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Hungry African lions taking to humans

Attacks on humans by man-eating lions are on the rise in Tanzania and Mozambique, raising the stakes in the conservation game as environmentalists strive to save the big cats from extinction.
The number of African lions in the wild is estimated at no more than 40,000.Richard Sobol / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Attacks on humans by man-eating lions are on the rise in Tanzania and Mozambique, raising the stakes in the conservation game as environmentalists strive to save the big cats from extinction.

Lions in the area have developed a taste for human flesh because people have been sleeping outdoors to protect their crops from raiding bush pigs, which the cats follow onto croplands, a leading expert said.

“In Tanzania in the early 1990s there were about 40 recorded lion attacks a year. In the past couple of years they have risen to over 100 and about 70 percent are fatal,” said Craig Packer, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

“The problems are down in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, a region which is very remote and very poor,” Packer said Tuesday. Packer, who has headed the Serengeti Lion Project since 1978, was in Johannesburg for a conference on conservation strategies to save the African lion which also aims to find ways to reduce human-feline conflict.

Estimates for the continent’s lion population range from 23,000 to 40,000. Much of west Africa has dense human populations and the bulk of the lion habitat there has been turned into farmland.

“Lions have lost 80 percent of their historic range in the last century and we don’t want the next century to be a repeat,” said Kristin Nowell, a member of the lion specialist group at the World Conservation Union, the world’s largest network of conservation groups.

Bush pigs and people
In southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, which are contiguous, Packer said there was believed to be around 5,500 lions. This is one of the biggest concentrations of the predator and most of that range is outside of protected areas.

“The region doesn’t have a lot of natural prey or a lot of livestock and so as a result, the lions there eat a lot of bush pigs, which is unusual,” said Packer.

“But the bush pigs are also quite a pest and so the people in those rural areas sleep outside to protect their crops. So it seems that the lions are drawn into the cropland where they encounter sleeping people,” he said.

And humans are easy prey.

“Once they discover that they can eat people they get quite bold. They are even breaking into people’s houses and pulling them out,” Packer said.

The lure of the easy kill even attracts lions in the prime of life, contrary to the widely held view that most man-eaters are elderly animals with diminished hunting abilities.

“There was a bad man-eater in the Rufiji district of Tanzania a couple of years ago which they think ate around 40 people. When it was finally destroyed they found it was only about four years old, which is quite young,” he said.

An attack every month
Packer said in the Lindi region of southeast Tanzania there had been an average of a lion attack every month for the past 15 years.

“Imagine living in an area where you know there will be a lion attack in the next four weeks. That must be terrifying.”

People in the region and in neighboring Malawi also frequently fall victim to crocodile attacks. But Packer said while crocodiles lay in wait in rivers, the lions actively stalked people even in their homes — a more chilling scenario.

In short, both are man-eaters but the lions are actually man-hunters.

Packer said strategies to prevent conflict between rural peasants and killer cats included the digging of trenches around garden plots to stop the bush pigs from raiding crops and being followed by lions in the process.

Lacking indoor plumbing, people could also be encouraged to build toilet facilities closer to their homes to limit the distance taken on nocturnal forays when the lions were on the prowl.

“It has to be something that people can afford and are able to do themselves,” Packer said.

Trophy hunting approach?
Nowell said a priority should be to improve the state of the lion’s prey base. “If there is nothing for them to eat they turn to livestock and people too occasionally ... One of our objectives is to come up with strategies to reduce lion/human conflict.”

Nowell said one avenue being pursued was to transplant successful lion trophy hunting programs in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa to other countries.

“As long as trophy hunting is done sustainably and doesn’t affect the viability of the lion population then there is quite a lot of support for it among range states,” she said. “It helps to raise money for conservation and gives local people an incentive to have lions living in their neighborhood.”

Outside of Africa the only wild lion population is confined to the Gir forest in India.