Researchers propose measures to curb lion attacks in Tanzania

08/15/05

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL-- Since 1990 lions have killed more than 563 Tanzanians, including nursing mothers, children playing outside their huts and people dragged from their beds. Consequently, increasing numbers of lions are being killed by local people. In an effort to find a way to protect both people and lions, University of Minnesota researchers have analyzed the factors involved in attacks and identified the control of bush pigs -- a major agricultural pest -- as the most promising strategy for curbing attacks. The research will be published Aug. 18 in Nature.

Conflicts between lions and people have escalated recently, in part because of Tanzania's rapid population growth -- from 23.1 million in 1988 to 34.6 million in 2002 -- and an associated loss of lion prey outside protected areas. About 39 percent of attacks happen during the March-May harvest season, when farmers often sleep in their fields to protect their crops from bush pigs; more than 27 percent of attacks occur in fields. Other statistics make it clear that no one is immune: More than 18 percent of victims whose ages were known were younger than 10, and 69 percent of older victims were men, who are more likely to tend cattle, forage for bush meat, walk alone at night and retaliate against man-eaters and cattle-killers with nets and spears. Most rural dwellers live in houses with thatched roofs, and lions simply force their way inside. Lacking indoor plumbing, people are attacked when visiting outdoor toilets.

"People in the United States often tend to think of lions, tigers, etc. as cute and cuddly because we don't know what it's like to live with predatory animals who threaten us and our familes," said Craig Packer, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the university's College of Biological Sciences, who led the study. "That's because 150 years or so ago, our ancestors in the United States killed off the most dangerous predators in the country.

"We need to understand that Africans are facing a far more dangerous threat today, and they are responding in the same way our ancestors did. Most conservationists regret the way cougars and wolves were largely exterminated from the United States in the 19th century, but we still have time to help Africans live with lions. Our primary concern is to protect people and their livestock without eradicating the lions. But people obviously come first."

The researchers' analysis showed that lion attacks are most common in districts with the lowest abundance of natural prey such as zebra, hartebeest or impala and the largest numbers of bush pigs. Several people interviewed reported that lions entered their villages or fields in pursuit of bush pigs, and some even said they tolerated lions because the big cats helped control bush pig numbers.

Moving people away from areas prone to lion attacks is not feasible, the researchers report. Thus, pig-control strategies offer the best hope for reducing encounters between lions and people. These measures would have the added benefit of reducing the need for village farmers to sleep in their fields.

"Human population growth has led to encroachment into wildlife areas and depletion of natural prey populations, but attempting to sustain viable populations of African lions places rural people at risk of their lives and livelihoods in one of the poorest countries of the world," the researchers wrote. "Mitigation of this fundamental conflict must take priority for any lion conservation strategy in Africa."

Packer has set up an organization, Savannas Forever, to address this need. Through its Web site, savannasforever.org, online donations can be made to help bring together different stakeholders to create the proper balance between conservation and human safety. Savannas Forever seeks to provide solutions through scientific analysis of the interplay between human population growth, the economics of ecotourism and sustainable trophy hunting, and government policy throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Packer plans to establish a series of interrelated projects in Tanzania and Botswana by summer 2006.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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