Some even barred their children from going to school. The villagers were temporarily relieved after three of the roaming beasts were recaptured and the fourth was put down. But just as life appeared to be returning to normal, the villagers were once again thrust into the depths of trepidation after it emerged that a leopard was on the prowl in the same area.
It was discovered that there is a likelihood that the lions had escaped from their cage after spotting the leopard. The situation in these parts has become rather eerie. “My friends and I used to spend time at the nearby Churu Growth Point, drinking opaque beer and discussing social issues, but now things have changed. We are forced to go home as early as 5pm every day,” said Mr Mike Banda, a local villager, sounding depressed by having limited time to imbibe his favourite ale.
“Park officials told us they spotted a leopard spoor and that we should be very careful. The officials also revealed that the animal is wild, as it is not part of those in the sanctuary.”
Lion and Cheetah Park has for years played host to many visitors wishing to view game, especially lions and cheetahs. The sanctuary houses 32 named lions, all of them kept in compartments.
Stitch, a male lion, Starnzy and Shola, both female, and the fourth, another female whose name could not be ascertained, were kept in their designated cage, just like the other lions. Villagers in the environs of the park lived without incidence or even fear of dangerous encounters with the animals.
However, this changed on March 27.
At around 2am, the four lions somehow managed to free themselves. Using their strength, they dismantled the gate.
A security guard on duty was shocked to discover the “great lion escape” and promptly alerted authorities who immediately summoned manpower to search for the felines.
“On that morning, around 2am, the gate to the cages was broken and the bottom part was folded to pave a way where the lions could fit,” said Mr Anthony Newall, the Lion and Cheetah Park general manager.
“They then broke the wooden log where the padlock of the gate was fixed and destroyed the gate from inside.”
The search for the lions was hardly a stroll in the park. Using torches to wade through the dark, the search party ventured into the thickets, hoping to come across them. Seconds turned to minutes, minutes into hours, yet still, the lions were nowhere to be found.
At around 8am, the team alerted villagers to be wary of the “distinguished visitors” possibly in their community.
Three hours later, the search party struck gold. They spotted three of the lions 500 metres away from their cage.
“We first captured the male by simply calling his name and leading him to its cage without any difficulties,” said Mr Newall.
“The other two, Starnzy and Shola, also close to Stitch, refused to come when we called out their names. Therefore, we had to dart them with tranquillisers then move them back to their cages. The capture was completed within three hours.”
However, the fourth lion was only found after three nights and two days of thorough searching by over 60 people.
Helicopters spent two hours hovering above the park as fears that the lioness would eventually harm or kill humans escalated.
The remains of an ostrich, baboon and two wildebeest were found in the process.
“The lioness was very elusive that we could not dart her. We tried throwing drugged meat in a bid to make her drowsy, but she was too clever, she never ate the meat,” said Mr Biggie Madonoro, one of the park managers.
“Our intention was to capture her alive and return her to the cage, but she was too curious about the world out there that she kept running around. Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe officials had to kill her with a rifle because she could not be rescued.
“It was not easy for me and my fellow workmates to watch our lioness being killed. An animal we have been keeping since it was 10 days old suddenly died. It was sad but we had no option. We could not take chances because the lioness was unpredictable. Perhaps it was going to attack humans since it had tasted the blood of other animals.”
Ambuya Jesca Chosamu, who has lived in the area for 20 years, is still wary despite the coast being clear of the lions.
“Even though we heard that the lions were recaptured, fear is still ruling here. Everyone gets indoors by sunset,” she said.
“About 15 years ago, I witnessed a similar occurrence. A lion escaped and attacked a young girl called Agnes who was then quickly rescued by her father.”
Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe spokesperson Ms Caroline Washaya-Moyo confirmed reports of the leopard being in the area, saying efforts are being made to capture it.
“Although the security system is effective, the recent incident should allow the property owners to revisit the whole security system with a view to tightening it,” she said.
Mr Newall said a leopard spoor was traced to the cage that housed the four lions.
He said it was possible the lions became agitated and escaped in order to attack the leopard.
“Cats are generally territorial and so particular about their boundaries because of their nature. They are capable of attacking any other cat that trespasses into their realm.
“Therefore, it is very possible that these lions had escaped from their cage to attack the young leopard which could have been a female as evidenced by the shape of its paw prints.
“We started seeing the leopard paw prints two months ago and since then, we have been hunting it down.
“It, however, seems the cunning leopard only makes nocturnal movements.”
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