Campfire Stories That Roar

EAST Africa is home to some of the world's last remaining refuges for wild animals. People come from around the world to see them, especially the lions. Recently, I sat by a campfire in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, one of the most remote parts of Africa, and listened to some lion tales. Some animal stories are a blend of imagination and wonder, but these are true tales, according to the tellers (whom I know and believe). Herbert Prins was one of them. He's a Dutch wildlife researcher and has done a lot of work in East Africa.

One day, while working in Tanzania's Lake Manyara game park, he came across a dead rhino. It looked like the work of poachers - people who kill animals illegally. Poachers take and sell the ivory tusks of elephants and the horns of rhinos.

Herbert drove to the game park warden's office and told him about the rhino. The warden couldn't find his gun, but went with Herbert to the scene anyway to try to track down the poachers. Herbert recalls the scene.

``We parked the car under a tree, walked for about 15 to 18 feet and suddenly we heard - RRRUGH, RRRUGH. We turned around. I had parked the car, without knowing it, under a tree with six lions in it. And these lions were jumping out of the tree. Every time one jumped out of the tree, it said ... RRRUGH. The warden said: `Oh, lions.' I was quite terrified at that time, but I thought, well, I cannot show that I am afraid. So I said: `Yes, lions.'''

The lions followed them for awhile. Later, as Herbert and the game warden returned without finding the poachers, the lions were in their path. The game warden walked straight at them. Three lions moved away to the left of the track, and two lions went to the right. ``We just walked between the lions. Then we walked in the direction of the car. There was still this one lioness sitting in the tree. She jumped out, and walked off - with a RRRUGH. I stepped into the car, and I asked the game warden: `Were y ou not afraid? Because I was quite afraid.' He said: `Of course not. I'm a Masai [a tribe in Kenya and Tanzania who often live in areas where lions live]. We Masai are never afraid of lions.'''

DAVID ALLEN was also around the campfire that night, on a steep bluff overlooking the Rufiji River - home to thousands of hippos. A former game warden and hunter in Kenya, today David is one of Kenya's best bush pilots, flying people to remote game parks and reserves. He recalled a lion tale in the Massai Mara, a big game park in Kenya, Tanzania's neighbor to the north.

``I took a walk out across the open plain toward a water hole. On the way I encountered some wildebeest, also known as gnu; some impala, and Grant's gazelle. As I went along, the wildebeest were grunting at me and going UUGGH, UUGGH. As they went UUGGH, I would go UUGGH back at them.

``I went on walking. The impala would go WHHAA, WHHAA, and I would make reciprocal noises. Then I got up to the water hole. On the water hole there were some Egyptian geese, and they flew off. I walked around the water hole and started heading back to camp. It was wide open: just a few spindly little thorn trees. I headed back toward camp on a slightly different track.

``As I was going along, I suddenly heard URRGH. I looked up, and some 150 yards away to my left, I saw a lion, a young male lion, sitting up and looking at me angrily. So, I thought, there's nothing more for me to do but carry on walking, as if I'm not interested, and not worried - and pretend not to be frightened.

``I carried on walking at a normal pace. And I suddenly heard, URRGH, URRGH, URRGH. And I look up, and he's coming. Really coming, running ... and coming straight for me. So I just stopped in my tracks. I threw my arms up over my head, and I yelled out URRGH, back at him. He came to a screaming halt, looked at me, and turned around and ran back the other way. My hair was standing up on end. He'd come to within about 70 yards away from me when he stopped and turned. And I was real ly happy that he did so. So I just carried on walking back to camp.''

Allen says lions are more likely to attack something running from them. By holding his ground he had a better chance. But the rule in Africa is not to walk in areas with wild animals. It's not safe. A few places allow walking safaries, but only with an armed escort.

ANOTHER man who used to like to recall lion tales was George Adamson, probably Africa's best-known lion expert. He helped captive lions learn to live free again in northern Kenya. The movie ``Born Free'' was about him and his wife raising a lion cub, Elsa, then setting her free in Kenya.

George was killed in 1989, apparently by poachers. In an interview at his home a few weeks before his death, he told me about Christian, a lion he helped teach to live free again. Two Australians bought him as a cub from a department store in England, but later sent him to George in Kenya. A year later the Australians came to visit the lion. George recalled the scene.

``We went to the foot of the hill which is near the camp, and where I'd taken Christian in the morning with some other lions. I went up the hill and called the lion Christian. And he followed me. And in coming down the hill he could see the two Australians down below. He paused, and then you could see [at this point George laughed, recalling the details] the recognition dawning on him, and he rushed down to give them a tremendous welcome. Christian jumped up on the men, in a giant lion hug, standing on his hind feet, his forepaws on their shoulders. But he did not scratch them.

BY now the fire in our Tanzanian camp was down to red coals. Everyone else had gone to their tents. Camp director Carl Jahn, a German, was ready for bed, too.

``Good night,'' Carl said.

``Did you just hear lions?'' I asked.

``I thought so, yes,'' he said. ``You can hear them from five miles in the night.''

Finally, we all went to our tents, where we could listen to the night sounds of Africa before falling asleep.

`Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles will appear twice a month, always on Tuesday.

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