Image: lion rests in a tree in Kenya
Karel Prinsloo  /  AP file
A male lion rests in a tree in the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya. The reserve has an exceptional population of game, with an annual migration of zebra and wildebeest from neighboring Serengeti National Park in Tanzania every July and August.
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updated 2/10/2012 2:35:03 PM ET 2012-02-10T19:35:03

Some lions in the wild now live within a “landscape of fear” as a result of threats posed by humans.

Lions have drastically changed the way they behave and perceive their environment because of new, numerous and deadly clashes with humans, according to a new study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

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“The ‘landscape of fear’ represents relative levels of predation risk as peaks and valleys that reflect the level of fear of predation an animal experiences in different parts of its territory,” lead author Marion Valeix of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit told Discovery News.

She and colleagues Graham Hemson, Andrew Loveridge, Gus Mills and David Macdonald explained that most prey animals live within a fearful mindset that keeps them on a constant, stressed out watch. Now even high-level predators may live this way too when they exist in or around human-dominated landscapes.

The researchers studied the behavior, foraging and territory of lions living in one of the last natural migratory systems, the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana, where abundant packs of Burchell’s zebra and blue wildebeest live in different parts of the park on a seasonal basis.

Lands used by people for grazing their livestock surround the protected wilderness area. This creates a human-lion conflict, since when the zebra and wildebeest move en masse out of lion areas, many lions will resort to hunting livestock, such as cattle, to avoid losing established territories and reproductive loss, among other reasons.

GPS tracking of the lions determined that the major driver of lion behavior was the risk of conflict with humans. While the herders in Botswana do not always have easy access to firearms, some do.

Hemson said “we extracted lead shot from one lion in the study and another lion was shot in the spine and paralyzed. As such, we have evidence that lions may survive encounters with better armed people, and these surely make a lasting impression” on the other lions.

He does not think lions are born with this fear, since cubs are very inquisitive and would regularly follow his “vehicle and circle it and even test the bumper with their teeth and paws.” But through their mother and other pride members, they learn to fear humans as they grow up.

While a handful of very large protected areas, such as in Kalahari national parks, may permit lions to live without encroaching on humans, “these areas are getting fewer and fewer,” Hemson said.

In Botswana, the researchers hope herders will reduce the abundance of livestock left unattended at night, since these attract lions that are looking for a meal but are also trying to avoid humans. They also call for overall improved livestock husbandry, which might include more consistent use of protective enclosures.

The scientists, however, lament that during this present difficult socioeconomic time, such measures are not likely to be implemented anytime soon. They hope an incentive structure might be put into place for herders, providing them with financial and other rewards to make the improvements and to promote tolerance of lions and other wildlife.

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Johan du Toit, head of the Wildland Resources Department at Utah State University, wrote in a commentary, “The Makgadikgadi cattle herders and lions exemplify the human-wildlife conflict that has existed ever since livestock domestication began. Now, however, with advanced weapons and poisons, expanding human and livestock populations and reduced indigenous prey abundances, humans have virtually eradicated large predators — and big cats in particular — from the world’s rangelands.”

Du Toit, however, agrees that “there could be smarter ways of mitigating the conflict.”

He points out that prey animals benefit from fear, using it to avoid risks in parts of their territory. Now that we know wild lions can experience similar near-continuous fear, he believes “smart managers could make more use of it in mitigating human-wildlife conflict.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Ten of nature's scariest animals

  • Stephen Chernin  /  AP file

    Humans seem to love a good scare, particularly on Halloween. Ghosts, zombies, vampires and other fictional characters are good for putting a chill down your spine. But if you're looking for something truly scary, let nature be your guide. Click on the "Next" label to see 10 of the animal world's scariest creatures.

  • Box jellyfish pack a deadly sting

    Anders Garm

    The box jellyfish is ghostly and squishy, with 24 eyes and a tangle of tentacles, each equipped with about 5,000 stinging cells. The creatures pack a special type of venom — the most deadly in the animal kingdom — that is activated by contact with certain chemicals found in fish, shellfish and humans. The venom can cause cardiac arrest, cripple the nervous system, and eat away skin. Several victims stung at sea die before they reach shore.

  • Black mamba: Speedy snake with lethal venom

    Eric Marquette

    Even people who are fearless around snakes should be careful in the presence of a black mamba. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the territorial and aggressive snakes grow up to 14 feet long and travel at speeds of more than 12 miles per hour. Fortunately, black mambas are shy and usually race away when humans approach. But when threatened, they attack with repeated strikes to deliver lethal venom. Only a quickly administered antidote saves victims from death. The black mamba gets its name from the color of the inside of its mouth, seen here.

  • Saltwater crocodiles eat people

    Greg Wood  /  AFP - Getty Images

    Saltwater crocodiles are aggressive and territorial. And unlike their North American alligator cousins, they regularly eat people. They live in saltwater estuaries, and freshwater rivers and swamps, ranging from Australia north to Southeast Asia. The biggest males weigh in excess of 2,200 pounds and measure 20 feet from toothy snout to scaly tail, making them the world's largest reptiles. Though they mostly dine on smaller prey such as fish and shorebirds, adults will occasionally tackle larger animals, including careless people. Tourists lure this croc out of the water with a chunk of meat.

  • Polar bears: a poster child best left alone

    USFWS

    Polar bears are a poster child for groups campaigning to save the world from the ravages of global warming. But the cute and cuddly image that polar bears project are an icy disguise. Polar bears are the world's largest land predators; some males top the scales at 1,500 pounds and wield 2-inch-long claws. They normally kill seals and the occasional walrus twice their size. Human attacks are extremely rare but potentially fatal.

  • Wolves are revered and feared

    AP file

    Revered by some, feared by others, the gray wolf is the world's biggest, most powerful dog. Strong jaws and sharp teeth help them rip into their prey. Wolves primarily hunt deer, moose and bison, but when wild supplies are tight, domestic cattle and sheep are easy targets — hence the wolf's uneasy relationship with humans. In the 20th century, the predators were nearly hunted to extinction. Continued fear of the wolf continues to muddy their road to recovery.

  • Lions take a mean bite

    Daniel Munoz  /  Reuters

    In 1898, a pair of lions reportedly ate 135 people working on a railroad in Kenya. Though lions continue to make the occasional human meal, most of the slaughtering now goes the other way. Today, the cats are vulnerable to extinction, due to their human predators. Conservationists are racing to keep the survivors alive. In this image, two lions at a Sydney zoo gaze at each other before a non-human meal.

  • Shark attacks: Very feared, very rare

    Image: Casa Rinconada
    Reuters

    Maybe the 1975 film "Jaws" is to blame, but whatever the cause, many humans are terrified of the great white shark, the largest predatory fish in the ocean. The fear is understandable: These giants have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, they can reach 20 feet in length, and they top the scales at 5,000 pounds. Despite all that, scientists insist the predators pose little risk to humans. They say the chances of winning the lottery are higher than the chance of being attacked by a great white. Moreover, most attacks are not fatal. In this image, a great white swims past a cage holding tourists.

  • Scariest spider is a recluse

    Image: Chankillo
    Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file

    Tarantulas give lots of people the creeps, but scientists say most of the big and hairy spiders are harmless to humans. The real spider to fear is the brown recluse, a six-eyed spider with a violin-shaped head and a venomous bite that can lead to necrosis — the death of skin tissue. Fortunately, as their name suggests, the spiders are reclusive and seldom aggressive, only biting when threatened. Most bites have little or no effect on their human victims, but some are nasty and even fatal.

  • Mosquitoes kill millions every year

    USDA

    The world's deadliest animal? The mosquito. In some parts of the world, these pesky, bloodsucking insects spread diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile Virus that kill nearly 3 million people a year. Many of the malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where scientists and international aid organizations are busy developing strategies to stop the disease's lethal spread.

  • Vampire bats feed on blood

    Ho  /  AFP - Getty Images

    Finally, what list of scary animals would be complete without the vampire bat? The thumb-sized flying mammals with eight-inch wingspans feed exclusively on blood in the dark of night. Their prime targets are cattle and horses, but they are known to attack humans, too. Heat sensors in the bat's nose help it find flowing blood. They bite through the skin with razor-sharp teeth and lap up what oozes out.

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