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Bad Cats?

Tuesday 1st June 2010

Bad Cats?

Lions have recently received some bad press. Prime among their recent detractors are … conservationists! Those who study leopards, hyenas, and African Wild Dogs complain about the mortality inflicted by lions on their study animals. Wild Dog researcher complaints were even featured in a cover article of BBC Wildlife magazine in July 2009.


Give me a break. While it is true that lions kill other predators in ecosystems where they co-occur, this has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Killer whales kill seals. Sharks kill other fish. Spiders kill insects. Domestic cats kill mice. Hyenas and leopards kill lion cubs. Lions kill hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and African Wild Dogs. It is a natural process.




In a recent article on this site it was shown that apex predators, like lions, have a controlling influence on smaller predators in the ecosystem. Ignorance of this important relationship among members of predator guilds and persecution of apex predators has led to significant imbalances in ecosystems.


Lions are responsible for two levels of control on populations of co-occurring predators. In open habitats lions often can witness kills made by other predators and are quick to appropriate those free lunches. In more dense habitats, lions are highly attuned to following descending vultures to a similar free lunch. When lions make their own kills, they are often attended by jackals and hyenas, both of which take their risks in attending too closely. Fights, occasionally with lethal consequences, also erupt among different hyena clans and lion prides, especially when kills of large prey are made on borders or within territories of neighbours. A carcass is a valuable commodity among predators.


The second level of control results when lions come upon other predators or vice versa. African Wild Dogs, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs could easily stumble across a pride of lions during their daily activities. Depending on how fast they react makes the difference between being killed or living another day.




The implication among the African Wild Dog researchers is that lions are a pest. They are not. They do not actively hunt Wild Dogs. They do not eat Wild Dogs (hyenas do as in the picture above). Lions probably kill more other lions than they do Wild Dogs. In ten years of research in Botswana on lions I recorded two Wild Dogs killed by lions. Two. In five years of Wild Dog research in Kenya I recorded no Wild Dogs killed by lions. Zero.


So let’s have a sense of balance here. No doubt lions take prey from Wild Dogs and occasionally kill them. Many more Wild Dogs are killed by diseases entering their habitats from domestic dog sources, and many more Wild Dogs are killed by humans – even being run over by vehicles – than are ever killed by lions. Wild Dog researchers who claim that lions are the major source of mortality for their study animals need a wakeup call. Wild Dogs are an endangered predator in Africa, and their researchers need to make careful distinctions between natural and man-made causes of mortality. One of those can be prevented and the other needs to be accepted. Articles with cute titles like “Cats vs. Dogs” in BBC Wildlife Magazine do no justice to the very long-term complex relationships among African predator guilds.