Living alongside….. Lions

Photograph: Tim Welby

Lions are amazing animals to encounter while you are on holiday. They are fascinating animals and given their ability to hunt they hold a certain danger which we find exciting. But what about those people who live alongside Lions all year long?

Across much of Africa, around protected reserves, and around the area around the Gir forest in India, lions roam from time to time. It depends from place to place as to how common lion visits are. The Gir Forest has been so successful in protecting lions that their population now far exceeds what the park can support. In 2015 the lion census put the population at 523, with as much as 40% of those living outside the protected Park. Generally Asiatic Lions are less reserved towards humans than African lions, however when cattle drivers are protecting their cows this may not be as true. In 2015 a government estimate suggested there was about 90 domestic animals killed by lions each month. For a relatively poor community this is a large toil, though at the moment the locals are very proud of their lions and support their continued existence alongside them.

In countries such as South Africa, while they have large protected reserves for the lions to live in, by definition a significant portion of this population with lives within a small distance of the fence line. As such roaming lions are not unusual. In the two months that I spent living just outside one of the gates of Kruger National Park I encountered lion prints outside the park on a couple of occasions. Compared to much of the rest of Africa, South Africa is substantially more wealthy and so has the ability to employ enough Rangers to hunt these lions down and bring them back into areas where they should be. Even so there is a significant minority of the Kruger lions who have caught illnesses because they have predated and eaten livestock from the area around the park, particularly cattle.

There are also areas to the north of the Kruger, before and after the border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where lions and elephants still roam unprotected areas. These are highly important places and must be given support – if these communities find a way to live alongside these megafauna it is potentially something that can be copied across large parts of Africa as the population peaks and starts to fall again in the future.

In the area of Southern Tanzania, around some of the largest lion populations left in the world, there were approximately 1000 attacks by lions on humans between 1990 and 2007. The reasoning for these vary greatly, from people in the wrong place at the wrong time to people developing habits that put them in direct competition with the lions. Because the lions in this part of Tanzania are hunted occasionally with a quota of perhaps 50 a year they have a more healthy fear of humans than some parts of Africa. However unlike most protected areas there is no fencing around the Selous and the animals wander freely in and out.

Prior to Western colonisation setting aside large areas for wildlife, people and animals would have lived alongside one another and all people would have known the rules about how to behave so as not put themselves or their livestock at risk. Unfortunately many people in certain parts of Africa have lost this knowledge.

Humans are easier prey given our slow speed, lack of bodily weapons and the fact that our flesh is soft and therefore easier for older or younger animals to eat. This means unfortunately that once lions have started eating humans they usually don’t stop. This behaviour is one thing in a place such as the Kruger where the people should not really be there but it is quite another matter when the lions leave the protected area they live in and go on the hunt for humans into settlements.

Looking across Africa the majority of occasions when humans have started to become part of the food chain for lions has been as a result of a change in behaviour by humans. The book ‘The Man Eaters of Tsavo’ was written about the lions who were eating many of the railway builders but this railway was being built through a huge area with many lions in and now divides Tsavo East and Tsavo West. As such humans were in animal habitat but were not behaving in a suitable way, such as making sure that they slept together and not roaming alone through the bush. They taught this behaviour that is not normal to the Lions. Similarly in the book ‘The Man Eaters of Eden’, the author writes about the man-eating Lions within the Kruger. In this instance it is refugees and immigrants using the Kruger as less well patrolled route into the country. Generally when they travel they are weak and as with the lions in Tsavo they no longer know how to behave in such a way that they do not look like they are food to the lions.

There are fewer stories of man-eating lions in West Africa, possibly because as recent genetic analysis has demonstrated west African lions are actually Asiatic Lions. Asiatic lions lived in close proximity with humans for a long time and have therefore developed to not generally see humans as food. It should also be noted that with a population of only 1,000 to 2,000 lions in West Africa there are far fewer than there are in East and Southern Africa to cause problems.

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