THE lion is, and always has been, a nucleus of undying interest. In him are combined many of the qualities which most strongly appeal to the primitive in man — to those fundamentals of human nature which, although much overlaid by the veneer of conventionality, are never far from the surface. Among such qualities are vast strength and indomitable courage, beauty, majesty, and dignity, ferocity and destructiveness. Ever since man learned to record his thoughts, the lion has been the theme of epic and of song. In Arabic literature he has been designated by nearly seven hundred terms. In the Homeric poems he is mentioned over sixty times, and, whenever his habits or appearance are referred to, the references not only indicate close and accurate observation, but prove that the nature and habits of the lion, which was evidently plentiful in the Asia Minor of Homer’s day, correspond with those of the lion now existing in Africa, Mesopotamia, and India.
There is one exception to this rule, namely, the statement that the lion cracks marrow-bones. Now, this is a process for which his teeth are quite unfitted; nor have I ever heard or read of a lion crushing any bones except the skulls or necks of men and the smaller animals; and then only in the process of attack. The observations of Homer are as a rule so minutely correct that one wonders whether the lion with which he was familiar was not the great cavelion which formerly abounded in Europe and Asia, and from which the mighty maned cat of to-day is descended. The latter possesses a rudimentary pre-molar which suggests that his much mightier ancestor may have had a somewhat different dentition.
Some most interesting references to the European lion — which survived in Thessaly until well into the fourth century A.D., when the last survivors were captured in nets to supply the needs of the Roman Arena — are to be found in the accounts of the experiences of the army of Xerxes after it crossed the Hellespont. It is related by Pausanias and others that, while crossing the mountains of Thrace, lions attacked and ravaged the camel transport train. Curiously enough, the other animals, such as asses and oxen, were not interfered with. This circumstance, which is apparently well authenticated, is somewhat curious in view of the fact that the European lion could never previously have come into contact with the camel.
In the games of the Roman Arena lions formed an important feature, as many as five hundred being exhibited at a time. Sometimes they were ruthlessly slaughtered — to illustrate the skill of a Commodus or to glut the blood-lust of the spectators. But the taming and training of these mighty cats was also a specialty in the Rome of the later Cæsars. One of the arena spectacles consisted of letting loose lions and hares together, the lions being trained to catch the hares and deliver them unhurt to their keepers.
Alexander the Great, as well as many of the ancient eastern kings, kept tame lions which roamed at large through their palaces. This practice has been continued down to contemporary times by the sovereigns of Abyssinia; and in parts of Algeria tamed and blinded lions are still led about and used for the purpose of exorcising evil spirits. In the later Middle Ages lions and leopards were utilized in Milan and other Italian cities for the execution of criminals.
The family life of the lion, although lived in the open, is but little understood. One forms theories on the subject from time to time, only to have them overthrown by subsequent experience. As a matter of fact, no tenable theory as to how the lion family is constituted stands to-day. One may meet a troop of five, four of which are males, hunting amicably together. In another troop of the same number the proportion of the sexes may be reversed. Troops numbering as many as forty have been observed; nevertheless, a troop numbering more than ten is seldom seen. It is probable that the larger aggregations are temporary; but that the smaller associations, if not permanent, often last for several seasons, is fairly certain. Natives living in lion-infested areas often know the various troops operating in the vicinity, and will describe accurately the individuals of which they are composed.
In dealing with lions — as with all animals not fully gregarious — one must allow for numerous exceptions to any rule advanced. With this qualification I will venture to opine that under ordinary circumstances the lioness bears cubs not more frequently than every third year. In this relation I will further venture to advance the theory that in the lion the sexual instinct is weak, slow in developing, and of short duration in proportion to the length of the animal’s life. I have seen at one time or another most of the denizens of the desert fighting for their mates, but never the lion. Lions do fight, often and fiercely enough, but meat appears to be invariably the casus belli. There are several recorded instances of lions killing lionesses and then eating them, and at least one in which a lioness followed her wounded mate to where he had crept to die, and ate him. It is but seldom that an elderly lioness is found to be with young, or to show signs of having recently borne cubs. It is very probable, therefore, that the cub-bearing period of the lioness is much shorter than that of the other cats.
The cubs are born with their eyes open after a gestation period of about fifteen weeks. Their color is variable. Usually it is a dusky mustard mixed with iron gray. But the farther north one goes, the lighter is the color of both the cub and the adult. The body, and more especially the legs, have a number of dark spots, as well as more or less indefinite dark stripes. These possibly indicate a reversion toward the infinitely remote type from which lion, tiger, and leopard are all descended. Most of these markings disappear in respect of the body, but some of the spots almost invariably persist on the paws and the lower sections of the legs. Sometimes one or more of the cubs in a litter will have a dark dorsal stripe; as often as not the individuals forming a litter vary from one another in respect of both ground-color and markings. All, however, have faces very large in proportion to their bulk. The invariable expression is of gravity and sombreness.
The number to the litter varies from two to four. There is evidently considerable mortality among the cubs when they are small. Were it otherwise, according to the well-known law governing the increase of species, lions would, in the days before their only effective enemy in South Africa — the European — appeared, have increased to the limit of their food-supply. This they never did. Yet in early days lions infested certain localities in incredible numbers. When a party of emigrant farmers sojourned at Taba ’Ntshu in the Orange Free State, in 1836, they shot two hundred and forty-nine within the space of a year.
The weaning period of the cub lasts from three to four months. The nursery is usually a patch of reeds or a dense thicket; as a rule, it is near water. The parents generally remain with the cubs by day and hunt by night. When nearly weaned, the youngsters accompany their parents on hunting expeditions. The milk-teeth last for about a year; after they have been shed, and the large canines have developed, the cubs are allowed to assist in the process of killing. If natives happen to be living in the vicinity, now is the time when the little flocks of sheep and goats suffer. The flocks are often attacked in the daytime, and the parent lions look on while the cubs exercise their ’prentice teeth and claws on the defenseless prey. In this manner a flock numbering from twenty to thirty may be destroyed within the space of a few minutes.
After the killing, the cubs are carefully instructed in the art of butchering — a process in which the lion exercises very great care, and which is effected, as will presently be described, according to definite rules. The unskillful work of cubs in this line is often illustrated in the badly mauled and inartistically disemboweled carcasses of impala and other small antelopes.
The general appearance of the adult lion is too well known to need description. Nevertheless, the attitude in which he is usually depicted is one which he hardly ever assumes. No lion stalks along majestically with uplifted head. He may, if surprised but not enraged, stand and assume this attitude for a brief period. His usual gait is a loose slouch, the head being held slightly below the axis of the spine. A cat strolling through shrubbery, and not particularly interested at the moment, reproduces with remarkable exactness the ordinary gait of a lion in the jungle. In fact the lion is just an immense cat — weighing, when adult, over four hundred pounds. He differs from the domestic cat in being more or less constant in color, in having a round instead of a vertical pupil to the eye, a tail with a horny tip covered with black hair, and, in the case of the male, in having a mane. In the items of stature, color, and size of mane there is considerable variation. Some male lions, for instance, are quite maneless. The variations are not dependent on locality: all may be represented in the progeny of one pair. It has, however, been established that the northern lions are as a rule lighter in color, less heavily maned, and of greater stature than those of the south. The mane develops toward the end of the third year. It may be light yellow in color, or almost jet-black.
For strength, fearlessness, and ferocity when enraged, this great cat stands easily first among animals. Selous emphatically asserted that the lion was the hunter’s most dangerous quarry. This has been questioned, but one may infer that those questioning it either lacked experience or else misunderstood the proposition. In the matter of the actual charge, both the buffalo and the leopard are more dangerous — the former because in charging he holds his frontlet nearly horizontal until almost in contact with his enemy, thus practically precluding the possibility of a brain-shot, and at the same time shielding his shoulders with the broad-based horns. Moreover, the buffalo is as active and lithe as a cat, and implacably pursues an enemy until that enemy kills him, or until his terrible points have been fleshed. The leopard is dangerous owing to the smallness of the target he presents and the thunderbolt-swiftness of his rush. But neither the buffalo nor the leopard will spring from the darkness upon sleeping men, nor will they — except under very exceptional circumstances—charge at all, unless provoked.
When a lion is surprised or disturbed at his meat, he will often give an angry growl and bound away toward the nearest available cover. Otherwise he will crouch down, facing the intruder. If he lashes his tail from side to side, or twitches the tip, he is meditating a charge. It is not often that a lion rushes to the attack from a greater distance than a hundred yards. The charge is a series of great springs. In these a length of twenty feet is not unusual, and there are records of this length having been considerably exceeded. The tail is held rigidly almost at right angles to the spine, and the claws are extended. A series of short, thunderous growls are emitted. In his charge the speed of the lion is equal to that of a good horse, but he soon gets winded. Sometimes he pauses within a few yards of his enemy before making the final attack; oftener, however, he charges home. A lioness with young cubs will usually charge without hesitation, if disturbed at close quarters. A wounded lion at bay, with blazing eyes, erected mane, and black tail-tuft spasmodically twitching, is an awesome sight. The head sinks below the level of the shoulders; around it the mane forms a quivering disc. The mouth sets partly open, but there is no ‘snarling,’ such as several writers have described.
Not only are there infinite grades of character and temperament differentiating lion from lion, but each individual is subject to moods which are perplexingly diverse. One troop of lions will run when disturbed, like so many rabbits; another will face the intruder with furious defiance. A lion disturbed at his meat before his appetite has been satisfied will probably charge the intruder, who then has to slay or be slain. But the same lion, full-fed, may scuttle away like a startled antelope.
The dentition of the lion is specialized for meat-eating. The jaws can be moved only up and down; the sectorial or carnassial teeth of the upper and lower jaws work together like a pair of scissors, dividing flesh, skin, and cartilage with ease under stress of the tremendous maxillary muscles. When the mouth is closed the lower canine teeth lie outside the upper ones.
The claws, like those of all the true cats, shew a high degree of specialization. Five are borne on the front, and four on the hind foot. As it is of great importance that the claws should be kept sharp, the latter do not touch the ground when the animal walks. The claw is borne by the last phalangeal bone, and this is attached by elastic ligaments to the penultimate phalanx. These ligaments draw the claw-bearing bone backward until the claw folds into a deep sheath; thus only the soft cushion lying beneath the bone touches the ground. When the claws are brought into action in the process of attack, a flexor muscle, which is attached to the lower surface of the phalanx, overcomes the strain of the ligaments and draws forward the claws which, almost razor-sharp, sink into the flesh of the victim. That the very sharpness of the claws sometimes tends to defeat their object is indicated by the healed-up cicatrices occasionally found on the rumps of buffalo and zebra, which have evidently torn themselves loose from the terrible grip.
There is a further specialization in respect of the claws which merits attention. In the front foot the sheaths lie on the outer side of the phalangeal bone, while in the hind foot the sheath lies above such bone; thus, by a slight coördination, increasing the stability of the foot. As the motive force of the lion’s spring comes from the hind-quarters, the reason for this is obvious.
The eye of a lion emits a fiery yellow light; after death the yellow pales and becomes suffused with green. The blaze emitted by the eye of a wounded lion is appalling. I recall the case of a lioness which was disabled by a shot through the spine: her eyes appeared to emit a real scintillation, such as W. H. Hudson observed in the eyes of the Patagonian owl. It was a manifestation of fury and agony impossible to realize unless actually seen.
It is remarkable how variously the voice of the lion impresses people. Dr. Livingstone compared it to the braying of a donkey — and the lion certainly does on occasion utter tones which might be compared to that of ten donkeys braying simultaneously through a brass trumpet. There is, however, a considerable difference between the wrathful roar and the roar of satisfaction emitted when the lion is replete with meat and is on his way to, or back from, the water-hole. This roar has been perfectly described by Selous in his African Nature Notes: —
When a party of lions are together, perhaps on their way to drink after a meal, one of these will halt and breathe out from its expanded lungs a full-toned note which rolls afar across the silent wilderness. As it draws in its breath for another effort, a second member of the party emulates the leader, and then a third, a fourth and a fifth, perhaps, will join in, and all of them seem to vie with each other as to which can produce the greatest volume of sound; and it is a fact that, at the climax of the roaring of a whole troop of lions, the whole air seems to vibrate and tremble. Of a sudden the grand booming, vibrating notes cease, and are immediately succeeded by a series of short, deep-toned, coughing grunts, which gradually die away to a mere hissing expulsion of the breath. Then not a sound is heard until, after an interval of a few minutes, the grand competitive roaring peals across the lonely veldt once more.
The roar of rage is quite different from the foregoing: it is a raucous, shattering sound, suggestive of an unthinkably huge brass trumpet. This is a sound but seldom uttered; one may occasionally hear it from a lion at his kill when disturbed by a stranger. The note which is probably most frequently heard is a high-pitched boom, sinking to a succession of deep detonating grunts. This is the sound which, at a distance, is difficult to distinguish from the voice of the ostrich. The lion also purrs loudly when enjoying his meat.
When engaged in hunting or stalking his prey, the lion maintains complete silence. The reason underlying the chorus roaring is not clear; it is quite possible that such is meant as a signal to all and sundry of the animal kingdom that the king has dined, and consequently that danger for the time being is at an end. There is no doubt that wild animals lose their dread of the lion after he has fed. It has often struck me that the desert creatures had resigned themselves to the payment of a certain toll or tribute to the desert’s king.
When vast concentrations of game occur, as is the case in localities where the young grass springs up after the veldt has been swept by fire, the lions roam about without concealment and kill as they list, the animals of whom toll is taken exhibiting little or no dread. This, indeed, is a thing which strikes the most superficial observer. Major Stevenson Hamilton relates an instance of lions rolling about in play on the sand, while a herd of zebras fed unconcernedly close by. And the zebra is the lion’s favorite quarry.
Again, a lion or a leopard will often lie concealed close to a water-hole, to which animals flock in to drink, apparently taking no notice of the presence of their enemy. At length the latter will make the fatal spring. There will be a momentary panic — that is all. After the lion has dragged his victim to the spot, often close by, which he has selected for the feast (for he seldom or never eats where he kills), the animals will recommence drinking with apparent unconcern. Yet the lion has a most fetid smell and this must permeate the whole neighborhood. Wild animals will disregard a lion when the presence of man would send them fleeing in wildest terror.
Each troop of lions appears to have, as a rule, a well-defined range, and it may be that the tremendous sound of its concerted roaring is gratefully regarded by other animals as the signal that for the time being danger is at an end within certain limits. When hunters frequent a neighborhood, the lions therein tend to become comparatively silent; in my experience the concerted roaring then ceases altogether. I do not think the lion feeds more than once in three days; it is probable that he often goes five without killing. It is fairly certain that, the longer his fast, the worse the lion’s temper becomes.
The manifestations of fear on the part of domesticated animals in the vicinity of the lion are various and perplexing. According to my experience donkeys shew no alarm whatsoever. The horse is said to sense the presence of the lion more quickly than any other animal — but on this point I cannot speak from personal experience. Oxen on some occasions manifest the direst panic; on others, none whatever. Usually, when tied to the yoke, if a lion roars within a radius of a few hundred yards, they stop chewing the cud and emit deep, heavy sighs. On one occasion I traveled over a long stretch of country in which lions were plentiful; night after night they roared or grunted around our camp, usually without any manifestation of distress from the cattle. After leaving the lion country we crossed a high, bare plateau. Late one night a pack of wild dogs — pursuing what was probably an eland — passed in full cry. This was very unusual, for the wild dog nearly always hunts silently. The oxen literally went mad with terror; they dragged the wagon, to the chain of which they were tied by the horns, for a considerable distance. Then they fell into a struggling, tangled heap from which it was found impossible to extricate them until after day had broken.
Dogs act in a lion’s vicinity according to their individuality. One will rush barking around the enemy, keeping just beyond the range of the ripping claws; another will creep whimpering to its master’s heels.
It is when game is comparatively scarce, after one of those sudden and often unaccountable migrations which are so frequent, that the lion’s skill as a hunter is best evinced. A troop of lions will follow the spoor of a herd of buffalo or zebra night and day, working by scent or by sight, as circumstances require. When the herd is overtaken, the more powerful members of the troop will station themselves at some suitable spot down the wind, while the others startle the quarry and stampede it toward the ambush.
The lion usually kills a large animal, such as an ox, a buffalo cow, or one of the greater antelopes (the buffalo bull is seldom tackled by a single lion), by springing at its side, — usually the left, — grasping the nose with one taloned paw and the upper part of the shoulder with the other, and drawing the head down and sideways. This dislocates the neck — or possibly the dislocation is caused by the animal falling forward to the ground, as, after a mad plunge forward, it invariably does if the grip be true. Smaller animals are usually killed by a bite at the back of the neck, close to the skull. In the case of man, when stalked at night or taken unawares, the skull is usually the part bitten; but if a man be lying asleep when pounced upon, the shoulder, being prominent, is often mistaken for the head. When a man is attacked by a charging lion, he is usually caught low down between the paws,— which, with talons extended, work toward each other,— then flung to the ground and gripped at the shoulder by the terrible jaws. A lion which has taken definitely to man-eating will scrape the skin from exposed portions of his victim’s body, and greedily suck up the exuding blood.
The lion is a most skilful butcher. He opens the carcass of his kill at the flank, where the skin is thinnest, eating the layers of skin and flesh covering the paunch, also the soft ends of the ribs and the cartilages of the thorax. Then he will deftly and neatly remove the viscera without breaking the paunch — a feat none too easy even when undertaken by an experienced hunter with a sharp knife. After eating the liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs, together with any fat distributed among the viscera, he will carry the paunch and entrails to a distance of between eight and fifteen yards, and cover them with sand, grass, or light bushes. Returning to the carcass, he will attack the latter behind, biting out big gobbets from the inside of the thighs; these are swallowed whole, skin and all.
There are few experiences more horrifying than that of listening to the agonized bellowing of a buffalo being pulled down by a troop of lions. The attack is made from behind or at the sides, and the killing is a long and cruel business. I have a vivid recollection of an incident of this kind which happened some years ago. The scene was a valley in the northern section of the present Sabi Game Reserve, between the Letaba and Singwitzi rivers. The season was September; the whole country had been burned off two months before, and the young grass had sprung up luxuriantly. A great migration of miscellaneous game from the south had recently taken place, so that the number and variety of wild animals in the vicinity was indescribable. We had moved up a narrow valley which opened out into an amphitheatre, two thirds of the periphery of which was precipitous, the remainder being a low ridge. This we had done with the view of getting away from the pandemoniacal noises which had made sleep impossible near the river on the previous night.
The wind was blowing gently up the valley and over the ridge. Soon after darkness fell, a herd of buffalo burst over the latter, and, on seeing our fire, crashed down through the scrub to their left. Immediately a most appalling chorus of bellowing and roaring broke forth; it was evident that a troop of lions had been in ambush on the top of the ridge. Two large buffalos, a bull and a cow (as we afterwards ascertained), had been attacked.
Than the bellowing of the stricken creatures, nothing more suggestive of mortal agony and despair could be imagined. Mingled with it could be heard the savage growling and roaring of the attacking lions. The tremendous volume of clamor was redoubled by the sounding-board formed by the crescent-shaped cliff wall. It was some twenty minutes before the tragedy ended; then the bellowings became fainter and fainter, until they ended in agonized moans. The carcasses were dragged a short distance down the valley and there eaten.
The spoor examined next day made it clear that at least ten lions had taken part in the killing. It was judged that about five were adult, three nearly fulland two about half-grown. The impression left was that the adult lions had pulled the victims down and then stood by, roaring instructions or encouragement, while the youngsters did the killing. This took place within less than two hundred yards of our camp, where a strong fire was blazing.
Lions — at all events, those in their period of full vigor, and where game is plentiful — as a rule kill their own meat. They will, however, often eat of a carcass discovered by vultures, locating it, often from a great distance, by watching the birds descending from the sky. There is no doubt whatever that the lion occasionally develops a taste for absolute carrion. Some years ago I was one of a party marooned at a water-place — the only one within a circle of more than thirty miles’ radius. Here, owing to an unseasonable shower of rain, our fly-stung cattle collapsed suddenly. Although all the cattle were affected, they did not all die at the same time: some lingered along for several weeks. At the bovine Golgotha to which the wretched creatures were driven (we could not spare ammunition for the purpose of shooting them), I saw more than once lions gorging on the putrid carcasses, while living cattle, to be had for the killing, were standing within a few yards, too weak to move.
The most gruesome experience in connection with lions that I ever heard of, happened as follows. A party of Frenchmen, eight in number, started from the northeastern Transvaal with the intention of reaching Delagoa Bay. They traveled with a light wagon, drawn by ten oxen. The country teemed with game, so ammunition was extravagantly expended. Soon after crossing the Crocodile River the oxen began to sicken from the bite of the tsetse fly. The party pushed on to the Lebomba Range, but the weakened oxen collapsed at the first ascent, and so were driven aside, down wind, to die.
By this time seven out of the eight men were down with fever. The eighth, a man named Alexandre,whose strength and stature were gigantic, seemed to be immune. This was fortunate, for the nearest water was more than seven miles away, and to the spring Alexandre used daily to wend his way, carrying the only available vessels — two small demijohns.
I and my party happened upon the derelict wagon quite by accident. This was nearly six weeks after the oxen had collapsed.
It was an uncanny experience. The wagon stood in a forest glade at the mouth of a steep gorge. Alexandre was absent on a water-fetching trip. Four men, in an advanced stage of fever, lay raving under the wagon. A terrible stench pervaded the neighborhood. The principal sources of this were three mounds close by, under which lay the remains of three men who had succumbed. The details were too shocking to describe. The lions had over and over again disinterred the bodies; ghastly evidences of this abounded; it usually happened by day. The lions grew so bold that they more than once came close to the sick men and sniffed at them. One of the party owned a little dog which, when the lions came close, was wont to run for protection to its master. One morning a lioness deliberately stalked in among the sick men, seized the dog, and carried it off. The rescue happened just in the nick of time: the spring was rapidly drying up, and Alexandre had only about a dozen cartridges left.
One remarkable circumstance was that, when Alexandre was in the vicinity of the wagons, the lions seldom or never approached. It was very curious that they never attacked the sick men, of whom they evidently had no fear. Possibly the raging fever from which the poor creatures were suffering produced some odor which made the lions uneasy .
The designation ‘King of Beasts’ is no misnomer: the lion is undoubtedly the monarch of the desert — a monarch ruling as human monarchs once did, by virtue of his own royal right, unhampered by any constitutional checks; giving full play to moods of inconsistency and caprice. It cannot be too emphatically urged that the lion is bound by no rules — that what are often looked upon as his most fixed habits are disregarded when occasion demands. Until recently it was looked upon as axiomatic that no lion — with the exception of cubs which occasionally climb up a sloping trunk — ever ascended a tree. Now, however, we know that in certain localities the lions ascend trees and attack native gatherers of gum.
It is believed that, when game is plentiful, they will never interfere with men or their belongings in the daytime. Yet I know of a case when a troop attacked a span of oxen at eleven o’clock in the forenoon, in the immediate vicinity of a camp; this in a country teeming with game. The man-eater is, of course, an abnormal creature. As a rule he is an old brute who has lost his strength and whose teeth and claws have been blunted. Yet there are several authentic cases of lions in the prime of life and in the fulness of their strength taking to an exclusive human diet. When the Zulu power, under the terrible Tshaka, turned Southeastern Africa into a shamble a century ago, one large tribe, the Amangwané, wandered as homeless fugitives over the high plains of what is now the Orange Free State for more than eight years. During the whole of this awful pilgrimage they were attended by troops of man-eaters, who regularly levied toll. After a time the wretched people accepted this as a matter of course.
Around the camp-fire the native ‘boys’ may be feasting and chatting merrily, bantering each other over the incidents of the day just past. Not a breath of wind stirs; the flames and smoke ascend like a column. Overhead the stars seem to lean from the cloudless sky. Hark! a sinister sound — a deep note sinking to a lower depth, falling at length to a syncopated bass utterance deep and vast as an earthgroan ; ceasing at length in a cavernous sigh. In an instant all conversation stops; each sweeps a rapid glance around, reading the reflex of his own alarm in every strained countenance.
It is under such circumstances that the White Man is apt to feel conceited; his momentary thrill of alarm ceases under the reflection that the lion is rarely dangerous when articulate. He endeavors to hearten his retainers with a jest, treating their distress with good-natured contempt. Ah, but he forgets that, for countless generations, the ancestors of that mighty, ruthless creature whose awful voice sets the firmament throbbing, has been to the South African native the ubiquitous and invincible dealer of death and destruction.
But it is in the season when thunderstorms are prevalent that lions are most terrifying to those trespassing upon their domain. No camp-fire can survive those deluges, which are frequent during certain seasons in Southeastern Africa. When the dismayed bearers draw closely around the flooded hearth, sitting on their loads and endeavoring to cover themselves with the bushes chopped down before the darkness fell, the White Man, rifle in hand, takes his place in the centre — head and shoulders over the crouching crowd. He glances apprehensively from side to side as the livid, blue-tinted lightning flares through the hissing rain-torrent — fearful of what he may see, more fearful of that which may come hurtling out of the chaos from the side without the range of his vision.
It is under such circumstances that most fatalities take place. Once, on such a night, and in a locality where lions were so scarce as to be almost negligible, I was bending over a flooded fire place, endeavoring to extract some comfort for my chilled hands from stones not yet quite cold. By a most unusual chance I had acquired a donkey two days earlier. This animal was tied to a tree about three yards away. Two lions sprang upon the unhappy creature, dragged it to a spot behind a screen of bushes close by, and there ate it. Every now and then they stopped feasting and uttered the most appalling roars. These were probably intended as a (quite unnecessary) warning to me to refrain from interference. I am quite sure that it was nothing but the accident of the donkey’s presence which saved my life.
The lion has no enemies except man; nevertheless, his Achilles’ heel exists; it
is comprised in his love for porcupine flesh. It is probable that quite a large number of lions lose their lives through becoming disabled by the porcupine’s quills sticking into their feet, and occasionally in their throats. In localities where porcupines abound, it is not at all uncommon to find a lion in the prime of life which has been reduced to a condition of pitiful emaciation owing to this cause. A few years ago I traveled through the eastern section of the Kalihari Desert. At a place where a number of shallow gorges were filled with dense thickets of a shrub full of needle-sharp, curved thorns, I noticed a very peculiar spoor. This suggested the progress of some animal shod with small elongated pillows. My Hottentot guide assured me that these were the tracks of lions which lived in the thicket and whose feet had become disabled and distorted through treading on and picking up thorns. He added that the lions were in very poor condition and that they lived ‘by hunting mice’!
In spite of the fact that individual lions are apt to acquire degrading habits, there can be no doubt that it was a true instinct which prompted man to select the lion as the emblem of high courage, majesty, and power. Although many of his habits are cruel, the cruelty is not intentional, nor is it worse, probably, than that inflicted by man, no less upon his own species than upon other animals. There is no evidence indicating that the lion enjoys the infliction of pain, as many degenerate humans do. And when the species becomes extinct, as within a comparatively short space it is fated to do under the stress of increasing population, the world will be the poorer.