The girl, missing for a week, had been taken by seven men who wanted to force her to marry one of them, said Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa.
She was beaten repeatedly before she was found June 9 by police and relatives on the outskirts of Bita Genet, Wondimu said. She had been guarded by the lions for about half a day, he said.
“They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest,” Wondimu said.
“If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage,” he said.
'Some kind of miracle'
Tilahun Kassa, a local government official who corroborated Wondimu’s version of the events, said one of the men had wanted to marry the girl against her wishes.
“Everyone thinks this is some kind of miracle, because normally the lions would attack people,” Wondimu said.
Stuart Williams, a wildlife expert with the rural development ministry, said the girl may have survived 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 they didn’t eat her,” Williams said.
Ethiopia’s lions, famous for their large black manes, are the country’s national symbol and adorn statues and the local currency. Despite a recent crackdown, hunters kill the animals for their skins, which can fetch $1,000. Williams estimates that only 1,000 Ethiopian lions remain in the wild.
The girl, the youngest of four siblings, was “shocked and terrified” after her abduction and had to be treated for the cuts from her beatings, Wondimu said.
He said police had caught four of the abductors and three were still at large.
Kidnapping young girls has long been part of the marriage custom in Ethiopia. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia are by abduction, practiced in rural areas where most of the country’s 71 million people live.