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The Lore and Language of Lions

The elephant might be the true king of the beasts in Africa, but the lion is the warlord. His rumbling roar is the voice of the wilderness. In East Africa they say that the roar of the lion proclaims: ' Hi ni intsh ya nani? Yangu! Yangu! Yangu!' ('Whose country is this? Mine! Mine!').

In former years lions were the most widely distributed of all the animals of Africa., They ranged from the Cape of Good Hope in the south to Algeria in north, from the horn of Africa in the east to Morocco in the far west. In Southern Africa today lions survive in the Lowveld, the Gordonia district of the Cape, northern Kwazulu, Botswana, South West Africa/Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

They vary little in appearance from place to place. Differences are confined mainly to slight variations in the mane of the males, and in colour. The Barbary lion of North Africa, now extinct, was reputedly a particularly large animal with a heavy mane. The lions of the southern Cape, also extinct, were similarly large and powerful, with massive manes. The few mounted specimens remaining in museums have broader heads than the lions of central Africa, and the manes are heavy, suited to the temperate areas of the Cape where the extra coat of matted hair was necessary to keep the animals warm.

The lions of the south tended to be very dark in colour, with black manes, while the lions of drier areas, such as South West Africa/ Namibia and the verges of the Sahara, were more golden, with tawny, yellow manes. The lions of the Lowveld, the Kruger National Park and the savanna country of the eastern side of Africa are powerfully built and silvery grey to dark ochre-brown in colour, lighter in the belly. The males usually have well-developed black manes, but these vary with the individual in thickness and shade.

Cubs are marked with brindlings along the body and light, ochre coloured, rosette-like spots and bars along flanks and limbs. These markings tend to fade as the lion matures, but in some individuals they do not disappear. The shanganes of the lowveld talk of a distinctive, spotted breed of lion, small and vicious, know as mongwawane, but these are probably just immature animals. White lions also occur. In the central area of the Kruger National Park, around Tshokwane and in the south and west of the Lowveld, a stain of white lions has periodically appeared.

There was a frequently photographed white lioness at Tshokwane in 1962, and a trio of white lions was reported in 1976 in a private nature reserve, Timbavati, immediately to the west of Orpen, just across the border of the Kruger National Park. A big male lion weighs about 180 kilograms, a female 135 kilograms. They live for about 20 years. Their strength, audacity, courage and opportunism make them very formidable. The language of lions is being seriously studied. They seem to have a vocabulary of about 50 distinct sounds.

Recording of these sounds have a particular effect when played back to other lions, apparently influencing their behavior. Some experts, like S. P. Kruger, former warden of the Manyeleti Game Reserve, are adept at speaking this lion language and can communicate with lions. The relationships of wild lions with human beings have led to many strange episodes. Lions can be extremely tolerant, the Shanganes have many accounts of lions that allowed men to share their kills.

On one of his poaching forays from the lowveld into Mozambique, a professional ivory hunter, S. C. Barnard, was visited at his camp by an agitated village headman named Mawasa, who lived near the Lundi River. The man had heard that Barnard intended to hunt in the area and he begged a favour. There was a lion living in the vicinity which was accustomed to sharing its kills with Mawasa and he did not want it harmed. Barnard sought elephant, not lion, and he assured Mawasa that his pet was safe. During his stay in the area, Barnard observed this curious relationship. The lion would kill and Mawasa or his wife would walk up to the lion, beating an empty paraffin tin. The lion would give them a somewhat disgusted look, but obligingly move away and watch from the shade of a tree while the two cut away their chosen portion of the carcass.

They would then salute the lion and return home, leaving the beast to continue with its dinner. Lions do not often regard human beings as prey, but unfortunately they occasionally discover that man is made of meat beneath his clothes, and serious trouble arises. In Tanzania the man-eating lions of the Njombe district killed a record of 1 500 people between 1932 and 1947. In areas such as the Singida district there is still a widespread belief in lycanthropy – men who change into beasts, in this case, lions.

In southern Africa people have been killed by lions as far south as the Cape Peninsula. A particularly famous man-eater lived during the 1870s in the dense bush of the valley of the Mongoloid River in northern responsible for the deaths of several hundred people. The professional hunter, W. H. Drummond, wrote an account of this lion in his book, Large Game of South Africa. The lion was so cunning that the local Zulus were certain that witchcraft was involved. Nobody knew the secret of the man-eater's lair and he never killed twice in the same area. His mistake was to attack a village during a period of rains, when the earth during soft and tracking easy.

The lion killed a young woman, a relative of the chief. Drummond happened to be sheltering from the rains in the village and he and his Zulu hunters were awakened by the screaming of the woman. In the pitch dark of the overcast, drizzly night they could do nothing. A big lion is capable of carrying an ox over a coral fence and dragging if off into the bush. This man-eater had scratched and clawed its way into the woman's hut and, with her in its jaws, melted into the night.

At dawn every man in the village was mustered to pursue the lion. The hunters followed the tracks in the soft earth and found the remains of the woman about 200 metres from the village. After its meal, the lion had walked another kilometre to a stream. From here the tracks led to a dense patch of bush known as the mbeka. More than 5000 men beat the bush, each terrified of the lion and expecting a horrible manifestation of witchcraft. Drummond and his men urged the beaters to sing war songs and shout encouragement to one another. Suddenly, the lion appeared. It regarded the beaters with a malevolent stare. To one side were Drummond and his hunters, silently praying that the noise from the beaters would make the lion retreat in their direction.

After some indecision the lion turned towards the hunters. As it came within range, one of the hunters fired. The bullet appeared to strike home, for the lion did a complete somersault before struggling to its feet. The exultant beaters rushed for ward. To cheer the hunters – and found to their dismay, that the lion had been little more that stunned. It charged like a thunderbolt. The hunters poured bullets into it, but still it came.

The beaters stood in a petrified line. But their numbers seemed to overawe the lion. Ten metres from them it halted its charge and glared. One of the beaters threw a spear into the animal's chest and it sprang, killing a beater and mauling the spear thrower. The remaining beaters swiftly overwhelmed the beast. When Drummond examined the carcass he counted six bullets and more than 500 spear wounds.

The Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Southern Africa. Pages 260-261. The Reader's Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Limited. 1986. ISBN 0 947008 17 9


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