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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: Billboard in Tanzania

VITAL SIGNS: A billboard memorializes a past outbreak.

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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 of 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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On August 10, 2003, one week after the shocking attack on the model son, Hassan Libanda, Musa Manga and 30 other villagers fanned out in the bush near the village of Nunga. Manga had snared the female that sparked Sudi-Mingoyo's premature lion-hater celebration, and now he was hot on the trail of what everyone hoped was the pride's sole survivor. The men were armed with the only weapons they owned, spears, machetes, and bows and arrows, all except Manga, who was using a borrowed rifle. Manga followed the tracks until they ended, after which he organized his cohorts into two lines far apart from each other. They began singing and shouting, and slowly, the lines moved toward one another, attempting to flush out the lion. It worked. The big male suddenly materialized 25 feet (eight meters) from Manga and tried to run for it. Manga drew a bead and fired, nailing the cat in the right side of the neck. But it kept moving. Manga tried to squeeze off another round, but the gun jammed. The lion escaped.

Although he meant well, wounding the lion was the worst thing Manga could have done. The injury would have severely impeded its ability to capture almost anything but humans. As it was, most of the area's natural prey was in the process of fleeing, due to the multiple hunting parties now combing the landscape and inadvertently disturbing everything. Those factors, combined with the likelihood that the lion had become emboldened by his man-eating success, set the stage for a one-lion killing spree that would dwarf all the carnage Sudi-Mingoyo had experienced up to that point.

From October 2003 to January 2004, the lion killed six people and wounded six more. Things were unfolding quickly now. The villagers and rangers would have to hit back. On February 3 a party snared the lion in Baghdad, but he escaped. On February 12, hunters put another bullet in him shortly after he killed a ten-year-old girl in Ruhokwe, but he survived that too. His response was to kill seven people in February alone, surpassing his body count for the four previous months.

The lion seemed unstoppable.

Given such powerlessness, it's easy to see how someone might conclude that more was at work here than just the laws of nature. Even George Rushby, the British colonial wildlife officer in Njombe who hunted down the lions that killed 1,500 people in the 1940s, concedes in his memoir, No More the Tusker, "If a man-eater continues to kill and eat people for any length of time, it develops an almost supernatural cunning." The people of Sudi-Mingoyo certainly thought so. In a February 15 letter to the district wildlife office, desperate village leaders, explaining their decision to hire three more bush doctors, maintained that the wounded lion escaped capture because "it has taken on a new strategy. The lion has become supernatural. The person who injured it strangely fell ill. He has a lot of arm and neck pain. On the night of the 13th, the lion came back to the village and sat on several porches and even went to the extent of knocking on people's doors and walking through the village freely."

Ultimately, however, the new bush doctors failed. In March the lion killed six more people and injured two. Community spirit fell to an all-time low, and the discouraged villagers stopped paying the mtaalams, who ultimately quit, admitting that "the lion is too powerful." By late May the lion had killed ten more villagers and wounded three more, raising his solo attack count since October to 32 and the total count since the outbreak began to 54. Thirty-eight people had been killed, 16 injured.

Photo: Lion printThe mayhem caused many people to relocate from the outskirts of villages to the centers, although some tried to carry on as usual. Somoe Linyambe continued living with her husband and five-year-old granddaughter in Kipanda, a tiny settlement not far from Baghdad. On May 29 she walked to Baghdad to gather ming'oko roots, and when she returned it was almost dusk. Her husband had gone for water, so she began chopping wood for the cooking fire, while her granddaughter watched from the veranda. It's impossible to know whether the lion followed her from Baghdad or staked her out from the thick bush near her hut, but whichever the case, the pouncing and killing would have happened quickly, before he dragged her body half a mile (less than a kilometer) from the hut. When her husband returned, he asked his granddaughter, "Where is your grandmother?" The child, never having seen a lion before, said, "She was taken away by a cow." The husband saw lion tracks near the firewood, but it was almost dark. He was too scared to venture out.

The next morning, Linyambe's brother, Quss M-bani, received word of the attack and arrived with others to search for her. First they found pieces of her clothing, then portions of her insides, then, finally, the only intact part of her body—her legs. The villagers stared at the remains and wondered what to do. Finally, someone floated an idea. What if they poisoned her legs? Maybe the lion would return and eat them. Everyone looked at M-bani. "It was not an easy decision," he recalls. "People had been living in great fear. They were not free to do their daily activities. The lion was coming up to their front doors. So I agreed to it." They sent for rat poison, but when it arrived, no one wanted to do the deed. Again, they looked to M-bani. Reluctantly, he kneeled down with a knife, sliced open his sister's legs and poured in the poison. Then everyone left.

The next morning, they found that the legs had been moved and portions eaten. They were certain the lion was off struggling somewhere, but they couldn't find him. The day after that they tried again with the help of wildlife rangers, and this time they did find the lion, with a piece of Linyambe's leg in his throat. He was dead.

They dragged the carcass to Simana, loaded it into the back of a truck and paraded it around the villages of Sudi-Mingoyo. The outbreak was over. "The villagers were very happy," M-bani says. "The whole community thanked me very much. But for the people who had lost family members, they were sad."

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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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