I woke up in my tent in the dark African night wondering why I was awake at all when a huge coughing noise rent the night. I didn’t recognise the sound at first, I thought that some kind of antelope with a chest cold was outside but then the sudden realisation overtook me from a very primitive part of my being. There was a lion outside.
When I signed up for an expedition to Africa I was very nervous about it, a nervousness which deepened a hundred fold when I belatedly realised that Africa is where lions live. As a child I had watched nature programs obsessively and read everything I could about animals to the point where I had recurring nightmares about being eaten by lions for years. I became convinced that I was travelling to Africa to meet my destiny to be lion food.
I could not back out. The only thing to do was to investigate the possibility and mechanics of a lion attack and how to defend myself from one, knowledge which I will very kindly share with you now. I have also included tips from the aptly named dangerous animal expert Keith Leggett who gave us a lecture on arrival in Namibia. I say apt as all nearly all of his advice required- you’ve guessed it- legging it.
Whether you are walking the veldt, savannah or bush there are many types of attacks that could occur. A rhino charge, a snake attack, a leopard ambush. Lions only come eighth on the list of most dangerous animals in Africa, after hippos, mosquitos and humans, and leopards are far more efficient killers of men than lions but lets stick to the lions. According to Leggett, most animals will actually warn you that you are in the wrong place. If there’s a lion in the grass nearby it will more than likely cough a warning. Really. As in “Ahem, we are indisposed right now, would you kindly leave please?”
So you back off. Or you don’t hear the cough, or the lion is injured and very hungry and all of a sudden you are being charged. Firstly, if you are not alone, all you need to know is that you don’t have to outrun the lion just outrun the people you are with. To this end its worth seriously considering going on safari with unfit if not totally fat people. The companions you pick could save your life. Notwithstanding that information you may be alone or your companions were cannier than you in picking safari buddies and here’s this big hairy roaring thing coming at you it is in fact better to stand still than to run, don’t make eye contact and make yourself as big as possible. You can try throwing rocks.
Distraction is another option. A prime example of this method is used by Mike Penman of Animal Planet in a clip you can find here. To demonstrate that lions are not vicious man-eaters he crawls as near to a lion as possible with only a roll of white toilet paper and not in case he shits himself either. The idea being that if he gets charged he flings the toilet roll away from him which distracts the animal and buys him precious seconds to get back to his jeep or up a tree. Not the most responsible way to make a point.
But, say it’s too late and the lion is chest to face with you his jaws closing around your head. You still have some options. Try punching it in the eyes and around the head. This more often works with the American Mountain Lion so if you’re in Africa you may be out of luck. You could thrust an appendage into its mouth as a sort of a starter, before its teeth lock onto your skull (the skull is the lions main point of attack, they like the gooey insides). The best appendage would be your arm as you may need your legs for getting away. The arm you use least is preferable i.e. if you’re right-handed thrust your left arm. This will give the lion something to chew on and give any would be saviours a chance to ride to the rescue. This was actually successful for Peter Capsticks’ tracker when hunting a man-eater in the Luangwa Valley. The lion knocked down Capstick sending his gun into the undergrowth, and then attacked the tracker who shoved his arm into the animals mouth giving Capstick time to grab a spear and plunge into the lions heart. (Caputo, p.74).
But, the lion is too fast and it’s upon you. What can you do now? Nothing much unless you have a knife, preferably a long one. You may be tempted to try to stab it in the chest. This will be futile as a lions chest is like a breeze block wall. The best course is to stab downwards behind the collarbone in the hope of puncturing its heart before your brain is a Creme Egg at Easter.
After that, you are out of time.
If you are camping in what you believe to be lion country you may want to think about where and how and with whom you are going to sleep for more than reasons of pleasure. My lion experience happened when I was camping with 200 others at Etosha National Park in Namibia and as we were in tents we were relatively safe as lions, unlike bears-who will break into tents, select the menstruating woman, drag her out and eat her alive-hunt by sight. Still it was hard for me to believe that the lion wasn’t going to break open the top of my cone-shaped tent as if it were a Walnut Whip and scoop me out, especially as I was in the midst of a (squeamish men look away now) period that would put Old Faithful to shame.
I was fortunate in my tent mates in that they remained as paralyzed as I but someone in one of the other tents decided to go into the roar punctured night and have a look. There are circumstances when the words, “I bet he’s not that big”, followed by sound of a zipper is a prelude to some fun. This was not one of them. Frankie survived, he didn’t see the lion and, more happily, the lion didn’t see him. Around the same time a less fortunate young man on safari in some other part of Africa woke up to find a lion licking his toe through the tent flap he had foolishly left open. He panicked and ran out of the tent straight into the waiting pride.
Still, sometimes tents are too stuffy and sleeping outdoors under African skies becomes attractive. There are a few ways you can make sure you survive the night. Lions, when attacking people and especially sleeping people, will lock their teeth onto the head and drag the body off. To circumvent this you pile everything you can find around your head, rocks are best, but rucksacks, saddles etc. will do.
The most essential part of this information is not to share it with your sleeping buddies because if all of you have your heads protected you may encourage the lion to adapt to dragging people off by their feet in which case your precautions will be useless.
All this is for nought of course if you happen to come across lions that have adapted to killing humans, like the lions of Ngombe in Tanzania who killed 1500 people between 1932 and 1947 (Caputo, p.267). The pride apparently planned attacks between villages in the region, adapting to attacking in the afternoon instead of in the night-time, the cover of which they used to travel from village to village like some kind of crack commando squad. They were eventually hunted down by George Rusby who came to believe they used a relay system to drag victims into the bush. Then there were the Lions of Tsavo, stars of the movie The Ghost and The Darkness, who killed up to 100 workers on a railroad bridge crew in 1898. (Caputo, p.4-9).
Though these man-eaters were operating in the last century, attacks continue apace and it is worth considering, if you are thinking of going on safari that in modern times with the spread of civilisation, though lion populations are decreasing, man-eaters are on the increase. Ibiza anyone?
I’ll end with a bit of culture…here’s a poem I wrote on waking after a night in the open in the Ugab in western Namibia, home to some increasingly rare desert lions.
UGAB CAMP SITE
Slept under a mosquito net, Grus flying overhead,
and dreamed of lions.
A cricket woke me in the night and
I thought I heard the soft breath of elephants.
Hornbills in the morning.
Caputo, P., (2002), Ghosts of Tsavo, Washington, National Geographic Society.
Capstick, P., (1978) Death in the Long Grass, London, St. Martins Press.