Man-eaters hold a distinct fascination for those usually at the top of the food chain. Blofeld's piranhas may have a vicious bite, but it is the hippos one needs to watch out for.
During your first evening as a guest at Ngala Safari Lodge, on the edge of Kruger National Park, they warn you not to go back to your cabin without an armed guide. Apparently, a lady popped out for her cardigan during dinner one night and was attacked. They know she was on the way back from her cabin because they found a sleeve of the cardigan with her arm in it.
All the same, it’s not until about day three on safari, when you are bitten, bruised, burnt and blistered, that you realise you are so far down the food chain that even the vegetation regards you as easy meat. And that’s just what we are to a lion: easy meat. “Even an impala is a more fierce opponent than an unarmed man. I’ve seen a big buck impala kill a lioness before now,” points out Dr Don Heath, a scientist, professional hunter and examiner of hunters, formerly with Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. He is well placed to tell the story of man-eaters. “With one hat on I am a professional biologist who has had to shoot a pile of lion in the course of my duties but I started taking clients out hunting when I was 15 and since then I’ve tracked and killed cattle-eaters and man-eaters.”
He explains that our softness makes man particularly attractive to lions who are in poor health, have bad teeth or are stressed in some way – rather like rice pudding for an invalid. “The last man-eater I had to take, in 2007, was a typical example of that, what I call a good lion gone bad. She had FIV (feline AIDS) and broken teeth. It was at a professional hunter training camp on the Zambezi, where I was chief examiner. The candidates had to show a hyena for a client, among other things – it’s quite a complex exam, depending on which licence you are going for. Anyway, we decided we were going to try to bait for a lion while we were at it, which I guess worked rather too well. The lioness came into the bait and I could see she was in a bad way. Had I still been in charge of the area I would have shot her immediately but I had to wait for permission from the warden. By the time we got that it was fully dark, so we went back to camp.
“At seven o’clock that evening she came into camp and attacked one of the students in the shower; he got away and she seemed to disappear. Then, at midnight, she attacked one of the camp workers and managed to pull the canvas off his tent. We don’t know what happened next but a couple of the students had got up early next morning to do aspects of their practical examination. It was just after dawn that the game warden and I saw lion tracks going into the tent and we found an arm and a lot of blood. By 6.30am I had shot her.”
In many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, man-eating has decreased since the Sixties due to changes in political management of both lions and people. Even so, says Heath, “It is still quite common. While I was working in Zimbabwe’s national parks we had 47 people killed by lions, including three of our own staff. There was one professional hunter who was killed by a lion that had rabies. That was absolutely harrowing. The lion couldn’t actually eat him because it had rabies and couldn’t swallow, so it was desperately thirsty and hungry.”
Man-eaters don’t always have the excuse of poor health. “I would say most of the others I have been involved with have been healthy lions. There was a group of lionesses who ate our camp cook and I got the actual killer – the man-eater- she was the one with most blood on her face.”