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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: Lion claw

GUNS AND MAGIC: A bush doctor holds a lion claw used to fend off bad juju.

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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 Cat," premiering Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.

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In the pitch darkness of the hut, it took Salum Mohamed a moment to get his bearings. It was not quite midnight, and he'd been throttled from a deep sleep by frantic shrieking, the timbre of which seemed so surreal Mohamed couldn't be certain he wasn't dreaming. "What's wrong?" he called out, stumbling from his bed and groping about in the dark.

Mohamed's wife and three sons were all fine, but as he made his way toward the spot where his nephew, Hassani Dadi, normally slept, he found the screaming child in a most unusual predicament. Little Hassani was wedged among the branches and palm leaves that formed the only unfinished wall of the hut, a wall waiting to be sealed with mud like the rest. Strange, Mohamed thought. He tried to grab hold of the boy, to free him from the branches. That's when the attackers on the other side of the wall made themselves known. They began to roar.

Mohamed knew that lions had been active recently in the area. They had taken goats and dogs near the village of Simana, about an hour's walk from here, and that was never a good sign. Mohamed had just moved his family from Simana to this isolated outpost, though he knew the wisdom of that decision was debatable. On the one hand, his shamba, or farm field, was here and living close by meant he could better protect his maize, millet, and rice crops against marauding bushpigs and vervet monkeys, the bane of his existence. On the other hand, he and his family were all alone, surrounded by the dense thorn scrub characteristic of southern Tanzania, behind which you never knew what was lurking. In case of an emergency, they'd have to fend for themselves.

One of the lions now snarling on the other side of the wall had moments earlier shoved its massive paw through the branches near where Hassani slept and sunk its claws into the boy's left arm. Now it was yanking him through the wall. Mohamed bear-hugged Hassani and began pulling him back in as hard as he could. A fierce struggle ensued, but it was over in seconds as man and boy stumbled backward in the darkness. Hassani's spindly arm was gone. It had detached at the shoulder.

Mohamed tried to stay composed. He quickly tied a tourniquet to what little was left of Hassani's arm—the blood was gushing—but the boy was making bizarre groans and gurgles. The otherworldly sounds of death, Mohamed thought. He laid Hassani carefully in another room, one with four good walls, and then hurried with his family up a ladder and onto the rafters beneath the thatch roof. Once again the lions jammed their paws through the makeshift wall, trying to get inside. But the branches held. Mohamed guessed there were two lions, maybe more. All he knew for certain was that if they penetrated that wall he'd have to fight them, with only a machete. The thought terrified him. All night the cats circled the hut. Mohamed waited.

By sunrise the lions were gone. And, miraculously, little Hassani was still alive.

Mohamed pedaled him on a bicycle several miles to the tarmac highway, where they caught a bus to the hospital in Lindi. The child survived.

It's an amazing story. Breathtaking. But as I listen to Mohamed tell it, by the flickering light of a lantern outside in the village, I realize that one piece of it bothers me.

"Why did you leave Hassani downstairs?" I ask.

He thinks on this. "I put him in a secure place," he says, vaguely.

"A secure place?"

"I thought he was going to die," he says, stone-faced. He repeats this. He stares past me. But he never directly answers the question. He never says he faced an impossible dilemma that January night in 2003. He never talks about the cruelties of war, which is what this is, of possibly having to make a brutal, Sophie's Choice–like decision. Was there simply no more room in the rafters? Had he made his nephew available to the killers to save the rest of his family? Of course, he owes me no explanation. Hell, lions had invaded the man's home. I'm in no position to judge him.

But there is one person who can judge Mohamed, and he does so, right in the middle of our interview. Little Hassani comes racing up out of the darkness and begins screaming at his uncle. Earlier he had refused to pose with Mohamed for a photograph, saying, "No one helped me that night. I was scared because no one helped me." Now he's livid. "You cannot tell this story!" he insists. "This is not your story! You should not do the interview!" He's a cute kid, short for a ten-year-old, not quite four feet tall. A small flap of skin dangles from the left sleeve of his T-shirt, but the larger wound, apparently, is emotional. He kicks the dirt in front of Mohamed before turning and running off into the night.

His uncle sits expressionless before telling me finally, "This is something no one can really understand unless you've experienced it yourself." 

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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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