from The Detroit Free Press

HOME   Fatal lion attack pits town against province 

S. Africans laud beast some view as predators 


November 4, 1999

Animal Attack

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MARLOTH PARK, South Africa -- No one knows the name of the man who was devoured recently near Nyala Street. The lions left only his head, one foot (still in its shoe), a baseball cap, and a solar panel stolen from a nearby house. 

"There were so few leftovers, we couldn't identify him," said Andre Lubbe, the clerk of this vacation town bordering Kruger National Park. "We suspect he was an illegal immigrant from Mozambique, a burglar."

The provincial government responded by capturing and killing three lions suspected of being man-eaters in Marloth Park, a town where wild animals migrate easily from the famous Kruger game park next door.

Residents of the expensive thatched vacation homes in Marloth Park were outraged. Not by the death of the unknown man, but by the fate of the lions.

"A lot of people feel the lions are good watchdogs," said Patrick Buckmaster, the chairman of the town council. He said residents whose weekend homes are easy prey for burglars felt most strongly about protecting the lions.

The reaction to the lion attack touched off a furor. Provincial wildlife officials, accustomed to pleas to kill predators that stray from game parks, couldn't recall another time when residents wanted to save lions that had eaten a human.

"I don't think half the people realize the threat they face from lions in that area," said Ertjies Rohm, an investigator for the Mpumalanga Province Parks Board. "Once an animal has killed a human and eaten it, the chances that he will do it again are much greater." 

And, as is often the case in South Africa, the issue of race quickly entered the debate.

The residents of Marloth Park are almost all white, affluent and accustomed to driving the dirt roads in cars and trucks, relatively safe from preying lions. But black workers on nearby farms and in Marloth Park can't afford cars and must walk or bike miles through lion territory to reach the nearest grocery store. Provincial government officials suggest privately that the town would react differently if a white person had been killed.

So does Sydney Maziya, 29, a black Marloth Park ranger who was attacked by a lion last year. He spent three weeks recovering in a hospital.

"One of these days, even the white children could be in that situation," Maziya said recently. "Then, are they going to put out those pamphlets saying the lions should be saved?"

Town officials now argue their concern for the lions' welfare is based on their love for wildlife conservation rather than a fondness for feline security guards.

Still, many people have a cavalier attitude about the threat to human life.

Councilman Leslie Deakin, noting that lions had demonstrated a preference for victims on bicycles, said some residents had taken to calling black cyclists "meals on wheels."

Lubbe, the town clerk, said, "We are not a racist place. That makes me so sorry that the government looks at it that way."

"The biggest killer by far in Africa are mosquitoes spreading malaria, but the government is doing zip about them -- nothing," said Tony Garwood, the owner of a Marloth Park guest house. "Why choose the lions? It's a pure emotional thing."

Johan van der Walt, the town's conservation officer, said people live in Marloth Park because of the wildlife. "Everybody who buys here knows there are risks," he said.

Death in the jaws of lions is not unknown around Kruger, a sultry region of sugar cane plantations and citrus groves that borders impoverished Mozambique. Every few months, Kruger rangers find the remains of some hapless Mozambican job-seeker who attempted to cross the park illegally to evade border patrols.

Lion attacks outside Kruger park are less common, except in Marloth Park.

The September attack was the fifth time in a year that lions have attacked humans in Marloth Park. It was the first fatal attack since the 12-square-mile town was created in 1977 for vacation homes.

Marloth Park is an unusual town, even in a country where wildlife is such a passion; half the town is devoted to a municipal game reserve. Only a quarter of the town's 4,000 one-acre lots are developed, so zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, warthogs and an occasional elephant are free to roam the bush that separates the houses.

"We've prophesied for years that one day there'd be a fatal attack," Deakin said.

The death of the unknown man has renewed the government's determination to replace the flimsy four-foot barbed-wire fence that separates the town from Kruger Park. Wildlife officials say they want to replace the barrier with a nine-foot electrified game fence.

Marloth Park has sued to stop the electrified fence. But town officials said they don't object if the government wants to build a big fence, as long as it includes the town inside the perimeter.

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