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Nemesis of a lioness

Avatar of inke inke - 21. April 2017 - Discover Namibia

On 1 May 1954 the Dagbreek insert “Fleur” dedicated a whole page to the lion attack on the Els family.

Jan, the legendary strongman of the South African bushveld, apparently could pick up a plough with one hand and point it in the direction from which the rains usually came. The problem is that nobody ever witnessed his stunts. But when a South West African farmer’s wife who tackled an outraged lioness with her bare hands is mentioned, you can well believe it, because there were witnesses and to this day she still carries the scars as evidence of the encounter. 

It was nearly three o’clock on the morning of 12 April 1954. The silence on the Administration farm, later called Marenphil and today the site of Hobatere Lodge, some 240 km northwest of Outjo, was suddenly broken by the incessant barking of the dogs. Renier Els, the farmer, jumped out of bed, grabbed his headlamp and rifle and rushed outside. In the light of the lamp he saw the gleaming eyes of three lions at the sheep kraal about 100 metres from the house. He got into his vehicle and drove to the kraal. On arrival he found four lions eating off the carcass of a goat they had killed. He started firing at them from the vehicle and when the noise died down, he returned home under the impression that he had killed one lion and wounded two. 

At daybreak, he drove to the kraal together with his wife Hendrina and their three children, Maryna, Renier and Phlippie, to investigate. Behind the kraal they all got out of the vehicle and saw two dead lions on the ground. The children went to have a closer look, but there was not much time to talk about the shooting because a lioness suddenly appeared just 15 metres away from them. She stormed past the children and went straight for Renier. 

According to Hendrina, Renier expected the lioness to pause before attacking, but the animal decided otherwise. She jumped up from her hiding place and charged so suddenly that Renier managed to fire only one shot. The bullet grazed the lioness and the next moment Renier landed on the ground under the outraged animal. His rifle fell to one side and he only had his hands to defend himself. In this instant of mortal danger he tried with all his might to resist the attack. Hendrina was armed with one of Renier’s rifles, but due to the wrestling that was taking place it was impossible for her to fire a shot as she might hit her husband. 

Out of desperation but also out of utter concern for her husband’s safety, she dropped the rifle on the ground and grabbed the lioness by the head. She tried to pull the growling animal off her husband by the ears, but the lioness simply ignored Hendrina’s nearly superhuman effort. Despairingly she started to pummel the animal’s head with her fists. All of a sudden the lioness turned her attention to Hendrina and pounced on her. 

In order to distract the lioness Hendrina stuck out her left arm, hoping to defend herself with her right hand. The lioness stood on her hind legs against Hendrina, while the farmer’s wife mustered all her strength to fend off the biting, scratching animal. But the weight of the lioness became too much and they both fell to the ground with the lioness on top of Hendrina. During their struggle she sustained serious bite and scratch injuries and her strength was diminishing rapidly. Suddenly a shot rang out and the deadweight of the lioness dropped onto Hendrina and pinned her to the ground. Renier had killed the animal by firing the rifle with the barrel of his gun pressed against its head. With difficulty he pulled his wife from underneath the dead lion. 

The children were huddled together in utter terror as they watched their parents’ fight for survival.  

Bloodstained, the family returned to the house where Hendrina disinfected the wounds as best she could. They then drove to the closest neighbour who took the children to Kamanjab. He phoned the doctor in Outjo and told him about the attack. The doctor arranged to meet Hendrina and Renier on their way to Outjo, where they met halfway. He immediately administered injections and the necessary first aid before the couple resumed their journey to the hospital in Outjo. Renier was discharged after a short while but Hendrina, with deep wounds to her left shoulder and arm as well as a long scratch mark below her chin, had to remain in hospital for ten days. 

While still regaining her strength in hospital Hendrina gave instructions that soap be made from the lion fat because it apparently produced a beautiful white colour. She also decided that the skin of the lioness should lie on the floor in their home so that many feet could walk over it. Years later in a newspaper interview about the incident the reporter saw a small figure of a lion in a display cabinet in their home in Outjo. When asked about it, Hendrina confirmed that it was crafted from the soap made from the lion fat. 

Even though Renier shot the lioness, saving himself as well as Hendrina and possibly the children, it was undoubtedly the farmer’s wife who was the heroine of the day. This was confirmed by the numerous letters and telegrams sent to her from all over. One of the telegrams from admirers in Sussex in England arrived on 15 April 1954, only three days after the incident, and it was special because of the way it was addressed: “Mrs RC Els, ‘Woman Grabs Lioness to Save Family’, the Els farm, 150 miles from Outjo, South West Africa.” The message was the following: “We simply had to write to tell you how brave we think you were and to add our congratulations to the many others that you will surely receive.” The telegram ended in Afrikaans: “Al die beste wense” (best wishes).

A similar letter from Cape Town was addressed: “Mrs Els, (the lion shooter), Outjo Hospital, Outjo, South West Africa.”

More letters were sent from Cape Town, Lutzville, Vereeniging and Johannesburg among others, as well as from Dordrecht in the Netherlands, Salisbury in former Rhodesia, from Germany and Belgium. The story appeared in various newspapers, such as Landstem, Allgemeine Zeitung, Naweekpos, Die Suidwester, Die Vaderland, Die Burger, Die Transvaler, Fleur (a supplement of Dagbreek) and even The Rhodesian Herald. Suddenly thousands were talking about Hendrina Els. Her commentary?  “It was pure luck that we did the right thing at the right time. We can only say that a Higher Power protected us.”

When we talked to Hendrina Els in 2012, she was 88 years old and a resident of House Palms in Walvis Bay.

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