Formerly a strange superstition said that on him who should kill a leopard there would come an evil disease, curable only by ruinously expensive ceremonies of three weeks' duration, under the direction of the Ukuku (Spirit) Society. So the natives allowed the greatest ravages, until their sheep, goats, and dogs were swept away; and were aroused to self-defence only when a human being became the victim of the daring beast. The carcass of a leopard, or even the bones of one long dead, were not to be touched.
With this fear of the leopard was united a superstition similar to that of the "wehr-wolf" of Germany, viz., a belief in the power of human metamorphosis into a leopard. The natives had learned, from foreigners who were ignorant of the fact that there are no tigers in Africa, to call this leopard fiend a "man-tiger." They got their fears still more mixed by a belief in a third superstition, viz., that sometimes the dead returned to life and committed depredations. This belief was not simply that disembodied spirits (mekuku) returned, but that the entire person, soul and body (ilina na nyolo), rose temporarily from the grave, with a few changes (among the rest, that the feet were webbed). Such a being, as mentioned in a previous chapter, was called "Uvengwa." At one time, while I was at Benito, intense excitement prevailed in the community: doors and shutters were violently rattled at night; marks of leopard's claws scratched doorposts; their tracks lay on every path; women and children in lonely places saw their flitting forms, in the dark were knocked down by their spring, or heard their growl in the thickets. It was difficult to decide, in hearing these reports, whether it was a real leopard, a leopard fiend, or only an uvengwa. To native fear, they were practically the same. I felt certain that the uvengwa was a thief disguised in a leopard skin. Under such disguise murders were sometimes committed. By bending my thumb and fingers into a semi closed fist, I could make an impression in the sand that exactly resembled a leopard's track; and this confirmed my conclusions as to the real cause of the phenomenon.
The pioneer of the Gabun Mission, Rev. Dr. J. L. Wilson, in 1842, found the were-wolf superstition prevalent among all the tribes of Southern Guinea. The leopard "is invested with more terror than it otherwise would have, by a superstitious apprehension on the part of the natives, that wicked men frequently metamorphose themselves into leopards and commit all sorts of depredations, without the liability or possibility of being killed. The real leopard is emboldened by impunity, and often becomes a terrible scourge to the village be infests. I have known large villages to be abandoned by their inhabitants, because they were afraid to attack these animals on account of their supposed supernatural powers."
At Gabun, about 1865, there still remained a jungle on one side of the public road that constituted the one street of the town of Libreville, as it followed the curve of the bay for three miles. There were frequent alarms and occasional murders along lonely parts of that road. The natives believed that the leopard fiend was a beast; the French commandant believed it was a human being. He had the jungle cut away. Since then, no mangled bodies have been found there.
Among the Garenganze people, in 1884, Mr. Arnot often chid them "for their want of bravery in not hunting down the many wild animals that prey around their towns, carrying off the sick people, and frequently attacking and seizing solitary strangers. They excused themselves by explaining that these wild animals are really 'men of other tribes,' turned, by the magic power they possess, into the form of lions, panthers, or leopards, who prowl about to take vengeance on those against whom they are embittered. In defending this absurd theory, one man said it was not possible for a Luba and a Lamba man to go out into the country together without one stealing a march on his neighbor, getting out of sight, and returning again in the form of a lion or leopard, and devouring his travelling companion. Such things, they say, are of daily occurrence amongst them; and this foolish superstition leads them not only to tolerate the wild animals about, but almost to bold them sacred."
This particular superstition still exists extensively. As late as 1898, it is stated of the Barotse of Southeast Africa: "They believe that at times both living and dead persons can change themselves into animals, either to execute some vengeance or to procure something that they wish for: thus a man will change himself into a hyena or a lion in order to steal a sheep, and make a good meal off it; into a serpent, to avenge himself on some enemy. At other times, if they see a serpent, it is one of the 'Matotela' or slave tribe, which has thus transformed himself to take some vengeance on the Barotse."