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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: Tanzania village
TO CATCH A LION: Simpson examines tracks outside a hut in Navanga.

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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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Considering the dicey nature of non-lethal lion trapping, the yin-yang collaboration of my new field partners, Ikanda and Simpson, strikes me, cosmically, as a good thing. Ikanda is diminutive, black, quiet, and highly educated (his master's research focused on the conflict between Maasai herders and cattle-killing lions in northern Tanzania). Simpson is six foot three (about two meters), white, and trigger-happy with the one-liners. As for education, he calls his two years of junior college "a complete waste of time." With his Buffalo Bill goatee and camouflage suspenders, he relishes the hayseed-cowboy role, and as he plants a snare beneath a tree in the brutal midday heat outside Simana, he tells me about trapping for researchers who, unlike Ikanda, cop a condescending attitude toward him. "One time this woman with all these degrees asked for my credentials," he says. "I told her, 'Hell, lady, I can't scratch my name in the dirt with a stick.' So her assistant says, real sweet like, 'It's OK if you have dyslexia.' I said, 'Shit no, I'm just foolin' with you. I kin read, write, even cipher!'"

Since leaving his job as a government trapper in California in 2001 and offering his services full-time to researchers, Simpson, 53, has become one of the world's greatest wild-animal trappers. He's captured hundreds of lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals in Africa and two dozen other species in North and South America. His biggest scare came in 1999 in Kenya when a leopard he'd tranquilized awoke unexpectedly amid a throng of researchers. Simpson dragged the snarling cat by the tail 25 feet away before realizing he had no idea how to extricate himself from the situation. "I let go and dove into the bushes," he recalls. "We stared at each other for a second, then he took off." But drama like that is rare, he says, since he prioritizes safety. That's why the faux drama in television depictions of wilderness and wildlife drive him insane. He characterizes Survivor as "yuppies on a bad Memorial Day weekend."

The snare we're setting now, 25 feet (eight meters) off a dirt road west of Simana, is part of our strategy in response to a disturbing development here yesterday at dusk. A 15-year-old boy, Mohamad Suleman, was returning alone to the village on his bicycle when, in the waning light, he saw two figures on the road up ahead, moving toward Simana. He had no idea they were lions until he was almost on top of them. He slammed on his brakes, and the pair wheeled about. After a split-second stare-down, the cats sprang into the tall grass on either side of the road. Suleman whipped his bike around and took off. "They were waiting in the bush for me," he'd told us this morning, "so I went the other way."

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Ikanda had muttered in response.

Suleman stopped for the night at the first house he saw. He didn't sleep a wink.

This is clearly the same pride we'd seen evidence of four days earlier in Navanga, and after examining the tracks, we determined that they'd probably fled west to Baghdad. However, the villagers maintained the lions would return to Simana this evening to continue gobbling up goats and dogs—and whatever else. Our strategy, then, would be to establish a north-south trap line between Baghdad and Simana, four sets of snares in a row, to intercept the lions. The elders of Simana insisted that the resident mtaalam bless our traps first ("Hey, whatever floats their boat," Simpson said), but after that they approved our plan.

Now, Simpson is caked in dirt and sweat as he arranges the surprisingly minimal amount of gear required to bag a 400-pound (181-kilogram) predator. First, he digs a hole six inches (15 centimeters) deep and fills it with a chunk of foam sponge. Next, he digs a shallow trench adjacent to the hole and buries a "thrower," a spring-loaded contraption about the size of a fire extinguisher. He then fashions a snare around the hole with stainless steel cable and ties it to a tree trunk three feet (one meter) away. Finally, he places the trigger of the thrower across the sponge, before camouflaging the entire setup. The idea is to have a lion step on the sponge and fire the thrower, which instantly raises and tightens the snare. "It's a contest between me and the critter," says Simpson. "Out of all that real estate out there, I'm trying to trick him into coming to an area the size of a pie plate." He does that primarily by "creating a scent," which explains the trussed up goat that's been bleating and flopping about on the roof of our Land Rover for the past hour. Simpson frees the unsuspecting animal long enough to brain it with two swift blows from the blunt end of his hatchet. He then slices it open, yanks out the entrails, and ties both guts and carcass to the vehicle's rear bumper before driving off down the road. This heartwarming scene is called "the drag," designed to lure predators far and wide. After a mile or so of that, Simpson returns to the traps, ties the brutalized carcass to the tree, and leaves it dangling there over the snare as bait, its bulging eyes staring off in ridiculously different directions.

While three of the four trap sites are easily accessed by roads, one isn't: the one closest to Baghdad at a trail intersection recommended by the villagers. We make for a strange parade hiking in, us and our local helpers, schlepping goats, machetes, saws, shovels, and sponges. The footpath gets narrower and narrower, and the grass gets taller and taller—seven feet (two meters), then eight—until it seems like the landscape swallows us whole. "This isn't 300 meters," Simpson grumbles, repeating the distance we'd been quoted. "More like three kilometers. This is extremely dangerous." The 12-gauge shotgun and .454 magnum handgun he's packing make him no less nervous. We reach the spot, and he quickly sets the traps. Then we leave. Later that night, over beers, he regrets having agreed to the site. What if we find a trapped lion there early one morning? Are his partners nearby in the grass? How do we protect ourselves without the truck? "I need to pull that trap," Simpson says. "When someone's getting mauled there's nothing anyone can do to stop it, shy of getting on top of the animal and holding a gun to its head."

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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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