Man-eater Lions

Lions of tsavo (GFD License – 1.2)

Lions do not usually kill or eat people, but some (usually males) seem to seek out human prey. Well-publicized cases of man-eating include the Tsavo maneaters, where 28 railway workers involved in building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway were taken by lions over nine months during the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898. In another case, which took place in 1991, Mfuwe man-eater killed six people in the Laungwa River Valley in Zambia. In both the cases, the hunters who killed the man-eaters wrote books describing the animals’ predatory behavior.

Most interesting part of these incidents is that they bear some important similarities:

The animals involved in both incidents were larger than normal; they lacked manes, and seemed to suffer from tooth decay. Theory involving physical infirmity, including tooth decay, is not favored by all researchers; analysis of jaws and teeth of human-eating lions in museum collections indicates that, while tooth decay may justify some incidents, prey reduction in human-dominated areas is a more likely cause of lion predation on humans. In their analysis of Tsavo incident, Kerbis Peterhans and Gnoske have acknowledged that sick or injured animals may be more prone to man-eating, but the behavior is “not unusual, nor necessarily ‘aberrant'” where the opportunity exists. They say if inducements such as access to human corpses or livestock are present, lions will frequently prey upon human beings. The authors note that the relationship is well-attested amongst other pantherines and primates in the paleontological record.

Lions’ liking for human flesh has been systematically examined. American and Tanzanian experts report that man-eating behaviour in rural areas of Tanzania increased greatly from 1990 to 2005. At least 563 people were attacked and many eaten over this period — a number far greater than the more famed “Tsavo” incidents of a century earlier. These incidents took place near Selous National Park in Rufiji District and in Lindi Province near the border of Mozambique. While the spreading out of villagers into bush country is one concern, the authors argue that conservation policy must diminish the danger because, in this case, conservation contributes directly to human deaths. Cases in Lindi have been documented where lions seize humans from the center of substantial villages.

Contention of author Robert R. Frump (The Man-eaters of Eden) is that refugees from Mozambique regularly cross Kruger National Park at night in South Africa and in the process they are attacked and eaten by the big cats. Park officials have also conceded that man-eating is a problem there. Frump believes thousands may have been killed in the decades after apartheid sealed the park and forced the refugees to cross it at night. For nearly a century, before the border was sealed, Mozambicans had regularly walked through the park in daytime with little harm.

According to one estimate more than 200 Tanzanians are killed each year by lions, elephants, crocodiles, snakes and hippos and that the numbers could be double with lions thought to kill at least 70 of those. Packer, who studied these cats, has recorded that between 1990 and 2004, lions attacked 815 people in Tanzania out of which 563 were killed. Packer and Ikanda are among the few conservationists who believe that western conservation efforts must take into account these matters not just because of ethical concerns about human life, but also for the long term success of conservation efforts and lion preservation.

A man-eating lion killed by wildlife officials in Southern Tanzania in April 2004 was believed to have killed and eaten at least 35 people in various incidents covering several villages in the Rufiji Delta coastal region. According to Dr Rolf D. Baldus, the GTZ (a German development cooperation agency) wildlife programme coordinator, it was likely that the animal preyed on humans because it had a large abscess underneath a molar which was cracked in several places. He further said, “This lion probably experienced a lot of pain, particularly when it was chewing.” As in other cases this lion was large, lacked mane, and had a tooth problem.

The “All-Africa” record of man-eating incident commonly is considered to be not Tsavo, but the lesser-known cases that took place in the late 1930s through the late 1940s in what was then Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Professional hunter and game warden, George Rushby, eventually killed the pride, which over three generations is thought to have killed and eaten 1,500 to 2,000 people in what is now Njombe district.

In captivity

Widely seen in captivity, lions are part of a group of exotic animals that are the core of zoo exhibits since the late 18th century. Though today’s most zoos are more selective about their exhibits, there are over 1,000 African and 100 Asiatic lions in zoos around the world. Considered an ambassador species, they are kept for tourism, education and conservation purposes. In captivity lions can reach an age of over 20 years — Apollo, a resident lion of Honolulu Zoo (Hawaii), died at the age of 22 in August 2007. A zoo-based lion breeding program usually takes into account the separation of the various lion subspecies, while mitigating the inbreeding that is likely to happen when animals are divided by subspecies.

Lions and Royalties

Lions have always been favorites of royalties. They were kept and bred by Assyrian kings as early as 850 BC. Alexander the Great was said to have been presented with tame lions by the Malhi of northern India. Later in Roman times, these cats were kept by emperors to take part in the gladiator arenas. Roman notables, including Julius Caesar, Sulla and Pompey often ordered the mass slaughter of hundreds of lions at a time. In the East, lions were tamed by Indian princes. Marco Polo reported that Kublai Khan also kept lions. The first European “zoos” were owned by the nobles and royal families in the 13th century and until the 17th century were called seraglios; at that time, they came to be called menageries, an extension of the cabinet of curiosities. Later they spread from France and Italy during the Renaissance (roughly from 14th to the 17th century) to the rest of Europe. In England, although the seraglio tradition was less developed, lions were kept at the Tower of London in a seraglio established by King John in the 13th century, probably stocked with animals from an earlier menagerie started in 1125 by Henry I at his palace in Woodstock, near Oxford; where lions had been reported stocked by William of Malmesbury.

Seraglios served as expressions of the nobility’s power and wealth. Large animals such as big cats and elephants, in particular, signified power, and would be pitted in fights against each other or domesticated animals. By extension, menageries and seraglios served as demonstrations of the dominance of humanity over nature. Consequently, the defeat of such natural “lords” by a cow in 1682 astonished the spectators, and the flight of an elephant before a rhinoceros drew jeers. Such fights would slowly fade out in the 17th century with the spread of the menagerie and their appropriation by the commoners. The tradition of keeping big cats as pets would last into the 19th century, at which time it was seen as highly eccentric.

The keeping of lions at the Tower of London was irregular, being restocked when a monarch or his consort, such as Margaret of Anjou the wife of Henry VI, either sought or were given animals. Records show they were kept in poor and unhygienic conditions there in the 17th century, in contrast to more open conditions in Florence at the time. The menagerie was open to the public by the 18th century. Admission was on the payment of money or the supply of a cat or dog for feeding the lions. A competitor menagerie at the Exeter Exchange also displayed lions until the early 19th century. William IV closed down the Tower menagerie and animals were transferred to the London Zoo, which opened its gates to the public on 27th April 1828.

Trade in wild animals flourished alongside improved colonial trade of the 19th century. Lions were considered fairly common and inexpensive. Although they would barter higher than tigers, they were less costly than larger, or more difficult to transport animals such as the giraffe and hippopotamus, and much less than pandas. Like many other animals, lions were seen as little more than a natural, boundless commodity that was ruthlessly exploited with terrible losses in capture and transportation. The commonly reproduced images of the heroic hunter chasing lions would dominate a large part of the century. Hunters and explorers exploited a popular Manichean division of animals into “good” and “evil” to add exhilarating value to their adventures, portraying themselves as heroic figures. This resulted in big cats, always suspected of being man-eaters, representing “both the fear of nature and the satisfaction of having overcome it.”

 Lions were kept in overcrowded and dirty conditions at London Zoo until a larger lion house with spacious cages was built in the 1870s. Further improvements took place in the early 20th century, when Carl Hagenbeck designed enclosures that resembled more closely to natural habitat, with more open spaces, concrete ‘rocks’ and a moat instead of bars. He designed enclosures for both Melbourne Zoo and Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, among others. Though his designs gained popularity, the old bars and cage enclosures prevailed until the 1960s in many zoos. In the later decades of the 20th century, larger and more natural enclosures with the use of wire mesh or laminated glass instead of lowered dens allowed visitors to come closer than ever to the animals, with some attractions even placing the den on ground higher than visitors. Lions are now housed in much larger naturalistic areas. Modern guidelines more closely approximate conditions in the wild with closer attention to the lions’ needs, highlighting the need for dens in independent areas, elevated positions in both sun and shade where animals can sit and ample ground cover and drainage as well as enough space to roam.

There are also instances where lions were kept by private individuals. In one such case George Adamson and his wife Joy Adamson raised a lioness named Elsa. Soon the lioness became so famous that her life was documented in a series of books and films.

Baiting and taming

Lion-baiting is a blood sport that involves the baiting of lions in fight with other animals, more often than not dogs. Records of it exist in ancient times through until the 17th century. It was ultimately declared forbidden in Vienna by 1800 and England in 1825.

Lion taming refers to the practice of taming the lions, for amusement and entertainment, either as part of an established circus or as an individual act. The term is also frequently used for the taming and display of other big cats such as cougars, tigers and leopards. The practice was started in the first half of the 19th century by a Frenchman Henri Martin and an American Isaac Van Amburgh who both toured widely, and whose techniques were copied by a number of followers. Van Amburgh performed before the Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in 1838 when he toured Great Britain. Martin composed a pantomime titled Les Lions de Mysore (“the lions of Mysore”), an idea that Amburgh quickly borrowed. These acts obscured equestrianism acts as the central display of circus shows, but truly entered public perception in the early 20th century with cinema. In demonstrating the dominance of humans over animals, lion taming served a purpose parallel to animal fights of earlier centuries. The greatest proof of a tamer’s supremacy and control over a lion is demonstrated by placing his head in the lion’s mouth. The now iconic lion tamer’s chair was probably first used by American Clyde Beatty (1903–1965).

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