The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
A very large lion I killed stood three feet and nine inches at the withers, and of course carried his head higher than that. The top of the table at which I sit is only two feet three inches from the floor. Coming through the door at my back that lion's head would stand over a foot higher than halfway up. Look at your own writing desk; your own door. Furthermore, he was nine feet and eleven inches in a straight line from nose to end of tail, or over eleven feet along the contour of the back. If he were to rise on his hind feet to strike a man down, he would stand somewhere between seven and eight feet tall, depending on how nearly he straightened up. He weighed just under six hundred pounds, or as much as four well-grown specimens of our own "mountain lion." I tell you this that you may realize, as I did not, the size to which a wild lion grows. Either menagerie specimens are stunted in growth, or their position and surroundings tend to belittle them, for certainly until a man sees old Leo in the wilderness he has not understood what a fine old chap he is.
This tremendous weight is sheer strength. A lion's carcass when the skin is removed is a really beautiful sight. The great muscles lie in ropes and bands; the forearm thicker than a man's leg, the lithe barrel banded with brawn; the flanks overlaid by the long thick muscles. And this power is instinct with the nervous force of a highly organized being. The lion is quick and intelligent and purposeful; so that he brings to his intenser activities the concentration of vivid passion, whether of anger, of hunger or of desire.
So far the opinions of varied experience will jog along together. At this point they diverge.
Just as the lion is one of the most interesting and fascinating of beasts, so concerning him one may hear the most diverse opinions. This man will tell you that any lion is always dangerous. Another will hold the king of beasts in the most utter contempt as a coward and a skulker.
In the first place, generalization about any species of animal is an exceedingly dangerous thing. I believe that, in the case of the higher animals at least, the differences in individual temperament are quite likely to be more numerous than the specific likenesses. Just as individual men are bright or dull, nervous or phlegmatic, cowardly or brave, so individual animals vary in like respect. Our own hunters will recall from their personal experiences how the big bear may have sat down and bawled harmlessly for mercy, while the little unconsidered fellow did his best until finished off: how one buck dropped instantly to a wound that another would carry five miles: how of two equally matched warriors of the herd one will give way in the fight, while still uninjured, before his perhaps badly wounded antagonist. The casual observer might-and often does-say that all bears are cowardly, all bucks are easily killed, or the reverse, according as the god of chance has treated him to one spectacle or the other. As well try to generalize on the human race-as is a certain ecclesiastical habit-that all men are vile or noble, dishonest or upright, wise or foolish.
The higher we go in the scale the truer this individualism holds. We are forced to reason not from the bulk of observations, but from their averages. If we find ten bucks who will go a mile wounded to two who succumb in their tracks from similar hurts, we are justified in saying tentatively that the species is tenacious of life. But as experience broadens we may modify that statement; for strange indeed are runs of luck.
For this reason a good deal of the wise conclusion we read in sportsmen's narratives is worth very little. Few men have experience enough with lions to rise to averages through the possibilities of luck. Especially is this true of lions. No beast that roams seems to go more by luck than felis leo. Good hunters may search for years without seeing hide nor hair of one of the beasts. Selous, one of the greatest, went to East Africa for the express purpose of getting some of the fine beasts there, hunted six weeks and saw none. Holmes of the Escarpment has lived in the country six years, has hunted a great deal and has yet to kill his first. One of the railroad officials has for years gone up and down the Uganda Railway on his handcar, his rifle ready in hopes of the lion that never appeared; though many are there seen by those with better fortune. Bronson hunted desperately for this great prize, but failed. Rainsford shot no lions his first trip, and ran into them only three years later. Read Abel Chapman's description of his continued bad luck at even seeing the beasts. MacMillan, after five years' unbroken good fortune, has in the last two years failed to kill a lion, although he has made many trips for the purpose. F. told me he followed every rumour of a lion for two years before he got one. Again, one may hear the most marvellous of yarns the other way about-of the German who shot one from the train on the way up from Mombasa; of the young English tenderfoot who, the first day out, came on three asleep, across a river, and potted the lot; and so on. The point is, that in the case of lions the element of sheer chance seems to begin earlier and last longer than is the case with any other beast. And, you must remember, experience must thrust through the luck element to the solid ground of averages before it can have much value in the way of generalization. Before he has reached that solid ground, a man's opinions depend entirely on what kind of lions he chances to meet, in what circumstances, and on how matters happen to shape in the crowded moments.
But though lack of sufficiently extended experience has much to do with these decided differences of opinion, I believe that misapprehension has also its part. The sportsman sees lions on the plains. Likewise the lions see him, and promptly depart to thick cover or rocky butte. He comes on them in the scrub; they bound hastily out of sight. He may even meet them face to face, but instead of attacking him, they turn to right and left and make off in the long grass. When he follows them, they sneak cunningly away. If, added to this, he has the good luck to kill one or two stone dead at a single shot each, he begins to think there is not much in lion shooting after all, and goes home proclaiming the king of beasts a skulking coward.
After all, on what grounds does he base this conclusion? In what way have circumstances been a test of courage at all? The lion did not stand and fight, to be sure; but why should he? What was there in it for lions? Behind any action must a motive exist. Where is the possible motive for any lion to attack on sight? He does not-except in unusual cases-eat men; nothing has occurred to make him angry. The obvious thing is to avoid trouble, unless there is a good reason to seek it. In that one evidences the lion's good sense, but not his lack of courage. That quality has not been called upon at all.
But if the sportsman had done one of two or three things, I am quite sure he would have had a taste of our friend's mettle. If he had shot at and even grazed the beast; if he had happened upon him where an exit was not obvious; or if he had even followed the lion until the latter had become tired of the annoyance, he would very soon have discovered that Leo is not all good nature, and that once on his courage will take him in against any odds. Furthermore, he may be astonished and dismayed to discover that of a group of several lions, two or three besides the wounded animal are quite likely to take up the quarrel and charge too. In other words, in my opinion, the lion avoids trouble when he can, not from cowardice but from essential indolence or good nature; but does not need to be cornered* to fight to the death when in his mind his dignity is sufficiently assailed.
*This is an important distinction in estimating the inherent courage of man or beast. Even a mouse will fight when cornered.
For of all dangerous beasts the lion, when once aroused, will alone face odds to the end. The rhinoceros, the elephant, and even the buffalo can often be turned aside by a shot. A lion almost always charges home.* Slower and slower he comes, as the bullets strike; but he comes, until at last he may be just hitching himself along, his face to the enemy, his fierce spirit undaunted. When finally he rolls over, he bites the earth in great mouthfuls; and so passes fighting to the last. The death of a lion is a fine sight.
*I seem to be generalizing here, but all these conclusions must be understood to take into consideration the liability of individual variation.
No, I must confess, to me the lion is an object of great respect; and so, I gather, he is to all who have had really extensive experience. Those like Leslie Tarleton, Lord Delamere, W. N. MacMillan, Baron von Bronsart, the Hills, Sir Alfred Pease, who are great lion men, all concede to the lion a courage and tenacity unequalled by any other living beast. My own experience is of course nothing as compared to that of these men. Yet I saw in my nine months afield seventy-one lions. None of these offered to attack when unwounded or not annoyed. On the other hand, only one turned tail once the battle was on, and she proved to be a three quarters grown lioness, sick and out of condition.
It is of course indubitable that where lions have been much shot they become warier in the matter of keeping out of trouble. They retire to cover earlier in the morning, and they keep more than a perfunctory outlook for the casual human being. When hunters first began to go into the Sotik the lions there would stand imperturbable, staring at the intruder with curiosity or indifference. Now they have learned that such performances are not healthy-and they have probably satisfied their curiosity. But neither in the Sotik, nor even in the plains around Nairobi itself, does the lion refuse the challenge once it has been put up to him squarely. Nor does he need to be cornered. He charges in quite blithely from the open plain, once convinced that you are really an annoyance.
As to habits! The only sure thing about a lion is his originality. He has more exceptions to his rules than the German language. Men who have been mighty lion hunters for many years, and who have brought to their hunting close observation, can only tell you what a lion may do in certain circumstances. Following very broad principles, they may even predict what he is apt to do, but never what he certainly will do. That is one thing that makes lion hunting interesting.
In general, then, the lion frequents that part of the country where feed the great game herds. From them he takes his toll by night, retiring during the day into the shallow ravines, the brush patches, or the rocky little buttes. I have, however, seen lions miles from game, slumbering peacefully atop an ant hill. Indeed, occasionally, a pack of lions likes to live high in the tall-grass ridges where every hunt will mean for them a four- or five-mile jaunt out and back again. He needs water, after feeding, and so rarely gets farther than eight or ten miles from that necessity.
He hunts at night. This is as nearly invariable a rule as can be formulated in regard to lions. Yet once, and perhaps twice, I saw lionesses stalking through tall grass as early as three o'clock in the afternoon. This eagerness may, or may not, have had to do with the possession of hungry cubs. The lion's customary harmlessness in the daytime is best evidenced, however, by the comparative indifference of the game to his presence then. From a hill we watched three of these beasts wandering leisurely across the plains below. A herd of kongonis feeding directly in their path, merely moved aside right and left, quite deliberately, to leave a passage fifty yards or so wide, but otherwise paid not the slightest attention. I have several times seen this incident, or a modification of it. And yet, conversely, on a number of occasions we have received our first intimation of the presence of lions by the wild stampeding of the game away from a certain spot.
However, the most of his hunting is done by dark. Between the hours of sundown and nine o'clock he and his comrades may be heard uttering the deep coughing grunt typical of this time of night. These curious, short, far-sounding calls may be mere evidences of intention, or they may be a sort of signal by means of which the various hunters keep in touch. After a little they cease. Then one is quite likely to hear the petulant, alarmed barking of zebra, or to feel the vibrations of many hoofs. There is a sense of hurried, flurried uneasiness abroad on the veldt.
The lion generally springs on his prey from behind or a little off the quarter. By the impetus his own weight he hurls his victim forward, doubling its head under, and very neatly breaking its neck. I have never seen this done, but the process has been well observed and attested; and certainly, of the many hundreds of lion kills I have taken the pains to inspect, the majority had had their necks broken. Sometimes, but apparently more rarely, the lion kills its prey by a bite in the back of the neck. I have seen zebra killed in this fashion, but never any of the buck. It may be possible that the lack of horns makes it more difficult to break a zebra's neck because of the corresponding lack of leverage when its head hits the ground sidewise; the instances I have noted may have been those in which the lion's spring landed too far back to throw the victim properly; or perhaps they were merely examples of the great variability in the habits of felis leo.
Once the kill is made, the lion disembowels the beast very neatly indeed, and drags the entrails a few feet out of the way. He then eats what he wants, and, curiously enough, seems often to be very fond of the skin. In fact, lacking other evidence, it is occasionally possible to identify a kill as being that of a lion by noticing whether any considerable portion of the hide has been devoured. After eating he drinks. Then he is likely to do one of two things: either he returns to cover near the carcass and lies down, or he wanders slowly and with satisfaction toward his happy home. In the latter case the hyenas, jackals, and carrion birds seize their chance. The astute hunter can often diagnose the case by the general actions and demeanour of these camp followers. A half dozen sour and disgusted looking hyenas seated on their haunches at scattered intervals, and treefuls of mournfully humpbacked vultures sunk in sadness, indicate that the lion has decided to save the rest of his zebra until to-morrow and is not far away. On the other hand, a grand flapping, snarling Kilkenny-fair of an aggregation swirling about one spot in the grass means that the principal actor has gone home.
It is ordinarily useless to expect to see the lion actually on his prey. The feeding is done before dawn, after which the lion enjoys stretching out in the open until the sun is well up, and then retiring to the nearest available cover. Still, at the risk of seeming to be perpetually qualifying, I must instance finding three lions actually on the stale carcass of a waterbuck at eleven o'clock in the morning of a piping hot day! In an undisturbed country, or one not much hunted, the early morning hours up to say nine o'clock are quite likely to show you lions sauntering leisurely across the open plains toward their lairs. They go a little, stop a little, yawn, sit down a while, and gradually work their way home. At those times you come upon them unexpectedly face to face, or, seeing them from afar, ride them down in a glorious gallop. Where the country has been much hunted, however, the lion learns to abandon his kill and seek shelter before daylight, and is almost never seen abroad. Then one must depend on happening upon him in his cover.
In the actual hunting of his game the lion is apparently very clever. He understands the value of cooperation. Two or more will manoeuvre very skilfully to give a third the chance to make an effective spring; whereupon the three will share the kill. In a rough country, or one otherwise favourable to the method, a pack of lions will often deliberately drive game into narrow ravines or cul de sacs where the killers are waiting.
At such times the man favoured by the chance of an encampment within five miles or so can hear a lion's roar.
Otherwise I doubt if he is apt often to get the full-voiced, genuine article. The peculiar questioning cough of early evening is resonant and deep in vibration, but it is a call rather than a roar. No lion is fool enough to make a noise when he is stalking. Then afterward, when full fed, individuals may open up a few times, but only a few times, in sheer satisfaction, apparently, at being well fed. The menagerie row at feeding time, formidable as it sounds within the echoing walls, is only a mild and gentle hint. But when seven or eight lions roar merely to see how much noise they can make, as when driving game, or trying to stampede your oxen on a wagon trip, the effect is something tremendous. The very substance of the ground vibrates; the air shakes. I can only compare it to the effect of a very large deep organ in a very small church. There is something genuinely awe-inspiring about it; and when the repeated volleys rumble into silence, one can imagine the veldt crouched in a rigid terror that shall endure.