ADDIS ABABA -- Police say three lions rescued a 12-year-old girl kidnapped by men who wanted to force her into a marriage, chasing off her abductors and guarding her until police and relatives tracked her down in a remote corner of Ethiopia.
The men had held the girl for seven days, repeatedly beating her, before the lions scared them off. The big cats guarded her for half a day before her family and police found her, Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo said yesterday by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 560 kilometres west of here.
"They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest," Wondimu said.
Stuart Williams, a wildlife expert with the Rural Development Ministry, said the young girl likely was saved because she was crying from the trauma of her attack.
"A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why (the lions) didn't eat her. Otherwise they probably would have." News of the June 9 rescue was slow to filter out from Kefa Zone in southwestern Ethiopia.
"If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse," Wondimu said. "Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage."
The girl, the youngest of four siblings, was "shocked and terrified" and had to be treated for injuries from the beatings, Wondimu said.
He said police had caught four suspects, but were still looking for three others.
In Ethiopia, kidnapping has long been part of the marriage custom, a tradition of sorrow and violence whose origins are murky.
The United Nations estimates that more than 70 per cent of marriages in Ethiopia are by abduction, practised in rural areas where the majority of the country's 71 million people live.
Ethiopia's lions, famous for their large black manes, are the country's national symbol. Former emperor Haile Selassie kept a pride of lions in the royal palace in Addis Ababa.