Stealing a meal from a lion, on first thought, seems like a bad idea. Lions kill people. But this might not be such a bad strategy, and it could have been one that helped early humans to obtain protein and survive. It might also be a practice that continues in Africa today, according to biologists who witnessed an episode of kleptoparasitism (stealing prey from another) in Benoue National Park in Cameroon a few years ago. Their report appears in the African Journal of Ecology.
One morning, the biologists were tracking a radio-collared lion when they observed two lions eating a western hartebeest. The lions fled the scientists’ car and hid while the humans were in the area. After a couple of hours, the scientists left the area. When they returned to the site in the late afternoon, the lions were gone, but there were several local people near the carcass. Like the lions, the people fled and hid when the scientists approached.
The hartebeest, which had been mostly intact in the morning, was now stripped of its meat. Cut marks indicated that this had been done by knife, not lion teeth. In addition, near the carcass there were fresh leaves, the kind of leaves that local people could have used to wrap the meat for transport. Though the scientists had no way of knowing if the lions had been chased off from their kill or simply left the hartebeest behind, they were certain that the locals had made off with the lions’ breakfast.
This encounter prompted the biologists to look for similar reports. They found a study in Uganda that reported nine cases of humans actively scavenging meat from lions and leopards. At a game reserve in Tanzania, local people, including some park staff, are known to obtain meat from lion kills. Taking meat from lions is thought to be a common practice among the nomadic Mbororo in North Cameroon. And, the scientists write, “one village in the Central African Republic is known to allow lions living in the surroundings, solely for easy access to meat.”
The extent of this practice across Africa is not known. The biologists worry, though, that it could be hurting the lions. From the BBC News:
"We believe that the impact of this kind of behaviour might be significant on lion populations, since lions have to spent an enormous energy effort to capture the same amount of prey, if their prey gets stolen," says de Iongh . "This may have a serious impact on a lion population which is already under serious stress by human encroachment and may eventually contribute to more rapid extinction."
In Waza National Park, for example, the population of lions is thought to have declined from 50 to 60 animals in the 1990s to between 12 and 20 in 2008, when the last survey was conducted.
Considering that an estimated six lions are killed each year by livestock owners and poachers, de Iongh and his colleagues fear that lions in the park are on the verge of going extinct.