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Africa: Tanzania's Lions
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Man-Eating Lions: Stalking the Spirit Lions
Nature's most efficient predators are hunting down the people of southern Tanzania. The cats are cunning, hungry, and–some believe–not of this world.  Paul Kvinta reports from the heart of the lion's den.   Photograph by Ami Vitale

Photo: Tanzanian children
THE HUNTED:  Ten-year-old Hassani Dadi (center), who lost his arm to a lion, plays with his friends at a swimming hole near his village.

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Photo Gallery

Photo Gallery:
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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Male African lions can grow up to ten feet long and typically weigh well over 350 pounds (159 kilograms), with females being considerably smaller. As one of the animal world's greatest terrestrial killing machines, they possess the speed, strength, weaponry, cunning, and teamwork to dispatch even elephants. On a savanna teeming with prey, males easily maintain their size by consuming an average of 15.5 pounds (seven kilograms) of flesh a day. In a landscape such as Sudi-Mingoyo, with its dense thickets, view-obstructing hills, and coastal marshes, scoring that kind of meat takes serious work. Small, mobile prides—three or four adults, max—must patrol huge ranges, possibly more than a hundred square miles (259 square kilometers), to locate what little game remains here, mostly small antelope. The one game animal that has thrived amid the expanding agricultural settlements of this area is the wily bushpig, an infamous crop raider. As lions chase bushpigs into maize fields, they come into contact with another potential food source—the plodding, largely defenseless, and often unaware human. Compared with, say, taking down a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) Cape buffalo, attacking and eating a person, for a lion, is a little like Homer Simpson ripping open and inhaling a bag of Cheetos.

It's hard to say why the pride that terrorized Sudi-Mingoyo for three years first attacked on the evening of September 24, 2001, near Mnali. Lions are opportunistic hunters, and it simply may have been a case of desperation meeting opportunity. The Lindi region was experiencing extremely dry conditions for the second year in a row, and the lack of water and pasture had dispersed prey far and wide, leaving the lions few options beyond domestic goats and dogs. It's also possible that the lions had become generally familiar with the routines of the people here. They might have learned that folks typically rise at 5 a.m. and hike to their mashamba, farm fields, along trails lined with thick bush. They might have learned that, after a long day of scaring off pigs and monkeys, people return home after sunset along the same trails, that they eat dinner with their families, tend to their children, and sometimes gather to dance and sing. They might also have learned that children sometimes wander away from homes, unattended. Whatever the case, on the evening of the 24th, the pride came across something more substantial than a dog or goat, something in a green-and-yellow dress. An unsuspecting straggler. There would be little risk in taking it.

Eight-year-old Pili Tengulengu had been playing with her cousins when her aunt called everyone in at 6 p.m. The kids scampered home along a footpath through tall grass. Pili was last in line. No one saw what happened to her, no one but Pili, which accounted for her single, high-pitched scream.

The lion would have approached her from the front, lunging suddenly from the grass, and, most likely, it would have killed her instantly with a vise-like bite to the throat. It then would have carried her deeper into the grass, possibly meeting up with the other lions. They soon would have heard so much commotion from Pili's family in the nearby hut that they quickly would have schlepped their kill a hundred yards (91 meters) away and settled into the thick scrub, where they could eat in peace. A half-hour later, men with spears and machetes came nosing about, but it was dark, and the lions were well concealed. The men soon left. After that, the pride would have finished its meal and ambled off, leaving only pieces of Pili's skull and arm bone.

Villagers viewed the attack as mostly bad luck, as another difficulty in an extremely difficult life. "It can happen anytime, anywhere, to any person," said Samwel Sabuni, Pili's uncle. True enough. Seven weeks later, it happened again. This time it was nine-year-old Maisha Shaibu, in Nachunyu, ten miles (6 kilometers) southeast of Mnali. Eight weeks after that, little Hassani Dadi had his arm taken outside Simana. And eight weeks after that, on March 14, 2002, seven-year-old Sharifa Magendo was eaten in Hingawali. After each of these attacks, the Lindi District Game Office dispatched armed rangers to track the pride. Villagers often joined these parties or sent out their own, typically armed with only machetes and spears. In mid-March, a couple of hunting parties killed two lions, raising everyone's spirits. But the joy soon faded. On May 18 the pride took an eight-year-old in Navanga. Two weeks later it took a 12-year-old in Hingawali.

Sudi-Mingoyo was losing its children.

From a wildlife-biology perspective, the pattern made sense: The lions were still ravaging domestic goats and catching bushpigs in the mashamba, so humans had become an occasional but regular dietary supplement. And, since the lions were still wary of this new prey, they likely found the youngest ones easiest to kill, carry, and consume quickly. But in the villages, increasingly, the talk was of something else entirely. These killings weren't about climatic shifts, depleted prey numbers, or bushpigs. They didn't even involve lions, many people said. This was black magic, pure and simple. What Sudi-Mingoyo needed was counter-juju, and fast. It was time to seek out an mtaalam, a bush doctor.

While most of the 56,000 residents of Sudi-Mingoyo identify themselves as either Muslim or Christian, traditional beliefs run deep, and notions about spirit lions have existed for generations. Still, there's little consensus on what exactly a spirit lion is. Some say people can transform into lions in order to kill their enemies and then revert back to human form. Others say dead people return to Earth as lions, seeking revenge. One of the most common beliefs is that spirit lions can be acquired on demand. "People have a belief in owning spirit lions and using them for destructive purposes," says Ikanda, the lion researcher, who has learned as much about spirit lions as real ones since coming to southern Tanzania. This particular belief seems rooted in the area's ethnic politics. The Makonde tribe, which inhabits both sides of the nearby border with Mozambique, owns many of the small businesses in the towns here and has done well compared with the Mwera tribe. The Mwera attribute this to the Makonde—and by extension Mozambique—having exceptionally strong juju.

So, say you need a spirit lion. Say your neighbor has swiped your goat, slept with your wife, whatever, and you'd like to off him. When nobody's looking, you'd slip over the Ruvuma River into Mozambique and find a Makonde mtaalam. For a fee he would give you the "technology" you need, typically two herbs and some how-to instructions. Then, you'd return to the dense bush near your village, toss one of the herbs to the ground, and—poof—you got yourself a lion. You'd then be required to stay in the bush until the lion executes the hit. When it returns, you'd "deactivate" it by placing the second herb in your open palm and allowing the lion to lick it off. This is where things get tricky. Your lion would likely be covered in the blood of your enemy and thus be looking pretty ferocious. So you'd be standing there in the dark, spooky bush, holding out your trembling hand and waiting for this bloody monster to lick your palm. Right. Most people would turn and run. The lion never gets deactivated, and that's how a man-eating outbreak starts.

In short, what Sudi-Mingoyo had on its hands by June 2002 was a spirit lion in serious need of deactivation. This was more than just a quirky worldview. Because people feared reprisals from the spirit lion, many stopped sharing information with the rangers trying to track the pride. The outbreak worsened. On June 28 the lions killed their first adult, 58-year-old Juma Musa, in Simana.

The people of Simana quickly raised money and hired Ahmad Msham Namalenga, a highly regarded Makonde mtaalam and lion trapper from Mtwara, the district south of Lindi. Namalenga's specialty was magically luring spirit lions into his snares. "Most of the villagers believe that these lions have the power to avoid traps," he explains. "My magic confuses this power. They are confused as to where the danger is."

Namalenga traveled immediately to a place that filled villagers with dread, a particularly dense stretch of forest with natural springs, west of Simana, a notorious redoubt for lions. (As if to underline the danger, people had recently taken to calling the place "Baghdad.") Namalenga selected a tree with a hole in it. He then instructed all of the village mtaalams in the area to make magic pepesi and place it in the tree. Pepesi is a flour ground from finger millet into which a bush doctor whispers prayers and incantations. When the deposits had been made, Namalenga collected them, added his own pepesi and sprinkled it over the 30 snares he had set. For three months he tracked the pride and moved his traps. Then, in September, his magic apparently worked. Sort of. Namalenga succeeded in snaring a lioness in Baghdad, but when he arrived with a group of people she escaped, leaving two cubs. Namalenga cared for the cubs in Simana for a period of time before being called home for family business. When he returned two weeks later, they were dead. No one had looked after them.

At least that's the way Namalenga tells it. But according to Msese Gasrpa, Lindi's district game officer, that's not what happened at all. In Tanzania it's illegal to kill lions that pose no threat, which might be why Namalenga's story lays no blame. Gasrpa says that after the lioness escaped the snare, the villagers killed the two cubs immediately. It's not hard to understand their motivation. The outbreak had only intensified since Namalenga's arrival in Simana. Five more people had been attacked, and four had died, two of them children.

The lions were killing their young. They would respond in kind.

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Our October 2006 issue features how to live your Adventure dreamTanzania's man-eating lions; outdoor activities in San FranciscoWorld Class adventure travel trips; and more!

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