The tiny town of Mfuwe sits in the Luangwa River valley of eastern Zambia, a mere speck on the map surrounded by woodlands and scrublands and so nondescript that most people would probably pass right on by without giving it much thought. The area’s main claim to fame has long been its abundance of big game, attracting trophy hunters from all over the world. However, in 1991 the roles would be reversed, and people would start being targeted by a massive lion that had some odd behavior, and which would largely gain a reputation as being a shapeshifting demonic creature.
It all began on July 9, 1991, when two boys were walking home along one of the area’s rural roads when out from the night sprang a huge lion, the biggest the boys had ever seen, which dragged one of them off as the other careened off into the night screaming for help. The boy was able to get to the village and sound the alarm, but when armed village men arrived it was too late, the other boy had vanished, leaving behind merely some scraps of clothing and shards of bone and flesh. This would only be the beginning of the sinister attacks, as less than a month later a woman on the outskirts of the village was dragged from her own hut to be devoured out in the wilds, with only her head and arms remaining as a macabre reminder of the ferocity of the lion. The following night, a local boy was attacked and dragged away in full view of a ranger station, with one of the rangers even firing a warning shot, which was enough to cause the lion to drop its prey, but the boy would later die at the hospital.
With the ranger sighting a true idea of the immense size of the cat was gained. The rangers described the lion as maneless, and as being around an enormous 10 feet long and 5 feet high at the shoulder, perhaps weighing around 500 pounds, making it a very large specimen. In the meantime, it was becoming obvious that the area had a man-eater on their hands. The attacks continued, with the predator killing several more people in the coming months, usually in broad daylight and often crashing right into people’s homes to take them. The lion would show some remarkable cunning in avoiding rangers and traps, as well as show some rather bold and odd behavior. One day the lion attacked and killed a village woman named Jesleen, snatching her right off of her porch in front of a ranger patrol out looking for it. The rangers were too late to stop the carnage, and making it even bolder was that the cat would return the next day, apparently in order to pick up a keepsake. The lion casually entered Jesleen’s dwelling, picked up a laundry sack in its fangs, and then walked back outside to the center of the town as horrified people looked on. It then allegedly put the bag down, let out a defiant, earsplitting roar, picked the sack back up, and stalked off into the woods.
From that day on, the lion would always be seen with the laundry sack, sometimes seen playing with it as a housecat might play with a toy. The lion would reportedly leave the bag only to go off to hunt, always coming back to retrieve it and typically not letting it out of its sight, leading villagers to believe that the bag was cursed. Not only that, there were more and more rumors amongst villagers that this was no ordinary lion, but rather a supernatural demonic entity or a shapeshifting witch doctor or shaman. The native people of many locales of Africa have long strongly believed that evil spirits and shamans have the power to take the form of lions, and so prevalent is this belief that the families of such victims often will often not tell authorities, as they feel that they have been visited by retribution for something they or their relatives have done. In some cases of lion attacks, villagers will actually consult with a shaman or village medicine man to try and determine if the attack was by a normal animal or a supernatural spirit in disguise. If the animal is deemed to be a normal lion it is seen as just nature running its course, but if it is the work of a demon lion then that is when the villagers are truly terrified. These superstitious beliefs are so prevalent that villagers will often take justice into their own hands, lynching those they think are responsible for the lion attacks and only furthering the bloodshed. In the case of the Mfuwe lion, the general consensus of the elders was that this was a supernatural creature, and so people were absolutely terrified, cowering within their homes and refusing to go out at night. One local safari hunter named Adrian Carr, who set up a blind to try and kill it, had a rather eerie encounter which seems to hint at this, of which he says:
He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back. Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions. Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!
Carr was ultimately unable to kill the lion and it continued on with its rampage. Throughout all of this it avoided traps, poisons, numerous hunting excursions, and ranger patrols, often defiantly appearing to roar at the armed men as if taunting them and toying with them. As the death toll mounted, in August of 1991, a Californian man on safari named Wayne Hosek and his companion, professional hunter Charl Beukes, were called in to try and put a stop to the lion’s reign of terror, but this would prove to be easier said than done. The hunters started by talking to villagers and getting an idea of the lion’s habits and pattern of attacks, in the process learning about its beloved laundry bag, a piece of information that would help them in their hunt. It so happens that the two men had the great luck of coming across the laundry sack in a dry riverbed, with Hosek remarking in his journal that “even the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.” They took this as a sign that the lion was around, and so built a blind and placed bait around the area where the bag was, but it would not make an appearance, despite the fact that they could hear it chuffing, roaring, and stalking about. Over the coming days they would change spots for the blind several times, with no luck. In fact, the lion proved to be extremely evasive and clever, often waiting to take the bait from right under their noses when they were in the process of moving, and on another occasion successfully retrieving the bag. It would often circle them both night and day, and was smart enough to figure out the angle of approach that best allowed it to approach the blinds without being seen.
The Mufwe lion purportedly often appeared to stalk about near the blind, avoiding the bait, elusively managing to avoid getting hit by their rifles, and seeming to be toying with the hunters. Indeed, when Hosek’s camera broke when he tried to take a picture of the lion's pug marks, even he began to wonder if there was something supernatural about this beast after all. Night after night they waited, the lion circling them and taunting them, until both exhaustion and obsession settled into the men. Hosek would give the whole thing a rather mystical quality when he would write:
We knew he could be seeing us at any time, and we felt him, whether in his ‘hunting area’, or returning to camp several miles away. It was as if a spirit was around, watching us continually. By this we felt that we had come to know this lion in a most strange way and peculiar. We were all near exhaustion. Sleep was out of the question: it was simply futile to try. I had come to hunt, and it was this very fact that we perhaps we clung to, and acted out, in order to convince ourselves that he was not controlling our lives. What, I asked, would happen should this lion decide to come into the blind and confront us?” Willie’s response seemed so logical that it made perfect sense to me and so it put me completely at ease about such an attack. He said simply: ‘If he comes into the blind, there will be 3 guns waiting for him and he will be killed.’ With that I never gave it a second thought. But he apparently did give it many thoughts himself, as he later told me he never would close his eyes because he held that to be a real possibility with this lion being a man-eater. He didn’t want to give him one instant of advantage.
Realizing that the cat was exploiting the times that they moved locations, they decided to fake it out by acting like they were moving so that it would let its guard down. They would build a blind, leave bait, and then leave it to take up position nearby and this worked. They soon saw the lion approaching the abandoned blind and bait, and Hosek would say of this approach:
From my view of the lion’s body movement from behind the cover of the tree trunk, he wasn’t walking calmly as I had seen many other lions walk as when undisturbed. He was in a quick stride, almost trotting. Reaching the tree, he then stepped out from behind it to our left and I saw him for the first time-he was huge! He trotted right past the bait and turned his face to the blind and snarled. He knew we were there. And as Charl had accurately predicted would be the case, he was moving and picking up speed. We would never see him standing still. At least not alive.
Hosek was then able to land a shot behind its left shoulder, causing it to crumple to the ground, killing it. An examination of the corpse would not only show just how truly enormous the cat was, but also that it was a maneless male lion and completely healthy and in fine physical shape, making it a bit odd that it would have become a man-eater in the first place, as they are typically sick, elderly, or injured individuals, and they are most often females. Hosek would write of the surreal experience of having finally killed the beast and seeing its body lying there:
Finally I looked warily at the Man-Eater of Mfuwe. He lay almost as if he were asleep. Yet I could not bring myself any closer to him and remained 25 feet away. Suddenly a story my friend Mickey told me years earlier came to me: He told me that he heard that when one first sees the lion he is hunting, it looks gigantic. And then, after shooting it, the lion immediately looks much smaller. But as the hunter approaches the dead animal, the lion grows in size with each step, until he regaining its true size at the very least in the eyes of the hunter. It took me 30 minutes or more before I could bring myself to go up from behind, and touch the Man-eater of Mfuwe. My camera had broken when I had photographed the lion’s pug mark next to my foot earlier in the day. Charl had brought his along-and it also refused to function as well. Was this a curse from the beast? It didn’t matter to those of us who were gathered there. After all the best picture is the one that remains in a person’s heart..
Whatever the reasons for its killing spree, now that it was all over the villagers were caught up in celebration, beating and spitting upon the carcass, and shamans did rituals over it to make sure that its perceived supernatural powers were banished. The Mfuwe lion would be stuffed and put on display at the Field Museum in Chicago along with its cherished laundry sack. Hosek would go on to write a memoir on his experiences with the lion in his 2009 book The Man-Eater of Mfuwe, and although the total body count for the lion is rather low, it is cemented in the lore of the region as one of the stranger and more cunning of its kind, managing to stir incredible panic and talk of supernatural powers even among those who hunted it. To this day the lion of Mfuwe remains one of the largest and healthiest man-eaters known, its behavior with the sack and uncanny intelligence poorly understood, and it has managed to become a curious and frightening historical oddity we may never fully understand.