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See Ami Vitale's stunning images from the lion-terrorized villages of Tanzania.
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Learn more about the man-eating lions in Tanzania in a video clip from "Ultimate Cats," premiering Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.
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I had come to southern Tanzania this past spring to investigate a problem that even scientists refer to by the decidedly Hollywood-esque and less than completely accurate term "man-eating lions." In no way are women and children being excluded from this gastronomic phenomenon. In fact, when we pull into the village of Navanga early one morning, the women and children appear at least as freaked out about what had happened here the night before as the men. We're met by a swarming crowd, everyone talking at once. Lions strolled right through the village, we're told. Look, see for yourselves, tracks! There, there, and there! The giant cloud of red dirt kicked up by this jittery throng nearly obliterates the evidence they're trying to show us, but Dairen Simpson and Dennis Ikanda squat down and take a good hard look. "At least two adult lions and a smaller cat," says Simpson, an expert animal trapper from North Carolina. "They were here not long ago, at first light. There aren't even dew pocks in these tracks." The paw marks emerge from someone's backyard corn patch and meander right through the cluster of huts, edging close to verandas and front doors. Ikanda, 35, a lion expert with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, shakes his head and makes a series of soft sucking sounds—"tsk, tsk, tsk"—his way of expressing concern and disapproval. "They're coming right up to the houses," he says quietly. "It's not good." Simpson glances about the village and adds, "It's quite a cafeteria here. There's all kinds of food—dogs, goats, people."
Ikanda begins chatting with a group of men, trying to learn more about the lions' movements, while Simpson follows the tracks back through the corn patch to a shady cashew tree about 40 yards (37 meters) behind the huts. The tall grass beneath the tree has been flattened. "Those dirty bastards," he drawls. "They laid up beneath this tree then walked through the corn and right past the huts." He pushes back the brim of his Indiana Jonesstyle bush hat and adds, "It doesn't get any hairier than this."
Actually, we learn it's been pretty darn hairy for about a week now. These particular lions first caused a stir just north of here, near the villages of Kitunda and Kitumbikwela, where they ate two dogs and two goats before heading south. They nailed a bushpig halfway to Mnali, where a woman actually spotted them, although she couldn't be sure if she saw two lions or three. It's not like she lingered for a good look. Then, two nights ago, according to the tracks, they spent some time in Mdima on villager Saidi Hassan's front porch, before visiting a nearby spring. Early this morning they were here, nosing about Navanga. Now, who knows? They could be miles from here. Or they could be 50 feet (15 meters) away, watching us from the bush. Waiting.
The anxiety among these villagers is completely understandable. Not only have lion attacks on people increased dramatically in the past 15 years in Tanzania—with more than 800 incidents resulting in 563 deaths and at least 308 injuries during that time—but almost half of those cases occurred in six coastal districts here in the south. Worse, the district we're in now, Lindi, holds the notorious distinction of being ground zero for Africa's man-eating lion problem. From 2001 to 2004, at least three different outbreaks occurred at the same time in Lindi, meaning three separate roving groups of lions terrorized the district at once. The mayhem left 113 people dead and 52 others severely mauled. After a lull in attacks in 2005, lions are once again engaging in the kind of ominous behavior that residents here remember all too well.
"We are very worried," one villager tells Ikanda. "This is what happened the last time. The lion ate the dogs and goats first, then he began eating people."
Ikanda listens patiently to everything the villagers say, sometimes uttering an empathetic "tsk, tsk, tsk." He's a short, bespectacled man, soft-spoken and studious, and afterward, he can only speculate on why man-eating has exploded here. In northern Tanzania, where Ikanda is from, the problem is almost nonexistent, probably because in prey-rich areas such as Serengeti National Park, lions merely have to wander a few hundred yards (about 200 meters) in any direction to find galloping buffets of tasty ungulates. By contrast, in southern Tanzania, the last place in Africa where significant numbers of lions live outside protected areas, the prey base has been decimated by poaching and loss of habitat to agriculture. As the country's human population booms (it grew by half from 23.1 million people in 1988 to 34.6 million in 2002) and those activities increase, lions are squeezed for both space and meals. The problem is made worse by the landscape. "Lions can hide anywhere in that," Ikanda says, motioning toward the vivid green, eight-foot-tall (two-meter-tall) grass and impenetrable scrub that towers at the edges of homes here. "How can you control lions in this stuff?"
As bad as the conflict is for people, it's worse for lions. Panthera leo once roamed the entire continent, but retaliation for killing people and livestock has eliminated it from North Africa, and only relic populations remain in West Africa and central Africa. The remaining 40,000 or so lions—half of which reside in Tanzania—continue to be hammered for the same reason. Before conservationists can hope to reverse this trend, they need to answer some basic questions about man-eating. For starters, Where do these lions in Lindi come from? Ikanda has hired Simpson to trap and collar four lions with satellite tracking devices to find out. If the lions aren't spillover cats from the Selous Game Reserve, 120 miles (193 kilometers) to the west of here, they're probably native to Lindi. That means the spike in attacks could represent a last gasp by desperate lions in a deteriorating landscape, right before their complete elimination from the area.
Craig Packer, 56, Ikanda's mentoring professor from the University of Minnesota and a leading lion expert, calls this the "Njombe effect," named after a district to the west that experienced the worst man-eating outbreak in history, when lions allegedly killed 1,500 people from 1932 to 1947. That outbreak occurred after the prey base had been purposely decimated by British colonials attempting to stem the spread of rinderpest disease to livestock. Fifteen lions were killed in response, and many others likely fled the general disruption. Njombe has been nearly lion free ever since. Before traveling to Lindi, I'd spoken with Packer in Dar es Salaam, and he'd told me, "In Lindi, you might be seeing lion Armageddon, the end of lions there forever."
The people here in Navanga probably wouldn't mind that one bit, considering what they've been through. Of the outbreaks that occurred in Lindi from 2001 to 2004, the worst unfolded in this corner of the district, in the divisions of Sudi and Mingoyo, which includes Navanga and several dozen other villages. A group of four lions killed 38 people and injured 16, including little Hassani Dadi, just up the road from here. The experience was so horrific for these communities, the attackers so seemingly unstoppable, that most people refused to believe mere flesh-and-blood lions could cause such carnage. It had to be something vastly more powerful. It had to be a "spirit lion," the thinking went, a supernatural, shape-shifting force resembling a lion, a sinister weapon unleashed by the enemies of those attacked. Salum Mohamed, the uncle of Hassani, had told me as much during our interview. He didn't have any enemies, he assured me, but that didn't mean that some malevolent person didn't have it in for the whole community. "Many of the villagers believed it was a spirit lion," he'd said. "They believed that it was sent on a trial run to my house, to see if it could kill people."
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Our October 2006 issue features how to live your Adventure dream; Tanzania's man-eating lions; outdoor activities in San Francisco; World Class adventure travel trips; and more!