Rational Fear

As human populations expand and lions’ prey dwindles, the poorest people—and hungriest lions—pay the price.

Tanzania map

An outbreak of man-eating lions may last for two to three years, or until the habituated lions and their offspring are killed. In the meantime, more than forty people may fall victim in a roughly forty-square-mile area. The worst outbreak of man-eating lions in history was in the Njombe district of southern Tanzania, where as many as 1,500 people were killed between 1932 and 1947 (see map right). The outbreak was apparently precipitated by a game-control program on the border with Malawi and Zambia, intended to prevent the spread of rinderpest (a livestock disease) between eastern and southern Africa. George Rushby, a British game warden, was sent by the colonial authorities to eradicate the man-eaters, and he expressed surprise that there could be so many lions in the area, since there seemed to be so little lion prey and so many bushpigs!

In a statistical analysis, my students and I found that the districts of Tanzania with the highest number of lion attacks on humans in the twenty-first century also had the lowest abundance of “normal lion prey” and the greatest abundance of bushpigs. Areas surrounding the famous national parks in northern Tanzania (Serengeti, Tarangire, and Manyara) have abundant wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo and very few bushpigs—so tourists have little to fear!

Fear among locals, however, has been a significant impediment to dealing with man-eaters. The belief is pervasive among local people that these are not animals at all, but malevolent magic spirits. Sometimes the first victim’s family won’t even tell their neighbors about the attack, fearing that the death was retribution for some heinous crime committed by their dead relative. People’s perceptions of magic are deep and abiding. In some cases, villagers rely on the local medicine man to tell them if it is a spirit lion or a real lion. Local villagers will tell you that they don’t mind real lions—it is the spirit lions that terrify them. But over the course of any persistent outbreak, the medicine man eventually changes his mind and declares the offending lions to be real—and control strategies are finally implemented.

Lion chase woman

Woman explains how, one evening, her five-year-old son was grabbed from a path by a lion when she had briefly stepped aside to relieve herself. The lion dropped the boy when she gave chase, but his upper ribcage had been crushed and he died the next morning.

Photo by Craig Packer

The belief in spirit lions can tear apart the fabric of local society. In northern Mozambique, outbreaks of man-eating lions have led to public lynchings of villagers who were accused of unleashing evil spirits. Elsewhere in Mozambique, the number of official reports of man-eating lions fell to zero during the tenure of a particularly powerful and famous medicine man. After his death, cases were no longer exclusively attributed to spirits, and the number of reports returned to normal.

Further reinforcing the belief that the killers are supernatural, the movements of man-eating lions can be highly erratic and unexpected. One famous man-eater in southern Tanzania was called Simba Karatasi, literally “paper lion”, because he seemed to move about as randomly as a piece of paper blown by the wind. Lions rely on stealth and surprise when capturing their prey: they cannot outrun their usual quarry of wildebeest or zebra, so they often stalk them to within several feet before a final charge. Since lions are primarily nocturnal, most of their long-range movements are under cover of darkness, and even in undisturbed areas like the Serengeti, lions may move two miles in a single night looking for unsuspecting prey. Where prey is scarce, they can move as much as twelve and a half miles overnight. And since many man-eaters survive mostly on bushpigs, they may only feed on human flesh every fourth or fifth meal. So it is no surprise that people think they are appearing out of nowhere.