The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XI. Lions Again
As to the dangers of lion hunting it is also difficult to write. There is no question that a cool man, using good judgment as to just what he can or cannot do, should be able to cope with lion situations. The modern rifle is capable of stopping the beast, provided the bullet goes to the right spot. The right spot is large enough to be easy to hit, if the shooter keeps cool. Our definition of a cool man must comprise the elements of steady nerves under super-excitement, the ability to think quickly and clearly, and the mildly strategic quality of being able to make the best use of awkward circumstances. Such a man, barring sheer accidents, should be able to hunt lions with absolute certainty for just as long as he does not get careless, slipshod or over-confident. Accidents-real accidents, not merely unexpected happenings-are hardly to be counted. They can occur in your own house.
But to the man not temperamentally qualified, lion shooting is dangerous enough. The lion, when he takes the offensive, intends to get his antagonist. Having made up his mind to that, he charges home, generally at great speed. The realization that it is the man's life or the beast's is disconcerting. Also the charging lion is a spectacle much more awe-inspiring in reality than the most vivid imagination can predict. He looks very large, very determined, and has uttered certain rumbling, blood-curdling threats as to what he is going to do about it. It suddenly seems most undesirable to allow that lion to come any closer, not even an inch! A hasty, nervous shot misses-
An unwounded lion charging from a distance is said to start rather slowly, and to increase his pace only as he closes. Personally I have never been charged by an unwounded beast, but I can testify that the wounded animal comes very fast. Cuninghame puts the rate at about seven seconds to the hundred yards. Certainly I should say that a man charged from fifty yards or so would have little chance for a second shot, provided he missed the first. A hit seemed, in my experience, to the animal, by sheer force of impact, long enough to permit me to throw in another cartridge. A lioness thus took four frontal bullets starting at about sixty yards. An initial miss would probably have permitted her to close.
Here, as can be seen, is a great source of danger to a flurried or nervous beginner. He does not want that lion to get an inch nearer; he fires at too long a range, misses, and is killed or mauled before he can reload. This happened precisely so to two young friends of MacMillan. They were armed with double-rifles, let them off hastily as the beast started at them from two hundred yards, and never got another chance. If they had possessed the experience to have waited until the lion had come within fifty yards they would have had the almost certainty of four barrels at close range. Though I have seen a lion missed clean well inside those limits.
From such performances are so-called lion accidents built. During my stay in Africa I heard of six white men being killed by lions, and a number of others mauled. As far as possible I tried to determine the facts of each case. In every instance the trouble followed either foolishness or loss of nerve. I believe I should be quite safe in saying that from identically the same circumstances any of the good lion men-Tarleton, Lord Delamere, the Hills, and others-would have extricated themselves unharmed.
This does not mean that accidents may not happen. Rifles jam, but generally because of flurried manipulation! One may unexpectedly meet the lion at too close quarters; a foot may slip, or a cartridge prove defective. So may one fall downstairs or bump one's head in the dark. Sufficient forethought and alertness and readiness would go far in either case to prevent bad results.
The wounded beast, of course, offers the most interesting problem to the lion hunter. If it sees the hunter, it is likely to charge him at once. If hit while making off, however, it is more apt to take cover. Then one must summon all his good sense and nerve to get it out. No rules can be given for this; nor am I trying to write a text book for lion hunters. Any good lion hunter knows a lot more about it than I do. But always a man must keep in mind three things: that a lion can hide in cover so short that it seems to the novice as though a jack-rabbit would find scant concealment there; that he charges like lightning, and that he can spring about fifteen feet. This spring, coming unexpectedly from an unseen beast, is about impossible to avoid. Sheer luck may land a fatal shot; but even then the lion will probably do his damage before he dies. The rush from a short distance a good quick shot ought to be able to cope with.
Therefore the wise hunter assures himself of at least twenty feet-preferably more-of neutral zone all about him. No matter how long it takes, he determines absolutely that the lion is not within that distance. The rest is alertness and quickness.
As I have said, the amount of cover necessary to conceal a lion is astonishingly small. He can flatten himself out surprisingly; and his tawny colour blends so well with the brown grasses that he is practically invisible. A practised man does not, of course, look for lions at all. He is after unusual small patches, especially the black ear tips or the black of the mane. Once guessed at, it is interesting to see how quickly the hitherto unsuspected animal sketches itself out in the cover.
I should, before passing on to another aspect of the matter, mention the dangerous poisons carried by the lion's claws. Often men have died from the most trivial surface wounds. The grooves of the claws carry putrefying meat from the kills. Every sensible man in a lion country carries a small syringe, and either permanganate or carbolic. And those mild little remedies he uses full strength!
The great and overwhelming advantage is of course with the hunter. He possesses as deadly a weapon: and that weapon will kill at a distance. This is proper, I think. There are more lions than hunters; and, from our point of view, the man is more important than the beast. The game is not too hazardous. By that I mean that, barring sheer accident, a man is sure to come out all right provided he does accurately the right thing. In other words, it is a dangerous game of skill, but it does not possess the blind danger of a forest in a hurricane, say. Furthermore, it is a game that no man need play unless he wants to. In the lion country he may go about his business-daytime business-as though he were home at the farm.
Such being the case, may I be pardoned for intruding one of my own small ethical ideas at this point, with the full realization that it depends upon an entirely personal point of view. As far as my own case goes, I consider it poor sportsmanship ever to refuse a lion-chance merely because the advantages are not all in my favour. After all, lion hunting is on a different plane from ordinary shooting: it is a challenge to war, a deliberate seeking for mortal combat. Is it not just a little shameful to pot old felis leo at long range, in the open, near his kill, and wherever we have him at an advantage-nine times, and then to back out because that advantage is for once not so marked? I have so often heard the phrase, "I let him (or them) alone. It was not good enough," meaning that the game looked a little risky.
Do not misunderstand. I am not advising that you bull ahead into the long grass, or that alone you open fire on a half dozen lions in easy range. Kind providence endowed you with strategy, and certainly you should never go in where there is no show for you to use your weapon effectively. But occasionally the odds will be against you and you will be called upon to take more or less of a chance. I do not think it is quite square to quit playing merely because for once your opponent has been dealt the better cards. If here are too many of them see if you cannot manoeuvre them; if the grass is long, try every means in your power to get them out. Stay with them. If finally you fail, you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that circumstances alone have defeated you. If you do not like that sort of a game, stay out of it entirely.