When Lions Ate Letters

Lions used to be common in the lower altitudes of the Virunga volcanoes but are now are locally extinct, along with the leopard.

Historically they gained a bad reputation as man-eaters around the Western Rift Valley (our members can learn more about the Rift Valley in the In-Sights). The two lions that infamously attacked railway construction workers at Tsavo, southwest Kenya, were a result of the late 19th century rinderpest that decimated their natural prey of ungulates, forcing them to seek alternatives. First they took livestock but as these were heavily guarded they began to attack defenceless individuals. They remained a problem until the 1930s when most of these predators had been shot and wild prey had recovered.

Coping with wildlife, especially predators, was part of early colonial life. Lions were more of a hazard in the open, low-altitude country. According to Dr. Len Sharp, the lions of Tooro in western Uganda were as notorious as the lions of Tsavo.

Athanase Nalugumbula, a Catholic missionary, described travelling from Mbarara to southwestern Uganda around 1915; he had to spend an afternoon, night and early morning up a tree surrounded by 14 lions. It took that time for them to lose interest and wander off.

In the 1940s, C.R.S. Pitman published the following image with a meaningful caption in his book “A Game Warden Among His Charges”. He refers to the Ugandan part of our region with its colonial name:

In the early 1920s letters sometimes bore an apology from the Kabale Postmaster “Damaged by lions” and had teeth marks to prove it. Letters were brought to Kabale by runners who walked to and from Kampala.

Given the hazards it is not a surprise that the post was irregular, delayed or may never have arrived. The earliest reference to a post-boy being eaten by lions is 1908. The expansion of motorable roads allowed a more safe and reliable method of delivery.

Lions and leopards are now confined to savannah national parks of the Gorilla Highlands region and their numbers are declining. In gorilla parks they are extinct. Incidentally, the letter is also close to extinction.

illustration by Martin Aijuka


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