MARLOTH PARK, South Africa - No one knows the name of the man who was devoured recently near Nyala Street. The lions left only his head, one foot (still in its shoe), a baseball cap, and a solar panel stolen from a nearby house.
"There were so few leftovers, we couldn't identify him," said Andre Lubbe, the clerk of this vacation town bordering Kruger National Park. "We suspect he was an illegal immigrant from Mozambique, a burglar."
The provincial government responded by capturing and killing three lions suspected of being man-eaters in this town where wild animals migrate easily from the famous Kruger game park next door.
Residents of the expensive thatched vacation homes here were outraged. Not by the death of the unknown man, but by the fate of the lions.
"A lot of people feel the lions are good watchdogs," said Patrick Buckmaster, the chairman of the town council. He said city residents whose weekend homes were easy prey for burglars felt most strongly about protecting the lions.
The reaction to the lion attack touched off a furor. Provincial wildlife officials, accustomed to pleas to kill predators that stray from game parks, could not recall another time when residents wanted to save lions that had eaten a human.
"I don't think half the people realize the threat they face from lions in that area," said Ertjies Rohm, an investigator for the Mpumalanga Province Parks Board. "Once an animal has killed a human and eaten it, the chances that he will do it again are much greater."
And, as is often the case in South Africa, the issue of race quickly entered the debate.
The residents of Marloth Park are virtually all white, affluent and accustomed to driving the dirt roads in cars and trucks, relatively safe from preying lions. But black workers on nearby farms and in Marloth Park cannot afford cars and must walk or bike miles through lion territory to reach the nearest grocery. Provincial government officials suggest privately that the town would react differently if a white person had been killed.
So does Sydney Maziya, 29, a black Marloth Park ranger who was attacked by lions last year. He survived with deep cuts and gashes but spent three weeks recovering in a hospital.
"One of these days, even the white children could be in that situation," Maziya said. "Then are they going to put out those pamphlets saying the lions should be saved?"
Town officials now argue their concern for the lions' welfare is based on their love for wildlife conservation rather than a fondness for feline security guards.
Still, many people have a cavalier attitude about the threat to human life. Councilman Leslie Deakin, noting that lions previously had demonstrated a preference for victims on bicycles, said some residents had taken to calling black cyclists "meals on wheels."
He also expressed frustration at the slant that journalists have taken. "You got it all wrong," Deakin said. "The headline should be: 'Poetic Justice for Burglar.' "
Lubbe, the town clerk, said: "We are not a racist place. That makes me so sorry that the government looks at it that way." He said the town regularly invited black children from area schools to Marloth Park to learn about wildlife.
"The biggest killer by far in Africa are mosquitoes spreading malaria, but the government is doing zip about them - nothing," said Tony Garwood, the owner of a Marloth Park guest house. "Why choose the lions? It's a pure emotional thing."
Johan van der Walt, the town's conservation officer, said people live in Marloth Park because of the wildlife. "Everybody who buys here knows there are risks," he said.
Death in the jaws of lions is not unknown around Kruger, a sultry region of sugarcane plantations and citrus groves that borders impoverished Mozambique. Every few months, Kruger rangers find the remains of some hapless Mozambican job-seeker who attempted to cross the park illegally to evade border patrols.
Lion attacks outside the park are less common, except in Marloth Park.
Last month's incident here was the fifth time in a year that lions have attacked humans in Marloth Park. It was the first fatal attack since the 12-square-mile town was created in 1977 for vacation homes.
Marloth Park is an unusual town, even in a country where wildlife is such a passion; half the town is devoted to a municipal game reserve, and even secretaries in the town hall affect a safari look, wearing khaki uniforms. Only a quarter of the town's 4,000 one-acre lots are developed, so zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs and an occasional elephant are free to roam the bush that separates the houses.
Residents are warned to stay indoors at night, when nocturnal predators such as lions may come over from Kruger to hunt antelope. But many people have become casual about the wildlife.
"We've prophesied for years that one day there'd be a fatal attack," Deakin said. "We've even found children wandering around, with their parents indoors sleeping."
Maziya, the Marloth Park worker who was mauled last year, had little patience with the whites' arguments that lions make good watchdogs.
"They say the lions eat people who were stealing, but I was not stealing," he said.
Maziya was attacked one night last November when he was assigned to relieve a guard on the other side of town. There was no car, so he set out by bike. He took a detour when he heard lions roaring in the darkness, but he still ended up trapped between two cats lying in the dirt road.
One lion caught the rear tire on his bike and knocked him down. He tried to run, but the lion snared his belt with its claw and dragged him to the ground, biting his leg. He closed his eyes, screamed, and started praying to God for a miracle.
When he opened his eyes, one cat was lying on him. The other lion was rolling on its back beside him.
Then the Lord and the headlights of a passing vehicle delivered him from the lions. The cats ran away.
Maziya, whose job is the only source of income in his family, where he is the oldest of six children, expressed relief that provincial park officials drugged three male lions and took the animals to Kruger's labs for testing. Park officials found one of the cats had bovine tuberculosis, which is decimating Kruger's lion population. The lions catch the disease by eating infected buffalo.
Park officials said it was because of the disease - not because the cats were man-eaters - that they had to destroy all three cats.
The parks board also decided to put radio-monitor collars on nine female lions and cubs that frequent Marloth Park to determine if they had lost their fear of humans and should be killed, too.
The death of the unknown man has renewed the government's determination to replace the flimsy four-foot barbed-wire fence that separates the town from Kruger Park. The existing fence is designed more to keep humans out of the park than to keep animals in. Wildlife officials want to replace the barrier with a nine-foot electrified game fence.
Marloth Park has sued to stop the electrified fence. But town officials say they do not object if the government wants to build a big fence, as long as it includes the town inside the perimeter.