This centuries-old cult in West Africa sacrificed its victims, drank their blood, and ate their flesh in a belief that such acts would grant them supernatural powers.
In the spiritual beliefs of many African tribes, the leopard is a powerful totem animal that guides the spirits of the dead to rest. For many centuries there has existed a leopard cult in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, whose members kill as does the leopard, by slashing, gashing, and mauling their human prey with steel claws and knives. Once a victim has been chosen and the date and time of the killing agreed upon, the executioner, known as the Bati Yeli, is selected. The Bati Yeli wears the ritual leopard mask and a leopardskin robe. Preferably, the human sacrifice is performed at one of the leopard cult’s jungle shrines. After the cult has killed their victim, they drink the blood and eat the flesh. The cultists believe that a magical elixir known as borfima, which they brew from their victim’s intestines, grants them superhuman powers and enables them to transform into leopards.
The first serious outbreak of leopard-cult murders occurred shortly after World War I in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The region’s white administrators captured and executed a number of the cult’s members and felt that the nasty business had been suppressed. In actual fact, the leopard men simply went underground, continuing to perform ritual murders sporadically every year over the next two decades.
In 1946 there were forty-eight cases of murder and attempted murder committed by the leopard cult. Very much like the Mau Mau in Kenya, the leopard men had begun directing many of their attacks against whites, seemingly as a demonstration to the native population that the cult had no fear of the police or of the white rulers. The trend continued during the first seven months of 1947, when there were forty-three known ritual killings performed by the cult.
Early in 1947 Terry Wilson, who had been the district officer of a province in eastern Nigeria for only six months, discovered that the leopard men had begun operating in his jurisdiction, claiming mainly young women as their victims. When Wilson raided the house of a local chief named Nagogo, his men found a leopard mask, a leopardskin robe, and a steel claw. And when, acting on a tip from an informer, Wilson ordered his police officers to dig near the chief’s house, they found the remains of thirteen victims. The chief was put in prison to await trial, and Wilson set out to put an end to the leopard men’s reign of terror.
Although Wilson received two hundred additional police officers as reinforcements, the leopard men became increasingly bold in their nocturnal attacks. One night they defied the police by sacrificing a female victim inside the police compound and got away without being seen. The inhabitants of the region lost all confidence in the police and their ability to stop the powerful leopard men. Even some of Wilson’s men began to believe that the cultists might truly have the ability to shape-shift into leopards and to fade unseen into the shadows.
By mid-August 1947 Wilson knew that his men were becoming unnerved, so he decided to attempt to set a trap for the leopard men. On the path to a village where several slayings had taken place, Wilson sent one of his best men, posing as the son of a native woman. The two walked side by side toward the village while Wilson and a dozen other officers concealed themselves in the bushes at the side of the path.
Suddenly a tall man in leopard robes charged the couple, swinging a large club. The young police officer struggled with the leopard man, but before Wilson and the other men could arrive on the scene, the cultist had smashed the officer’s skull with the club and fled into the bushes.
On a hunch, Wilson told his men to leave the officer’s body in the bushes beside the path. Dismissing the others, Wilson hid in the brush.
Around midnight, just as Wilson was about to return to the compound, a nightmarish figure crawling on all fours emerged from the jungle, pounced on the young officer’s corpse, and began clawing at his face like a leopard. But rather than claws raking the body, Wilson caught the glint of a two-pronged steel claw in the moonlight. The killer had returned to complete the cult ritual of sacrifice. Wilson advanced on the leopard man, and the robed murderer snarled as if he were truly a big cat. When he came at him with the two-pronged claw, Wilson shot him in the chest.
Wilson had provided the people with proof that the leopard men were not supernatural beings. The members of the cult did not have magic that could make them impervious to bullets. They were, after all, men of flesh and blood—savage, bestial, and vicious—but men, nonetheless. Once word had spread that the district officer had killed one of the leopard men, witnesses began to come forward in great numbers with clues to the identity of cult members and the possible location of a secret jungle shrine.
During February 1948 seventy-three initiated members of the cult were arrested and sent to prison. Eventually thirty-nine of them were sentenced to death and hanged in Abak Prison, their executions witnessed by a number of local tribal chiefs who could testify to their villages that the leopard men were not immortal.