Man-Eating Lions Risk Extinction As Farmers Take Arms

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 11, 2005
The lions of the greater Tsavo region in southeastern Kenya have a long
history of conflict with humans. Most famously, two lions killed and ate
more than 130 railroad workers during a nine-month rampage in 1898.

Today humans do most of the killing, persecuting the carnivores in retaliation for their raids on livestock. Roland Kays, the curator of mammals at the New York State Museum in Albany, says that if the trend continues and escalates, these African lions may face extinction.

"Right now the ranches we work with are not persecuting lions at dangerous levels, as they are in some other regions," he said.

Currently the Tsavo lions are afforded protection within the confines of the Tsavo National Parks, which encompass about 7,700 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) in southeastern Kenya.

Kays said he does not believe park protection alone guarantees the lions' long-term conservation. He noted that the carnivores require vast territories and that some lion prides exist entirely outside park boundaries.

"The presence of the parks makes this region a relative stronghold for lions in the region, and so it is important to make it as strong as possible," Kays said. "This means protecting those that wander across park boundaries."

Beware the Rains

In his quest to protect the carnivores from further persecution, Kays is joined by Bruce Patterson at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois; Samuel Kasiki at the Tsavo Research Center in Kenya; and Edwin Selempo at the Taita Discovery Center in Kenya.

Last year the team reported the results of a long-term study of the ecology and environmental preferences of the lions in the greater Tsavo region. The results were published in the journal Biological Conservation.

The researchers found that when rain begins to pound the arid savannah, lions are more likely to make an easy meal out of cattle.

During the dry season the majority of the region's water holes wither. This forces parched buffalo, waterbucks, and other lion prey to gather at one of the few remaining sources of water. Lions also hang out at these water holes, waiting for their prey to come to them, Kays noted.

When the rains begin, however, water holes throughout the region fill up, allowing wildlife to spread out. Lions must work harder to get a meal, making livestock a more viable option.

Noting that the behavior of the Tsavo lions contrasts with that of lions in central and western Kenya, Kays cautioned that the results from one study cannot be blindly applied to another region.

"Lions don't care if it's raining or not raining. They care about what native prey is available," Kays said. "The trick is, if they don't have anything to eat, [they] then go after the non-native prey [livestock]."

Lion Conservation

By understanding the regional environmental and ecological conditions that affect the abundance of native prey, conservationists and ranchers may be able to resolve the conflict between lions and cattle.

Kays noted, for example, that ranchers should become more vigilant when seasonal rains fall on the Tsavo region, knowing that the rains signal increased lion predation on livestock.

"Think about the terror warnings in the U.S. alert system: It tells us when to be more vigilant and when to let our guard down a bit. This is analogous in a way," Kays said.

"[The ranchers] can pay more attention, light a couple more fires, stay up a little later when it's the rainy season, and let their guard down, relax a bit more, in the dry season," he added.

Without resolution to the lion-cattle conflict, there is some concern among conservationists that landowners will abandon livestock in favor of more profitable—and land-intensive—property uses, such as growing sisal, a fiber used for making rope and rugs.

"People or corporations who own land are obligated to make some money off it," Kays said. "There aren't a whole lot of opportunities for this [in Tsavo]."

While livestock are prone to conflict with wild carnivores, such as lions and cheetahs, conservationists say ranching is preferable to alternative intensive land uses, such as sisal cultivation or tree-felling charcoal production.

Conservationists see wildlife-based tourism as the least invasive land use. "There are not many places in the world with more potential for ecotourism than this part of the world," Kays said.

Bruce Patterson—a colleague of Kays and leader of Tsavo lion research at the Chicago Field Museum—estimated that ecotourism can annually generate about twice as much income as ranching.

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