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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 hut
HOME ALONE: Most Tanzanian villagers live in simple mud structures that offer little defense against lion attacks.

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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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Video:
Learn more about the man-eating lions in Tanzania in a video clip from "Ultimates Cat," premiering Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.

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Early in the morning on August 4, 2003, Hassan Libanda woke, washed his face, and walked to the well to fetch water for his family. At 14, he was one of those perfect older-brother types, a model student, star soccer player, and responsible family member, willing to do whatever his parents asked—grind cassava, chase monkeys from the shamba, watch over his three younger siblings. He never minded running to the market for his mother, which was no small task, since his village, Nkung'uni, was in the middle of nowhere.

At the well that morning he bumped into his pal Salum Abdala. Salum had incredible news. A hunting party had killed the last man-eating lion! A group of villagers lead by Musa Manga, 54, famed for his trapping and shooting prowess, found the big lioness dead on the shortcut path between Hingawali and Simana. One of their crude-but-effective snares was wound tightly around her neck, slicing into her skin. Apparently, they were displaying the lioness's body in Hingawali that day, and people from everywhere were traveling to see it. It was a three-hour walk from Nkung'uni, but Salum and some of the guys were going. Was Hassan up for it?

Hell yes! How cool would that be, to actually see the man-eater? He'd have to ask his folks, of course. He had chores. But surely they'd let him. This was huge. Since the outbreak had started 23 months earlier, the lions had attacked 22 people, killing 14. They'd struck almost every corner of Sudi-Mingoyo, taking people of all ages. Many families in isolated areas had responded by relocating to village centers, where it may not have been any safer but at least it felt safer. There had been two- and three-month lulls in the attacks, typically when the hunting parties were out in force, causing the pride to lie low (this was the fourth adult lion killed and the seventh overall). But the lions always struck again. Until now.

"This was the end of the man-eating lions," recalls Hassan's father, Ahmed. "There were no more. Everyone wanted to see this lion." So he let Hassan go.

The gang left at 11 a.m., and what they found in Hingawali by mid-afternoon blew them away. Thousands of people were dancing and singing on the tarmac highway, joyously bidding farewell to the lion, which was stretched out limp beneath a clump of mango trees across from the market. "People were even punching the lion," remembers Juma Chipila, a Hingawali village leader. It was a great time. After seeing the lion and milling about for a bit, Hassan and his friends decided to head home. They'd have to hoof it to get back by dark.

At a trail juncture outside Nkung'uni, the boys parted ways. The bush here towers some 15 feet (five meters), and it was after 7 p.m. and dark, but Hassan had nothing to fear as he walked the final minutes home by himself. The giant male lion that sprang out of the bush suddenly and sank its claws into his neck and chest certainly couldn't have been real. All the lions were dead, right? Surely this was just a nightmare, a function of all the lion talk and stories. He would certainly wake up from this.

Hassan's uncle witnessed the attack and came sprinting out of his hut. He yelled to Hassan's father who immediately joined the chase. The two men barreled through the bush with their machetes as the lion dragged a screaming Hassan some 400 feet (122 meters) before finally dropping him and fleeing. Ahmed caught up to his son, but it was too late. Hassan lay motionless at his feet. Ahmed looked to the star-filled sky and unleashed a loud, anguished cry.

There was still one man-eater left.
           
We check the traps at sunrise each morning for several days but find no lions. Ikanda figures we need to wait them out, that they're probably laid up in Baghdad with a bushpig or two. The villagers think we're just going about it all wrong, and they become increasingly generous with advice. We need to move the snares more, they insist. And we should definitely be using live bait. Simpson isn't keen on the input. "Every one of these armchair quarterbacks has a theory," he says, fuming, one day. "I've heard this all before, how to trap. My fuse is getting short. It's my way or the highway on this deal."

Admittedly, he says he could use some bigger bait. A cow would be nice, if Ikanda could afford it. "If you're driving down the road, and you see a small bite of a hamburger, you're not even going to slow down," Simpson says. "But you will for a whole plate of hamburgers. I got friggin' rabbit bait here. I got something I could barely catch two jackals on, much less a 400-pound lion (181-kilogram)."

Then our vehicles start breaking down. The wet-season muck of southern Tanzania is no friend of truck suspensions. The one good thing about daily visits to the local mechanic shop, a nexus of community gossip and wisdom, is that we finally learn definitively why we're not catching lions. It's because the people who own the spirit lions, or the spirit lions themselves, posing as people—take your pick—are attending our daily meetings with villagers and learning the location of our traps.

Things get progressively weirder and rougher from there.

Two of Ikanda's Tanzanian assistants get malaria. A local we pay to travel to another village to verify a lion sighting simply runs off with the money. The topper comes one afternoon when one of Simpson's goats vanishes mid-drag. "Son of a bitch!" he exclaims, reporting back to us. "Someone stole our goat!" Simpson was alone with Ikanda at the time, and he remembers a shadowy fellow popping out of the cornfield behind him while he tied the carcass to the truck bumper. It's clear the rope has been cut, but we can't believe the guy was ballsy enough to swipe the bait from under Simpson's nose. There's no doubt what the village spin on this will be. "Hell, you could try to explain to someone around here what happened," Simpson figures, "but that's what they're going to believe, that it was a spirit lion."

As the days go by, and our traps produce nothing, Simpson slips into a significant funk. He stops eating and sleeping, and he spends his free hours doing what comforts him during times of stress—lassoing things. One day Simpson is roping plastic chairs with his lariat, behind the modest hotel where we're staying in the town of Lindi (the locals find this absolutely fascinating). Listening to the twangy tunes of Trace Adkins on his boom box, he explains to me that trapping in jungly conditions is always a challenge. Emotionally, he says, this predicament feels a little like that time in the Bolivian Amazon when he spent three months trying to catch a jaguar but ended up catching leishmaniasis, a horrifically disfiguring infection that inflated his face to the size of a basketball. He was cured only after three months of chemotherapy. "I take great pride in telling a person, Here's your cat," he says. "Sometimes I go home feeling like Daniel Boone. Other times, I feel like Debbie Boone."

The lions finally reemerge on our tenth day in the area, this time on the other side of Baghdad, about ten miles (16 kilometers) from Simana, in the village of Nusuru. They kill one dog, chase two others, and dispatch three bushpigs in the nearby mashamba. People are refusing to venture outside to their latrines at night, opting instead to relieve themselves in cans and bottles inside. Some have even stopped working. "Our tools are all inside now," one woman tells us. "We cannot go to our mashamba because we are scared." Then she adds something quite revealing: "Bless you to catch the lion!" A few days earlier, the village leader of Simana had told me, "We are happy that you are here working with us. You are here to catch the lions and protect us from them." Has no one told these folks about the satellite collars? Do they not understand that we're practicing catch and release here? People clearly seem to think our intentions are to kill or relocate the pride. When I ask Ikanda about this he admits that, well, no, he hasn't fully explained his project to the villagers. He doesn't really have an excuse, just that, um, he never got around to it. But it's starting to dawn on him that he might have a monumental problem on his hands. "We will have to tell them at some point," he says. "The worst thing that could happen is if one of our collared lions were to kill someone. We would have a lot of explaining to do." No joke. We'd have to explain that, yes, we caught the man-eater, and, yes, we released it back into the community; but, no, that doesn't mean we "own" the lion, and, no, we didn't direct its murderous behavior through our high-tech juju collar.

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Cover: Adventure magazine

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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