Editor, Earth News
Even large male lions are wary of people
Lions in Cameroon are having their kills stolen from under their noses by hungry villagers.
Incidences of such kleptoparasitism, the stealing of food from another, usually occur between top predators such as lion, hyena and cheetah.
But people are increasingly getting in on the act, conservationists say.
They suspect the practice may be much more common than thought, and are concerned that it could threaten the dwindling numbers of lions in Cameroon.
An account of one particular incident where local villagers were caught stealing meat from a lion kill has been published in the African Journal of Ecology.
On the morning of the 28 March 2006, biologist Marjolein Schoe of Leiden University in The Netherlands and colleagues were tracking a male lion fitted with a radio collar in Benoue National Park, in the Northern Province of Cameroon.
They found him and a collared female lion both feeding on a newly killed Western hartebeest antelope.
As Schoe's vehicle approached, both lions fled into nearby thicket where they remained hidden until the researchers left.
Around 5pm that afternoon, the researchers returned to the site of the kill.
As they arrived, they encountered several local villagers, who also ran away and hid in the bush.
All the remaining meat on the hartebeest carcass had been stripped away by knife, leaving only the head, feet and a few remains. Leaves also littered the carcass, suggesting that the whoever had cut away the meat had used leaves to package it.
Near to the hartebeest also lay a wooden pole, further evidence that people had been scavenging from the kill.
Remains of a Western hartbeest killed by lion, found on the morning of 28 March, 2006
"Marjolein Schoe was involved in fieldwork and she actually made this field observation. She was surprised and angry actually that people had chased off the lions," says colleague Hans de Iongh of Leiden University, who is also a member of the World Conservation Union's Cat Specialist Group and the African Lion Working Group.
"Although this observation did not fit in the main objective of the [original] study, we decided to publish it, since such events are rarely observed."
Large predators, such as lions, spotted hyenas, African wild dogs and cheetahs routinely steal fresh kills from one another, a behaviour known as kleptoparasitism.
But de Iongh says he has come across another incidence in Cameroon's Waza National Park where people chased away lions from a newly killed roan antelope, before taking the meat.
Further research by de Iongh, Schoe and colleague Barbara Croes also suggests that the practise of stealing lion kills may be more prevalent than thought.
"From interviews with Bororo herdsmen, we have learned that it is a common habit among this tribe to chase away lions from fresh kills, with sticks or with fire," says de Iongh.
Other lion researchers across Africa have also provided de Iongh's team with anecdotal reports of people stealing meat from lion kills.
"This suggests that it may be more common practice than we think," says de Iongh.
The same kill, later the same day. Leaves left on the floor (denoted by arrows) show where meat was wrapped and removed
People are stealing the meat to get an easy source of protein, say the researchers, as lions may be wary enough of people to be easily scared off their kills.
But the researchers fear that stealing the lions' food may have a detrimental impact on the big cats.
"We believe that the impact of this kind of behaviour might be significant on lion populations, since lions have to spent an enormous energy effort to capture the same amount of prey, if their prey gets stolen," says de Iongh. "This may have a serious impact on a lion population which is already under serious stress by human encroachment and may eventually contribute to more rapid extinction."
In Waza National Park, for example, the population of lions is thought to have declined from 50 to 60 animals in the 1990s to between 12 and 20 in 2008, when the last survey was conducted.
Considering that an estimated six lions are killed each year by livestock owners and poachers, de Iongh and his colleagues fear that lions in the park are on the verge of going extinct.