Tiny town likes its lions to roam free

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. 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 just 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," said John Johnson, 70, a 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.

Angry Marloth Park residents persuaded the Mpumalanga government to hold off a decision on the lions until the town completes an independent study to determine if the predators and humans can co-exist.

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.

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 lion.

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

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.

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.

Henderson said he was never so busy as when the deadly lion attack occurred. Tourists and wildlife enthusiasts poured into town to see the lions.

"It put us on the map. Unfortunately, someone had to die for it to happen," he said. But Henderson is not optimistic about the future of lions in his town.

"It's the animals' place, but unfortunately human beings have built up the town," he said. "If a lion eats a child, what choice do we have?"

And if the lions were gone, it would be a huge blow to the town's fledgling tourist industry.

Brian Welby-Cooke, chairman of the Marloth Park Property Association, said that the character of Marloth Park, and the lions, have a good chance of staying. Initial reports from the study of the town's lion populations indicate that the lions have adapted to having humans around, he said.

Most lions are noisy when they are together. But in Marloth Park, researchers discovered, they are learning how to be quiet so they don't attract so much attention.

"They don't like so many people watching them," he said.

There are plenty of other animals to watch, Welby-Cooke said. On a recent visit to his Marloth Park home, he hand-fed lettuce to a kudu and watched a civet cat stroll by his family during a barbecue.

"Where else in the world can you do that? I don't think there is another place. And if there is, good for them."