I knew straight away that I wasn’t going to see the lions eat. They lay drowsily within their cage at the zoo in Khartoum North as the zookeeper carefully placed his hand inside the cage and rubbed the neck of the lioness. A sure way to lose your fingers or hand I thought. But no it wasn’t dangerous he explained because this lioness had been tamed through her years of human contact.
Rather you than me I thought…
Keeping lions in the Sudan goes back a long way. ‘Abd al-Rahman al Rashid (Sultan of Darfur, 1787-1803) kept a pair of lions that were apparently so tame that they could be led into the market at El Fasher to feed on the offal from the butchers’ stalls.
William George Browne the first European to visit Darfur was living at this time in the nearby town of Kobbei. He purchased two lion cubs that had probably been captured in order to be sent to Egypt where they were in demand as curiosities for the rich. It was an indication of the intense isolation and ennui that poor Browne was under that he took great solace from the lions’ company. After two years he was forced to make an awful decision when the opportunity arose for him to return to Egypt along the Forty Days Road. He faced the heart-wrenching task of killing the lions. He shot one and within a few days the other had also died but whether out of sorrow for his friend he was unable to tell.
During the 1930’s Wilfred Thesiger, who later explored Arabia’s Empty Quarter, was based as an officer of the Sudan Political Service at the small town of Kutum which lay about 30 miles from the then waterless and abandoned site at Kobbei. Much to Thesiger’s delight he found that his services as an armed lion hunter were much in demand by the livestock herders of Darfur who regarded lions “as little more than vermin.”
In his autobiography,The Life Of My Choice, Thesiger records that he became sentimentally attached to two orphaned lion cubs that he had reared for some time before facing the unavoidable responsibility of shooting them when their growing size and familiarity with humans had turned them into potential man-eaters. Years later, he was a little contemptuous of the efforts of Joy Adamson (depicted in the film Born Free) to release lions back into the wilds of Kenya.
So who is right? Thesiger/WG Browne or Adamson?
I’m not sure but either way I won’t be following the zookeeper’s example of sticking my hand through the bars of lion cage anytime soon!
Lions are indeed majestic creatures especially in their natural surroundings:
As Matt Monro sang in Born Free
When no walls divide you
You’re free as a roaring tide
So there’s no need to hide
And life is worth living
But only worth living
’cause you’re born free