Rational Fear

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

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There are parts of Africa where humans are just another meal, where walking alone down an unlit path can bring on an overwhelming sensation of helplessness, and where a fear of the dark or of monsters under one’s bed is anything but superstitious. Bantu farmers in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique rank among the poorest in eastern Africa. They grow rice, maize, and cassava in small plots, which they hoe by hand, and live in nearby huts with thatched roofs and mud-caulked walls of interwoven sticks. Most are Muslim, and few are educated beyond primary school. Birthrates are high. Children are everywhere, walking to and from school, playing outside. Women fetch water from wells, streams, or ponds a few miles from home. No one has indoor plumbing; outhouses are at least fifty feet from the back door. Every evening people dine outside in the hot, humid air. Some have kerosene lamps, but no one owns a flashlight. Twilight is brief and the nights are always about twelve hours long. On a cloudy night, the darkness is absolute.

In a bad year, lions attack as many as 140 Tanzanians; unreported cases may double that number. During quiet intervals, lions still attack ten to thirty people a year, and the numbers often flare up again. The majority of lion attacks are fatal, and the victims are eaten. Lions’ patterns of predation on Homo sapiens are similar to those on wildebeest, zebra, or gazelle: they prefer to catch people who are away from others in the dark. Some cases are particularly horrifying: lions dig through thatched roofs and drag elderly people out of bed; they pluck small children from the breasts of their nursing mothers or the arms of their grandmothers; one woman lost her husband and parents in two separate attacks several months apart.

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The threat of man-eating predators has molded our evolution, and has provided fodder for folklore and travelers’ tales. But there have been many more rumors and myths about man-eaters than hard facts. Two of my students, Dennis Ikanda and Hadas Kushnir, and I have conducted detailed studies of man-eating lions in the coastal scrublands of southern Tanzania for the past six years. Ikanda and Kushnir have visited the survivors and the victims’ families to find out what happened in more than 300 lion attacks. Who was taken? What were they doing? Where and when did the attack take place? We hope these data will help authorities devise ways to protect local people from lion attacks and reduce the need for retaliation.

Although the problem has intensified in recent years, lions have eaten people in these areas for as long as anyone can remember. In the past century, lion populations throughout Africa have plummeted to less than 50,000 individuals in total. The big cats have largely been eradicated outside the national parks and game reserves in almost every other part of Africa, but the coastal scrublands stretching from Dar es Salaam down to the Mozambican town of Pemba host the last great population of lions that live among people—and outside any sort of protected area. And here be Man Eaters.

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