UP study finds that lions hunt particular cattle types

Posted on February 09, 2022

When wild lions sneak up on a herd of cattle to grab an easy meal, the dice seem to be loaded more heavily against certain herd members, which are more likely than the others to be killed and eaten, according to a new study conducted by scientists from the University of Pretoria (UP).

The research, which was conducted with international collaborators, suggests that tiny horns, certain hide colours and patterns, youth and social behaviour all seem to play a part in whether a particular herd member ends up a lion’s belly.

While big bulls with long, sharp horns may be better equipped to fight off a lion attack, the more social behaviour of female herd members can offer considerable advantages.

“Heifers [younger females] are likely to benefit from safety in numbers, whereas bulls spend more time on their own away from the herds, rendering them more susceptible to predators,” say Professor Michael Somers and Dr Florian Weise, co-authors of a new paper entitled ‘Lions prefer killing certain cattle types’.

As part of his postdoctoral studies co-funded by UP, Dr Weise has been involved in a range of studies on lion predation and human conflict along the northern border of Botswana, in collaboration with Prof Somers of the Eugène Marais Chair of Wildlife Management, which is part of UP’s Mammal Research Institute.

Overall, the researchers found that lions show specific preferences for particular cattle types. They exploit cattle when available and repeatedly kill cattle in areas where they are left unguarded or unprotected, also targeting animals that are easiest to catch.

Prof Somers notes that lion populations across Africa have dropped precipitously over the past century, putting them at risk of local extinction in some areas, especially when they move out of protected parks and are killed by livestock owners protecting their herds.

“We found that lions were most active at night, with 87% of cattle killings happening between dusk and dawn,” say Dr Weise, Prof Somers and their fellow authors.

Because the Okavango lion population is one of the last strongholds for the long-term survival of lions, the joint research of the US-based CLAWS Conservancy with UP has investigated several potential strategies to reduce such conflict, also in collaboration with the University of Newcastle in Australia and the University of Siegen, Germany.

Previous research has included a “lion alert” pilot study in which herders got advance warning of potential lion attacks by combining GPS, tracking transponders and cellphone technology. Other research has focused on encouraging herders to reduce predation by using and building better lion-proof kraals (stockades), especially during the dry season when cattle travel further in search of water and grazing.

In the latest study to mitigate conflict with livestock herders, five wildlife researchers teamed up to establish whether lions show any marked preferences for certain cattle, such as animals with no horns or very small horns.

Interestingly, say the researchers, cattle with no horns were targeted preferentially by lions, while long-horned cattle were “highly avoided” in general.

“Cattle with black and brown mottled pelage (coat colouring) were most preferred, while pure black, pure white and dark brown colouring were significantly avoided,” said the research team, which also included Mathata Tomeletso and Andrew Stein of the CLAWS Conservancy and Matt Hayward of the University of Newcastle’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences.

The preference to attack cattle with small or tiny horns was understandable, since this reduced the risk of lions getting injured.

However, the more frequent attacks on cattle with mottled or non-uniform colour coats was more difficult to explain.

Dr Weise and his colleagues note that lions, like domestic cats, have more rods and cones in their eye retinas as well as a tapetum lucidum (a reflective layer behind the retina) that increases the amount of light available for enhanced night vision.

“This, however, comes at the cost of not seeing colour so well as, for instance, humans,” the authors say. “This explains why mixed pelage does not afford any protection – but not why plain coloured cattle are eaten less. Perhaps, as lions respond rapidly to moving prey but seem to have difficulty seeing stationary animals, the mixed pelage pattern helps identify movement and is attacked more frequently.”

Young calves with little experience of predation were also targeted preferentially, especially when they stampeded in panic during lion attacks inside poorly protected enclosures.

Another notable observation from the study was that it could be counterproductive for herders to drive lions off cattle kills. While this reaction was understandable, lions were more likely to mount repeated “hit and run” attacks to get enough food to meet their nutritional requirements.

The study was based on 168 cattle deaths that were linked to lions in the eastern Panhandle area of the Okavango Delta between 2016 and 2018.

Click on the gallery in the side bar to view more pictures.

- Author Prof Michael Somers and Dr Florian Weise

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