A Lion Caper

Growing up in Africa I had a healthy respect for the wild, as it is one of the continents of the world where one could become lunch or dinner of another carnivore at any given time. Whereas elephants, rhinoceros and hippopotamus may charge at you and trample you to death, lions could catch you and eat you and the prospect of this kept one on ones toes when you were driving in to lion country.

By the mid nineteen sixties, when this caper took place, conservation was already in full swing in Southern Africa and most of the big cats were already restricted to National Parks. Every now and then one or two would venture outside the enclosures to raid a nearby village or farmer of their livestock and then the hunt would be on to find the culprits. Leopards could still move about the mountain areas as free wildlife and remain hidden from view but their pickings would be slim as they would be restricted to small game.

I spent my early youth reading romantic novels about Alan Quartermain, and Selous, the great white hunters of Africa and dreamed about that carefree lifestyle which I could one day enjoy. By the time I was grown up these characters and their job description became a thing of the past and there wasn’t a future in hunting and trading any longer. That was the way it seemed to me then. Thirty years later the hunting scene had gone full circle again and had become an industry.

To get myself out of the city I moved north to South West Africa also known as German West Africa (and later to be renamed Namibia), due to the German influence in administration and architecture over a hundred years or so. I secured a job with a Farmers Co-operative company and was employed to see to our customer needs and to collect the Karakul pelts from them, for sale to overseas buyers.

Karakul sheep originated in Afghanistan and are normally black in colour. In the 18th Century a value was put on their pelts for the creation of gowns and evening wear apparel for the wealthy. An industry arose whereby these sheep were bred and then a percentage of the lambs are slaughtered before they are 24 hours old and the pelts are tanned and then collectively made into garments. During the lambing season it was a full on job going around the various farms collecting the pelts. There were rival companies doing the same job and vying for the business. Normally the farmers stuck with the company which served them, but there were always a few who may go over to the opposition. On this particular day I was on a mission to a farm to persuade the owners, Willie and Renee, to do business with our company instead.

I had been provided with a Chevrolet utility truck and an African labourer, who would tend to loading and unloading the truck and the safe storage of the pelts. He was also a gate opener and general handy person when it cam to minor vehicle maintenance jobs. My route took me out on the border extremities of South West Africa and Botswana where many wild animals were competing for survival with domesticated breeds.

The desert areas of Botswana were still the ancestral home of the Bushmen people and wildlife was prolific in these desert regions. Desert elephants as well as desert lions roamed the sand dune corridors and eked a living from the bush and the infrequent waterholes. In good seasons when a greater share of rain fell the wildlife would flourish, but when drought conditions set in, their numbers declined and the carnivores especially would venture towards the farms across the border to look for easy prey such as goats, sheep and cattle. Elephants would be so brazen that they would come right up to cropping areas to feed, causing havoc in well maintained vegetable gardens. Farmers had very little recourse but to set raps or to fire shots over the heads of these behemoths to drive them away. Once elephants came to the areas lions would follow. They would get easy pickings if the sheep or cattle had been penned in kraals.

One day a deputation of villagers from a nearby village in Botswana came to the farm to ask the owner if he could assist with methods to get rid of a pride of troublesome lions. He agreed after speaking with neighbouring farms and the following day a number of them drove out to the village in their four wheel drive vehicles. They scouted around for a while and then spotted what they thought might be the pride of troublesome lions. The trucks were loaded with villagers and beating drums and sounding horns they managed to chase the lions along for about five kilometres, by which time the lions were exhausted. At this stage they thought that they had done enough to scare the lions off for the time being and returned to the village.

On the way back someone noticed a male lion cub cowering under some bushes. The villagers caught it and later presented it to the farmers as their appreciation for their help. The farm owners, Willie and Renee, whom I was about to visit, had taken the cub into their household and it was bottle fed by all the family members. By the time the lion was of adolescent age they took him to a veterinary surgeon to have his claws and teeth removed so that he could not injure any human. Up to this stage he had been fed on maize porridge and bread and vegetables only, with a bit of cooked meat thrown in on occasions. Various permits had to be procured from the wildlife and the primary industries departments, and when this was in order, ‘Oubaas’ shared his lot with the dogs and cats which lived on the farm. He was given a separate room in an outbuilding and sometimes, on very cold nights, most of the other free ranging farm animals shared his den. By the time of my first visit to this farm he was ten years of age and fully grown.

Needless to say, I was not privy to all this aforesaid information on my visit. I arrived at around three o’clock in the afternoon and was cordially met by the farmer’s wife who sent a farm worker off to call her husband, who was a short distance away. He arrived in a short while and they both introduced themselves and we sat down for a chat. Then I was offered a cup of tea and upon acceptance, the wife got up to make it. A few minutes later the farmer made an excuse and left the room. I was left there to my own devices and was busy noticing very long hairs scattered about the floor and was wondering what on earth they could belong. My puzzlement became a reality when a fully grown male lion walked through the swing doors of the kitchen and into the lounge. It was Oubaas’s of course, but we had not been introduced and I had only seen lions from the comfort of my car or when the circus came to town. I froze and my heart raced. A snapshot of my face would have been something to treasure for many years to come. Oubaas sauntered in with that lion way of walking and came right up to me. I dropped my teacup and saucer on the floor and they shattered into a multitude of pieces. Oubaas came closer, looking at me with those large yellow eyes and nestled his head on my lap. I leant as far back as I could into the lounge settee as I could and held my breath. Oubaas made a noise like a small roar but I suppose it was meant to be a purring sound. I have heard of people crapping in their pants from fright and believe me I got close to that situation on this particular day. Muffled laughter could be heard from the kitchen and soon after Willie and Renee came out with serious looks on their faces and ordered Oubaas to go and lie down. But he refused and would only obey my command after I had scratched his head and had ordered him to go and lie down. I felt the flush of relief well over my face when the lion went and lay down in a corner of the room with a sigh.

Then Willie and Renee started laughing again and said that I had been a good sport and a lot braver than most visitors they had played this practical joke on. I apologised about the broken tea set but they brushed that aside with a wave of the hand. I was invited to stay the night and we became firm friends after that little caper!!!!..And yes! I did get their business.

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