A MOTORIST yesterday told of the moment he drove into the path of a lion – in a plush Bulawayo suburb.
Ngqabutho Mpofu and his girlfriend, Pamela, were driving through Fortunes Gate, east of the city, shortly after 9PM on Tuesday when the big cat – which has eluded game rangers for weeks – appeared from the hedges.
“Pamela was behind the wheel and she stopped the car,” Mpofu told Chronicle yesterday. “We were both scared but fascinated at the same time. She managed to take a couple of pictures with her phone before the lion disappeared into the tall grass. It all happened so fast.”
The sighting, along Old Esigodini Road, is barely two kilometres from the busy Leeside Shopping Centre – which was thankfully deserted at that hour.
Yesterday, Mpofu led a team of armed game rangers from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife to the scene of the sighting – but the king of the jungle was long gone.
The rangers, who reviewed Mpofu’s pictures of the lion, said it appeared emaciated which suggested that it was not feeding well. “It’s a telltale sign that this lion was kept in an enclosure, and it’s most probably failing to fend for itself in the wild,” said one of the rangers.
The lion is known to have killed a donkey and a cow – but that was a fortnight ago. Rangers also positively identified a lion’s spoor but lost the track.
Confusing reports have also been made about the sex of the big cat, but pictures supplied by Mpofu appeared to show a male lion without a well-pronounced mane. It appeared to be looking away, which the rangers said was normal when a lion comes into contact with bright lights.
A lion can cover 30km per night, the rangers said, and any sightings must be reported immediately.
The rangers began tracking the lion three weeks ago after residents of the city’s eastern suburbs called in to report several sightings.
Initial reports suggested the lion escaped from the Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage, some 30km south of Bulawayo, but officials there insisted that all their lions were accounted for.
Sightings have since been reported in Waterford, Burnside, Hope Fountain and now Fortunes Gate.
Last night, Parks spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo said a decision had been taken to wind down the hunt for the lion – despite the latest sighting.
She said: “The public and residents of Bulawayo are hereby informed that the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority will be winding up the 24-hour search for the mysterious lion.
“Members of the public are informed that they should carry out their duties without fear.”
She said the decision followed a “careful assessment and evaluation of our search effort.”
An analysis of interviews with the public and the expected behaviour of the cat led them to “firmly believe that the animal is no longer in the vicinity of the suburbs and could have tracked back to its original home.”
Lack of evidence of a recent kill was a key factor in the decision.
“A lion is expected to kill for food or perfect its art of killing. Livestock will be agitated if a lion is in the area. It’s not normal for a lion to go for more than four weeks without roaring.”
But she insisted that residents should report any sightings, adding: “We will continue to accept and react to any information provided to our office.”