In 1972, Shapi was a semi-permanent elephant and buffalo culling camp located right in the middle of Hwange National Park, in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The small complement of game ranger staff at Shapi had constructed a comfortable but simple bush camp, under thatch, not too far from the Shapi game waterhole. Their “houses” were cool and waterproof shelters, a one-step-up improvement on canvas tents. They had bush-pole walls, packed tightly with once-wet, now-dry mud (dagga) in the usual African manner. There were doorways but few doors, and big open holes in the walls served as windows.
Each officer had his own separate accommodation but they were all part of the same complex. There was a central “lawn area” in the middle of the camp.
The native labourers and game scouts were housed in their own compound some distance away. Their huts, too, were constructed of pole-and-dagga with thatched roofs. They all, however, had rudimentary plank doors. The native staff was superstitious about prowling lions and hyenas in the night!
In March of that year the culling operations had been put on hold. The rains had been good and the bush roads were impassable. Staff had been encouraged to take leave. Cadet Game Ranger, Richard Dendy, had disappeared on a 10-day holiday. Fifty-seven-year-old Game Warden, Len Harvey, a staunch bachelor all his life, went off and got himself married. Len was then the senior officer at Shapi.
Senior Game Ranger, Willem de Beer, and his wife, Hazel, stayed on at Shapi to hold the fort. To them Shapi was home. They had been living there for the last five years.
On the night of 29 March, the local resident pride of lions visited the camp and entertained Willem and Hazel with their roars from the central camp lawn. By dawn they had wandered off to the north.
On the afternoon of 31 March, Len and his new bride, Jean, returned from their honeymoon.
The next day Willem confronted Len with a report that a lone lion had taken to roaming the officers’ camp environs and the native compound at night. It had visited Richard Dendy’s vacant house and liberally sprayed the interior walls with urine; and it had raked the door posts with its claws. Within the confines of the house the smell of “lion” was overpowering.
In the native compound the lion had pulled down several chicken coops and eaten all the chickens. It had tried to break into a number of staff sleeping huts by pushing on the doors and pulling off the thatch. And it had vomited the remains of a python on the officers’ camp lawn.
Willem believed this to be the same lion which, when culling was in progress, had regularly scavenged from the Shapi ossuary – the site where all the culled elephant and buffalo bones were stacked and left to dry before being ground into bone meal. And since the culling operation had ceased, Willem opined, the lion had had nothing substantial to eat for some time. He believed it was starving.
Willem suggested they dispose of this lion before somebody got hurt.
Len quietly shook his head.
Willem then requested permission to shoot a wilde-beest to feed it. He proposed dragging the carcass out of camp to entice the big cat away from Shapi.
Again Len refused. He reminded Willem that they lived in a national park and that they didn’t go round feeding lions.
The following night, the lion revisited the officers’ quarters and scraped out a place to lie down and sleep under the window opening to Len and Jean’s bedroom. In the morning, Len’s only reaction was to call Jean and show her where the lion had been resting whilst they had been asleep.
Willem had a compelling desire to shoot the lion and to take it out of the equation. He had a sense of foreboding that if the lion were not killed, it would bring tragedy to Shapi.
On the evening of 2 April, Colin Mathews, Hazel’s son from a previous marriage, accompanied by four university student friends, arrived at Shapi. He was celebrating his recently-obtained degree in economics from the University of Natal (Durban) in South Africa.
The following day, 3 April, Colin took his guests on a visit to Victoria Falls, 200 miles (about 360 km) away to the north.
At dawn that same day, Willem’s cook boy informed him that, during the night, a single lion had visited the compound and raided his chicken coop, killing and eating all his chickens – and that it had attempted to gain access to his sleeping hut.
Willem warned all the black staff to stay close to their huts that day, not to leave the compound, to eat early that evening, and to retire to bed when darkness came. He gave his Senior Game Scout, Freddie, a shrill whistle which he was to blow loudly and continuously if the lion returned.
Willem approached Len again and informed him of the latest developments. “Len … If we don’t do something about this lion,” he warned, “the consequences could be disastrous. In my considered opinion this lion has lost all fear of human beings and it is hungry. It is only a matter of time before it attacks one of us.”
Len half-heartedly agreed and said with a sigh: “You are probably right in everything that you say.” However, he seemed much more concerned about the serious trouble he would be in, as the game warden-in-charge of Shapi, if he ordered the lion killed.
“I have a history with such lions,” he told Willem earnestly. “I once authorised the killing of a similar pestering lion and I was severely reprimanded for doing so. The incident was registered negatively on my official service record,” he lamented.
Len then told Willem that he believed the lion would, in due course, leave the Shapi area of its own accord. “Or …” he said encouragingly, “when the main Shapi pride comes back, the big males will chase it away.” It was common knowledge that the Shapi pride returned at least once a month to re-mark its territorial boundaries.
Len closed his mind to the subject. He was still on holiday and in “honeymoon mode”.
Colin and his four friends returned from their sightseeing trip, and the de Beer family and their guests spent a pleasant evening talking, laughing and looking at wildlife photographs.
At 10 o’clock Willem “flicked” the lights in warning – preparatory to switching off the generator. Len and Jean, who had been lying in bed reading, put markers between the pages and laid their books on their respective bedside tables. One minute later Willem turned off the station’s generator.
Shapi camp was plunged into darkness.
Without the constant thrumming noise of the diesel engine, the sounds of the African night were suddenly vibrant. Willem could hear the hollow resonance of the Shapi pride, far away in the distance, roaring into the night. A black-backed jackal yelped from somewhere near the water hole. A fiery-necked nightjar continued with its monotonous lament: “Good Lorrrrd deliverrrr us … Good Lorrrrd, deliverrrr us!” It was still calling when Willem climbed into bed.
The scene was now set for what undoubtedly became the most tragic human attack by a single lion in the history of Africa’s national parks.

In his own words, Willem now takes up the story:

Just before midnight on Monday, 3 April, 1972, I was awakened by the sound of bare feet running in the darkness past my bedroom window. I thought it was one of my game scouts coming to seek my help. The lion was immediately at the forefront of my mind. What had it done? Had it, finally, struck a deadly blow?
Wearing only a pair of black rugby shorts, I prepared myself for the worst as I hastily climbed out of bed. Hazel, as was her wont when I snored too loudly, was asleep in the adjoining bedroom.
What confronted me was something totally unexpected.
A voice, filled with terror and hysteria, screamed at me from out of the darkness: “Please, Willie … Please … come and help! Quickly! The lion is killing Len! Please come, the lion is killing my husband!”
I recognised the voice as Jean’s and I immediately registered what she was saying.
I have never heard any human voice – before or after – that sounded so utterly distraught. There was a shrill agony in its appeal.
I was shocked to the core. Len was not only my boss and the Warden of Shapi, he was also Hazel’s and my very dear friend.
I ran outside. Jean was standing at my doorway gasping for breath.
I flicked my torch beam over her body. She was stark naked and drenched in blood. There were claw and bite wounds all over her that were still pulsing with her gore. Her blood was fast-dripping off her body, forming pools at her feet.
I switched the torch off and grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her to my breast and enveloping her in my arms. She was shaking violently – like I had never seen nor felt a human shake before. Her terror was absolute. I could feel her blood and tears running down my chest.
I guided her, staggering and quaking, into the house. When I released her, she collapsed onto the floor, sobbing hysterically. Then she began screaming incoherently into the night. I was convinced she was going to become unconscious and that she would then die.
I shouted for Hazel and, when I turned, I saw that she had already entered the room. She took in the situation at a glance and, with the help of Colin’s girlfriend – who had materialised at her side – they began attending to Jean and her wounds.
Hazel took the torch out of my hand and, in its beam, she lit the candle next to my bed. I always kept a candle and matches on the bedside table, just in case! There was now light in the room. There were more candles in the kitchen cupboard. And there were paraffin storm lanterns and Tilley lamps, too. They all had to be lit.
We needed better light. We needed to re-start the generator. It would light up the whole camp and enable me to better deal with the lion, too.
None of the camp’s lights were ever switched off. They all died when the generator was switched off, and they came to life again, automatically, the moment the generator was restarted.
Jean was in Hazel’s good hands. I could now concentrate on Len’s predicament.
“Please God may he still be alive,” I prayed silently. But I already knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was too late. No human being can survive a lion attack for very long. Lions are huge and savage beasts. Their strength is enormous and when the lion is a starving man-eater, Len had had no hope at all!
Still, there was a chance! Never say die! I steeled my nerves and prepared to go to my friend’s assistance, no matter what.
I was not so stupid, however, as to rush across the compound in the darkness. In the night, without a light, I was at a disadvantage. Lions can see in the dark. I cannot. With lights on in and around Len’s house, the boot would be on the other foot.
Just as I snatched the office keys off the nail in my bedroom wall, Colin appeared. He wanted to know what all the fuss was about. He stood in bewilderment, and then in horror, when he looked down at Jean’s exposed bloody face and hands. At that point Hazel had wrapped Jean’s naked body in a blanket.
“Quickly Colin,” I shouted at him. “Len is being attacked by a lion. He desperately needs our help.”
He nodded his head and, without hesitation, said: “Let’s go!”
At that moment, I briefly pondered the wisdom of asking my stepson to accompany me on such a mission. He had instantly volunteered but I knew he hadn’t a clue what he was letting himself in for. And, in retrospect, I now know that neither did I.
There was no time to discuss the matter. Time was of the essence.
I left my torch with Hazel. She needed it more than I did. Soon I would have the generator on and we would all have lights.
It was black outside and overcast. And it was raining. Colin and I were both soaking wet by the time we reached the office hut.
In the dark, I unlocked and opened the gun safe where all our firearms were kept. In those days we were at war with Zimbabwe’s guerrilla fighters and keeping our firearms secure was imperative.
I fumbled blindly and took out the first rifle I laid my hands on. I handed it to Colin. By the sheer feel of it I knew it was a small calibre weapon. The second one was bigger. Fortunately, we kept the magazines full just in case we were attacked by guerrilla fighters in the middle of the night.
I re-secured the gun safe door and, now armed, we both dashed to the lighting plant shelter that lay beyond the office. The rain was easing. The engine coughed once then roared into life. Within seconds lights appeared in all the houses as well as the office. The camp changed from being pitch black the one second to being brilliantly lit up the next.
I stood outside the generator shed and looked at the Harvey house 60 paces away. I first focussed on the place next to the wall, under the window, where the lion had lain and slept the previous night. Light poured out into the darkness through the window.
At that moment I knew I had done the right thing by first getting the generator running. It had been the correct priority. The lights changed the nature of the game completely.
I looked all around the outside of Len’s house but saw no sign of the lion.
I could not believe that, with all the lights now blazing, it would still be inside. The suddenly illuminated house would have been a strange and confined environment for the lion, and it must have known that it had done wrong. Wild animals are not stupid. They understand these things. Lions, elephants and buffalo that have killed a man, know they have committed the unforgiveable. When you track them down you can feel it in every nuance of their flight. They understand and respect the superiority of humans, so they are normally and naturally afraid of us when they are forced to suddenly enter our sacred domains.
I concluded that the lion would have vacated the house through the back door when the lights came on; unless it was ravishingly hungry and was still busy eating Len.
If that were the case, I thought, nothing would get the lion off its kill.
At that moment, with those thoughts, I finally gave up all hope that my good friend could still be alive.
I took the rifle out of Colin’s his hands and checked its load. It was a Musgrave .243 and it had four rounds in the magazine. I fed one into the breech, closed the bolt, and applied the safety catch. I gave it back to Colin who immediately advised me he was not familiar with firearms and that he did not know how they worked. I suddenly understood. Colin was altogether a city slicker.
How stupid of me! I thought. I should have known.
I quickly gave Colin a crash course in how to use the rifle in his hands. I did not tell him how to aim because he would have no need of such knowledge. If the lion attacked it would come at lightning speed. There would be no time to aim. The weapon was equipped with a telescopic sight, designed for shooting impala in the head at night. I told him to ignore the scope. All he had to know was that he should point the weapon and pull the trigger.
I instructed him how to work the bolt to reload and how to release the safety catch. In a few seconds flat, therefore, I taught him the rudiments of self-defence against a man-eating lion attack. And that was all the preparation he ever had to face the biggest hunting challenge that anybody is ever likely to encounter.
My rifle that night was a .375 Magnum Winchester. It had three 300 gr solid rounds in the magazine. These were cartridges used for hunting elephants and buffaloes. My preference for lion hunting is soft-nosed bullets, but there was now no time to go back to the office to change them. I fed a round into the breech, closed the bolt, and applied the safety catch. Then I told Colin to follow me and to stay close.
Our night vision had been impaired when the bright lights in the engine room suddenly came back on. So, when we left the purring generator, we stood for some time outside, adjusting to the darker conditions. If Len were dead there was no point in us storming into a confrontation with his killer when the lion held all the aces.
Whilst we were standing in the darkness, I reflected on how many times I had heard Len say that he hated cats. He had been referring to domestic cats, of course, but I now found it ironical that a much bigger cat had become his nemesis.
The light shining through Len’s bedroom window drew me like a magnet. My eyes kept returning to the brightly-lit window even though, as Colin and I hurried towards the house, I was also looking around for signs of the big cat outside.
We moved quickly but silently over the damp surface of the lawn. The rain had by then subsided to a faint and intermittent drizzle. As we drew closer, I flicked my rifle’s safety catch off. ASM

To be continued …