The Voice from the Lion's Mouth

Confronted by a wounded killer, a game ranger has only two choices: fight or die.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Born of the struggle of frontiersmen dispatched in the name of Queen Victoria by Cecil Rhodes, the country once known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was famous for producing colorful characters. The dust and gun smoke had barely disappeared when these settlers began hacking a state out of the African wilderness.

It was from this hearty tradition that Dan Asher emerged. Born in the midlands before Rhodesia declared independence from Britain in 1965, he grew up in the little farming center of Kadoma. From a rise on the north side of the hamlet, the town hall lorded over the village with grace and colonial grandeur. The streets, lined with jacarandas and flamboyants, were shrouded in purple and scarlet, which yielded to the green of the surrounding hills. But the small community held little interest for the boy, who felt more comfortable bushwhacking than warming a seat in a classroom.

In town, Asher always seemed to be in trouble. An incident in which he hurled a blackboard eraser at his arithmetic teacher prompted his early expulsion from school. This hardly troubled him. By this point the Rhodesian War was raging and Asher was eager to sign up. Soldiering came easy, and his intimate knowledge of the bush prepared him well for combat. But the war ended abruptly in 1980, and Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe. The barracks were emptied, and Asher and many young men like him were sent into the streets to join the mundane world they had preferred to shun. For Asher, the options were simple. Either go hunting or join the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. He chose the latter.

Into the Wild
The wildlife department was much like the military-a disciplined, demanding organization staffed by men who were tough but fair. Hard work was expected, often under dangerous circumstances. But the experience engendered a unique esprit de corps, and the department's record has become legendary. Asher graduated to full ranger, and after he was posted to a number of stations his tour of duty took him to the management unit at Hwange National Park. Here, under the renowned elephant expert Clem Coetzee, Asher rapidly became an expert at elephant culling-a dangerous assignment that demanded iron nerves and excellent marksmanship.

Following his deployment to Hwange, Asher was transferred to the northwest as the PAC (Problem Animal Control) officer for the area known as Gokwe. His role, a coveted one, allowed him to range far and wide dealing with crop-raiding elephants and cattle-killing lions that were troubling the local tribesmen. Asher's area was one of the last true wilderness areas in the country, and the Batonka people who resided there were the most primitive of all the nation's indigenous tribes. In the course of his work Asher developed a real affinity for these people. Although the Batonka had a reputation for shiftiness and indolence, Asher saw beyond the stereotypes. He befriended a local named Sipeppa and took him on as a general factotum.

[pagebreak] Sipeppa was a slim, unimposing figure with downcast eyes that hid a sparkling sense of humor and an animal's sense of cunning. In time he and Asher developed an unspoken mutual devotion, and their diverse talents combined to forge a very effective partnership.

After many months on various deployments, the pair had finally been granted some leave. But just as they were getting ready for their trip to town, a report came in that lions were killing cattle at a pan known as Mandiboni near a village complex some distance from their camp. With little enthusiasm the pair set off, accompanied by senior scout Sergeant Paul and game scouts Watson and Anson. They arrived at Mandiboni after nightfall. Sipeppa prepared a quick meal and the group went to sleep.

Tracking a Killer
At the first hint of dawn a parade of distraught villagers presented themselves, imploring the ranr to dispatch the marauding killers that were decimating their livestock. The locals added that they believed the troublesome lions were the bearers of evil spirits, which made them doubly anxious.

When one of the tribal elders insisted he could show the hunting party fresh tracks, Asher was only half-listening. It was all too familiar. He had little doubt that it would take days of hard work to find the lions but, lacking options, he agreed to follow the old man.

Behind him the pale blue horizon was broken by the ragged outline of the Chizarira Hills, which towered over the wild country. In the distance he could just make out the escarpment where the earth fell away into the shadows that guarded the vast Zambezi Valley. Somewhere ahead, under the woodland canopy, the lions waited. But where?

Asher was certain it would be a while before any encounter took place, so he grabbed his light rifle, a .270, leaving the scouts to bring the other, heavier rifles.

To everyone's surprise, the old villager took them straight to a carcass on which it was clear the lions had fed the night before. The tracks were fresh, and the light Kalahari sand made following the spoor easy. Yet despite the signs, Asher was sure the lions would have distanced themselves from the kill and that a long, hot day of tracking lay before him.

A Shot Gone Wild
After four hours on the tracks, he was even more convinced the lions were far ahead of them. The hunters were tired and thirsty. The noonday sun bore down on the white sand, which reflected the furnace heat back into their faces. The softness underfoot made each step a trial. Asher's parched tongue felt like sandpaper. He was shuffling disconsolately along, thinking of shade and a cool drink, when a scout hissed a warning, bringing the party to a halt.

"What is it?" he asked gruffly.

"I have seen something," the scout answered nervously.

"What?" Asher snapped, wiping the burning sweat from his eyes.

"I don't know, but I have seen something."

[pagebreak] Asher shrugged off the exchange and had just started forward again when his eyes caught sudden movement. "Isiliwane, isiliwane!" the men behind him whispered. Animal. As a lioness suddenly revealed herself, Asher could feel his heart jump. The sleek cat was hunkered down on her belly with her mouth slightly ajar. Her yellow eyes blazed, and a faint wisp of dust formed a little cloud behind her as her tail twitched nervously in the sand. Then the tail stopped and straightened, but only for a tick in time, before the great cat launched herself like a low-slung missile. On she came, muscles rippling under her golden skin, her killer eyes locked firmly on Asher's.

Instinctively, Asher dropped to one knee and brought the rifle to his shoulder. Lightly gunned but confident in his marksmanship, he drew a bead on her head and squeezed the trigger. The sharp crack of the rifle broke the silence. Grunting angrily, the lioness spun around and was gone.

Asher had clearly missed her brain, but he was confident she'd been well hit.

"You have hit it in the leg, sir," said the scout behind him.

"Bull dust," he snapped. "I've hit it well. We'll find it dead shortly."

The scout received a withering glare from the rifleman. Not willing to risk increasing his senior's ire, he accepted the admonishment, although Asher did note later that the rest of the team also appeared uncertain as to the lethality of the shot.

Setting off decisively for the point where the lioness had turned after being shot, Asher was troubled to note only a few small spots of blood. Following the tracks made him even more concerned. The cat was making good headway and there was little sign of a grievous wound. He was concentrating on the ground when a scream filled his ears.

"The lion is coming!"

Asher looked up to see a tawny blur hurtling toward him. The rifle was at his shoulder in a moment, his finger instantly squeezing the trigger as soon as the bead fell on the great cat's head. But instead of a thunderous roar, Asher heard only the sickening click of the firing pin falling as the weapon failed to fire. His shaking hand reached back and grabbed a shotgun from the scout, but this too jammed, leaving him armed with little more than a club. As the lion launched herself at him, Asher swung the shotgun with all his might, shattering the buttstock across the animal's head. With the lion momentarily stunned, Asher turned and ran for the nearest tree, but the sandy earth bogged him down.

The official Department Accident Report, which Sergeant Paul later submitted to the Board of Inquiry, describes the melee as follows: The lioness then "smashed" Game Scout Watson to the ground with a single blow and "proceeded forward to Ranger Asher."

The Fight of His Life
In his sprint to the tree, Asher had somehow managed to recover the malfunctioning .270, but it was of limited use.

"I then saw Ranger Asher hit the lion on the back with a .270 rifle," Sergeant Paul wrote, "and the lion smashed him and he fell down. [BRACKET "Asher"] quickly woke up [BRACKET "sic"] and the lion woke up, too. Ranger Asher ran to the tree."

At this point a terrified Asher put a mopani tree between himself and the lioness. For a moment they stood opposite one another staring into each other's eyes.

"I just stood and watched as she reared and took a bite at the tree," Asher recalled. "Splinters flew from her jaws and she feinted a move. I went the wrong way and she had me. She sank her claws into my leg, then she straightened it and started to gnaw away a bit like one would bite a lamb chop. Then she started to rip my buttock.

[pagebreak] "I could hear muscle and sinew tearing and the pain felt like my body was on fire. Blood seemed to be gushing all over the place. I remember seeing her face covered in my blood. I reached for her tongue to try to pull it out of her mouth, but she bit me so hard I lost interest in that idea. Then she had me by the backside again, ripping into my flesh. I felt hot breath up a very sensitive place and shouted to Paul to shoot the bloody thing. Then there was a shot."

Sergeant Paul's report continues: "[BRACKET "Ranger Asher"] was shouting to me on several occasions saying 'Sgt. Paul, shoot it' and I was replying to him that the rifle had jammed. At that time Ranger Asher was trying to catch the [BRACKET "lion's"] tongue using both arms. I then shouted to Game Scout Anson to bring a big rifle (.375). I then had to shoot from the north side of the scene. I shouted to Game Scout Anson: 'Do not shoot. You are very far.' I then ran to take the rifle from Game Scout A

Asher looked up to see a tawny blur hurtling toward him. The rifle was at his shoulder in a moment, his finger instantly squeezing the trigger as soon as the bead fell on the great cat's head. But instead of a thunderous roar, Asher heard only the sickening click of the firing pin falling as the weapon failed to fire. His shaking hand reached back and grabbed a shotgun from the scout, but this too jammed, leaving him armed with little more than a club. As the lion launched herself at him, Asher swung the shotgun with all his might, shattering the buttstock across the animal's head. With the lion momentarily stunned, Asher turned and ran for the nearest tree, but the sandy earth bogged him down.

The official Department Accident Report, which Sergeant Paul later submitted to the Board of Inquiry, describes the melee as follows: The lioness then "smashed" Game Scout Watson to the ground with a single blow and "proceeded forward to Ranger Asher."

The Fight of His Life
In his sprint to the tree, Asher had somehow managed to recover the malfunctioning .270, but it was of limited use.

"I then saw Ranger Asher hit the lion on the back with a .270 rifle," Sergeant Paul wrote, "and the lion smashed him and he fell down. [BRACKET "Asher"] quickly woke up [BRACKET "sic"] and the lion woke up, too. Ranger Asher ran to the tree."

At this point a terrified Asher put a mopani tree between himself and the lioness. For a moment they stood opposite one another staring into each other's eyes.

"I just stood and watched as she reared and took a bite at the tree," Asher recalled. "Splinters flew from her jaws and she feinted a move. I went the wrong way and she had me. She sank her claws into my leg, then she straightened it and started to gnaw away a bit like one would bite a lamb chop. Then she started to rip my buttock.

[pagebreak] "I could hear muscle and sinew tearing and the pain felt like my body was on fire. Blood seemed to be gushing all over the place. I remember seeing her face covered in my blood. I reached for her tongue to try to pull it out of her mouth, but she bit me so hard I lost interest in that idea. Then she had me by the backside again, ripping into my flesh. I felt hot breath up a very sensitive place and shouted to Paul to shoot the bloody thing. Then there was a shot."

Sergeant Paul's report continues: "[BRACKET "Ranger Asher"] was shouting to me on several occasions saying 'Sgt. Paul, shoot it' and I was replying to him that the rifle had jammed. At that time Ranger Asher was trying to catch the [BRACKET "lion's"] tongue using both arms. I then shouted to Game Scout Anson to bring a big rifle (.375). I then had to shoot from the north side of the scene. I shouted to Game Scout Anson: 'Do not shoot. You are very far.' I then ran to take the rifle from Game Scout A