Hunting > African Game

A Lion Named Blondie

He was a stock raider, a cattle killer, and he was terrorizing the local tribe of herders near a camp in central Tanzania.

3/30/2010

Named for his strawberry blond mane, Blondie was cagey, clever and cunning, so he’d evaded previous attempts to hunt him. Even Michel Mantheakis, a third-generation Tanzanian who earned his stripes as a PH with his prowess at hunting monster lion and record-book leopard, was stumped.

“This is not a normal lion,” Michel told me when we first arrived at his Lunda camp that borders the Ruaha National Park, along the Great Ruaha River, to set about hunting Blondie. “He knows every trick in the book. I hunted him for three weeks with a previous client a month ago and…”

Michel let the sentence hang unfinished in midair.



“We never got him,” he reluctantly allowed.



Michel began his career as a professional hunter with Luke Samaras, a well-known Tanzanian outfitter. He was assigned to Masai Land, south of Arusha, on the Simanjiro Plain. The lion and leopard of Masai Land are justifiably famous for their size and color. Michel befriended the Masai— he still receives “friendship bracelets” from the daughter of a lady whose life he saved— and learned how to hunt cats in a blend of science and gut-instinct that he jokingly calls “pussology.”

Pussology is the study of feline behavior, and Michel is a master at it. He can look at a tree and, from a distance impossible to see such things, tell you there are claw marks from a tom leopard scaling its trunk to survey the grasslands around. I’ve seen him do it. Tiny scratches from a 100 yards away. Amazing.

(Of course he didn’t actually see the scratches. He doesn’t have 200-20 vision. But he knows pussology so well that he can spot a leopard’s look-out tree from afar. He just knows there’ll be scratches on the tree… and there are.)

At 46 years old, Michel has been a professional hunter all of his adult life beginning at about 22. That’s what I call experience. A doctor of pussology, he is, and so when he stammered in mid-sentence, hard-pressed to admit that he failed, I knew that Blondie wasn’t your typical lion.

We were hunting in early October, 2009. For the prior nine months of the year, Blondie had killed 17 head of prized cattle and countless goats. His pattern was easy to predict. During the dry season when game concentrated at the river, Blondie left the cows and goats alone and filled his larder with zebra and kudu and impala. But when the wet season came and the game dispersed, he went for the easy pickings from the nearby pastoral villages.

      For a photo recap of Cam's epic adventure, check out the gallery.

That Blondie was bold was never in doubt. I’m getting ahead of myself, but when we finally skinned him, we found two muzzleloader projectiles in him, healed and calcified over. One was an inch-long piece of rebar! Herdsmen had shot Blondie not once but twice with their primitive muzzleloaders as they tried to scare him off their cattle.

Having the benefit of Michel’s previous client’s attempt to connect on Blondie, we had an advantage. We knew what not to do.

“We’re not going to hunt Blondie like a normal lion,” Michel explained. “We’re not taking any chances.”

How Not To Hunt Lion
The way you typically hunt lion in Africa is by finding the track of a large male and then leaving a bait to try and attract his interest. A bait is usually a zebra or half of a buffalo or a quarter of a hippo, anything that’s big enough to last more than one feed. Lion are not predators as you might think. Lion are opportunistic feeders, scavenging as well as killing.

Michel told me that he’s left an old, rotten, stinking, maggot-crawling bait that was so ripe it would gag a hyena, and freshened it with a newly killed kudu. Michel came back the next day to see if anything had fed. Lion had fed, but what did they eat? The putrid meat, not the fresh kill. Not so much as a bite was taken from the fresh kudu. There’s just no accounting for a lion’s taste.
Previously, Michel had baited Blondie with zebra and buffalo. Blondie came to feed, but always after dark when it’s illegal to shoot. Once, Michel caught him at first light with a “lion call” that he makes with his mouth. He can mimic the bleating of a young buffalo calf calling to its mother. That brought Blondie running.

But from precisely the wrong direction. He and his client were in a stand-up blind and Blondie came from directly behind them, where the blind was open at the back. They saw each other at a distance of about 15 yards and by the time his client could turn and raise his rifle, Blondie was in Mozambique.

Having been fooled once, Blondie never responded to the calf-bleat call again.
Another time they put a warthog in a tree, a tasty treat for a lion. Blondie came after dark, and they were waiting for him at daylight. But the branch holding the pig had broken and Blondie had escaped with a free supper. Stumped again.

Superstitions Grow
By now the Africans in our hunting party were getting nervous. The trackers and game scouts and skinners are from rural areas with minimal education and still very much inculcated with traditional African beliefs and superstitions. Knowing Michel’s reputation as a cat-man and seeing how badly things were going, it didn’t take long for them to assume that Blondie was possessed. He was a devil-lion.

Once, Blondie crept into a camp of anti-poaching game scouts and, bold as a cat burglar, stole a pair of tennis shoes just inside a pup tent, the sleeping ranger’s head no more than two feet away. The villagers found the tennis shoes chewed in half about 200 yards outside of camp, with a line of lion tracks leading directly to the victim’s hut. This didn’t hurt Blondie’s reputation as a charmed lion.

Unbeknownst to me, some counter-acting magic was heading our way. Michel’s youngest daughter, a sweet little girl of eight named Leandra, had came into the world after a tough struggle as a premature baby with serious complications needing several major surgeries to save her. She almost didn’t make it.

Because Leandra was born so small and fought so valiantly to survive, the superstitious Africans logically concluded that she was a special child. They called her Mtoto wa Mungu, which means “child of God.”

Interestingly, as Leandra grew up she seemed to bring good luck whenever she came to a safari camp. Coincidence or not, her presence brought exceptionally large trophies and every time she came to camp and a major animal was bagged, it reinforced their superstitions that she was indeed a blessed one, Mtoto wa Mungu.

Luckily for me, Leandra and her mother, Nicole, and her sister, Artemis, came to camp on a short visit to see their father (and husband) during an interlude of his 31-day safari with me. I guess I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

A Night In A Tree
Michel had by now gotten a good feel with his pussological instincts for Blondie’s current territory. We had seen his pug marks in the soft sand near the herder’s village and we’d been given local intel from a herdsman on where he’d last heard Blondie roar. Oh, they definitely knew his roar by now, just as you recognize a familiar voice on the phone.

Now came the tricky part. How to draw Blondie in?

Michel made a key decision. “We’re going to buy a cow from the village. Blondie is a cattle-killer, so we’ll bait him with a cow,” he said as he stroked his moustache in deep thought.

“And we’re going to build a tree blind, not a ground blind, and we’re not going to wait and see if Blondie comes to hit the bait. We’re building the blind first thing.”

This is not normal. The usual procedure is to sprinkle several baits in the general vicinity of where a big lion is thought to be, and then check the baits daily to see if there’s been any activity. If so, you then study the feeding pattern on the bait to ascertain if it’s a male (from the tracks around the bait as well as the way in which the bait was eaten and mane hair left on the bait). If it looks good, you then build a blind.

But Blondie was too smart for this. Building a blind takes time, several hours, and it makes a racket. If Blondie came to a bait, he would lie up close by, not more than a kilometer away, and he would hear the ruckus of building a blind. And that would be that; he’d never come back. Or, cunning as he was, he’d walk a wide circle around the bait and easily pick up the man-scent of anyone in a ground blind. He would then wait until the humans left. Clever cat that Blondie.

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