Lions in the streets? That's fine

S. Africa resort town welcomes wildlife

June 13, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MARLOTH PARK, South Africa - Residents of this exclusive resort town on the banks of the Crocodile River believe that humans and wild animals can live together peacefully without fences between them. And for the most part, it's been true, they say.

Sure, the occasional baboon slips through an unlocked window, raids the fridge and makes a mess of a house. Elephants and giraffes block the road sometimes.

Small prices to pay, residents say, for being able to spot exotic game on your way to the post office.

But ever since a lion ate a fleeing burglar last year - leaving behind his head and a foot (still inside a shoe) - the town's harmonious relationship with nature has been threatened.

The incident capped a year during which six other people were attacked - none fatally - by lions. The Mpumalanga provincial government responded by killing three lions thought to be responsible for the man's death.

It then threatened to remove the remaining lions from town. Residents have been bitterly opposed.

"Nobody wants the lions removed. Everyone wants them left alone. It's just a bunch of bloody bureaucrats trying to justify their jobs," says John Johnson, a 70-year-old retired arms dealer who helped found the town in 1977.

"The lions have been here for years. We've had no problems."

Johnson remains convinced that the burglar was shot while trying to escape, died in the bush and became food for scavengers.

"There wasn't anything left but bone. I say he was eaten by hyenas," he said.

Other residents of Marloth Park defended the lions as a desperately needed form of crime control as the town battled a rash of house burglaries.

Outraged Marloth Park residents persuaded the Mpumalanga government to hold off a decision on the lions until the town completes an independent study determining whether the predators and humans can live together.

Answering that question might depend on the race of the residents. The majority of Marloth Park property owners are white, wealthy and drive everywhere in town, protected from animal attacks. But most blacks who work as maids, gardeners and day laborers have no means of transport other than walking or bicycling - leaving them exposed, especially at night, to prowling lions and other predators.

"It's too dangerous to walk in Marloth Park," says Dumsile Sambo, 27, a black clerk at the town curio shop. "You always need to look behind you when you are walking because a lion could be hiding in the grass."

Sambo said she has been taught to walk away slowly and leave her clothes behind if she ever encounters a lion. She also obeys the town's new curfew, which prohibits anyone from walking or riding a bicycle on the street from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. - the lions' primary feeding hours.

Fortunately, Sambo says, she has never encountered a lion. Others have not been so lucky.

In January, a man from Mozambique crossed paths with four lions in the middle of the road while riding his bike after the curfew. He hit the brakes and threw his bike at the lions before running away to safety. Locals have nicknamed cyclists riding after dark "meals on wheels."

Marloth Park is like few places in South Africa, or the world. The 3,750-acre town of some 1,200 homes is across the Crocodile River from Kruger National Park, one of the oldest nature reserves, where tourists come from around the world to see elephants, wildebeest, water buffalo, impala, baboons - and perhaps get a peek at lions.

Established as a wilderness retreat for wealthy Johannesburg residents in the late 1977, Marloth Park promotes itself as an extension of the park itself with homes hidden away in the untamed bush.

Private lodges outside town often bring guests into Marloth Park instead of the park because there is a better chance of spotting game. Signs outside town warn visitors that they enter the town at their risk and that the town is not responsible for people who are injured or killed by wild animals.

The border between the park and the town is a sagging barbed wire fence, but in many stretches there is nothing at all, allowing animals from the park to move in and out town freely.

Soon Marloth Park might be closed off from the park altogether. The town recently lost its bid to be incorporated into Kruger National Park.

Instead, park officials plan to erect an 8-foot fence with electric wires between the town and the park, to formalize the border and stop the spread of animal diseases into the park.

A mixture of wildlife lovers and thrill seekers, Marloth Park has about 125 full-time residents and more than 1,000 homeowners who live as far away as Europe and the United States and visit once or twice each year.

"I visited here once and fell in love with it," said Johnny Henderson, who ended a career in television to operate a convenience store and gas station in town.

Like many stores in Marloth Park, Henderson's station has a wildlife theme. His gas pumps are designed in the shape of giraffes and elephants.

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