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Yes, Lions Will Hunt Humans if Given the Chance

The tragic attack at a South AFrican park serves as a reminder that lions are predators and humans are prey

The attack on a female tourist should serve as a reminder that lions are not only wild animals, they're perceptive predators. ( Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr)
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Earlier this week, a female African lion attacked and killed a 29-year-old American woman on safari outside Johannesburg, South Africa. It's a tragedy, but given what zoologists know about lions, not one that's totally unexpected.

While visiting a lion reserve on a car tour, the woman rolled her window down to take some pictures, according to Brent Swails and Dana Ford of CNN. She likely did not see the lioness approach. The animal stopped three feet from the vehicle before lunging through the window. A guide, who was also in the car, tried to fight the animal off, sustaining injuries to his arm. Staff chased the lioness away, and the woman died at the scene. Signs in the park warn visitor to keep their windows rolled up, and the part has had previous incidents stemming from open windows.

While the facts of the attack are horrible, the lioness didn't do anything that's inconsistent with her biology, as Mary Bates explains for National Geographic. Lions are extremely accomplished predators and adept hunters. For them, humans count as prey. Ignoring their prowess in this department is a big mistake. Luke Dollar, a conservation scientist who directs the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, told Bates. "Almost any organism around lions might be a potential prey item, and for people to think that they are an exception is folly" Dollar said.  "I would imagine that every other primate that co-exists with big cats is acutely aware of the position they hold relative to the top predators of the world."

Given the intersection of tourism and conservation at sites like the lion park, humans sometimes acquire a false sense of security. As society expands to less developed areas, humans, lions and other predators have also inevitably crossed paths more frequently.

Since not all attacks are reported, it's hard to put numbers on the number of lion attacks seen globally. Estimates range from 20 to 250. Tanzania has the highest population of lions in Africa, and between 1990 and 2004, the country saw 593 deaths and 308 injuries from African lion attacks.

Aside from lack of awareness on the part of the human, there are a few things that might drive a lion to attack a human. The first and most obvious is hunger. Without horns or fangs, humans also look like easier targets to older or sick lions. In certain instances, females might perceive humans as a threat to their cubs. If the animal is injured, it also might feel threatened by the presence of a human.

Though an investigation of the attack continues, park officials told SABC News that they do not plan to execute the lioness involved in this week's attack. Instead, she will be moved to a private part of the park.

Dollar told Bates he hopes that the attack can at least raise awareness among tourists and encourage people to be careful while out observing the impressive predators in the wild.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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