336 Lion Hunters

by   David Hancock

 Writers on the breed of Rhodesian Ridgeback are usually careful to stress that their dogs were once used to bay lions rather than close with them, as hog hunting dogs often do. But if you read Er Shelley's book "Hunting Big Game with Dogs in Africa" of 1924 and accounts in the Kennel Gazette of South Africa at the turn of the century, a different scene is set. Dogs have regularly been used to engage big cats, including lions, as engravings of animal combat in past centuries and accounts of hunting in South America and Africa reveal.

 Shelley described the dogs he used: "...a well-broken pack of bear-dogs...twenty young hounds from the State of Mississippi, eight shepherd dogs picked up on farms near Olney, Illinois, six Fox Terriers from England, and a separate shipment of six police-dogs from Germany. We had some good Airedales that I secured locally, and six three-quarter bred English Foxhounds, bred in that country. These in addition to the eighteen broken hounds and fighting dogs that I brought over and four stag-hounds made up the pack." This is an interesting and informative selection.

 Few hunters would choose an Airedale as bred in Britain nowadays for such a task, although they are still used in America for cougar and racoon hunting. His 'fighting dogs' would have been the ancestors of the now betrayed breed of Pit Bull Terrier, of the type bred by Colby in the early twenties. Shelley, himself an American, stressed the value of these dogs: "When the good fighting dogs were in and fighting, they (i.e. 3/4 bred English Foxhounds) would fight well also; but, without the aggressive dogs, they could not be depended upon."

 Shelley also picked up an Airedale X piedog on his travels, describing it as: "A better close-in fighter I never saw. He could split a lion's face one second, and the next moment nip the end of its tail--and he never got caught. He was one of the main fighters for a long time, but he met his end in wild-hog hunting." His staghounds were Deerhounds not the type you see at houndshows. Shelley trained his lion-hunting dogs with the help of young tame lions he obtained locally. The dogs were trained to follow only lion scent and allowed to fight the tame lions through the bars of their cage. He broke his dogs so that they ignored hyenas and jackals, vital training as the latter often followed lion tracks to steal their kill.  

 Shelley soon trained his pack only to hunt lions, leopards and cheetahs. His fighting dogs were not allowed to track but accompanied the hunt, held by natives on strong leashes, rather as 'bandogs' were in the medieval hunt. Shelley and his party of American hunters 'bagged' 27 lions in six weeks, nine in one day. They were shot not killed by the dogs. The hounds found them and the fighting dogs were set loose when despatch by shooting was not immediately possible. The largest lion they killed was fifty inches at the shoulder and measured ten feet ten inches from nose to tip of tail. The fighting dogs did not hesitate to engage such a huge animal.

 The most remarkable dog used by Shelley was a smaller than usual Australian Cattle Dog. Shelley described her in glowing terms: "She could trail nearly as well as a hound, and, when it came to fighting in dense places, I have never seen a dog that could compare with her. She possessed the power and had the courage to force a lion from place to place in dense cover, while packs of good dogs could not move him at all." This dog was later used by Shelley's colleague Rainey to "bring both lions and leopards out of dense reed beds, where his entire pack of forty or fifty hounds and Airedales could not move them."

 Far better known as a lion hunter was the legendary Frederick Courteney Selous, an officer in the Fusiliers. In his book 'A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa' Selous describes his many encounters with lions. Selous wrote: "Hunting lions with dogs usually reduces the danger to a minimum, as the beast's attention is, as a general rule, so occupied with the yelping pack that surrounds him, that he pays no attention to his more formidable enemies." Selous, with another hunter Van Rooyen and the Rev. Helm, played a part in the development of the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Selous learned the hard way which dogs would engage with lions and those which never would. Once, when hunting a wounded lion, the hounds refused to approach their quarry but "two veterans, however, an old dog half paralysed in the hindquarters, and a one-eyed bitch, stood their ground, and with the hair on end all along their backs, growled savagely." In future years, in the wake of so-called dangerous dogs legislation, it will be impossible to discover which brave dogs are worth breeding from.

 Selous describes how dogs saved a farmer from an enraged lion: "All this time the three dogs were worrying the lion's hind quarters, and soon made it so rough for him that he left his human foe to attack them." It is abundantly clear from Selous's words that he both respected and admired lions. Time will tell whether man with rifle or global warming will affect the future of the lion the more. When taken by a tracker to 'listen to lions' at night in Kenya, I have felt the hair standing up on the back of my head merely from the sounds of lions conversing with one another. The noise of an enraged lion must be quite terrifying. Yet a 30lb dog does not hesitate to confront one.

 In his 'The Illustrated Natural History' of 1862-3, The Rev. JG Wood has written: "If the lion has been prowling about during the evening hours, and has found no prey, he places his mouth close to the earth, and utters a terrific roar, which rolls along the ground on all sides, and frightens every animal which may chance to be crouching near. Not knowing from what direction the fearful sound has come, they leave their lairs, and rush frantically about, distracted with terror and bewildered with the sudden arousing from sleep." It is easy to imagine the effect of this psychological warfare on animals which have seen their fellows pulled down by lions.

 The value of 'lion-dogs' to pioneer farmers in South Africa, anxious to protect their stock, must have been considerable. There is reference to such dogs in 'The South African Kennel Gazette' of March, 1909: "I remember in 1860 seeing a fine strain on the Thorn River near Cathcart...these dogs were light-red in colour, wiry coat with massive heads, fairly fast and large. They were very vicious...about 1870, I saw some fine Boer dogs, answering the above description, excepting they were darker in colour...I had two dogs, the one named 'Kafir', whose sire was a cross between a bull and a mastiff, dam a foxhound. The second named 'Smoke', whose sire was a cross between a stag and bloodhound, dam a mastiff. These dogs had all the characteristics of the Boer hunting dog."

 Another writer to this same issue of the Gazette describes how, as a boy, fifty two years earlier, i.e. in 1857, he had hunted tiger and baboon using "...a cross between the mastiff and the bulldog, the parents coming from Europe. The boarhound, though big and strong, is too fine skinned to withstand the claws of a tiger, and...the mastiff, though strong and big, is too lumpy and no match for the nimble tiger; the bulldog is plucky and tenacious, but owing to his lightness, the tiger...can throw him...The cross-breed, that is the mastiff and the bulldog, combine the swiftness and tenacity of the one with the strength of the other, and have always proved to be the best for fighting with a tiger."

 Those words should impress both Bullmastiff and Boerboel fanciers. The latter claim, perhaps out of nationalistic fervour, that their dogs descend from Van Riebeeck's 'bullenbijters' (literally bull-biters) imported in 1652. But old Dutch dictionaries define this type as English Bulldogs. The ancients believed that their brindle 'Indian' dogs, or hunting mastiffs, were sired by tigers, so famed were they as seizers. When I see my Bullmastiffs resting majestically on the lawn, I see resemblances to lions and tigers and can think of no higher tribute. Any dog coming from a type which faced up to lions deserves, not the ban recently imposed in some countries, but our greatest admiration.