Brutal Lion Attack

observe

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As told to and written by my friend

Herman Labuschagne


The frightful tale of Willie de Beer’s lion attack.

In my father’s hunting albums there are a few old photographs of an unassuming man standing beside one of the biggest elephant tuskers you will ever see, especially in the times we live in now.
My father had told me the story of how he had very nearly shot Chipitani on an old safari of his, but he somehow never told me who the man beside the elephant was.
That, he only revealed to me shortly before he died.
Although the photo does not reveal the details, that man was the survivor of one of the most horrific tales I have ever heard.
Whether one would consider him a lucky man or not, I’m not sure I can decide, because once you have heard his tale, you might consider that perhaps surviving something terrible is not always the better of two fates.
But life is precious, and perhaps the man was grateful that he had survived despite the severity of his ordeal. It is not the kind of question one would have asked him, anyway.
The man in the photograph is Willie de Beer.
When my father finally told me this, I was astonished, for I recognized the name instantly. He had told me Willie’s story several times since I was a little boy. I had even read it.
And it still sends shivers up my spine when I think of it.
My father used to say Willie’s features were disarrayed. It was as if his face had shifted. “Everything sat in the wrong place,” was how my dad described it. And that’s how I used to picture him as a child. With his eyes, nose and ears all sitting where they shouldn’t be.
It happened in 1972, which was the year before I was born. Willie de Beer was having a holiday from his normal occupation as a game ranger. He was enjoying the tranquillity of an elephant control camp in Wankie National Park, in Rhodesia.
With him was his wife and his daughter, along with her husband, Colin Mathews. Colin was a student, also on holiday from Salisbury.

In a nearby ranger’s hut, there was another couple. Len Harvey, who was also a game warden, enjoying his honeymoon with his newly-wed wife, Jean. The huts were of simple construction – just wattle and daub, with a thatched roof, and with open windows. Three lions had been prowling the camp recently, but lions are not normally known to enter homes, so there wasn’t much concern.
What was of concern, however, was that nobody had firearms nearby, as they had to be locked away according to regulations.
An hour before midnight, the folly of this protocol was to be revealed when a penetrating scream filled the night near the Sapi pan. In the pitch blackness of the hut, Len woke up to the bewildering awareness that his bride was under attack from a big creature that he could sense and smell instantly.

Despite the small size of the window, a big lioness had leapt through into the hut, and with her perfect night vision, had selected the woman as her victim. Sinking her fangs into Jean’s lower back, the lioness lifted her and shook her like a mouse.
At this realization, Len did what any self-respecting man would have done. He leapt upon the lioness and attacked her with his bare hands. Thus susprized, the lioness quickly left Jean, swatted Len with her powerful front paw, and then sank her long fangs deep into his shoulder. Whilst in agony, Len screamed for his wife to get out and escape.

She wasted no time in bursting out the door, while behind her Len grappled with the predator for life and death. Halfway to Willie de Beer’s bungalow, however, she suddenly considered turning back to try and help her husband. But from the sounds that were coming from inside the hut, she could tell that there was probably no point. Len had no chance of surviving more than just a few short seconds.
Beating on Willie de Beer’s door hysterically, Jean was met by the sight of the sleep-befuddled game ranger, still in his underwear, and rapidly had to describe the situation as best she could.

Willie wasted no time in hurrying to the safe where the rifles were stored. With trembling hands he unlocked the door, before grabbing a fist full of cartridges and loading two rifles. Willie’s son in law had by this time been roused to start the little camp generator. When he returned, Willie handed Colin a .243 Parker and Hale, while he kept the Model 70 Winchester .375.

At this, both men, still half-naked, approached Len’s hut cautiously. With the door shut there was nothing they could see, but when they called Len’s name, they heard the lioness growl inside. He now had a big dilemma. On the off-chance that Len was still alive, he could not simply shoot into the hut.
But how was he too see?

A less brave man would have waited, but Willie must have known that every second mattered. Flipping the safety off his rifle, therefore, he cautiously peered through the small window into the hut. At that very moment the lioness struck – so fast that the eye couldn’t not even see. In one swift stroke she zipped his forehead open right to the bone with her sickle-shaped claws.

Willie staggered back, clutching at his head as the blood gushed down his face as only a head wound can bleed. It took him a while to regain his breath, during which he directed his son in law to rip up a T shirt and bind it around his head to staunch the flow.
Willie was determined to try again. And so, even more cautiously this time, he approached the window once again – slowly sticking the barrel through to point into the darkness. But right then there was a blur of motion.

The great cat’s powerful paw flashed out and sank her powerful claws into the back of Willie’s head.
Immediately she pulled him towards her, meaning to draw himself.

Screaming with pain, Willie dropped the rifle into the hut, and grabbed onto the walls for life and death. In the tug of war that followed, the lioness reached out at tried to bite Willie in he face, but her own paw was in the way and she couldn’t reach him.
At this, she gave one mighty tug. With an awful sucking sound, Willie’s skin split open as the lion ripped his scalp off of his own scull.
Willie staggered back, Willie landed on the ground, painfully clutching the hairy mess that was the remains of his scalp, now hanging down the front of his face so he could not see.
That was only the beginning of his misfortune, though, for like an arrow from a bow, the lioness next came flying through the window.

The lioness immediately pounced upon him, whereto Willie held up his hands to shield what was left of his face. The cat took his head into her powerful jaws and dragged him away a little distance, before lying down to chew his scull. Beneath her fangs the sound of splintering bone was not that of his scull being crushed, however, but of his hands and fingers being shattered.

In the meantime, Colin had staggered back a few paces and was probably shivering like a reed. The student had never fired a rifle in his life before. However hard he pulled the trigger, the rifle refused to fire.
The reason, he would only later discover, was that the safety catch was still on – and he never even knew that rifles had a safety.

Whilst still struggling with the rifle, something happened next which would have been considered over the top and unrealistic even in a Hollywood film of fiction. In the darkness, he had the misfortune of stepping into a galvanized steel bucket, which securely trapped his foot.
At hearing the distinctive clatter, the lioness suddenly stopped chewing Willie’s head to look up at the young man.
Flattening her ears, her cheeks curled into a snarl – and the next moment she leapt straight at him.
The young man had no chance.
She was on top of him faster than he could blink.
And all he could do was what came natural – and that was the instinctive act of holding his fist out in front of him and shoving it as deep into the lion’s mouth as he could reach.
A split second later, her iron fangs closed around his arm and sent lighting bolts of pain into his body. His bones crumbled like chalk sticks.

Behind the commotion, Willie meanwhile slowly came to his senses again. Still blinded by his own dripping scalp in front of his eyes, he felt around in the darkness in desperate search of a weapon.
What his shattered fingers found was the cold steel of Colin’s rifle on the ground. When it refused to lift, Willie realized that the lioness was standing on the stock. He therefore had to heave, and when it slipped free, the sudden release sent him tumbling onto his back.
Crouching to up, Willie’s mangled hands felt for the safety catch, and flipped it off. He could hardly see, so all he could do was to lift the rifle and point it at the ferocious sound where the cat was trying to eat his son in law.

The rifle went off with a blinding flash and a terrific jar. Painfully clawing at the bolt, Willie reloaded and fired two more shots at the sound of the angry beast. And then it all went silent.
Still blind, and clutching his mutilated hands in agony, Willie shouted out: “Colin! Are you alright, Colin?”
There was a moment’s silence, before the reply came.
“Yes Dad, but you’ve shot my hand off…!”

Right then, there came a piercing scream from Colin. In her dying throes, the lioness had been thrashing about, until she found the young man’s leg. Her final act was that of biting his kneecap off completely.

The sudden silence of the night, weirdly accentuated by the distant chugging of the small Honda generator, must have made the scene appear surreal. Gathering themselves, the two butchered men supported each other, and staggered slowly to Willie’s hut. Colin still had eyes. Willie still had legs. Together they could move about – barely.

Willie’s wife had to drive them 30 miles to the main camp, where the three mutilated survivors would be flown out in a Rhodesian army chopper. All three survived what must surely have been one of the most savage animal attacks ever recorded. Willie de Beer received 222 stitches to his head, and had to undergo massive reconstruction on his face and hands.

Colin Matthew never regained full use of his hand again, and it is not known whether he was ever able to walk properly with his shattered knee. His young bride, Jean, successfully recovered of his back wounds at least, and was released from hospital two months later.
Len Harvey did not make it, sadly. In the lion’s stomach, they found the feathers of a camp chicken the next day – together with the young man’s face. For some, death is kinder than survival after trauma.

My dad said to me when I was little, when I’m older one day, I could read the full account, as Peter Capstick wrote it in his famous book, Death in the Long Grass.
He said not to read it at night, however, because I would not sleep. I read it around the age of 10 – alone and late at night.
Among a thousand other late night stories, this one, is among those I will remember the most clearly for as long as I shall live.
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Cam Moon

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I've read the story before, but it was still both mesmerizing and horrifying. Thank you for sharing.
 

Nhoro

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I worked for a wildlife filmaker doing lights for the filming. We followed the lions in two Toyota Hilux pickups, and slept in the back. I witnessed many kills, from a little Grysbok up to Buffalo and once was in the middle of a territorial fight between 3 male lions. Their power and speed of the action was unbelievable. That must have been a terrifying experience and is great testament to 3 brave men who stepped up when many would have run.
 

VertigoBE

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A harrowing tale. Thanks for sharing.
 

Foxi

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My God, Stephen King's stories are downright harmless.
 

Newboomer

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My God, Stephen King's stories are downright harmless.
The will to survive can be awesome. What a chilling story. Never underestimate the mind of a wild animal of any species.
 

Frederik

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Wow brought back memories of reading it long ago and I must say surely the most descriptive nasty lion attack ever told.
 

Bullhunter

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I had read of this in Capsticks book, but had forgotten about it till now. Yikes!!!

Did you know the book sir?
(And the pages?)

Thanks.
B.
 

Fixfire

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Never gets old. This story will remain as long as there are hunters willing to brave Dangerous Game!!!
 

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