As a child growing up in the African bush I have spent many long days staring endlessly into the scrubby distance of the Serengeti, Kalahari, Kruger and countless other safari parks in the back of a hot car with my three siblings, keeping my eyes peeled for lions. But I never thought I’d have to do it in Essex.
Reports emerged on Sunday night that holidaymakers on a caravan site in St Osyth, Essex, had seen a large feline animal in a neighbouring field. The police were alerted and sent two helicopters with searchlights and a team of armed officers to hunt it down.
Next morning, there was still no sign of it. But in my experience, lions are very good at eluding people who are desperately trying to find them. And in the middle of the night, unless you have a ranger with 20 years’ experience of tracking with you and are employing a great deal of stealth, you are going to be disappointed.
Helicopters and searchlights might work if your prey is a gun-toting drug dealer and your terrain the streets of West Baltimore, but for lions in the countryside, it isn’t going to cut it. So there was every chance the lion was still roaming free.
Firstly, I had to establish where the beast had last been seen. Stephen Atkin, who was staying in a caravan at the site, was one of the seven people who witnessed it. “We’d just been watching Come Dine with Me and having dinner in the caravan when a gentleman knocked on the window and told us to come and have a look,” he told The Times.
“It’s a lion, that was my first thought. It was the length of two sheep, and it was a large cat. I witnessed it for 20 to 30 minutes cleaning itself, rolling itself in the field and then walking off into the hedgerow. There were times when it was looking across at us — it knew we were there. I wasn’t scared, but we did say ‘Whose caravan is open? We’ll all run to that one first if it starts coming this way’. The minute it put a paw in our direction, we’d have been in there.”
Spotting a lion in Essex? Easy, I thought — it isn’t as if it has the advantage of camouflage in the dry savannah. A lion in the green fields around Clacton-on-Sea should stand out like a Jersey cow in the Kalahari. In fact, Essex at this time of year is exactly the colour of lions and there are dozens of handy haystacks to hide behind.
Cut off by police, the last known whereabouts of the “lion” was going to be hard to get to. But I am used to that — for five years my family lived on the edge of the Serengeti in rural Tanzania. In the Serengeti, you have to drive huge distances, on and off road, trying to keep the binoculars steady over the bumps, before you find anything.
The village of St Osyth was swarming with Essexites who could think of no better way to spend their bank holiday than to go lion-baiting. They seemed to think the lion would press the button on the pedestrian crossing and amble up to them any minute.
“What will you do when it does?” I asked. “I haven’t thought, actually. Give it some raw steak?”
So I set off through the fields, scanning the horizon for ears. But within minutes my search was thwarted. I came across David Lord, a farmer whose father owns the caravan site. “It wasn’t a lion,” he said. “It was a big household cat. My dad went and saw it, and said it looked like a big cat. But the police said we’d got to treat it like a lion. I suppose they have to take it seriously. But who has a lion in Essex?”
The police last night called off the search. “We believe what was seen was a large domestic cat or a wildcat,” said a spokesman.
“Extensive searches have been carried out and witnesses spoken to, yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area.”
I have spent hours keeping absolutely still in a boiling hot car staring at a “lion”, just for it to turn out to be a termite mound, or sent my dad bouncing for miles off road to see a “pride of lions”, to discover it’s actually a couple of sleepy antelope. This time, it seems, Essex’s ferocious lion is the equivalent of a termite mound.