The Cryptozoologist



Posted on September 1, 2011 at 9:30 AM








by Paul Kvinta

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!

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."

I had come to southern Tanzania this past spring to investigate a problem that even scientists refer to by the decidedly Hollywood-esque and less than completely accurate term "man-eating lions." In no way are women and children being excluded from this gastronomic phenomenon. In fact, when we pull into the village of Navanga early one morning, the women and children appear at least as freaked out about what had happened here the night before as the men. We're met by a swarming crowd, everyone talking at once. Lions strolled right through the village, we're told. Look, see for yourselves, tracks! There, there, and there! The giant cloud of red dirt kicked up by this jittery throng nearly obliterates the evidence they're trying to show us, but Dairen Simpson and Dennis Ikanda squat down and take a good hard look. "At least two adult lions and a smaller cat," says Simpson, an expert animal trapper from North Carolina. "They were here not long ago, at first light. There aren't even dew pocks in these tracks." The paw marks emerge from someone's backyard corn patch and meander right through the cluster of huts, edging close to verandas and front doors. Ikanda, 35, a lion expert with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, shakes his head and makes a series of soft sucking sounds—"tsk, tsk, tsk"—his way of expressing concern and disapproval. "They're coming right up to the houses," he says quietly. "It's not good." Simpson glances about the village and adds, "It's quite a cafeteria here. There's all kinds of food—dogs, goats, people."



Ikanda begins chatting with a group of men, trying to learn more about the lions' movements, while Simpson follows the tracks back through the corn patch to a shady cashew tree about 40 yards (37 meters) behind the huts. The tall grass beneath the tree has been flattened. "Those dirty bastards," he drawls. "They laid up beneath this tree then walked through the corn and right past the huts." He pushes back the brim of his Indiana Jones–style bush hat and adds, "It doesn't get any hairier than this."

Actually, we learn it's been pretty darn hairy for about a week now. These particular lions first caused a stir just north of here, near the villages of Kitunda and Kitumbikwela, where they ate two dogs and two goats before heading south. They nailed a bushpig halfway to Mnali, where a woman actually spotted them, although she couldn't be sure if she saw two lions or three. It's not like she lingered for a good look. Then, two nights ago, according to the tracks, they spent some time in Mdima on villager Saidi Hassan's front porch, before visiting a nearby spring. Early this morning they were here, nosing about Navanga. Now, who knows? They could be miles from here. Or they could be 50 feet (15 meters) away, watching us from the bush. Waiting.

The anxiety among these villagers is completely understandable. Not only have lion attacks on people increased dramatically in the past 15 years in Tanzania—with more than 800 incidents resulting in 563 deaths and at least 308 injuries during that time—but almost half of those cases occurred in six coastal districts here in the south. Worse, the district we're in now, Lindi, holds the notorious distinction of being ground zero for Africa's man-eating lion problem. From 2001 to 2004, at least three different outbreaks occurred at the same time in Lindi, meaning three separate roving groups of lions terrorized the district at once. The mayhem left 113 people dead and 52 others severely mauled. After a lull in attacks in 2005, lions are once again engaging in the kind of ominous behavior that residents here remember all too well.

"We are very worried," one villager tells Ikanda. "This is what happened the last time. The lion ate the dogs and goats first, then he began eating people."

Ikanda listens patiently to everything the villagers say, sometimes uttering an empathetic "tsk, tsk, tsk." He's a short, bespectacled man, soft-spoken and studious, and afterward, he can only speculate on why man-eating has exploded here. In northern Tanzania, where Ikanda is from, the problem is almost nonexistent, probably because in prey-rich areas such as Serengeti National Park, lions merely have to wander a few hundred yards (about 200 meters) in any direction to find galloping buffets of tasty ungulates. By contrast, in southern Tanzania, the last place in Africa where significant numbers of lions live outside protected areas, the prey base has been decimated by poaching and loss of habitat to agriculture. As the country's human population booms (it grew by half from 23.1 million people in 1988 to 34.6 million in 2002) and those activities increase, lions are squeezed for both space and meals. The problem is made worse by the landscape. "Lions can hide anywhere in that," Ikanda says, motioning toward the vivid green, eight-foot-tall (two-meter-tall) grass and impenetrable scrub that towers at the edges of homes here. "How can you control lions in this stuff?"

As bad as the conflict is for people, it's worse for lions. Panthera leo once roamed the entire continent, but retaliation for killing people and livestock has eliminated it from North Africa, and only relic populations remain in West Africa and central Africa. The remaining 40,000 or so lions—half of which reside in Tanzania—continue to be hammered for the same reason. Before conservationists can hope to reverse this trend, they need to answer some basic questions about man-eating. For starters, Where do these lions in Lindi come from? Ikanda has hired Simpson to trap and collar four lions with satellite tracking devices to find out. If the lions aren't spillover cats from the Selous Game Reserve, 120 miles (193 kilometers) to the west of here, they're probably native to Lindi. That means the spike in attacks could represent a last gasp by desperate lions in a deteriorating landscape, right before their complete elimination from the area.

Craig Packer, 56, Ikanda's mentoring professor from the University of Minnesota and a leading lion expert, calls this the "Njombe effect," named after a district to the west that experienced the worst man-eating outbreak in history, when lions allegedly killed 1,500 people from 1932 to 1947. That outbreak occurred after the prey base had been purposely decimated by British colonials attempting to stem the spread of rinderpest disease to livestock. Fifteen lions were killed in response, and many others likely fled the general disruption. Njombe has been nearly lion free ever since. Before traveling to Lindi, I'd spoken with Packer in Dar es Salaam, and he'd told me, "In Lindi, you might be seeing lion Armageddon, the end of lions there forever."

The people here in Navanga probably wouldn't mind that one bit, considering what they've been through. Of the outbreaks that occurred in Lindi from 2001 to 2004, the worst unfolded in this corner of the district, in the divisions of Sudi and Mingoyo, which includes Navanga and several dozen other villages. A group of four lions killed 38 people and injured 16, including little Hassani Dadi, just up the road from here. The experience was so horrific for these communities, the attackers so seemingly unstoppable, that most people refused to believe mere flesh-and-blood lions could cause such carnage. It had to be something vastly more powerful. It had to be a "spirit lion," the thinking went, a supernatural, shape-shifting force resembling a lion, a sinister weapon unleashed by the enemies of those attacked. Salum Mohamed, the uncle of Hassani, had told me as much during our interview. He didn't have any enemies, he assured me, but that didn't mean that some malevolent person didn't have it in for the whole community. "Many of the villagers believed it was a spirit lion," he'd said. "They believed that it was sent on a trial run to my house, to see if it could kill people."

Male African lions can grow up to ten feet long and typically weigh well over 350 pounds (159 kilograms), with females being considerably smaller. As one of the animal world's greatest terrestrial killing machines, they possess the speed, strength, weaponry, cunning, and teamwork to dispatch even elephants. On a savanna teeming with prey, males easily maintain their size by consuming an average of 15.5 pounds (seven kilograms) of flesh a day. In a landscape such as Sudi-Mingoyo, with its dense thickets, view-obstructing hills, and coastal marshes, scoring that kind of meat takes serious work. Small, mobile prides—three or four adults, max—must patrol huge ranges, possibly more than a hundred square miles (259 square kilometers), to locate what little game remains here, mostly small antelope. The one game animal that has thrived amid the expanding agricultural settlements of this area is the wily bushpig, an infamous crop raider. As lions chase bushpigs into maize fields, they come into contact with another potential food source—the plodding, largely defenseless, and often unaware human. Compared with, say, taking down a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) Cape buffalo, attacking and eating a person, for a lion, is a little like Homer Simpson ripping open and inhaling a bag of Cheetos.


It's hard to say why the pride that terrorized Sudi-Mingoyo for three years first attacked on the evening of September 24, 2001, near Mnali. Lions are opportunistic hunters, and it simply may have been a case of desperation meeting opportunity. The Lindi region was experiencing extremely dry conditions for the second year in a row, and the lack of water and pasture had dispersed prey far and wide, leaving the lions few options beyond domestic goats and dogs. It's also possible that the lions had become generally familiar with the routines of the people here. They might have learned that folks typically rise at 5 a.m. and hike to their mashamba, farm fields, along trails lined with thick bush. They might have learned that, after a long day of scaring off pigs and monkeys, people return home after sunset along the same trails, that they eat dinner with their families, tend to their children, and sometimes gather to dance and sing. They might also have learned that children sometimes wander away from homes, unattended. Whatever the case, on the evening of the 24th, the pride came across something more substantial than a dog or goat, something in a green-and-yellow dress. An unsuspecting straggler. There would be little risk in taking it



Eight-year-old Pili Tengulengu had been playing with her cousins when her aunt called everyone in at 6 p.m. The kids scampered home along a footpath through tall grass. Pili was last in line. No one saw what happened to her, no one but Pili, which accounted for her single, high-pitched scream.


The lion would have approached her from the front, lunging suddenly from the grass, and, most likely, it would have killed her instantly with a vise-like bite to the throat. It then would have carried her deeper into the grass, possibly meeting up with the other lions. They soon would have heard so much commotion from Pili's family in the nearby hut that they quickly would have schlepped their kill a hundred yards (91 meters) away and settled into the thick scrub, where they could eat in peace. A half-hour later, men with spears and machetes came nosing about, but it was dark, and the lions were well concealed. The men soon left. After that, the pride would have finished its meal and ambled off, leaving only pieces of Pili's skull and arm bone.

Villagers viewed the attack as mostly bad luck, as another difficulty in an extremely difficult life. "It can happen anytime, anywhere, to any person," said Samwel Sabuni, Pili's uncle. True enough. Seven weeks later, it happened again. This time it was nine-year-old Maisha Shaibu, in Nachunyu, ten miles (6 kilometers) southeast of Mnali. Eight weeks after that, little Hassani Dadi had his arm taken outside Simana. And eight weeks after that, on March 14, 2002, seven-year-old Sharifa Magendo was eaten in Hingawali. After each of these attacks, the Lindi District Game Office dispatched armed rangers to track the pride. Villagers often joined these parties or sent out their own, typically armed with only machetes and spears. In mid-March, a couple of hunting parties killed two lions, raising everyone's spirits. But the joy soon faded. On May 18 the pride took an eight-year-old in Navanga. Two weeks later it took a 12-year-old in Hingawali.




Sudi-Mingoyo was losing its children.

From a wildlife-biology perspective, the pattern made sense: The lions were still ravaging domestic goats and catching bushpigs in the mashamba, so humans had become an occasional but regular dietary supplement. And, since the lions were still wary of this new prey, they likely found the youngest ones easiest to kill, carry, and consume quickly. But in the villages, increasingly, the talk was of something else entirely. These killings weren't about climatic shifts, depleted prey numbers, or bushpigs. They didn't even involve lions, many people said. This was black magic, pure and simple. What Sudi-Mingoyo needed was counter-juju, and fast. It was time to seek out an mtaalam, a bush doctor.

While most of the 56,000 residents of Sudi-Mingoyo identify themselves as either Muslim or Christian, traditional beliefs run deep, and notions about spirit lions have existed for generations. Still, there's little consensus on what exactly a spirit lion is. Some say people can transform into lions in order to kill their enemies and then revert back to human form. Others say dead people return to Earth as lions, seeking revenge. One of the most common beliefs is that spirit lions can be acquired on demand. "People have a belief in owning spirit lions and using them for destructive purposes," says Ikanda, the lion researcher, who has learned as much about spirit lions as real ones since coming to southern Tanzania. This particular belief seems rooted in the area's ethnic politics. The Makonde tribe, which inhabits both sides of the nearby border with Mozambique, owns many of the small businesses in the towns here and has done well compared with the Mwera tribe. The Mwera attribute this to the Makonde—and by extension Mozambique—having exceptionally strong juju.

So, say you need a spirit lion. Say your neighbor has swiped your goat, slept with your wife, whatever, and you'd like to off him. When nobody's looking, you'd slip over the Ruvuma River into Mozambique and find a Makonde mtaalam. For a fee he would give you the "technology" you need, typically two herbs and some how-to instructions. Then, you'd return to the dense bush near your village, toss one of the herbs to the ground, and—poof—you got yourself a lion. You'd then be required to stay in the bush until the lion executes the hit. When it returns, you'd "deactivate" it by placing the second herb in your open palm and allowing the lion to lick it off. This is where things get tricky. Your lion would likely be covered in the blood of your enemy and thus be looking pretty ferocious. So you'd be standing there in the dark, spooky bush, holding out your trembling hand and waiting for this bloody monster to lick your palm. Right. Most people would turn and run. The lion never gets deactivated, and that's how a man-eating outbreak starts.

In short, what Sudi-Mingoyo had on its hands by June 2002 was a spirit lion in serious need of deactivation. This was more than just a quirky worldview. Because people feared reprisals from the spirit lion, many stopped sharing information with the rangers trying to track the pride. The outbreak worsened. On June 28 the lions killed their first adult, 58-year-old Juma Musa, in Simana.

The people of Simana quickly raised money and hired Ahmad Msham Namalenga, a highly regarded Makonde mtaalam and lion trapper from Mtwara, the district south of Lindi. Namalenga's specialty was magically luring spirit lions into his snares. "Most of the villagers believe that these lions have the power to avoid traps," he explains. "My magic confuses this power. They are confused as to where the danger is."



Namalenga traveled immediately to a place that filled villagers with dread, a particularly dense stretch of forest with natural springs, west of Simana, a notorious redoubt for lions. (As if to underline the danger, people had recently taken to calling the place "Baghdad.") Namalenga selected a tree with a hole in it. He then instructed all of the village mtaalams in the area to make magic pepesi and place it in the tree. Pepesi is a flour ground from finger millet into which a bush doctor whispers prayers and incantations. When the deposits had been made, Namalenga collected them, added his own pepesi and sprinkled it over the 30 snares he had set. For three months he tracked the pride and moved his traps. Then, in September, his magic apparently worked. Sort of. Namalenga succeeded in snaring a lioness in Baghdad, but when he arrived with a group of people she escaped, leaving two cubs. Namalenga cared for the cubs in Simana for a period of time before being called home for family business. When he returned two weeks later, they were dead. No one had looked after them.


At least that's the way Namalenga tells it. But according to Msese Gasrpa, Lindi's district game officer, that's not what happened at all. In Tanzania it's illegal to kill lions that pose no threat, which might be why Namalenga's story lays no blame. Gasrpa says that after the lioness escaped the snare, the villagers killed the two cubs immediately. It's not hard to understand their motivation. The outbreak had only intensified since Namalenga's arrival in Simana. Five more people had been attacked, and four had died, two of them children.

The lions were killing their young. They would respond in kind.


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