Man-eaters

## Today’s blog is a guest post from Craig Packer, the director of the Serengeti Lion project. ##

In the summer of 2006, I sent my 19-yr old son, Jonathan, and 18-yr old step-daughter, Carrie down to the land of man-eating lions with my graduate students, Hadas Kushnir and Dennis Ikanda. They crossed the Rufiji River every day in dugout canoes to collect data on lion attacks from previous years, dodging hippos and crocodiles in the slow moving waters.

Cell phone coverage in Rufiji was sparse, so Jonathan only sent the occasional message:

   A woman and a child were attacked last night in a village we had visited two days ago. they’re both recovering in hospital.  26-June-2006 18:31:15

Rufiji is just outside the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania’s largest protected area, and the Selous is reputed to be the home of the largest lion population in Africa. There was a signboard near the site where a man-eater named Osama had been shot after killing 40 people, and things had been relatively quiet for the past few years.  But more lions were starting to appear, and Hadas and Dennis wanted to figure out how people could protect themselves in the event of future outbreaks.

Dennis had recruited a couple of staff from the Wildlife Division in Dar es Salaam for the first big man-eating survey in September 2004.  Dennis drove south towards Rufiji while Bernard headed west towards Dodoma.  As soon as they reached the outskirts of Dar they were already in man-eating country.

They spent three weeks on the road, passing through dozens of agricultural villages that had suffered lion attacks, covering the coastal Tanzanian districts as far as the Mozambique border then up the west side of the Selous, visiting sites where attacks had taken place as long as 15 yrs ago, as recently as last week.

No one ever forgot a lion attack.  Survivors relived their experiences as if they’d only been attacked the night before.  Relatives of victims still felt the loss as keenly as if their loved ones might miraculously walk in through the front door.

I had helped Dennis design a questionnaire, and each survey team asked the circumstances of each attack, the location, time of day, time of year.  They also asked which prey species the lions might be eating in the vicinity.  Were there still any zebra or buffalo? Anything at all?

I sat down with Dennis in December 2004 and studied the data.  Most lion attacks took place in the wet season, at harvest time, and most of the attacks were in agricultural districts where there was nothing else for the lions to eat – no wildebeest or buffalo, no zebra or impala.

Most attacks occurred when lions pulled someone out from a temporary hut or dungu – usually just a simple A-framed roof above a raised platform a meter or two off the ground. These people were subsistent farmers with a single crop per year; their lives depended on a good harvest, and crop pests could quickly destroy an unguarded field – especially at night.

The worst man-eating areas lacked the lion’s usual prey species, but there was an abundance of one particular crop pest.  The bush pig turned out to be the magnet that drew lions to the farm fields, right into the areas where people slept in their flimsy huts. The worst hit areas were mostly Muslim, so people were unwilling to touch a pig – and there was no market for bush pork.

People might also be attacked while walking home alone in the dark or heading off to Mosque at dawn.  People might be pulled out of bed, and kids might be attacked while playing around the house in the evening.

But we suspect these were later victims of lions that first saw the connection between people and food once they had been drawn to the fields by the bush pigs.

Pig control is impossible.  No one will ever eradicate the bush pigs from rural Tanzania – no one will ever be able to fence off all their fields – but we thought it might be possible to find an alternative way to reduce pig damage so that people wouldn’t have to sleep in a dungu.

So Jonathan and Carrie went to Rufiji in 2006 to help Dennis and Hadas.  Hadas was born in Israel, and the kids were frustrated to be left in the care of such a determined mother hen.  And Dennis was driving the same clapped-out Land Rover he had used when he was my field assistant in Ngorongoro Crater. So their most memorable adventures seemed to involve wild rides, steering rods and duct tape.  I was worried about money, so I was half hoping our impending college expenses might be avoided with the help of a hungry lion…

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About ali swanson

I'm an ecologist studying how large carnivores coexist. I spend way too much of my time trying to stop hyenas and elephants from munching my camera traps!

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