It’s more of a story than a vignette this week, the tale of a man-eating lion.
THE MAN-EATER OF MFUWE
Besides being visited by just about everyone who comes to the South Luangwa Park, the little town of Mfuwe, Zambia, will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.
Of the big cats, there are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature, maybe because tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. In fact, there’s an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.
The Champawat Tigress was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in British colonial India in 1911, the year British King George traveled to Delhi to be crowned Emperor.
In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen railroad construction workers, halting the project to connect the interior with Mombasa in British East Africa in 1898.
The Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing the little community, then home to scarcely a thousand, a spare hundred miles west of the border with Malawi.
The first attack occurred as two boys walked along a road at night. One boy got away, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull.
The second victim was a woman. The lion crashed through the door of her rondavel on the edge of her village.
The third attack was nearly foiled by a nearby ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds.
Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or medicine man taking the shape of a lion.
Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill it. Two other professional hunters tried, but Hosek finally brought the man-eater down.
Today the lion is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.
The lack of mane led some to assume at first they were after a lioness. A lioness was killed early in the Mfuwe terror and people believed they’d got the man-eater, but then a male lion entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it.
Remarkably, as a child, the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo at the Field Museum in Chicago. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.
As a boy, Hosek spent days standing in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine the feeling of being in front of the real thing, as he put it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath. He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth.
Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across nine days, from September 1 to 9, 1991. The first day he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of the man-eater, but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.
Hosek’s description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is unclear and incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”
In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to already know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal is killed.
Hosek began by visiting villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning about the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo, home to Kunda Bantu people.
The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It was seen playing with the bag like a cat with catnip. The bag was later found in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.
Village women would wash their family’s clothes here, by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. As Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”
Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, and two of them wouldn’t look at him, as if they resented his getting them into all this.
The village elders decided the bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.
The hunters laid bait near the bag to keep the lion near and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time, he prayed.
The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks some fifty feet from the blind.
The following day the hunters entered the blind at 3:30. Hosek writes of what he calls ‘blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”
Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”
They adopted a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait, then leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. Others built the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.
Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. He counseled that ultimately, therefore, they should expect to have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.
When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and had eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.
As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from The Lord.” As he pointed out, the villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.
On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking his visibility. Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.”
Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion and beating it with sticks. Celebratory fires lit up the horizon.
I asked Adrian Carr, a member of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr found it to be “pretty accurate and factual.”
Carr played a role in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role as minor. He sat up for him one night, saw him but never managed to get a shot.
Here is what he says:
“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.
He had got up in the night and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.
I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.
I decided to sit up for him the next night.
My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter.
It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….
I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…
I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!
Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.
Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.
Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!
He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”
Quotes from Adrian Carr come from email correspondence kindly arranged some time ago by Norman Carr Safaris. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr.
Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.