Night of the Lioness
Night of the Lioness
by Kevin Thomas
Man-eating lion stories tend to capture our imaginations, evoking images of tawny beasts appearing ghost like in the dark of night, laying waste to our frail human forms and making good their get-away after bone crunching grunts and snarls. During the colonial era in Africa, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) had always claimed to have the largest and most aggressive lions. Because of the coverage given to the notorious man-eaters of Tsavo, many people think they were responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other lions. Granted, they killed about 130 Africans and Indian labourers who were building the railroad from Mombassa to Nairobi. They also killed a white hunter sent out to try and tackle the problem - in fact they entered his rail coach compartment and dragged him out.
Zambia’s lions had a far worse reputation during the bygone colonial era than did the Tsavo lions. In the far north on Lake Mweru, there was an old boma (government outpost) called Chiengi, about 160kms from Mporokoso, and it was in this area that some man-eaters periodically set up a reign of terror, and they were never beaten. One particular lion, which regularly killed tribes’ people in the vicinity of Chiengi Boma, became known as Chiengi Chali, during 1909 alone, he killed ninety locals. For a long time, attempts to bring him to book failed, on one occasion he actually leapt into the courtyard of Sealy the District Officer’s house, but escaped before Sealy could get in a shot.
Efforts to bring Chiengi Chali’s reign of terror to an end were stepped up, with fires being lit and guards posted, but it was to no avail, he just went on killing. Chiengi Chali was not intimidated by very much and broke through the thatched roofs of village huts or forced his way into already lit up doorways. For a long time, he managed to avoid trap guns, yet stole the bait attached to them. Those who saw him, reported him to be a large lion with an abnormally pale hued coat. Eventually though, it was a trap gun that killed him and he was found to be a mature male in his prime, with fine teeth – not the senile man eater of legend.
In parts of Zambia, as is the case in parts of northern Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the African tribes’ people are ancestor worshippers, and often believe that a man-eating lion is the reincarnation of a deceased chief. Obviously this leads to reluctance by the tribes’ people to hunt the beast, or at times, to even report a killing, thus giving the killer lion free rein to continue with its nefarious activities.
Chiengi Chali apparently had this form of protection, for not long before his reign of terror began, a dying chief had told those gathered around his bed that he intended returning as a lion and would kill his enemies, Chiengi Chali’s first kills took place not long after the chief’s passing, and remote tribal dwelling black Africans aren’t given to belief in coincidences.
Mporokoso boma was built in 1898 and historic records show that it soon developed a sinister reputation. The first white victim to fall prey to a lion was a Mr. W. R. Johnstone; he was a government official and had the reputation of being a careful hunter. He was sitting in a tree some fifteen feet above the ground, but it did not help as a lion leapt up and dragged him out of the tree. Badly mauled and with it being during the days before penicillin, he succumbed to his injuries. Records also show that lion killed an average of ten tribes’ people a year at Mporokoso; during 1918 another white official was killed. This time a Mr. E. W. Vellacott, who responded to a report about a woman being attacked in her garden, rushing out, he wounded the lion with a prison warder’s gun. Somewhat naively, he then followed it into long grass and was badly mauled. One of his employees attempted to drag the lion off Vellacott by pulling on its tail, whilst another speared it to death. A doctor from Kasama tried to save the luckless individuals life, but he was dead within a fortnight. A poet, Cullen Gouldsbury was also mauled by a lion near Mporokoso, but he survived.
Records show that lions throughout this region were man-eaters and seemingly treated the human population with utter contempt. In 1920 a lone man-eater appeared near the White Fathers mission at Kapatu in the Kasama district. It was subsequently wounded by one of the fathers, escaped, and by the time it was eventually shot in 1922, it had killed eighty people.
Another notorious lion that wreaked havoc on the Great North Road, also in the Kasama district, was Mishoro Monty, between 1926 and 1929 he killed more than one hundred people, and was ultimately poisoned. In 1943 and again in the Kasama area, Namweliyu the ‘Cunning One’, put in an appearance. Many considered him the boldest of all the man-eaters, as he had no qualms about entering villages during broad daylight and dragging off hysterical victims. He also had a strange habit of biting off the legs and arms of those he killed, thus allowing him easier passage through the bush, with just the human trunk in his jaws. Namweliyu never visited trap guns or returned to the scene of his kills. Eventually after killing an African woman and her husband who tried to save her, the District Officer, Mr. James Lemon decided to watch over the remains of the woman and her husband, in the hope that the lion might break its habit of not returning to a kill. Climbing a tree, he waited, and was rewarded, for on this occasion, the lion did return and Lemon killed it with two shots. At the time of his death, Namweliyu had killed forty-three people.
Distinguished soldier and Uganda game warden, Captain C. R. S. Pitman visited Zambia between WWI and WW2 to carry out a wildlife survey and to try and solve the mystery behind the man-eating tendencies shown by the Zambian lions. Aside from finding that the lions had an abundance of natural prey, he was unable to find a reason for their aberrant behaviour and wrote in his report, ‘I was thoroughly puzzled by the Northern Rhodesia situation’. Size wise, game warden Capt Pitman claimed the Zambian lions were the heaviest, with 500lbs being average on a lion not yet gorged.
During Africa’s colonial era, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was about the only other colony to match Zambia’s grisly killer lion statistics. Between 1946 and 1947, twenty man-eating lions in the Ubena district of Tanzania reputedly killed about five hundred people before they were all destroyed. Further south in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), lion preferred to wreak havoc with livestock rather than human beings. During 1912 Liebig’s, the huge cattle ranching enterprise in Southern Rhodesia called upon one George ‘Yank’ Allen to help protect their 20,000 head of cattle from lion attack. Allen was a rather colourful if not eccentric Texan, who never spoke of lion as lion, he called them ‘dawgs’ and instead of saying they ‘roared’ in the night, he would have it that they ‘bawled’ in the night.
Yank Allen had been earning seven pounds a lion, but Liebig’s offered him ten pounds a lion and provided his labour and transport free. He hunted on his own, not trusting his native help, who he said ‘Trembled all over at the sight of a lion’. Although he also used trap guns, Allen’s favourite calibre was the .303 service rifle, which would have been the Lee-Enfield. Also called the 303 British and originally developed during 1887, by the time Allen was using it, there had been a few changes. In 1910 a 174-grain pointed flat-base bullet was adopted and the velocity increased to 2440 fps, it became known as the Mk VII round and was still in use when the 303 was discontinued. The Mk VII bullet had aluminium or fibre filled tip with a base of conventional alloy. Although this made the bullet longer than normal for its weight, the projectile was stable in flight, but tumbled easily on contact, which in turn increased the wound potential.
Allen was fairly contemptuous of lion and claimed leopard were more dangerous. On one occasion he had his clothes ripped off by a leopard and losing his rifle in the melee, killed the leopard with his knife. He treated his wounds with permanganate of potash. Whilst in the employ of Liebig’s he killed fifty-five fully mature lions on their Nuanetsi Ranch. Eventually, Allen died in Gwelo of tuberculosis, at the time of his death; he had reputedly killed in the region of 300 lions.
Probably the most famous South African lion story is about the struggle between game ranger Harry Wolhuter and a lion in the Kruger National Park during August 1903. Not long after shooting an old lion that had killed an African woman and her child, Wolhuter was returning from a patrol and was riding along after dark, with his staff following some distance in his wake with the pack donkeys. He had some good dogs with him and one of them; ‘Bull’ followed him when he decided to ride ahead of the pack donkeys. Some distance ahead of the donkeys, a lion attacked his horse, unseating him in the process. Toppling off the horse, he virtually fell into the jaws of a second lion, which promptly picked him up by the right shoulder and dragged him off. His horse meantime escaped the first lion and tore off into the bush with the lion still in pursuit, and ‘Bull’ in turn harrying the lion. Wolhuter had a sheath knife but could only use his left arm, eventually he managed to reach the sheath and grasp the knife. Deciding to stab the lion in the heart, although being dragged along on his back, he carefully felt across the lion’s chest in order to gain access to the left shoulder, and then struck him two heavy backhanded blows with the knife.
With the lion reacting by way of a furious roar, Wolhuter then struck upwards into its throat and given the amount of blood that spurted all over him, he felt that he had struck its jugular vein. When this happened, the lion released him and slunk off into the dark. Wolhuter then stood up and shouting loudly chased the wounded lion off, after which, and with little of his strength remaining, he managed to climb into a tree and using his belt, tie himself to a branch, where his game scouts later found him.
When compared to parts of East and Central Africa, man-eating lions have never really been a big issue in Southern Africa. Although, during the early road-building program from Karoi to Chirundu circa 1937-38, in Rhodesia’s Zambezi Valley section of the program, lions played havoc with the labour, killing a number of workers, both black and white. The Batonka and Vadoma peoples tribal tradition of leaving the elderly and infirm tied up in the bush at night had not helped this scenario in any way. The whole intention of this inhuman practice was to allow the luckless victim to be devoured by the larger predators, and no doubt quickly led to lion and hyena learning that the frail human form affords far easier pickings than do their normal prey species.
Although I have been unable to verify exact figures, in some areas of Mozambique’s Niassa Province lion have reputedly killed about seventy tribal people over the previous decades. Many of these deaths go unreported because of remoteness and the previously mentioned issue of ancestor worship.
In pre-independent Zimbabwe, while it was still Rhodesia, there were two incidents of attacks by lion that ended in tragedy and both involved lionesses, clearly displaying aberrant behaviour by the species in question. The first incident took place in Wankie National Park (now Hwange) on 04 April 1972.
Shapi Pan: Wankie National Park
Len Harvey, a respected veteran game warden was in charge of what at the time was still called the Culling Unit based at Shapi Pan. In the aftermath of Harvey’s tragic killing by the lioness, the unit relocated to Umtshibi, a rail siding originally called Waterloop. Shapi Pan was where the first culling contractors’ camp was established. These contractors tendered annually to the National Parks Department HQ in a bid to be awarded the licence to harvest the meat and hides coming from the lucrative elephant culling operations.
Obviously the ivory from culled elephant remained the property of the department. Richard Harland in his book African Epic (Rowland Ward) has recently written up Paul ‘Kambada’ Grobler’s exciting life, Grobler was the first contractor to be awarded this sought after tender. From the middle sixties, names like Willie de Beer, Ronnie van Heerden, ‘Tinkey’ Haslam, the Coetsee brothers, (Paul & Clem) and Robin Hughes also crop up alongside the name of legendary Len Harvey. All of these men played their part in the early elephant and buffalo culls in Wankie National Park.
Once the move to Umtshibi had taken place and in keeping with the times, a name change too, would occur, from Culling Unit to Management Unit. It more adequately described the roles for which the Management Unit was associated, for it embraced a far wider job description than just culling, and included fire management and soil conservation. However, in order to stay within the historical window of the tragic killing of Len Harvey by a lioness, I will not expand further on the unit’s changing role, aside from mentioning that in time Cliff Freeman and Willie Koen would both also successfully head up the unit, as too, would Clem Coetsee.
Warden Len Harvey, who many thought would remain a confirmed bachelor, had only been married for about three weeks and had with him at Shapi his new bride Jean. It was an idyllic setting for a newly married couple and had been the choice of venue for their honeymoon.
The Culling Unit staff dwellings at Shapi were typical of many rustic field camps in the Rhodesian National Parks department of that era. Simplistic buildings constructed from local materials, with burnt mopane poles for the walls and roofing timbers, all locally cut. Combed grass harvested in the vicinity, thatched the roofs. They were comfortable dwellings which had openings left in the structure for windows and doors, with maybe a hand woven reed mat hanging over the opening to keep the interior of the building cool during the hot summer months.
At the time of this incident, when not being used, the department issue firearms were locked up in the office armoury, as there was no real need for them to have been anywhere else. Rhodesia was already fighting a low-intensity bush war that was set to erupt more viciously in the far northeast of the country on 22 December 1972. However, in the depths of Wankie National Park at that time, the insurgent threat was not perceived to be high, although during August 1967 Shapi Pan had been used as a small FOB (Forward Operational Base) during Operation Nickel after a combined ZIPRA (Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army) and SAANC (South African, African National Congress) insurgent incursion into Rhodesia.
Also in camp at the time of the Len Harvey killer lion incident were senior ranger Willie de Beer, an experienced hunter and ex regular Rhodesian Army career soldier. With him were his wife Hazel, daughter Carol, and stepson Colin Matthews. They too, were enjoying a pleasant break.
On this fateful night, Len Harvey and his wife Jean retired to bed early, as did, the de Beer family. After the generator was switched off the camp was soon quiet, barring the normal animal, bird, and insect noises, which are a constant in such an environment. Shortly after 11 p.m. a large lioness hurtled through the open window of the Harvey’s hut. It landed on Jean whose hysterical and panic ridden cries immediately awakened Len.
Although shocked by what he perceived was taking place in the dark. Len, very bravely and driven by desperation for the safety of his new bride, immediately attacked the lioness barehanded, at the same time shouting for Jean to exit the hut. Lion are extremely powerful creatures and having now focused her fury on him, the 260lb lioness quickly got the better of Harvey, before sinking her fangs deep into his shoulder and then his throat.
Whilst he was undergoing this horrific ordeal, his clearly shocked and hysterical wife, managed to exit the hut via the rear door and began running across the approximately fifty metres to the de Beer’s quarters. Before arriving there, her concern for Len drove her to stop and then retrace her steps back towards their hut. As she drew close, her shocked and numbed mind realised the futility of the exercise, as the sounds emanating from their dwelling told her there was little that she could do to save her husband.
Turning around, Jean once more fled towards the de Beer’s hut, banged on the door and hysterically sobbed out her story. Willie quickly awakened his stepson and instructed him to run and start the small Honda generator, after which he then ran to the office, where the guns were locked away. De Beer grabbed a .375 H&H and a .243 Winchester, quickly loading both bolt-action rifles with soft-nose bullets, before handing the .243 to Colin Matthews, who had by this time rejoined him.
They then both ran to Len Harvey’s hut, and when they reached it, de Beer cautiously approached the dark hole in the wall that represented the hut window. During his approach, he was understandably worried that Harvey may have only been unconscious, and could thus not risk shooting in case the bullet killed him, so he quietly called Len’s name. The response from inside the hut was a throaty warning growl. Clutching the .375 with the safety off, he carefully ventured closer to try and fire a killing shot.
It takes a brave man to do what de Beer was doing that dark Rhodesian night, but he was that kind of man, extremely self-disciplined and controlled. Gritting his teeth, he quietly edged closer, until his head was beneath the thatch overhang and inside the opening, which represented a window.
Willie did not see the lioness or the powerful paw that suddenly slammed into his skull from the wall of darkness near the window. Claws tore into his scalp and dug into his skull, causing a sheet of blood to cascade down his face almost blinding him. He did, however, manage to throw himself backwards as the lioness came out through the window and continued her attack on him, half of de Beer’s torn and bloodied scalp was hanging over his face like a red curtain, blinding him from seeing his adversary.
He also got a quick un-aimed shot off, but it was to no avail and in the struggle, he dropped the .375. Still conscious, de Beer at first attempted to fight the lioness off with his bare hands, but when this failed, he tried to protect his mutilated head by covering it with his hands. No sooner had he done this than the lioness clamped her jaws over his head and attempted to drag him away. She then attempted to eat him alive, her powerful jaws breaking and pulverizing the bones in his hands and fingers, as she tried to gnaw on his skull.
Although in an extremely bad way when awaiting casualty evacuation later, de Beer would recall to Bruce Couper and Henry Pringle - the first of his game ranger colleagues to reach the scene - that the more he tried to fight the enraged and determined lioness, the more ferocious her attack upon him became. This ferocity in the face of Willie’s attempts to fight back bare handed eventually led to his trying to remain still, whilst at the same time endeavouring to protect his head by covering it with his arms. The ploy worked as the lioness’s aggression seemingly slackened off.
De Beer’s young stepson, Colin (23), was standing mere metres away frozen with terror, as he witnessed what was happening to his stepfather. He was a city boy and had limited knowledge of firearms, or their usage. In his shocked state, he attempted to distract the lioness away from his stepfather and upon hearing the noise; the lioness looked up from her savaging of de Beer, and then, with a frightening roar, dropped him and charged the terrified Matthews. As the lioness hit him with all of her weight, he determinedly managed to shove his right arm as far down her throat as he could. In the next instance, he was overcome by numbing pain, as he felt her powerful jaws crush the bones as if they were twigs.
Willie, meantime, semi-conscious, blinded, and suffering from horrific pain and blood loss, realised the huge weight that had been pinning him to the ground was no longer there. His pain wracked and numbed brain, registered on the anguished and agonised cries of his stepson. Again, with unbelievable bravery, he rolled over onto his stomach and with his totally pulverised and broken hands began feeling around in his darkened and bloodied world for the dropped rifle.
He inched closer to the lioness, now mauling Colin with deadly intent and eventually found the .243, it was on the ground underneath the lioness’s hindquarters, but with hands made clumsy by broken bones he struggled to pull it free until with a Herculean effort he got the rifle out from under the lioness. It was then a case of trying to judge where the lioness’s head was, due to his having already been blinded by his blood and torn scalp.
Hearing the growls of rage and grunting as the lioness mauled Colin, de Beer was able to roughly estimate where the beast’s head was and using this as a guideline, edged closer and fired a round into the animal’s head, and then, as quickly as his damaged hands allowed, followed up with two more shots. One bullet, passing through the lioness’s mouth, shattered Colin’s wrist, but it also killed the lioness.
Both men, in excruciating pain and shock, were then helped back to the de Beer hut by Willie’s wife Hazel, who after hurriedly taking stock of the situation, left Len Harvey’s wife Jean with the badly injured Willie and Colin. Hazel then drove to Wankie Main Camp in her little VW Beetle, a distance of about 50km.
De Beer, who was totally allergic to antibiotics required 222 stitches to his head alone, and underwent months of skin and bone grafts, but miraculously did not lose his eyesight. Colin Matthews also underwent lengthy surgery and numerous skin grafts.
Game ranger Bruce Couper, a friend of Len Harvey’s, who as previously mentioned, together with ranger Henry Pringle were the first to reach Shapi camp in the aftermath of the tragedy remembers:
“I seem to recollect that there were always lion and hyena in close proximity to Shapi camp and leading up to this particular incident, there had been a number of complaints from the game scouts about lion giving them a hard time around their huts at night. I remember too, that Richard Dendy a cadet ranger at Shapi actually made mention of this problem to me”.
Bruce Couper also recalls here about the lion at Shapi camp having been inclined towards being troublesome which is also borne out by Margaret Peech (nee Haslam), who at one time had been married to the late game warden ‘Tinkey’ Haslam. She mentions in her book, My Place In The Sun that Haslam during his tenure at Shapi Pan had expressed concern about the over familiarity of the lions in and around camp. So much so in fact that Haslam had taken it upon himself to shoot one, and as a result, had been severely reprimanded by HQ for doing so.
Policy quite simply being that in a National Park there was to be no human interference with the wildlife, a policy which Len himself, who Margaret Peech described as a mentor of her husband Tinkey, prescribed fully too, a noble philosophy indeed, but one that can also be costly. Ranger Richard Aylward also saw service at Shapi Pan and recollects returning to his bungalow on one occasion, only to find lion pugmarks on the floor inside his dwelling! An inquisitive lion had obviously decided to investigate the interior of his home during his absence.
All of this however, was peripheral to the whole incident and as is often the case in the aftermath of tragedy, more was probably made of it by way of hindsight than had been made of it before the fact. Game rangers, like many others who work in close proximity to dangerous game in the wildlife field, often become unintentionally blasé about it.
Bruce Couper in recounting to me, the events of that tragic night continues with his narrative:
“Earlier in the evening on the night of the tragedy, we had all been having a few drinks at the Waterbuck’s Head in Main Camp and from there we had gone to bed. Later in the night I was awoken by the noise of a vehicle with its horn being sounded as it drove in through the Main Camp boom gate and headed directly to Warden Boyd Reece’s house. It later transpired that it was Hazel de Beer in her little VW Beetle. The next thing, I was being called from my house and told that there had been a lion attack down at Shapi and it was thought that Len Harvey was dead and Willie de Beer was also on his way out due to injuries sustained during the same attack. There was also talk of Colin Matthew’s, de Beer’s stepson being in a bad way. I was instructed to get Henry Pringle and the ambulance, with Sister Mapondera, and to get down to Shapi as quickly as possible, where I was then to establish radio communications with Main Camp. Sister Mapondera went in the ambulance with game scout sergeant major Manwere driving. Henry and I went down in a separate vehicle with an instruction from Boyd Reese to secure Len’s body in case of further attempts by lion to tamper with it. We also had to protect those staff members still there from further attack. So we went down there, and upon our arrival, we found the generator still running and the lights on. We first went across to where Willie’s house was, which to say the least, was at that stage a bit traumatic for us. Willie didn’t look particularly like he was going to come out of it. He was more or less scalped; we couldn’t really tell where else he might have been injured because there was blood everywhere. When I saw the bullet damage to Willie’s stepson, Colin Matthews’s wrist, my first stupid reaction was that the easiest thing to do was to cut a little piece of skin off and get rid of the hand. That’s what seemed to be left; his hand was just hanging by a piece of skin, which was keeping the two pieces together. Sister Mapondera, who I thought might have been out of her depth in a situation like that, did the best that she could have done under those circumstances and it was impressive. Leaving them, Henry Pringle and I went back to where Len’s house was and on walking in – I can still clearly remember, I don’t know if you would call it a scent or an odour in the air. As we walked through the door and looked into the bedroom, Len’s body was lying on the floor on the left hand side of the bed…there was blood everywhere. It was fairly obvious without going near the body that Len was dead. The lioness was outside of the hut window where Willie had eventually killed it. We then went across to the office and turned on the old SSB radio and tried to establish communication with Boyd Reese back at Main Camp. By that time of night or early hours of the morning, the static made it a bit difficult to get messages through or audible messages through, but we managed to get a report through for a request that the Air Force at Wankie bring in a chopper and medical assistance. The police Section Officer from Dete, Colin Lowrie I think it was, was already on his way because of it being a sudden death. We in the meantime got the labourer’s collecting brush and firewood because in the event of the choppers coming in, aside from lighting up a bit of an LZ the blaze also gave them a beacon to fly onto. We kept our communications going through to Main Camp as best we could. Even after the police arrived and with the vehicles and us moving up and down between the houses and the office, there were still lion around, you could hear them. They were not particularly close but not too far away either, so presumably the lioness was a member of a pride. Even the labourer’s shouting, talking, and cutting branches, didn’t seem to make the lions move away. Although it probably wasn’t more than an hour, I suppose at the time it felt like it took forever for other people to arrive. The police were the first, and then the chopper arrived, and with our fires lighting up the LZ the medics moved Willie de Beer and his stepson. By that time, our role sort of started to wind down and the sun was also coming up, so we more or less packed up and returned to Main Camp”.
Bruce Couper in recounting this story to me made a point of emphasising that the African nurse, Sister Mapondera, who only had the most basic of equipment to work with, played an extremely important role in stabilising and keeping Willie and his stepson Colin, alive. Eventually, they were placed in the expert hands of trauma surgeon Doctor David Hay at the Wankie Colliery Hospital. Couper is of the opinion too, that had it not been for Dr Hay, de Beer may well have died so severe were his injuries. Miraculously too, Dr Hay managed to save Colin’s hand which was re-attached. In talking to other ex National Parks staff that had known Dr Hay, they are all of the opinion that as a trauma surgeon he was way ahead of his time. It was he too, who had saved badly injured Warden Ollie Coltman after his severe goring by a wounded buffalo.
Peter Hathaway-Capstick in his book Death in the Long Grass makes mention of Jean Harvey also having been mauled and spending time in hospital. I have not been able to verify this; Bruce Couper does recall that she was admitted to hospital for a short while, but more for shock, and not due to having been mauled. Another area of contention is that Capstick mentioned Colin Matthews had his kneecap bitten off by the lioness, this too; I have been unable to verify. Again, Bruce Couper cannot actually recall that as having taken place and my attempts to contact Colin have been unsuccessful.
To be fair, we must also understand that in an incident of high trauma, darkness, plenty of blood and extreme shock, each person who bears witness to those events will have a different take on the happenings when they think back, and particularly so after thirty-six years. Couper most certainly does not deny that Matthews may have lost a kneecap he just cannot recall it. What he does still recall with absolute clarity and says he will take to his grave with him, is the odour that met him and Henry when they entered Len’s bedroom, a peculiar smell, a cocktail of lion and human blood.
I first heard of the attack on the morning radio schedule between our various National Park outposts, this was about five hours after de Beer and Matthews had been evacuated. Our only communication between remote stations was with Boxer SSB radios that had a very good range and were fitted into our vehicles. The Zambezi Valley has a healthy lion population and we slept lightly for a while after the tragedy. Thin canvas tent walls are not the best protection against a determined lion, and at the time, Brenda and I were still living under canvas.
Bumi Hills: Lake Kariba
Another deadly lion attack took place on 09 April 1972, a mere five days after Len Harvey’s death and as the crow flies, probably about 450kms east. This attack – one that also ended in tragedy - was never written up other than by way of a fairly brief report in the Rhodesian press of that era. Lt. Al Tourle BCR was a Rhodesian Light Infantry officer and one of the Regiment’s ex-Company Sergeant Majors. After his commissioning, he had been posted as OC to the Rhodesian Army’s Tracker Combat Training Wing in Kariba. At that stage of the Wing’s history, it still fell under the command of the School of Infantry in Gwelo.
Al Tourle was a ‘soldier’s soldier’ and was highly respected by all of those who had served with him. He was also an accurate shot, having won a number of competitive shooting competitions, including the coveted President’s Medal. In one operational engagement with insurgents, he personally accounted for six guerrillas. This action was amongst a number, for which he got his BCR (Bronze Cross of Rhodesia). The citation reading,
Warrant Officer Class 2 Albert Knight Tourle
1st Battalion, The Rhodesian Light Infantry:
For gallantry and leadership in action. On two occasions in engagements against terrorists, Sergeant Major Tourle’s outstanding qualities of leadership and readiness to seize the initiative have resulted in successes for the Security Forces. During one engagement when his troop commander, who was less advantageously placed, could not issue orders because of a faulty radio set, Sergeant Major Tourle redeployed his troop into stop positions on his own initiative. As this involved shouting words of command to troopers around him he became the subject of concentrated enemy fire but in spite of the danger he continued to direct operations until the terrorist position was surrounded. This action led to the elimination of all nine terrorists contacted with at least six of these being accounted for by Sergeant Major Tourle himself. His complete disregard for his own safety and his very fine personal example under conditions of extreme danger was an inspiration to all.
Tracker Combat Wing not only trained those with the aptitude and fortitude to become combat trackers. It also trained all Rhodesian Army Special Forces’ and Air Force personnel in the art of bush survival. All of the instructors were highly skilled outdoorsmen, as well as being experienced combat soldiers. The training area was a large chunk of Lake Kariba’s southern shoreline, spreading westwards from Gache-Gache to Bumi Hills, a vast, rugged, and wild area, well populated with dangerous game and tsetse fly.
Al Tourle together with Sergeants Pete Clemence (RLI) and Andre Rabie (SAS) was running an advanced tracking course, about 37kms south of Bumi Hills in the vicinity of Siakobvu within the Omay Tribal Trust Land. The course vehicles had been left at the District Commissioners camp at Siakobvu and the course were a mix of Rhodesian SAS and RLI soldiers, with a small component of South African Special Force soldiers.
Although the Rhodesian winter was yet to make its presence felt, the afternoon into early evening of 09 April 1972 had been abnormally cold with guti – a peculiar Rhodesian weather phenomenon made up of mist and drizzle. The tracker course comprised two groups, one of which totalled four black civilian employed tribesmen, affectionately referred to as magojas (cookers of meat), working under a different tracker student each day. The magojas daily role was to move off early in the morning and lay “spoor” for the remaining students under their instructors, to follow. This exercise was aimed at training the student candidates to track ZIPRA & ZANLA communist sponsored insurgents entering Rhodesia. The course taking place was an Intermediate one, and those few students who past the difficult course with a high enough grading, would then do and Advanced Tracking Course.
On this particular evening, the group of magojas under student tracker Corporal Billy Chalmers had based up about 100m away from the other course students and their instructors.
Although the Nagandi area where the exercise was taking place was considered operational, in April 1972, it was deemed passive with the high intensity Rhodesian bush war yet to erupt in full fury. The entire Bumi area is one of haunting beauty, rugged, broken escarpment country, bisected by hill ranges like the Mapongola and Ndepa. Mopane woodland dominates, but here and there, gives way to tracts of jesse thickets, mainly made up of four different bush willow species, botanically referred to as Combretums. Amongst them too, are found a variety of other tree types including the baobab. Another dominant woodland type in the higher reaches of the escarpment is the msasa or miombo.
The tribal people who inhabit this isolated area are the Batonka, a primitive river dwelling people, who subsist by fishing. When the waters of Lake Kariba were rising during the late 1950s, after the damming of the mighty Zambezi River, these humble people were moved away from the threatening level of the waters into the hinterland area lying west of the Ume River. In this area, known as the Omay TTL, the Batonka - affectionately known as ‘Tonks’ - continued practicing subsistence fishing along the lake.
East of the Ume River lies the Matusadona National Park, a pristine, albeit remote Park, its Kariba shoreline known for herds of buffalo, elephant, and a variety of other species attracted to the lush evergreen torpedo grass, the growth boosted by the nutrient rich waters of the lake. A senior game ranger and his staff, who are based at Tashinga on the lakeshore, manage Matusadona. Within the Omay TTL too, dangerous game such as buffalo and elephant roam freely - as do lion.
With the day having ended and the persistent guti hanging at ground level, filtering out what little light was left, the tracker students quietly moved about. Like fleeting shadows in the African twilight, they readied themselves for a cold and damp night. Round the flickering flames of the one syndicate’s small fire, talk was subdued and Tourle had moved slightly to one side, although still positioned close to the students. Major Fred Watts, an RLI Lt and course candidate at the time, told me that he and Tourle were standing alongside each other. His recall is that both officers had their issue NATO 7,62mm FN rifles and were drinking coffee while quietly chatting (there have been conflicting stories, with others present stating the two officers were sitting alongside each other on a rock, and not standing - either way, it is purely academic).
Sgt Pete Clemence recalls that the officers had not been talking for long, and he also distinctly remembers getting a quick glimpse of a lioness hugging the ground and digging her rear paws into the damp soil during the split second before launching herself at Lt Tourle. As she attacked, she let out a remarkably throaty, nerve chilling, and guttural growl. A lioness averages about 280lbs, and hurtling towards Tourle like a tawny missile, she hit him from behind, simultaneously breaking his neck and spine before grabbing him around his chest with her paws.
She then threw him to the ground, at the same time, puncturing his left lung with her claws. All of this was done in one fluid motion, before she began moving forwards with him still firmly clamped in her jaws, and as she dragged him across the ground, he was heard to yell out twice for his wife Molly. This reaction surprised Clemence, who recounts that he had expected Tourle to call out to his men. Given the circumstances however, calling out his wife’s name was undoubtedly a perfectly natural reaction, brought on by the sheer unexpected shock and pain of what had happened with such lightening swiftness.
As the lioness attempted to drag him away from the men, SAS Sgt Andre Rabie deliberately fired two shots in rapid succession into the ground next to her, and Pete Clemence remembers with vivid recall that when this happened, one of the students with the discipline of a trained soldier immediately hit the deck. Reacting to the shots, the lioness dropped Al and ghost like, slipped away into the surrounding scrub, where she was immediately lost from sight, as some of the men quickly moved towards the stricken officer.
Rabie and Clemence, with some others got to Tourle and found him lying doubled up and unable to move, judging from the gaping and bleeding wound in his spine, it was clear that he was paralysed. Clemence remembers that while he was kneeling alongside Tourle, the officer, and despite his extreme pain and shock requested that Pete remove for him, an inchworm caterpillar that was crawling across his face. While this was happening, some of the others got a fire going to give them some working light.
Suddenly and obviously undeterred, the lioness rushed back amongst the group and once more attempted to grab Tourle - she would do this three times. It was a nightmare of darkness, noise, dust, hot flying-embers, gunshots, a roaring lion and howling wind, punctuated by shouts and screams both of anger and panic. Other soldiers in the group fired rounds into the air and although the lioness slipped back into the brush, she would not move off, seemingly determined to lay claim to Al Tourle.
Pete Clemence mentioned that it was not very pleasant knowing that there was a determined and angry killer lion in close proximity to them, and equally frustrating was not being able to see her. One young soldier climbed into a mnondo tree and refused to come down, until firmly ordered to do so. It was also clearly apparent to the huddled and nervous group of soldiers that none of their rounds had hit the lioness.
Sgt Clemence felt it was imperative that they get to their vehicles at Siakobvu in order to get help for Al, and called for a volunteer to go with him. But the incredibly brave Lt. Tourle, despite his horrific injuries, told them that it would be far too dangerous with the persistent lioness still in such close proximity, and not to head off into the dark night. Pete further recalls that a South African Special Force soldier, whose name he thinks was Andre Bestbier volunteered to go with him for help.
From where the course was being held, it was about a 5km run through rugged big game infested bush to Siakobvu, but Clemence and Bestbier did not hesitate and although fully aware that they could become targets of the killer lioness, took off into the dark night. Throughout their run, they could hear lion vocalising around them, but no attempts were made to attack them. Matters weren’t made any easier by the guti and drizzle that had been falling on and off throughout the night. Having safely reached Siakobvu the two soldiers then drove approximately 37km to Bumi Hills and radioed the police in Kariba to summons Dr Peter Chatterton.
Due to the inclement weather and bad visibility, a helicopter could not be dispatched that night, so the doctor was brought across the lake from Kariba in a police launch, whilst Clemence and Bestbier drove to Katete harbour in their Land Rover and awaited the doctor’s arrival. From there they drove him as close to the scene as possible and then walked in with him, calling on Sgt Rabie to fire shots for them to home in on in the dark. When close to the camp, they called for an Icarus flare to be fired to illuminate their way through the broken rocky terrain surrounding the immediate approach to the position.
Despite incredible courage and fortitude from all of those involved in this night of horror, a night that had commenced at about 1930hrs the previous evening, the brave Lt Al Tourle eventually succumbed to his injuries at about 0445hrs on the morning after. The Rhodesian Air Force helicopter was only able to make it into the position to uplift the deceased officer at about 0630hrs although visibility was still limited and hindered flying.
Throughout this ordeal, Al Tourle had remained conscious and never once complained of his predicament. At one stage the courageous officer instructed Sgt Rabie to write a letter for him on a message pad, and so with the dying Al Tourle dictating, Rabie sat alongside him and wrote down what he said. In a poignant letter from Tourle’s mother to a family member, which I was kindly given access too, when researching this story, she tells of how during the remaining hours of his life, he spent his time speaking about his wife, kids, parents and brothers.
Tourle’s composure and acceptance of his predicament was a fine example to those young soldiers present. As befitting this exceptional RLI officer, he was accorded a full military funeral well attended by military personnel and civilians alike. It is hard to find men like Al nowadays, a soldier often referred to by those who knew him well, as ‘the ever smiling Al Tourle’. Many considered him one of the most professional soldiers in the Rhodesia Army at that time.
During the mid-nineteen nineties, Zimbabwe bestowed on Pete Clemence their coveted Conservationist of the Year Award: fitting recognition for a man of his calibre, who after the Rhodesian bush war, had turned his attention to conservation teaching, and evangelism. Living in Kariba, his calling in this latter field has kept him amongst the Batonka dwelling peoples of the Omay TTL for the past three decades.
At the time of this tragic incident, Rob Francis was the senior ranger with the Department of National Parks & Wild Life Management at Tashinga field station situated on the Kariba shoreline in Matusadona National Park. In e-mail communication with me whilst I was researching the story, Rob recalled that such was the seriousness of the incident, game ranger Peter Moore, the lake ranger at the time was immediately dispatched in the department vessel HMV Lasana from Kariba by warden Harry Cantle, his instructions; quite simply to tell senior ranger Francis to sort the problem lioness out.
Rob immediately went to Starvation Island where he shot an impala before departing for the District Commissioners camp at Siyakobvu on the Bumi River in the Omay Tribal Trust Land, the closest government rural administrative post to the incident. Once there, an Internal Affairs individual who was 2 I/c to the District Commissioner, met Francis, before taking him to the lion spoor, Rob was not amused to find that the spoor the Internal Affairs official was so carefully preserving was in fact that of a baboon!
However, when they went to the actual area where the incident had taken place, Rob found that there was a clear story in the sand and with it still being damp from rain showers of the previous evening, was able to confirm that the lioness had in fact returned three times after being chased off by the soldiers. It was patently obvious that she was a pretty determined cat. Francis dosed the bait impala with strychnine and hung it close to the scene, but on the first night after the incident the cat never found the bait or returned to the scene. However, on the second night she took the bait and the following morning, Rob and his men found her dead some way from the bait.
Rob recalls that the lioness was in perfect condition, aside from one canine that had been broken off and had a hole in it. He further stated that this was how they were able to positively identify her as the culprit that had killed Al as the bite marks on his body matched exactly her bite (a test obviously conducted by the coroner). Rob’s National Parks trackers too, would have been able to confirm the identity of the animal from her tracks.
Despite the broken tooth, which appeared to be an old injury, her behaviour was clearly aberrant, and Francis emphasised this by stating that there was a World Health Organization Doctor in the area, a Dr. Cirquanis who was an experienced big game hunter. He too, examined the tooth and confirmed that it was most unlikely to have caused this strange and ultra aggressive behaviour towards humans, although the onset of darkness and inclement weather too, may well have played a part. Although coupled to this is the fact that lion are true Jekyll & Hyde characters because during daylight hours they will invariably move off fairly quickly if disturbed by humans or even from a medium sized dog. However, once the sun has set, there is not much on the planet earth that a lion fears – in the dark – they undergo a complete personality change.