The Cryptozoologist



Posted on September 1, 2011 at 2:20 PM









by Paul Kvinta for National Geographic: Adventure

Considering the dicey nature of non-lethal lion trapping, the yin-yang collaboration of my new field partners, Ikanda and Simpson, strikes me, cosmically, as a good thing. Ikanda is diminutive, black, quiet, and highly educated (his master's research focused on the conflict between Maasai herders and cattle-killing lions in northern Tanzania). Simpson is six foot three (about two meters), white, and trigger-happy with the one-liners. As for education, he calls his two years of junior college "a complete waste of time." With his Buffalo Bill goatee and camouflage suspenders, he relishes the hayseed-cowboy role, and as he plants a snare beneath a tree in the brutal midday heat outside Simana, he tells me about trapping for researchers who, unlike Ikanda, cop a condescending attitude toward him. "One time this woman with all these degrees asked for my credentials," he says. "I told her, 'Hell, lady, I can't scratch my name in the dirt with a stick.' So her assistant says, real sweet like, 'It's OK if you have dyslexia.' I said, 'Shit no, I'm just foolin' with you. I kin read, write, even cipher!'"


Since leaving his job as a government trapper in California in 2001 and offering his services full-time to researchers, Simpson, 53, has become one of the world's greatest wild-animal trappers. He's captured hundreds of lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals in Africa and two dozen other species in North and South America. His biggest scare came in 1999 in Kenya when a leopard he'd tranquilized awoke unexpectedly amid a throng of researchers. Simpson dragged the snarling cat by the tail 25 feet away before realizing he had no idea how to extricate himself from the situation. "I let go and dove into the bushes," he recalls. "We stared at each other for a second, then he took off." But drama like that is rare, he says, since he prioritizes safety. That's why the faux drama in television depictions of wilderness and wildlife drive him insane. He characterizes Survivor as "yuppies on a bad Memorial Day weekend."

The snare we're setting now, 25 feet (eight meters) off a dirt road west of Simana, is part of our strategy in response to a disturbing development here yesterday at dusk. A 15-year-old boy, Mohamad Suleman, was returning alone to the village on his bicycle when, in the waning light, he saw two figures on the road up ahead, moving toward Simana. He had no idea they were lions until he was almost on top of them. He slammed on his brakes, and the pair wheeled about. After a split-second stare-down, the cats sprang into the tall grass on either side of the road. Suleman whipped his bike around and took off. "They were waiting in the bush for me," he'd told us this morning, "so I went the other way."


"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Ikanda had muttered in response.

Suleman stopped for the night at the first house he saw. He didn't sleep a wink.

This is clearly the same pride we'd seen evidence of four days earlier in Navanga, and after examining the tracks, we determined that they'd probably fled west to Baghdad. However, the villagers maintained the lions would return to Simana this evening to continue gobbling up goats and dogs—and whatever else. Our strategy, then, would be to establish a north-south trap line between Baghdad and Simana, four sets of snares in a row, to intercept the lions. The elders of Simana insisted that the resident mtaalam bless our traps first ("Hey, whatever floats their boat," Simpson said), but after that they approved our plan.

Now, Simpson is caked in dirt and sweat as he arranges the surprisingly minimal amount of gear required to bag a 400-pound (181-kilogram) predator. First, he digs a hole six inches (15 centimeters) deep and fills it with a chunk of foam sponge. Next, he digs a shallow trench adjacent to the hole and buries a "thrower," a spring-loaded contraption about the size of a fire extinguisher. He then fashions a snare around the hole with stainless steel cable and ties it to a tree trunk three feet (one meter) away. Finally, he places the trigger of the thrower across the sponge, before camouflaging the entire setup. The idea is to have a lion step on the sponge and fire the thrower, which instantly raises and tightens the snare. "It's a contest between me and the critter," says Simpson. "Out of all that real estate out there, I'm trying to trick him into coming to an area the size of a pie plate." He does that primarily by "creating a scent," which explains the trussed up goat that's been bleating and flopping about on the roof of our Land Rover for the past hour. Simpson frees the unsuspecting animal long enough to brain it with two swift blows from the blunt end of his hatchet. He then slices it open, yanks out the entrails, and ties both guts and carcass to the vehicle's rear bumper before driving off down the road. This heartwarming scene is called "the drag," designed to lure predators far and wide. After a mile or so of that, Simpson returns to the traps, ties the brutalized carcass to the tree, and leaves it dangling there over the snare as bait, its bulging eyes staring off in ridiculously different directions.

While three of the four trap sites are easily accessed by roads, one isn't: the one closest to Baghdad at a trail intersection recommended by the villagers. We make for a strange parade hiking in, us and our local helpers, schlepping goats, machetes, saws, shovels, and sponges. The footpath gets narrower and narrower, and the grass gets taller and taller—seven feet (two meters), then eight—until it seems like the landscape swallows us whole. "This isn't 300 meters," Simpson grumbles, repeating the distance we'd been quoted. "More like three kilometers. This is extremely dangerous." The 12-gauge shotgun and .454 magnum handgun he's packing make him no less nervous. We reach the spot, and he quickly sets the traps. Then we leave. Later that night, over beers, he regrets having agreed to the site. What if we find a trapped lion there early one morning? Are his partners nearby in the grass? How do we protect ourselves without the truck? "I need to pull that trap," Simpson says. "When someone's getting mauled there's nothing anyone can do to stop it, shy of getting on top of the animal and holding a gun to its head."

Early in the morning on August 4, 2003, Hassan Libanda woke, washed his face, and walked to the well to fetch water for his family. At 14, he was one of those perfect older-brother types, a model student, star soccer player, and responsible family member, willing to do whatever his parents asked—grind cassava, chase monkeys from the shamba, watch over his three younger siblings. He never minded running to the market for his mother, which was no small task, since his village, Nkung'uni, was in the middle of nowhere.

At the well that morning he bumped into his pal Salum Abdala. Salum had incredible news. A hunting party had killed the last man-eating lion! A group of villagers lead by Musa Manga, 54, famed for his trapping and shooting prowess, found the big lioness dead on the shortcut path between Hingawali and Simana. One of their crude-but-effective snares was wound tightly around her neck, slicing into her skin. Apparently, they were displaying the lioness's body in Hingawali that day, and people from everywhere were traveling to see it. It was a three-hour walk from Nkung'uni, but Salum and some of the guys were going. Was Hassan up for it?


Hell yes! How cool would that be, to actually see the man-eater? He'd have to ask his folks, of course. He had chores. But surely they'd let him. This was huge. Since the outbreak had started 23 months earlier, the lions had attacked 22 people, killing 14. They'd struck almost every corner of Sudi-Mingoyo, taking people of all ages. Many families in isolated areas had responded by relocating to village centers, where it may not have been any safer but at least it felt safer. There had been two- and three-month lulls in the attacks, typically when the hunting parties were out in force, causing the pride to lie low (this was the fourth adult lion killed and the seventh overall). But the lions always struck again. Until now.

"This was the end of the man-eating lions," recalls Hassan's father, Ahmed. "There were no more. Everyone wanted to see this lion." So he let Hassan go.

The gang left at 11 a.m., and what they found in Hingawali by mid-afternoon blew them away. Thousands of people were dancing and singing on the tarmac highway, joyously bidding farewell to the lion, which was stretched out limp beneath a clump of mango trees across from the market. "People were even punching the lion," remembers Juma Chipila, a Hingawali village leader. It was a great time. After seeing the lion and milling about for a bit, Hassan and his friends decided to head home. They'd have to hoof it to get back by dark.

At a trail juncture outside Nkung'uni, the boys parted ways. The bush here towers some 15 feet (five meters), and it was after 7 p.m. and dark, but Hassan had nothing to fear as he walked the final minutes home by himself. The giant male lion that sprang out of the bush suddenly and sank its claws into his neck and chest certainly couldn't have been real. All the lions were dead, right? Surely this was just a nightmare, a function of all the lion talk and stories. He would certainly wake up from this.


Hassan's uncle witnessed the attack and came sprinting out of his hut. He yelled to Hassan's father who immediately joined the chase. The two men barreled through the bush with their machetes as the lion dragged a screaming Hassan some 400 feet (122 meters) before finally dropping him and fleeing. Ahmed caught up to his son, but it was too late. Hassan lay motionless at his feet. Ahmed looked to the star-filled sky and unleashed a loud, anguished cry.

There was still one man-eater left.

We check the traps at sunrise each morning for several days but find no lions. Ikanda figures we need to wait them out, that they're probably laid up in Baghdad with a bushpig or two. The villagers think we're just going about it all wrong, and they become increasingly generous with advice. We need to move the snares more, they insist. And we should definitely be using live bait. Simpson isn't keen on the input. "Every one of these armchair quarterbacks has a theory," he says, fuming, one day. "I've heard this all before, how to trap. My fuse is getting short. It's my way or the highway on this deal."

Admittedly, he says he could use some bigger bait. A cow would be nice, if Ikanda could afford it. "If you're driving down the road, and you see a small bite of a hamburger, you're not even going to slow down," Simpson says. "But you will for a whole plate of hamburgers. I got friggin' rabbit bait here. I got something I could barely catch two jackals on, much less a 400-pound lion (181-kilogram)."

Then our vehicles start breaking down. The wet-season muck of southern Tanzania is no friend of truck suspensions. The one good thing about daily visits to the local mechanic shop, a nexus of community gossip and wisdom, is that we finally learn definitively why we're not catching lions. It's because the people who own the spirit lions, or the spirit lions themselves, posing as people—take your pick—are attending our daily meetings with villagers and learning the location of our traps.

Things get progressively weirder and rougher from there.

Two of Ikanda's Tanzanian assistants get malaria. A local we pay to travel to another village to verify a lion sighting simply runs off with the money. The topper comes one afternoon when one of Simpson's goats vanishes mid-drag. "Son of a bitch!" he exclaims, reporting back to us. "Someone stole our goat!" Simpson was alone with Ikanda at the time, and he remembers a shadowy fellow popping out of the cornfield behind him while he tied the carcass to the truck bumper. It's clear the rope has been cut, but we can't believe the guy was ballsy enough to swipe the bait from under Simpson's nose. There's no doubt what the village spin on this will be. "Hell, you could try to explain to someone around here what happened," Simpson figures, "but that's what they're going to believe, that it was a spirit lion."

As the days go by, and our traps produce nothing, Simpson slips into a significant funk. He stops eating and sleeping, and he spends his free hours doing what comforts him during times of stress—lassoing things. One day Simpson is roping plastic chairs with his lariat, behind the modest hotel where we're staying in the town of Lindi (the locals find this absolutely fascinating). Listening to the twangy tunes of Trace Adkins on his boom box, he explains to me that trapping in jungly conditions is always a challenge. Emotionally, he says, this predicament feels a little like that time in the Bolivian Amazon when he spent three months trying to catch a jaguar but ended up catching leishmaniasis, a horrifically disfiguring infection that inflated his face to the size of a basketball. He was cured only after three months of chemotherapy. "I take great pride in telling a person, Here's your cat," he says. "Sometimes I go home feeling like Daniel Boone. Other times, I feel like Debbie Boone."


The lions finally reemerge on our tenth day in the area, this time on the other side of Baghdad, about ten miles (16 kilometers) from Simana, in the village of Nusuru. They kill one dog, chase two others, and dispatch three bushpigs in the nearby mashamba. People are refusing to venture outside to their latrines at night, opting instead to relieve themselves in cans and bottles inside. Some have even stopped working. "Our tools are all inside now," one woman tells us. "We cannot go to our mashamba because we are scared." Then she adds something quite revealing: "Bless you to catch the lion!" A few days earlier, the village leader of Simana had told me, "We are happy that you are here working with us. You are here to catch the lions and protect us from them." Has no one told these folks about the satellite collars? Do they not understand that we're practicing catch and release here? People clearly seem to think our intentions are to kill or relocate the pride. When I ask Ikanda about this he admits that, well, no, he hasn't fully explained his project to the villagers. He doesn't really have an excuse, just that, um, he never got around to it. But it's starting to dawn on him that he might have a monumental problem on his hands. "We will have to tell them at some point," he says. "The worst thing that could happen is if one of our collared lions were to kill someone. We would have a lot of explaining to do." No joke. We'd have to explain that, yes, we caught the man-eater, and, yes, we released it back into the community; but, no, that doesn't mean we "own" the lion, and, no, we didn't direct its murderous behavior through our high-tech juju collar.

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.

The 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."

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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Reply Karen Sexton Williams
2:36 PM on October 15, 2011 
Wow! I would love to someday go on a trapping expedition in Africa!
Reply The Cryptozoologist
5:14 PM on June 10, 2012 
Karen Sexton Williams says...
Wow! I would love to someday go on a trapping expedition in Africa!

So would I! So would I!!