially easy to kill. And the word spreads fast. A few years ago, an elderly couple were sleeping in their hut one night when the wife had to go to the outhouse. She didn’t come back, and the husband went out to look for her. At the outhouse, he found the upper half of her body lying on the ground. He quietly went back to their hut, fetched a box of rat poison, and came back to lace the remains of his wife. It worked.

Whether independently or in recollection of this first case, a man in another village found the lower half of his mother-in-law’s body a year or so later. He, too, laced her body with rat poison. It worked again. Now people know what to do, and rat poison is something anyone can afford. In some areas, people tolerate lions because they help control the bushpigs, but most people would rather deal with bushpigs than with man-eating lions, so they have even started lacing bushpig carcasses with poison and setting out poisoned goats as bait.

This started about five years ago, and it seems likely that most of the lions have been eradicated from the rural areas of southern Tanzania, because we have only heard of a dozen or so fatal attacks each year since 2005. But there will always be lions emerging from Tanzania’s vast Selous Game Reserve (which, at 17,300 square miles, is larger than Switzerland and held as many as 4,000 lions a decade ago) and Mozambique’s vast Niassa Reserve (which is nearly as large as the Selous and may be home to a thousand more lions). And rural villagers quickly 


Tanzania lion Postcards
Postcards sold in Tanzania depict the conflict between humans and lions.
Tanzania lion Postcards
Postcards sold in Tanzania depict the conflict between humans and lions.
Tanzania lion Postcards
Postcards sold in Tanzania depict the conflict between humans and lions.
Tanzania lion Postcards
Postcards sold in Tanzania depict the conflict between humans and lions.

Our scientific research focuses on some-how trying to mitigate this brutal conflict. Currently a new Tanzanian wildlife student, Harunnah Lyimo, is testing various strategies for keeping pigs out of the villagers’ fields. Bushpigs cannot be eradicated, but it should be possible to exclude them from the fields with trenches or a string of chili peppers or even the sort of animal repellant used in America to deter raccoons and deer from suburban gardens. And even if those measures don’t fully protect the villagers against lions, they could at least reduce crop losses.

Education may be useful, too; it is simply not a good idea to walk alone at night. And certainly, friends should never allow friends to walk home alone drunk in the dark—lions seem to have a particular fondness for drunks. But then they also catch the simple and delusional outcasts: schizophrenics and the slow-witted.

It is difficult to exaggerate the toll that even a few man-eating lions can exact on the psychology of a rural community. Harvest season is man-eating season. Beyond the direct costs of injury and loss of life, people can become almost paralyzed with fear, leaving their crops to rot in the fields.

There are fewer than 50,000 lions left in all of Africa; Tanzania is their final stronghold. There may only be a dozen or a hundred lions in the coastal scrublands. But what can you do when one of those lions comes from nowhere? It’s hungry. It strikes in the dark. You have no weapons.

That lion could be anywhere, even under your bed.

Web links related to this article:

view counter

Recent Stories

Eight months after Hurricane Maria, this unique field site is still in recovery.