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Stories about Lions, edited by Andrew Lang


The lion in its wild state is a very different animal from the lion of menageries and wild-beast shows. The latter has probably been born in captivity, reared by hand, and kept a prisoner in a narrow cage all its life, deprived not only of liberty and exercise, but of its proper food. The result is a weak, thin, miserable creature, with an unhappy furtive expression, and a meagre mane, more like a poodle than the king of beasts in a savage state.

The lion of South Africa differs in many points from that of Algeria, of whom we are going to speak. In Algeria there are three kinds of lions—the black, the tawny, and the grey. The black lion, more rarely met with than the two others, is rather smaller, but stronger in build. He is so called from the colour of his mane, which falls to his shoulder in a heavy black mass. The rest of his coat is the colour of a bay horse. Instead of wandering like the other two kinds, he makes himself a comfortable dwelling, and remains there probably all his life, which may last thirty or forty years, unless he falls a victim to the hunter. He rarely goes down to the plains in search of prey, but lies in ambush in the evening and attacks the cattle on their way down from the mountain, killing four or five to drink their blood. In the long summer twilights he waits on the edge of a forest-path for some belated traveller, who seldom escapes to tell the tale.

The tawny and grey lion differ from each other only in the colour of their mane; all three have the same habits and characteristics, except those peculiar to the black lion  just described. They all turn night into day, and go out at dusk to forage for prey, returning to their lair at dawn to sleep and digest in peace and quiet. Should a lion, for any reason, shift his camp during the day, it is most unlikely that he will attack, unprovoked, any creature, whether human or otherwise, whom he may chance to meet; for during the day he is ‘full inside,’ and the lion kills not for the sake of killing, but to satisfy his hunger. The lion is a devoted husband; when a couple go out on their nightly prowl, it is always the lioness who leads the way; when she stops he stops too, and when they arrive at the fold where they hope to procure their supper, she lies down, while he leaps into the midst of the enclosure, and brings back to her the pick of the flock. He watches her eat with great anxiety lest anything should disturb her, and never begins his own meal till she has finished hers. As a father he is less devoted; the old lion being of a serious disposition, the cubs weary him with their games, and while the family is young the father lives by himself, but at a short distance, so as to be at hand in case of danger. When the cubs are about three months old, and have finished teething (a process which often proves fatal to little lionesses), their mother begins to accustom them to eat meat by bringing them mutton to eat, which she carefully skins, and chews up small before giving to them. Between three and four months old they begin to follow their mother at night to the edge of the forest, where their father brings them their supper. At six months the whole family change their abode, choosing for the purpose a very dark night. Between eight months and a year old they begin to attack the flocks of sheep and goats that feed by day in the neighbourhood of their lair, and sometimes venture to attack oxen, but being still young and awkward, they often wound ten for one killed, and the father lion is obliged to interfere. At the age of two years they can slay with one blow an ox, horse, or camel, and can leap the hedges two yards high that surround the folds for protection.  This period in the history of the lion is the most disastrous to the shepherds and their flocks, for then the lion goes about killing for the sake of learning to kill. At three years they leave their parents and set up families of their own, but it is only at the age of eight that they attain their full size and strength, and, in the case of the male, his full mane.

The lion roars at the villagers looking down at him


 The question is sometimes asked, why does the lion roar? The answer is, for the same reason that the bird sings. When a lion and lioness go out together at night, the lioness begins the duet by roaring when she leaves her den, then the lion roars in answer, and they roar in turn every quarter of an hour, till they have found their supper; while they are eating they are silent, and begin roaring as soon as satisfied, and roar till morning. In summer they roar less and sometimes not at all. The Arabs, who have good reason to know and dread this fearsome sound, have the same word for it as for the thunder. The herds being constantly exposed to the ravages of the lion, the natives are obliged to take measures to protect them, but, the gun in their unskilled hands proving often as fatal to themselves as to their enemy, they are forced to resort to other means. Some tribes dig a pit, about ten yards deep, four or five wide, and narrower at the mouth than the base. The tents of the little camp surround it, and round them again is a hedge two or three yards high, made of branches of trees interlaced; a second smaller hedge divides the tents from the pit in order to prevent the flocks from falling into it. The lion prowling in search of food scents his prey, leaps both hedges at one bound, and falls roaring with anger into the pit digged for him. The whole camp is aroused, and so great is the rejoicing that no one sleeps all night. Guns are let off and fires lit to inform the whole district, and in the morning all the neighbours arrive, not only men, but women, children, and even dogs. When it is light enough to see, the hedge surrounding the pit is removed in order to look at the lion, and to judge by its age and sex what treatment it is to receive, according to what harm it may have done. If it is a young lion or a lioness the first spectators retire from the sight disgusted, to make room for others whose raptures are equally soon calmed. But if it is a full-grown lion with abundant mane, then it is a very different scene; frenzied gestures and appropriate cries spread the joyful  news from one to another, and the spectators crowd in such numbers that they nearly edge each other into the pit. When everyone has thrown his stone and hurled his imprecation, men armed with guns come to put an end to the noble animal’s torture; but often ten shots have been fired before, raising his majestic head to look contemptuously on his tormentors, he falls dead. Not till long after this last sign of life do the bravest venture to let themselves down into the pit, by means of ropes, to pass a net under the body of the lion, and to hoist it up to the surface by means of a stake planted there for the purpose. When the lion is cut up, the mothers of the tribe receive each a small piece of his heart, which they give to their sons to eat to make them strong and courageous; with the same object they make themselves amulets of hairs dragged out from his mane.

Other tribes make use of the ambush, which may be either constructed underground or on a tree. If underground a hole is dug, about one yard deep, and three or four wide, near a path frequented by the lion; it is covered with branches weighted down by heavy stones, and loose earth is thrown over all. Four or five little openings are left to shoot through, and a larger one to serve as a doorway, which may be closed from within by a block of stone. In order to ensure a good aim the Arabs kill a boar and lay it on the path opposite the ambush; the lion inevitably stops to sniff this bait, and then they all fire at once. Nevertheless he is rarely killed on the spot, but frantically seeking his unseen enemies, who are beneath his feet, he makes with frenzied bounds for the nearest forest, there sometimes to recover from his wounds, sometimes to die in solitude. The ambush in a tree is conducted on the same lines as the other, except that the hunters are above instead of below their quarry, from whom they are screened by the branches.

The hunters, in their underground hole, fire at the lion


There are, however, in the province of Constantine some tribes of Arabs who hunt the lion in a more  sportsmanlike manner. When a lion has made his presence known, either by frequent depredations or by roarings, a hunting party is formed. Some men are sent in advance to reconnoitre the woods, and when they return with such information as they have been able to gather as to the age, sex, and whereabouts of the animal, a council of war is held, and a plan of campaign formed. Each hunter is armed with a gun, a pistol, and a yataghan, and then five or six of the younger men are chosen to ascend the mountain, there to take their stand on different commanding points, in order to watch every movement of the lion, and to communicate them to their companions below by a pre-arranged code of signals. When they are posted the general advance begins; the lion, whose hearing  is extremely acute, is soon aware of the approach of enemies, who in their turn are warned by the young men on the look-out. Finally, when the lion turns to meet the hunters the watchers shout with all their might ‘Aoulikoum!’ ‘Look out!’ At this signal the Arabs draw themselves up in battle array, if possible with their backs to a rock, and remain motionless till the lion has approached to within twenty or thirty paces; then the word of command is given, and each man, taking the best aim he can, fires, and then throws down his rifle to seize his pistol or yataghan. The lion is generally brought to the ground by this hail of bullets, but unless the heart or the brain have been pierced he will not be mortally wounded; the hunters therefore throw themselves upon him before he can rise, firing, stabbing right and left, blindly, madly, without aim, in the rage to kill. Sometimes in his mortal agony the lion will seize one of the hunters, and, drawing him under his own body, will torture him, almost as a cat does a mouse before killing it. Should this happen, the nearest relation present of the unhappy man will risk his own life in the attempt to rescue him, and at the same time to put an end to the lion. This is a perilous moment; when the lion sees the muzzle of the avenger’s rifle pointed at his ear he will certainly crush in the head of his victim, even if he has not the strength left to spring on his assailant before the latter gives him the coup de grâce.

The Arabs in the neighbourhood of Constantine used, about fifty years ago, to send there for a famous French lion-hunter, Jules Gérard by name, to rid them of some unusually formidable foe. They never could understand his way of going to work—alone and by night—which certainly presented a great contrast to their methods. On one occasion a family of five—father, mother, and three young lions—were the aggressors. The Arab sheik, leading Monsieur Gérard to the river, showed him by their footprints on the banks where this fearful family were in  the habit of coming to drink at night, but begged him not to sacrifice himself to such fearful odds, and either to return to the camp, or to take some of the tribe with him. Gérard declining both suggestions, the sheik was obliged to leave, as night was at hand, and the lions might appear at any moment. First he came near the hunter, and spoke these words low: ‘Listen, I have a counsel to give thee. Be on thy guard against the Lord of the Mighty Head; he will lead the way. If thy hour has come, he will kill thee, and the others will eat thee.’ Coming still nearer the sheik whispered: ‘He has stolen my best mare and ten oxen.’ ‘Who? who has stolen them?’ asked Monsieur Gérard. ‘He,’ and the sheik pointed for further answer to the mountain. ‘But name him, name the thief.’ The answer was so low as to be barely audible: ‘The Lord of the Mighty Head,’ and with this ominous counsel the sheik departed, leaving Gérard to his vigil.

As the night advanced the moon appeared, and lit up the narrow ravine. Judging by its position in the heavens it might be eleven o’clock, when the tramp of many feet was heard approaching, and several luminous points of reddish light were seen glittering through the thicket. The lions were advancing in single file, and the lights were their gleaming eyes. Instead of five there were only three, and the leader, though of formidable dimensions, did not come up to the description of the Lord of the Mighty Head. All three stopped to gaze in wonder at the man who dared to put himself in their path. Gérard took aim at the shoulder of the leader and fired. A fearful roar announced that the shot had told, and the wounded lion began painfully dragging himself towards his assailant, while the other two slunk away into the wood. He had got to within three paces when a second shot sent him rolling down into the bed of the stream. Again he returned to the charge, but a third ball right in the eye laid him dead. It was a fine, large, young lion of three years, with formidable teeth and claws. As agreed  upon with the sheik, Monsieur Gérard immediately lit a bonfire in token of his victory, in answer to which shots were fired to communicate the good news to all the surrounding district. At break of day two hundred Arabs arrived to insult their fallen enemy, the sheik being the first to appear, with his congratulations, but also with the information that at the same hour that the young lion had been shot, the Lord of the Mighty Head had come down and taken away an ox. These devastations went on unchecked for more than a year, one man alone, Lakdar by name, being robbed of forty-five sheep, a mare, and twenty-nine oxen. Finally he lost heart, and sent to beg Monsieur Gérard to come back and deliver him if possible of his tormentor. For some nights the lion made no sign, but on the thirteenth evening Lakdar arrived at the lion-hunter’s camp, saying: ‘The black bull is missing from the herd; to-morrow morning I shall find his remains and thou wilt slay the lion for me.’

The hunter faces the three lions


Accordingly next morning at dawn Lakdar returned to announce that he had found the dead bull. Gérard rose and, taking his gun, followed the Arab. Through the densest of the forest they went, till at the foot of a narrow rocky ravine, close to some large olive trees, they found the partially devoured carcase. Monsieur Gérard cut some branches the better to conceal himself, and took up his position under one of the olive trees, there to await the approach of night, and with it the return of the lion to the spoil. Towards eight o’clock, when the feeble light of the new moon barely penetrated into the little glade, a branch was heard to crack at some distance. The lion-hunter rose and, shouldering his weapon, prepared to do battle. From about thirty paces distant came a low growl, and then a guttural sound, a sign of hunger with the lion, then silence, and presently an enormous lion stalked from the thicket straight towards the bull, and began licking it. At this moment Monsieur Gérard fired, and struck the lion within about an inch of his left eye. Roaring  with pain, he reared himself up on end, when a second bullet right in the chest laid him on his back, frantically waving his huge paws in the air. Quickly reloading, Monsieur Gérard came close to the helpless monster, and while he was raising his great head from the ground fired two more shots, which laid the lion stone dead, and thus brought to an end the career of the ‘Lord of the Mighty Head.’