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Why Did Lion Kill Tourist in South Africa?

The lioness was doing what it evolved to do best—being a top predator, a scientist says.  

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African lions (pictured, an animal at South Africa's Kapama Game Reserve) evolved to be top predators—and act that way when given the opportunity.

 

The lion that killed an American tourist at a South African park is a tragic example of what lions evolved to do best—being a top predator, a scientist says.

According to reports, the African lioness attacked the female tourist through the open window of a car in Lion Park, a wildlife attraction 19 miles (30 kilometers) north of Johannesburg. The tour operator who was driving the car sustained injuries on his arm trying to fight off the animal.

"Almost any organism around lions might be a potential prey item, and for people to think that they are an exception is folly," says Luke Dollar, program director for National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.

"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." (Also see "California Death Prompts Questions About Lion Attacks.")

Dollar says danger arises when we allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security in the presence of lions or other carnivores.

"We don't have claws or big canines or size as an advantage," he says.

Respect the King of the Jungle

Dollar estimates that dozens, if not hundreds, of people are attacked by lions each year.

In the wild, old or sick lions may target people because they cannot catch their normal prey, and people are generally easier gets.

"If a person is standing next to an impala and a lion decides it's going to eat something, that impala is probably going to get away and that person is probably not." (Learn more about big cats and their behaviors.)

That said, people should not be afraid to observe lions in the wild, Dollar said, but should know that they might be viewed as potential prey and to act accordingly.

For instance, the Lion Park's rules say that visitors keep their windows closed while driving through the grounds as a way to prevent such animal attacks. (Also see "Pittsburgh Zoo Tragedy: Why Did African Wild Dogs Attack Boy?")

"I hope that, as with any tragedy, some good can come from this," he says.

"We need to remember that we call these animals the kings of the jungle for a reason," says Dollar. "We need to respect what they are and their natural behaviors."

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