Hippo Hassles And Problem Lions

'Hippo Hassles And Problem Lions' by Steve Robinson

The first hunt of my 2006 Tanzanian season started in Masailand and was with my old friend, hunting buddy and client Bruce Ferreira. Like me, Bruce likes to hunt hard and our days usually begin around 0400 hours and we usually get back to camp around 2100 hours. Then we shower, eat and usually get to bed around 2300 hours. Tough schedule, huh!

Our first ten days hunting had been spent in Masailand where Bruce had taken a monster leopard, three nice buffalo, all over forty inches and a selection of the northern plains game species that are unique to that area. However, we hadn’t been able to get a lion on bait. At the end of the ten days hunting, we boarded the charter flight which took us to the Selous Game Reserve in the south of the country. The Selous is the largest game reserve in the world at five million acres with a further two million acres or so of buffer zone. It's also home to the largest game populations in Africa.

I'm a fussy so and so when it comes to my business, and my staff know it, and they usually take care to see things get done the way I like them, so I was very surprised to find the camp not quite ready for our arrival. Tents were up, bathrooms were built and the kitchen was functional, but we were missing a few of the niceties such a fences and a proper camp fire area. When I saw this I asked the camp manager to explain why this was. He looked me bang in the eye, and told me that although he was very sorry they weren't properly ready for our arrival, it wasn't his or the staff's fault and I'd find out why, just as soon as it got dark and he recommended we might consider an early dinner and possibly an early night.

As soon as it got dark, most of the staff disappeared and only the night guard (who climbed into his tree seat early), chef, waiter and camp manager stayed around and they made a point of sticking close to the dining room. Just about then, the reason for all this became apparent. As the dusk gathered, the night exploded with lion roars and an entire pride appeared in camp as if they owned it.

It turned out these cheeky and very hungry felines had gotten into the habit of spending most of every night walking between the tents and roaring their heads off in the hope of scaring someone out of their tent and coming to join them for dinner and I reckoned it was only a matter of time before someone got frightened enough to do just that. The camp manager came and told me that this had been going on for weeks, was getting worse every night and they were scared spitless (at least, I think that's what they said!), so I decided we had to do something about the situation. We tried driving them away with a variety of noise makers, gunshots and even chased them in the hunting truck a few times, but nothing worked. Sure they'd melt into the bush as we drove at them or duck as we put a barrel of birdshot over their heads, but within a few minutes of our driving past, they'd reappear again. These cats really were very hungry and very determined! Bruce and I decided that more drastic measures were required.

The first thing we needed was a very large hunk of meat to use as bait and the nearest large hunks of meat (otherwise known as hippos) were walking about, in and around the Kilombero River which was right next to camp, is about 500 yards across, very fast flowing in places, exquisitely beautiful and jam packed with dirty great crocodiles and shed loads of hippo - my two least favourite African animals!

Hippo Hassles And Problem Lion Image
Sunrise over the Kilombero River at Simba Camp

We took a stroll down the river to see what we could see and by about 08.00 hours had found a very suitable candidate. He was very old and battle scarred, his ears had been chewed off in some long forgotten battle and he was more than ready to check out and let a younger bull take over. However, before I asked Bruce to take the shot, I had a quick Chinese parliament with my hunting team, which went something like this...

Me: "It's a good hippo but I think we'll have trouble getting him out of the river once we've shot him. Any comments?"

Team: "No problem Mzee, (Mzee is a term of respect that means 'old man') we'll get him out of there easily. Tell the Bwana to shoot."

Me: "Well I'm not so sure and I don't want to risk anyone's safety."

Team: "Bwana Mzee, it'll be no problem, we're close to camp and can get extra staff to help and the river is not very deep here. Trust us."

So I did, but I forgot to take a few things into account, such as...all Masai take extreme pride in not only being brave, but also being seen to be brave, and they often let this cloud their judgement. Now there's not much water in Masailand where they come from and it's likely that most Masai can't actually swim, but would they ever admit that? Oh no, not a chance. At least, not to me!

Anyway, Bruce took his shot and the hippo died as he should, but he was to turn out to be a far bigger nuisance after death than he ever have been before it! The next thing I knew, every single staff member including the old stuffed up cook who must have been at least 70 years old, was at the river. Being a little light on logic and heavy on courage, all of the staff decided to fill their pockets with large stones to throw at any crocs or hippos that got too close or too curious. They also each cut themselves a long wooden pole and then off they went into the water with one carrying the longest piece of rope we had. My job at this point was to stay on shore and keep them covered with my rifle.

As the guys make their way out to the dead hippo, they sang, laughed and beat the water with their poles to scare the crocs and hippos away from them. This is always done with a great deal of hilarity as the Africans in general and the Masai in particular have a great sense of humour. They slowly made it to the dead hippo which at this point was about 70 yards from shore. So far, so good. They tied the rope to the carcass and started to pull.

A dead hippo usually sinks for a while when it's shot and then as the gases in it's belly blows up, the animal floats to the surface. Our guy had been dead for over an hour and was bobbing about on the surface, so no problem. Or so I thought... Oh boy, was I wrong or what! This particular hippo, despite being as dead as charity, was hell bent on revenge. As the guys began pulling the hippo back to shore, the damned thing suddenly decided to sink like a stone just as it reached the deepest part of the river. Not only did it disappear into the depths, but so did all the staff as every one of them had the rope wound round their arms! To make matters worse, their stone-filled pockets stopped them from getting up to the surface again and the only way they could regain buoyancy was to drop their trousers and kick for the surface. So there was I, with a rifle in my hand watching 25 bare-arsed Africans trying to head for shore or at least for the shallows! Most made it but three got swept away in the current and a forth lunatic or very brave man decided to throw himself back in to try to save them. I honestly thought all four had, had their chips and I could almost see myself in front of an investigation tribunal having to explain how I'd managed to drown four naked Tanzanian citizens!

The gods must have been with them though. Somehow, and I really don't know how, they all managed to avoid all the big 'n nasties in the river and ended up in the shallows a mile or so downstream. Bruce, who had been unaware of the seriousness of the situation, was perched up on the bank laughing like a drain and trying to capture the entire fiasco on video! Meanwhile, I was rapidly developing a lot of new grey hairs. Had the guys been swept another hundred yards or so, they'd have hit the confluence of the two rivers and the next stop could have been the Indian Ocean!

By the time I'd got the staff rounded up and administered the necessary basic first aid, the hippo had popped up again, but this time about 300 yards from shore. I was actually rather hoping we'd seen the last of him but no such luck! Incredibly, the entire team, including the four near drownees, who incidentally had refused to go back to camp until the job was finished, turned out again for a second attempt to get our hippo back to shore.

This time it went like clockwork and after a great deal of pulling and pushing, we managed to get the hippo on shore by about mid afternoon. Bear in mind we'd shot the animal at 08.00 hours and we still hadn't cut up the carcass and got it back to camp. As it had cost me so many grey hairs, there was no way I was even going to leave a single pound of meat for the hyenas. We eventually got the last piece of it back to camp sometime after midnight! As the staff were pulling the last piece out of the water, I was still standing at the river's edge covering the staff with my rifle and trying to keep an eye out for crocs in the water and lions and hyenas on the land, when a big tiger fish jumped right beside me and scared the living daylights out of me... AGAIN!


After that, it was back to camp for a quick and well deserved whisky with a late dinner. Needless to say, the lions were still coming around as soon as the sun went down and I have to tell you that Mama Susan, hadn't been particularly impressed with our leaving her alone in camp for so long with just a .404 Jeffery and the lions for company! Good job for me she's made of the right stuff though, as she had the knowledge and the ability to handle the situation. As usual, that night, the lions kept everyone except Bruce and I awake with their caterwauling. I don't know about Bruce, but I was just too tired not to sleep.

Now that we had the meat for bait and as we knew exactly what the lions were doing and when they were doing it, we were ready to get everything set up for the next time our leonine friends came to try to join us for dinner. The next morning, I had the guys cut a hole in the back wall of the skinning shed (made from wood poles) and then peg a big hunk of hippo about 15 yards away and a nice, wide shooting alley through the bush between the two. I then moved the staff round to the client dining area to be looked after by Mama Susan and the .404 (both shoot like a dream) and just before dark, we drove back to the skinning shed and the plan was to send the (Masai) skinners back to Susan in the dining room for their own safety. Remember how I told you they take great pride in their courage?

The first one sauntered out and despite the roaring lions wandering around, he slowly put his knives away safely before climbing into the truck. Then the second one came out, made a great show of washing his hands and knives before putting them away and casually climbing into the truck. Then the third one came out and with a smug grin on his face, washed and dried his hands, then his knives and then casually relieved his bladder, before deciding to join his buddies. The Masai drive me crazy sometimes, but I just have to love 'em!

Bruce and I then went into the shed to wait for the lions. As we were closing the wooden door, I saw Kindiki and Mweni, my two trackers, (Masai again!) sitting on the open back of the spare hunting truck that was parked just a few yards away. When I told them to go back to Mama Susan and the others before they got eaten, they looked very offended and told me they were my trackers and their job was with me and if it meant they had to sit out in the truck while we shot one, that's what they were going to do. I told them they were a silly pair of buggers and to get their arses into the skinning shed with Bruce and I, and one of them could make themselves useful by taking charge of the spotlight.

A little while later as the sun went down, a big 'ol Simba and his ladies bounced up to the bait, and as soon as I'd identified him as a mature male, I told Bruce to take him. Bruce immediately whacked him in the chest with a frontal heart shot from 'ol smoking Joe, his old, battered .375 H&H. At the shot, the lion leapt into the air and I nailed him with an insurance shot (as it turned out) just below his left eye. He turned a backward somersault, hit the ground and never moved again.

Then all hell broke loose! We had a whole load of very upset females to get rid of including two or three that came right over to the skinning shed to peep through the thin wooden poles of the wall. At one time, I had the nose of a lioness no more than 6 inches from my knees and the muzzle of my rifle! It's a funny thing about lions, they all seem to have the most god-awful bad breath problem.

We eventually got rid of them with a great deal of shouting, cursing and a few barrels of bird shot over their heads. Even then, they didn't go far and we continued to get glimpses of them through the bush. I've never seen a dead animal get loaded onto a truck as quickly as we loaded that lion! Then we had a quick drive back to camp, followed by photographs and the fine Tanzanian tradition of Kabubi, which is a celebratory party for both clients and staff alike. Songs are sung, backs are slapped, everyone gets free drinks and the staff dance a lot.

I should add that I'm not usually in the habit of shooting client's animals for, or after them, but in this case, Bruce had asked that I should put in an insurance shot as we so close to camp and neither of us wanted any wounded lions bouncing around in a camp full of people. I have to say that if he hadn't suggested it to me, I'd have suggested it to him.

That wasn't the end of the story though. That night, and for the next two nights, the rest of the pride came back and resumed their old tricks of walking between the tents roaring. It wasn't just annoying, it was a bloody nuisance and dangerous to boot. Bruce, I and the rest of the hunting team were hunting and travelling at least 18 hours a day and I at least, was getting helluva tired! Between that, the lions and Mama Susan waking me up umpteen times a night to tell me the lions were right outside the tent, I wasn't getting much sleep at all. Susan doesn't usually get fazed easily. In fact, she has nerves of hardened steel (she has to, to live with me!) but she wasn't very happy with having these lions around the camp. Eventually, we 'agreed' that if one came into the tent, she'd wake me, but until then, I'd be left in the land of Nod. At least I'd get some sleep that way, even if she didn't!

The Game Scout came to see me on the third morning after we'd taken the lion and told me he was still very concerned about the lion situation (as was I) and we agreed that I'd go and shoot as many as necessary to force them out of the immediate area. He even presented me with a letter stating that he considered this action necessary in the interests of protecting human life. I guess the lions must have heard that conversation because they never came back to camp after that and instead stayed in the thick bush just behind camp where they took to eating waterbuck instead of trying to hunt humans, which was just dandy with me as the camp then remained safe, honour was satisfied and I wouldn't have to explain to the game department why I'd broken their rules by shooting a whole bunch of lions without prior approval from HQ. This is something they're very sensitive about and are inclined to heavily fine any Professional Hunters who do that kind of thing without very good reason.

I don't usually shoot pride holding males unless there are no dependent cubs around, and the pride holders are on their way out and the takeover is imminent anyway, but in this case, I decided it was justified as the risk to human life outweighed the normal principles of ethical lion management. As far as I'm aware, that particular pride didn't have any dependent young amongst their numbers and hopefully the inevitable pride takeover, didn't cost the lives of any future lion kings.

Had the client not had a lion on his licence or not wanted to take that particular lion in that particular way, I'd have shot the lion myself and written it up as in defence of human life.

It's traditional that a new camp be named by the first Professional Hunter to visit it and for the obvious reason I named this one Simba Camp and I'm glad to say it still has that name today and the staff regularly tell the story to anyone that'll listen.

Hippo Hassles And Problem Lion Image
Camp-raiding lion - note his third eye

Hippo Hassles And Problem Lion Image
This lion is fairly typical of the Selous - virtually maneless.

Steve Robinson

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