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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: Man in tall grass

KILLING FIELDS: Samwel Sabuni's eight-year-old niece, Pili Tengulengu, was attacked while walking home through tall grass.

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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 of Tanzania in a video clip from "Ultimate Cat," premiering Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.

Watch the video >>

Before coming to Lindi, I had spent time in Dar es Salaam with Craig Packer, who was on an unusual mission, given his status as the world's foremost lion researcher and a committed conservator of the species. Packer was busy meeting with government officials to tout an unexpected savior, the person who he insists could both curb man-eating in Tanzania and save the country's embattled lion population—the wealthy big-game hunter. This is not a popular idea with environmentalists. It does, however, leverage the economic power of one of the country's largest industries, tourism, and it may well represent the last chance lions and humans have of continued coexistence in Africa. "Rural people must perceive lions and other wildlife as valuable commodities if they are to accept the burden of living with animals," he says. "The benefits must outweigh the costs."

Big-game hunting—the only legal way to kill nonthreatening lions in Tanzania—earns ten million U.S. dollars a year and is the major source of revenue for the country's network of wilderness parks and preserves, one of Africa's most extensive. Unlike photo safaris in the Serengeti and other popular parks in the north of the country, hunting lures tourists to the remote, less picturesque reserves of the west and south. Hunters also tend to be a committed lot, more impervious to incidents of terrorism and similar events that cause most tourists to stay home. Unfortunately, despite these positives, Tanzania's hunting industry has always been plagued with corruption and mismanagement. The ills are many. There's no competitive bidding system to award licenses to hunting companies, a flaw that costs the country millions in conservation dollars. Leases tend to be for only a few years, giving companies little incentive to adhere to practices designed to maintain the long-term health of wildlife populations. The trophy quota system, which allows a company to shoot a particular number of a particular species each year (the overall annual quota for lions is about 250, and a hunter pays a $2,000 "trophy fee" for bagging a lion), is not scientifically based, and some hunters overshoot quotas. Most important, hunting companies and their clients, who pay $1,500 or more a day for luxury safaris, have invested little in the impoverished rural communities that must coexist with lions, elephants, and the other dangerous animals wealthy hunters so desire.

Packer is lobbying to change all this. Specifically, he's pushing to make his nonprofit organization, Savannas Forever, the independent auditor of the hunting companies. The idea is to reward companies that engage in the most ethical and ecologically sound practices (a gold-star rating, say), then leave it up to the Tanzanian government to punish those that don't (a revoked lease). Sound practices would include seriously investing in the general welfare and protection of local communities. To lessen lion attacks, for example, companies could implement bushpig control measures, reinforce homes, and provide alternative water and energy sources to villages so people don't have to walk long distances to dangerous places. "Basically," Packer says, "the idea is to turn the hunting companies into the conservators."

It's a visionary plan, certainly. But as I spend time driving with Ikanda through Sudi-Mingoyo, it's clear that lions and people will need more than a well-run hunting industry to save them. Tremendous forces are reshaping southern Tanzania, the biggest one being the country's rapidly expanding human population. One afternoon we're motoring the dirt road from Madangwa to Nachunyu, and Ikanda points out that two years ago this was a drive through dense wilderness. But as part of a plan to dole out mashamba to people, the local government cleared a huge swath of bush here, and now the place looks surprisingly like Nebraska, with tall corn as far as the eye can see.

Most of the time the settlement process doesn't involve the government at all. People simply venture out, burn and cut a swath of virgin bush, sell the wood for charcoal, and start farming. And as the tarmac highway improves—road crews have been hard at it daily since we've been here—southern Tanzania will only open up further. "The more people move here, the less habitat there will be for wildlife, especially the big animals," Ikanda says. "The conflict with lions will increase. We're headed in the direction of West Africa. People are pushing out all the wildlife."

Late one evening we're driving through Simana, when we happen onto something we've never seen here before—a traffic jam. A huge truck is parked on the road in front of us, and our high beams shine a light on what moments earlier was being carried out in the cover of night. Villagers are loading large bags of charcoal onto the truck. Ikanda explains that this middleman will pay villagers four dollars a bag and then sell it in Dar es Salaam for four times that price. Technically, he adds, the production of charcoal is illegal in Tanzania, until the government can devise a more sustainable way to produce it. Ami Vitale, the photographer accompanying us, whips out her camera and starts shooting, which causes the truck operator to go ballistic. He sprints toward us. "No pictures!" he screams. "No pictures! No pictures!" Vitale stops shooting. We inch around the truck and drive off, leaving the villagers in total darkness. 

After two weeks Simpson traps nothing but a passing leopard. The experience leaves him equal parts humbled, determined, and more philosophical than ever. "I'm getting bucked off my horse too much," he admits. "I'm starting to feel the ground more, know what I mean?" But he's not going to let these lions get the best of him. He and Ikanda are planning on moving north a bit to the Rufiji district and trying their luck there. If that fails, they'll return here during the dry season and see if they can't snag these cats near a watering hole. "I'm coming back because that lion has thrown down the gauntlet," Simpson declares. "That's how I live my life. I've got a lion to catch."

Hopefully he'll succeed. Hopefully Ikanda will learn critical information about the cats here. Hopefully the people of Sudi-Mingoyo can be convinced one day that the benefits of living next to wildlife outweigh the costs.

But good luck selling that to little Hassani Dadi. I spend one of my last days with him and his mother in Nusuru, with the sun sinking behind brilliant green rice fields and setting the evening sky on fire. Hassani has just finished swimming with his friends, even though someone had to warn them to watch for crocodiles. And now we stroll past a guy who has just killed a five-foot (two-meter) python on the side of the road. Life is tough enough around here with two arms, much less one. "The other kids laughed at him," his mother says, about when Hassani lost his arm three years ago. "They beat him up because they knew he can't defend himself. He would come home and cry. I worry about his future." What she doesn't worry about is the future of lions. Neither does Hassani. "I hate lions," he says. Of course he does.

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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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