UP study finds that lions hunt particular cattle types

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.

Prof Michael Somers and Dr Florian Weise

February 9, 2022

  • Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

  • Dr Florian Weise
    German-born wildlife researcher Dr Florian Weise was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Wildlife Management and its Mammal Research Institute from 2016 to 2018.

    He has also served as programme manager and principal investigator for the CLAWS Conservancy Pride in Our Prides lion conservation and research programme in northern Botswana and is Resident Scientist at the Ongava Research Centre in Namibia.

    He began his studies at the Mweka College of African Wildlife Management in Tanzania in 2004, and later obtained his MSc and PhD degrees from Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK for his studies on elephant behaviour and carnivore translocations into free-range environments in Namibia.

    Dr Weise has published more than 30 peer-reviewed papers and is currently Associate Editor of the Namibian Journal of Environment.
    More information on his research can be found at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Florian-Weise or ORCID iD: 0000 0002 6331 5216
    More from this Researcher
  • Professor Michael J Somers
    Wildlife researcher and lecturer Professor Michael J Somers is recognised internationally as an expert in his field, and currently serves on four International Union for Conservation of Nature specialist advisory groups: African wild dogs, otters, wild pigs and small carnivores.

    Born in Pietermaritzburg, he studied zoology, botany and wildlife management at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) and the University of Pretoria (UP) before obtaining his PhD in zoology from Stellenbosch University.

    Currently an Associate of the Mammal Research Institute at UP and a core team member of the Centre for Invasion Biology in the University’s Department of Zoology and Entomology, Prof Somers’ main research focus is on carnivore ecology, conservation and wildlife management.

    Following a four-year stint in the field studying wild dogs in Zululand, he returned to teaching in 2001, a passion he discovered during his PhD studies.

    His research output has also been prolific, having published 129 papers in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters, 40 other publications and two books (with a third book in press). He has also supervised or co-supervised 42 honours research projects, 21 research MSc and eight PhD students.

    Research conducted with his students have covered a wide variety of subjects, including the impact of fencing on wildlife; studies on species ranging in size from spiders and crabs to predator species such as lion, cheetah and leopard, and whales; as well as studies on aphids, seed dispersal or the impacts of fire.

    Last year, Prof Somers co-authored a paper voicing strong concern about the Animal Improvement Act (1998), cautioning that reclassifying several South African wildlife species as farm animals would not “improve” the genetics of the species and would instead have considerable negative genetic consequences and pose ecological and economic risks.

    Prof Somers has also served as Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal of Wildlife Research, Academic Editor of PLOS One and PeerJ, associate editor of Mammalian Biology and African Journal of Wildlife Research, and sits on the editorial boards of Koedoe and Nature Conservation Research.

    Of the many wildlife species you have studied, is there one animal that fascinates you most?
    African clawless otters, which I did my PhD on. Although you do not see them often, every encounter with them is memorable.
    What attracted you to teaching?
    I instantly liked teaching, and the students seemed to like my approach. Students want their lecturers to be engaging, humorous, wise and informative. At the start, I was young and naive, with no formal teaching training or the advantage of having read good books on teaching and learning, but I still got good feedback, which convinced me to follow an academic path. By the time the students graduate, they should also be able to use the knowledge, think independently, gather information themselves and be able to assess new knowledge.

    With the rapid growth of Africa’s human population and disappearance of wild landscapes, are you optimistic that wild animals have enough space to survive?
    It is context dependent. An increasing amount of land has been put under conservation, which is encouraging. An example of this is the Transfrontier parks. However, even in many African conservation areas, the numbers of animals are declining owing to the overuse of resources within these areas. We have a new project in West Africa, and I have been shocked to learn how few of even the large charismatic species such as lions and wild dogs are left there. Wildlife still needs more space and protection in that space.
    You co-wrote a book on the pros and cons of fences for wildlife. Will fences ever disappear?
    Although the preferred scenario is to have fences disappear, I do not believe they will go for the most part. Present reserves will continue to drop barriers to join others or become part of more extensive reserves. This is good for ecosystem functioning. Many reserves in Africa do not have fences but rather buffer zones, which sometimes work. As the human population expands and needs more resources, the reserves are put under increasing pressure, the buffer zones are not appropriately managed and the animals in the reserves are overharvested. Although not ideal, but as shown to be somewhat effective in South Africa, fencing some new areas, maintaining the fences and having effective law enforcement may be needed.

    As a lecturer, what is your approach to instilling ethical behaviour in your students?
    As we often see in the media, the wildlife sector (like any industry, really) is plagued by corruption and unethical behaviour. This includes poaching, wildlife theft and the poor treatment of animals. Our students are likely to encounter this after leaving university, so it is essential to alert them to this and try to instil in them a good work ethic and respect for wildlife as a whole, as well as for individual animals.

    What do you do in your spare time?
    I still enjoy game drives to watch animals, often in our local Rietvlei Nature Reserve. I also try to play the guitar.
    More from this Researcher

Related Gallery

Other Related Research

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2020. All rights reserved.