"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.
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
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
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
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
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
18 MAR 54
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.