Chapter 9: A Lion’s Mouthful

I HAVE previously registered an opinion on big-game hunting, and I am still on the side of the lion or elephant that comes out on top. But among the hunters I met there were a number whom I respected. Some of these were working for museums. Specimen collecting may be offered, I think, as a valid excuse for killing. It is the organized slaughter-parties for publicity and entertainment that nauseate a lover of fair play.

In my first few months in the bush I learned to fear the insect more than the large beast. During an impressionable youth I had read tall stories of encounters with lions and rhinoceroses, but the ferocity of the African beasts seldom asserted itself during my three complete years in the wild-game country of the Cameroons and British East. There were hundreds of thousands of troops in the area, and I know of only one incident where a lion carried off a soldier, and even he got off unscathed.

Lions, rhinoceroses and elephants offer man a wide berth. They attack only if wounded or provoked, and most casualties are the result of a poor marksman with a high-powered rifle. Usually the myopic sportsman is backed up by a firing squad, so that should the lion or elephant charge him after his bullet has missed the lethal target, no disaster will result. That is a form of health insurance practised around Nairobi during the annual rush of amateur hunters for a lion’s skin wherewith to boast!

In the Legion of Frontierstnen I met and talked for hours with the famous Captain Selous who holds the world’s record for the bagging of lions, most of which were secured on order for museums. He and I agreed on the ethics of animal hunting by slaughter-parties, and much of the lore of the bush I gathered from his stories. Another Frontiersman I met was Martin Ryan, a Rhodesian Irishman with sixty lion pelts. Captain Selous, over seventy years old, was killed in action early in the War, and I lost track of Ryan when our brigades separated. Despite their record of trophies I had no desire to shoot a lion, though I saw one occasionally stalking near the camp. The odor of food and the stench of decaying bodies attracted lions, as well as the whole category of zoo candidates.

The nights were hideous with the barking of jackals, the howls of the hyena, and the sudden roar of the lion. They always haunted the remount depots, where they would find the carcasses of horses and mules which had died during the day. The African night produces a symphony all its own, and it certainly strikes terror into a newcomer’s heart. At first you suffer from nerves and the night is a thousand years long. Then your imagination is dulled by lack of sleep and you go to bed not caring much what happens.

We were encamped one night on the veldt between Dodoma and Iringa in German East, when a lion carried away a Boer from our camp. The camp consisted of engineers, infantry, and cavalry. The horsemen were entirely recruited from the Cape Dutch, and splendid horsemen they were. The mounts were corralled in a ” boma,” hastily constructed that evening. Wagons were circled around the horses to give them added protection from the lions.

As we had orders to break camp at dawn, we were sleeping around the camp-fires fully attired and rolled in our blankets. The lions boomed and roared all night, but most of us fell asleep from exhaustion. Suddenly bedlam was let loose in the cavalry section. A full moon beamed down, and figures scattered in all directions. Men ran through the camp banging dixies, some blazed into the air with their rifles, others danced about like idiots, shouting that a dozen men had been stolen by a sudden sortie. Anybody believes anything at a moment like this.

Seizing a rifle I followed a group across the veldt. I had not got very far when a lion’s silhouette was etched against the purple sky. The hubbub had distracted him, but he was in no mood to surrender his prey. Easily discernible was the huge package in his drooping jaws. The others came up with me, but we were in a quandary. To shoot the lion meant the hazard of killing a comrade. So we fired volleys into the air to frighten the beast. The commotion puzzled old Leo, but didn’t frighten him a whit. He held fast to his human cargo, and disappeared in the tall grass.

For two hours the search went on, and we despaired of getting the Boer cavalryman alive. Over the veldt we ran, expecting momentarily to be pounced upon by the haunted monarch of the jungle. It was nearing dawn when we sighted the lion again about five miles from camp. Again we volleyed, and this time he abandoned his quarry, as not worth the effort.

The young Boer soldier came limping back to us, frightened but without major injury. He was badly shaken and had many painful bruises from the rag-doll buffeting he received in the lion’s jaws. His army blanket saved him from the jaws of the brute, and the close pursuit of our party never gave the lion a moment to enjoy his titbit.

The soldier said that he had been awakened by the lion, who sniffed about the blanket and then rolled him over with a heavy paw. He awoke, and screamed. Then the lion seized him and ran swiftly away. Animal hunters, hearing of the affair, speculated on the reason for the attack. The consensus of opinion was that it was an old animal, perhaps toothless, and, spurned by his own kind, was unable to make a kill; as a last resort the dethroned ruler of the veldt had wandered into camp and tried his luck on the less delicate flesh of a human.

The shooting of hippos, rhinos, giraffes, and zebras is a pitiable waste of nature’s treasure. I confess to shooting many animals, including the zebra, while we were foraging for food, but that is a good reason. I still possess the belt made from the hide of a little camouflaged donkey of the veldt. The East Indians on the coast have been responsible for the death of many giraffes through a standing offer of eight rupees for a camelopard’s tail, which they plait into rings and armlets. The ancient name of camelopard is much more descriptive and pleasing than the word giraffe.

Shooting a hippo is comparable to aiming a cannon at a barn. You cannot miss the water mammoth, and he makes no effort to be elusive. The hide of the hippo makes excellent kiboka, or whips. It is cut, sandpapered, and oiled, and looks like pliable amber. The South Africans call them sjamboks and use them to flog the mules and Kafirs.

We dined like gourmets on a wide variety of African venison from the large koodoo to the tiny duijk-duijk, which is the pygmy species of deer. The duijk-duijk, when skinned, is no larger than a hare, but, like all cameo art in nature, it has the finest flavor of all deer. Its tender and delicate body was as delectable as chicken, if one may mix fauna in such comparisons. The hartebeest, springbok, and wildebeest are still plentiful, but the birth-rate on the veldt is losing out to the rifle. Foraging for fresh meat, we found that dawn and dusk were the propitious hours, for animals keep secluded during the terrific heat of the day. The graceful springbok bounds along the grassy plain with the same economy of motion that characterizes the porpoise in water. They leap as if their muscles found impulse in steel springs.

Game birds were plentiful, and in sections the soldiers had their choice of partridge, guinea-fowl, and the African cousin of the pheasant. As a general rule the fine-feathered birds made tough eating, and I seldom shot at the infinite variety of birds bedizened in the richer colors of the tropic palette.

The monkey is always a fascinating subject. He is the comedian of the jungle, and a rogue in the corn or mealie patches. He has the innate skill of the sneak-thief. When he comes into camp he steals whatever attracts his vision, from a basin to a barrel.

In the foraging expeditions into the native mealie patches, the monkeys post sentinels in every direction, and at the first outcry the whole troop scampers to cover. They plague the natives to desperation when the young corn is sending its shoots six to ten inches above the ground. When the stalk is strong and tough they prefer to find some other tender vegetable. I never shot one of the vandals, because I have some faith in ancestor-worship. Besides, our own villainy was infinitely worse than the sporadic raids of the little sirnians on those mealie patches.

The monkeys are adroit in their foraging manoeuvres. When driven out of a corn patch they come home by a circuitous route, knowing full well that the black wrath of the Askari lurks along the quickest route to the jungle. I never tired of watching their antics, and the plunderers became somewhat friendly when they realized their immunity around the army encampments.

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