Is there such a thing as a man-eating lion?

lion chasing zebra
Image Gallery: Big Cats Lions usually go after prey such as zebras, buffalo and gazelles. See more big cat pictures.
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Man-eaters aren't limited to Hall & Oates' gold-digging temptress. Indeed, the king of the jungle has been known to develop a taste for human flesh, fueling stories of mythic proportions about lions wreaking havoc on groups of people in Africa.

But, like sharks, lions may be misunderstood when it comes to their not-so-friendly encounters with humans. In ideal situations, lions prefer to mooch off of other animals' hard work, scavenging carcasses for the bulk of their food sources [source: African Wildlife Foundation]. To supplement their diet, they seek out prey such as buffalo, gazelles and zebras. However, under certain circumstances that we'll learn about in this article, some lions will opt for human victims.


The most famous instance of man-eating lions occurred in 1898. Two male lions, later named Ghost and Darkness, unleashed a harrowing string of attacks on Ugandan railroad workers. The building project had reached the Tsavo River in Kenya, home to the now infamous Tsavo lions. According to the original reports, the lions slew 135 African and Indian railroad laborers, sometimes dragging the  from their tents while they slept. The violence escalated to the point that construction halted. After that, it took nine months for Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson to track down and shoot the two culprits, effectively ending the killing spree [source: Bernstein].

The Chicago Field Museum later purchased the lion skins from Patterson for a cool $5,000, where the lions now live in stuffed form. Upon deeper investigation into the Tsavo event, museum researchers found records for only 28 deaths [source: ­Holden]. Despite the lowered casualty list, the Tsavo lions maintain their reputation as the man-eaters of Africa, roaming the protected eastern area of the Kenya Tsavo National Park.

But the lions of the Tsavo region aren't the only ones to stalk large numbers of people. In the 1930s, the Njombe district in southern Tanzania suffered an estimated 1,500 deaths from lion attacks [source: Frank et al]. Since 1990, at least 600 people have died in Africa for the same reason [source: Frank et al].


If humans aren't an innate part of the leonine diet, what turns these beasts into man-eaters? Sink your teeth into the answer on the next page.




Why Lions Become Man-eaters

tsavo lion
A maneless Tsavo lion.
Robert Caputo/Getty Images

When looking for a biological explanation for the Tsavo lion attacks, some questioned whether the unique group was actually a different species of big cat that lived during the Pleistocene epoch. For instance, the males lack signature manes and often grow larger than average lions. Another theory attributed the Tsavo lions' aggression to elevated levels of testosterone [source: Newbart].

But so far, these conjectures have come up empty. The Tsavo lion's maneless state is likely an adaption to the hotter weather since fuller, darker manes usually correlate to cooler, wetter climates [source: West and Packer]. This makes sense since the Tsavo region receives little rainfall and high average temperatures. As for their relative size, the lions in the area aren't abnormally large when taken as a whole, and research hasn't confirmed the possibility of increased testosterone [source: Newbart].


So where does the attraction to humans as prey come into play for the "man-eaters of Africa" and the other groups of lions that have ravaged human settlements in modern times? Instead of biological instinct, experts often pinpoint external conditions that influence this predatory behavior.

Overall, the population of lions in Africa is on the decline, hovering somewhere between 16,000 and 47,000 as of 2006 [source: Frank et al]. At the same time, the human population has consistently been on the rise -- along with lion attacks. Tanzania in particular has experienced a harsh upswing in lion confrontations, with at least 563 related deaths since 1990 [source: Kvinta].

Lions will assault humans for a number of reasons. Altered habitats can impact the wildlife, putting the lions in a pinch for feeding themselves. When that happens, lions must sometimes practice prey switching, or changing up their diets to accommodate for the loss of usual food sources [source: Patterson]. This temporary change happens naturally throughout lions' lives because of the migration patterns of their prey. However, when that usual prey runs out, the lions may switch to another food source, like humans.

To get an idea of the factors behind such a substitution, let's go back to the 1898 railroad episode. Much of the larger wildlife such as buffalo and zebra herds had been decimated due to an infestation of rinderpest disease. That eliminated a hunk of the Tsavo lions' food sources. When the railroad project moved into the region, so did piles of bodies of workers who died from exhaustion or poor working conditions. These bodies weren't properly buried, probably attracting lions to the easy meal that made up for the lack of game. After acquiring the taste for human flesh, and without additional prey, the lions began going after live humans.

Many times, humans may serve as easier dinners to acquire than other wildlife. Old or injured lions may capitalize on the ability to sneak up on people and dine on softer flesh (compared to what they would normally chew through). In 2004, for example, a man-eating lion was responsible for slaughtering 35 people over the course of 20 months in Tanzania [source: Dickinson]. The big cat's autopsy revealed a severe abscess in one of its teeth, which experts attribute to why it began feeding off of people.

Another intriguing facet of the man-eating habit is the potential for lions to pass it down to their cubs. One study of the Tsavo lions by scientists at Chicago's Field Museum discovered that generations of the same pride exhibited similar human-eating tendencies [source: Holden].

Today, lions have less space to roam because farmers have converted land into arable plots. Along with agriculture, people also raise livestock, which lions will target, drawing them closer to homes. This type of development has also negatively impacted the amount of available prey for lions, building up to the perfect storm in eastern African countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique [source: Frank et al]. While it isn't a natural practice, survival instinct can set in, and lions can become man-eaters out of necessity.

For related information on lions, visit the links on the next page.



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  • Bernstein, Richard. "In Scientific Pursuit of Africa's Man-Eating Lions." The New York Times. July 24, 2002. (July 7, 2008)
  • Caputo, Philip. "Maneless in Tsavo." National Geographic. April 2002. (July 7, 2008)
  • Dickinson, Daniel. "Toothache 'made lion eat humans'". BBC. Oct. 19, 2004. (July 7, 2008)
  • Frank, Laurence et al. "Lions, Conflict and Conservation in Eastern Africa." Felid Conservation and Biology Conference. January 2006. (July 7, 2008),%20CONFLICT%20AND%20CONSERVATION.doc
  • Holden, Constance. "The man-eating habit." Science. Jan. 31, 2003.
  • Kvinta, Paul. "Man-Eating Lions: Stalking the Spirit Lions." National Geographic Adventure. October 2006. (July 7, 2008)
  • Malkin, Carolyn A. "Humans too tasty to resist." New Scientist. Feb. 15, 2003.
  • Newbart, Dave. "Mystery of the Man-Eating Lion." National Wildlife. August/September 2004. (July 7, 2008)
  • Patterson, Bruce D. "The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters." McGraw-Hill Professional. 2004. (July 7, 2008)
  • West, Peyton M. and Packer, Craig. "Sexual Selection, Temperature and the Lion's Mane." Science. Aug. 23, 2002. (July 7, 2008)