On December 10, 2016, the 35-year-old game scout got a scare of his life. It all started as an ordinary day for him and his colleagues at the base in the Ikorongo Grumeti Game Reserve (IGGR) until they received a call from the operations room informing that an elephant tusk had been spotted in Iharara village in Serengeti district, Mara region.
“The ivory must have been left by poachers and it was our duty to recover it,” he recalls.
After mobilizing his team, the quest to recover the abandoned tusk started. No sooner had they reached Iharara than Suma received another call from the same person informing him that a stray lion had been spotted in the same area. It had just mauled a cow and was running amok.
“We had to suspend our earlier mission of recovering the tusk, knowing that the task that lay ahead was more complicated,” says the Senior Regional Leader for Anti-Poaching’s Special Operations Group (SOG) run and managed by the Singita Grumeti Fund (SGF) in the reserve.
Upon reaching the area Suma and his colleagues met a group of irate armed villagers baying for the male lion’s blood. According to Suma, the blood-mouthed male lion was staring at the villagers, probably looking for its next kill.
“We had sensed danger, for no matter how hard we tried to quell and plead with the angry villagers to stay away from the lion, they would not listen to us,” he adds.
An experienced scout, the father of four asserts that bringing down a beast that had just killed its prey is a matter of life and death. Unperturbed by the noise from the villagers, Suma and his colleagues surrounded the male lion and fired three rubber bullets into the air to try to scare it away.
According to Suma, the lion looked unfazed by their attempts and instead roared back at the scouts.
“This was no ordinary wild animal that we’ve ever encountered. Normally a lion would run once they hear the sound of bullets, but this one stood its ground and threatened us,” he recounts.
In natural history films, lionesses are usually portrayed as the hunters of the pride, while male lions mope around under shady trees.
But males are no layabouts – they’re effective killers in their own right, particularly when they target larger prey like elephants and buffalo.
While the scouts were pondering their next move, the lion unexpectedly attacked their colleague, Josephat, biting him on the leg.
“Our colleague was writhing in pain as the lion wouldn’t let go of the leg.” Suma recalls.
This sent the villagers scampering for their safety once they saw the loose lion on the attack. The wrath of the now fierce beast also saw some of the scouts running for their lives, leaving behind Suma and the injured Josephat.
“I reached for my weapon as I had to try to rescue my colleague from the lion’s vicious fangs,” he recalls.
Realizing that it was about to be fired at, the lion turned on Suma. “There he was following and roaring at me. My instincts told me to load the gun with a live bullet…but it was too little too late,” he says.
In a flash of a second the lion jumped on Suma, bringing him down to the ground. What followed was pulling and shoving between the two antagonists.
“It sank its sharpened teeth into my left elbow…the pain was unbearable. I had to drop the gun for my safety,” Suma remembers.
Suma’s struggle with the lion lasted for five long minutes.
“It overpowered me as I couldn’t get it off my body,” he notes, adding: “I thought I was surely going to die as there was nobody there to come to my rescue.”
Realizing that he would be the lion’s next meal, Suma forced the gun he was clutching in his right hand into the lion’s mouth.
“One of its teeth bit the gun…you could tell the kind of pain it felt because it let me go and ran away,” Suma remembers, adding:
“I was all alone there, bleeding profusely and reached for the radio for help. I couldn’t recall what followed thereafter.”
He remembers to have woken up at Kamanga Medical Centre in Mwanza to where he was airlifted after receiving initial treatment at Makundusi.
Lady luck must have been on Suma’s side as he didn’t suffer any fracture, save for the deep wound on his left elbow.
“I stayed at Kamanga hospital for two weeks until I fully healed,” he chuckles. Much as he cheated death on his encounter with the male lion, Suma had never thought of quitting his job.
As he puts it, this is something he loves doing in spite of the challenges that come with it.
When the sun rises, Suma and his colleagues head out to the reserve to look for poachers oblivious of another danger.
Poaching is a complex threat that requires a multi-pronged approach to combat it effectively.
But it is Suma and his colleagues working day and night, putting their lives on the line for the protection of the iconic Serengeti ecosystem and Tanzania’s natural heritage.