British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by E.W. Bult
Mkango - The Lion
Nyasaland Stamp
"Leopards", said Mike Costello, as he came into my office holding a message form. "This signal, which has come in from a railway station down on the lower Shire river, says leopards are taking animals of people living in the area and they want police to come and kill them".

The year was 1954. Costello and I were nearing the end of our first three-year tour of duty as junior officers of the Nyasaland Police, and still had much to learn about the territory and its people. Like most young expatriates, however, the prospect of big game hunting offered excitement not to be missed, and we began making preparations for a trip down the escarpment to the tiny station of Lirangwe, from whence the signal had been sent.

As Station Officer I controlled the armoury keys and, together, we selected the firearms which we would take for the hunt, which we arranged for the following weekend. Costello chose a double-barrelled shotgun with a supply of LG cartridges, while I decided on the only longer range weapon available, a .303 SMLE rifle with several clips of ammunition. We taped hand flashlights onto our guns as we knew our best prospects of seeing leopard would be at night.

With plenty of sandwiches, cold drinks, and coffee for the anticipated long wait at night, we left Blantyre by car and reached Lirangwe station about mid-afternoon; the station clerk directed us to the village where the incidents had occurred. His words of encouragement "The place is a little bit near" hardly prepared us for a very hot march of about four or five miles along winding tracks between shoulder high grass and sparse bush.

Mkango - The Lion
Nyasaland Police
The sun was already below the level of the taller trees near the village when we arrived. We were greeted by people whose goats had been taken by an animal which was clearly powerful; it had torn down the pole and mud-plastered walls of the khola where the stock were kept at night. Huge pug marks were evident in the softer ground beside a nearby stream. The villagers were sure that it was a nyalugwe (leopard) which had begun nightly visits to plunder their stocks.

My colleague and I decided to have a fowl pegged in the centre of a clearing and to await the arrival of the beast in a couple of trees which were conveniently situated beside the cleared area. As night fell Costello and I bade "good night" to the villagers, climbed up to our respective positions, tested our spotlights by aligning our guns on the unfortunate fowl, then prepared for a long, silent wait for sudden action.

It was not long before rain began falling; at first a few spots, then gradually increasing to a steady downpour. Now and then we jabbed a shaft of light at the centre of our attention, when a real or imagined sound broke through the constant spattering and dripping of the rain. Nothing was spoken between us for what seemed hours until, in almost perfect unison, we called to each other to seek agreement upon a return to the car for coffee and a change of clothing. Needless to say, agreement was speedily reached and, stiffly, we climbed down from our perches and began the long walk to our vehicle.

Refreshed, and once more in dry clothing, we started on our return to the village in order to advise the owner of the fowl that we had decided against further hunting that night. Neither Costello nor I wished to spend a moment longer in the fork of a tree, waiting under a cold shower for an event which in all likelihood would not occur.

The rain stopped as we neared the half-way point between the car and the village. Shortly after, in the light of my spot lamp, I saw what I believed was a hyena, crossing the path about 25 yards ahead. The beast appeared to have the distinctive slope from the shoulders down to the hindlegs. I raised my rifle and fired two rounds. Costello, who was following, stepped forward and loosed one round from the shotgun.

We went forward together and found, beside the path, a jackal, mortally wounded apparently by the shotgun. Costello's second barrel was used to deliver a coup de grace.

It was then, as the rain began to fall with increased force, the two intrepid hunters assessed their position. Having determined not to pursue further their attempt to bag a leopard, all ammunition had been left in the car, with the exception of one cartridge in each barrel of Costello's 12 gauge, and one clip of five rounds in my rifle. Here we were, in the middle of (literally) darkest Africa, with only three rounds of .303 ammunition for the one rifle. Prudence dictated that the fowl would have to take its chances for the remainder of the night, and we went back to the car and to beds in Blantyre.

The telegram which arrived at Blantyre Police Station some ten days later is still in my possession and reads as follows:

NYASALAND POST OFFICE TELEGRAPHS
BLANTYRE TELS
18 MAR 54
NYASALAND

ZB 136 SG EM S/CLERK LIRANGWE TO XL POLICE BLANTYRE
LION ROUNDING STATION FROM 18/30 HRS ONE WAS KILLED
ON 6/3/54 BY POLICE OFFICER STILL THERE IS ANOTHER
GIVING TROUBLE FROM 1830 HRS UPWARDS XY PLEASE
ARRANGE SOME BODY TO STATION AND VILLAGE TO NOTE
THAT NO BODY WILL BE AT FACE POINT AT THAT TIME X
ADDRESSED WARDEN T S LIMBE AND POLICE BLANTYRE

Costello and I were vastly amused that the villagers seemed to have such confidence in the police that three shots fired in the night could indicate the killing of a lion. The prospect of another big game hunting expedition, this time after lion, whetted our appetite for further adventure and, rather more appropriately armed on this occasion, we set off once more for the lower river area.

We were escorted from Lirangwe station by an excited man to the same village as that which had received us earlier. Local residents welcomed us and hailed us with much respect, telling us how they had heard our shots and, next day, found the dead lion. At first we played along with them in the assumption that some other misfortune must have overtaken the animal. Other hunters had been active in the area perhaps? No, the villagers were adamant, nobody but ourselves had been around - and when people in the remote areas said that no strangers were there one could be sure that such was indeed the case.

We were still trying to seek an answer to the riddle when one of the villagers offered to lead us to the site where the dead lion had been found. He told us, on the way, that the lion had a wound behind the left ear and another in the side of the chest. As we came to the place where the jackal had been shot our guide turned off the path and, a few yards into the bush showed us the remains of what was once a fully grown male lion with jet black mane and huge foreleg bones. Very little apart from those fragments remained: indeed it is quite surprising that even those traces were present ten days or so after discovery. Hyenas and other scavengers make short work of clearing up.

It was clear to us then what had happened that night out there in the rain. It was not a hyena which I had seen and fired at, but the lion. The jackal which Costello had killed had been following the lion to scavenge upon its kill. We said nothing more to each other until, having explained to our new friends of the village that lion killing was really the job of the Game Department, we returned to our vehicle, resolved not to tempt fate a second time.

Colonial Map
1959 Nyasaland Map
Colony Profile
Nyasaland
Link
Nyasaland Police Association
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 73: April 1997


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