The Ghost and the Darkness

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The man-eaters of Tsavo are undoubtedly the most famous lions in history.  These two lions, nicknamed the Ghost and the Darkness, plagued the construction of the railroad bridge being built across the Tsavo River. Over a period of nine months these lions killed dozens of workers and seemed unstoppable. The workers tried using large fires and bomas, walls built out of thorn bushes, to keep the lions away to no avail. This led many to believe they were not real lions but demons, causing hundreds of workers to flee and halting the construction.

The two lions were finally killed in December of 1898 by Lt. Col John Henry Patterson, the engineer in charge of the bridge construction. The first lion was originally wounded by Patterson and it later began stalking him at night before he finally dispatched it. The second male was shot five times by Patterson and still managed to charge him. He finished the lion in its charge with three additional shots, two to the chest and the last in the head.

The total number of men killed by these lions and the reason for this abnormal behavior are still debated. Patterson himself released several different numbers as to the total kill.  He originally stated around 35 men were killed by the lions but later changed the number to 135 as he claimed there were likely many local villagers killed as well as the workers. Since then several studies have tried to determine the true number. One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA used isotope signatures found in the skins of the lions compared to signatures from skeletal remains  of several common prey species and the local Taita people from the 20th century to calculate how many humans the lions may have consumed.  According to their results the first lion ate roughly 10.5 people and the second ate 24.2 people, suggesting that the original number of 35 was more accurate. However a previous study stated that a total of 100 or more was possible based off of Patterson’s claim that the lions often killed without eating the bodies of their victims, a behavior occasionally observed in other predator species as well.

As for why the lions turned to this behavior we also have some dissention. One theory is that the first male was forced into the behavior as it had an injured tooth. This would have limited its ability to catch normal prey and could have led to him and his companion resulting to humans as easier prey.

The second theory is a lack of natural prey in the area. Along with this out break of man eating 1898 also saw a severe case of rinderpest hit Africa. This disease had wiped out much of the lions usual prey species which would force them to find alternatives.

Either theory is plausible. The area had long been used by slavers as they took slaves from the interior to the coast. These slave routes were often lined with dead slaves and lions in the area would have learned from this how easy it is to feed on humans.

The lions in question can still be found at the Field Museum in Chicago. Unlike their portrayal in the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” these two males are maneless. While we do not know for sure why these two particular lions turned to man eating, scientists have observed that the lions of the Tsavo area even now seem to be more blood thirsty than those found elsewhere.

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~

The Mane Event

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Probably the first image people get when they think of lions is a big maned male. The mane has become one of the most iconic characteristics of a lion. And why not? It gives them a look of regal dignity or majesty, it is the king’s crown after all. But why do lions grow manes? What purpose does it serve?

Several studies have tried to discover the purpose of a lions mane but it still remains a mystery. To complicate the search for our answer some males never even grow manes. This could be genetics as certain areas are known for producing maneless males. Or it could be that the habitat is not conducive to mane growth as in having too many thorn bushes that pull out the hair of the mane, although one would expect some remnants of mane even if most of it was pulled out.

But back to our quest for why grow a mane at all. Obviously they are not meant for thermo regulation. Why would a lion need a mane to trap heat when they are found in hot climates, and why wouldn’t the females grow manes if this was the case. So what about defense?

Defense is one of the leading theories as to why lions grow manes. The idea being that the extra hair acts as a shield preventing major injury to the neck and chest when two males are fighting for control of a pride or territory. Dr. Whitman of the University of Minnesota conducted a study to determine if this was the reason. In the study they enticed territorial males to attack paper cutout or mounted specimens, as to instigate fights between males would be inhumane, and recorded where the male attacked the most. Their conclusion was that the lions mane was not for defensive purposes as the pride males typically attacked the hind-quarters of the decoys. The flaw with this is that the males were attacking stationary targets. A living male would not allow the attacker to circle behind it like that. They also had a second part of the study in which they observed males that had been wounded in normal battles but this was difficult to do as observing extent and placement of injuries on living animals is hard to determine. They also had difficulty keeping track of individual lions.

So what do we know about lion manes? One of our guides on my recent study trip to Africa discussed lion mane growth with us one evening. He has worked with lions for nearly a decade. and observed several regime changes in the prides found at the reserve he works for. One thing he has observed is a link between mane growth and dominance. Typically young nomadic males have thin scruffy manes. However when they take over a pride they begin to grow thicker manes, in coalitions the alpha male also tends to have the largest mane. So is it a product of increased testosterone once they take charge and are active in the breeding process? Maybe it is the lion equivalent to a fancy sports car, a kind of hey ladies look at me sort of thing. Or is it a signal to other males of their dominance, as if to say “don’t mess with me, I am bigger and stronger than you”?

As of now we have no conclusive evidence as to the real purpose of a lion’s mane. Still they remain a defining characteristic for the lion and a classic symbol of Africa.

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~

To Walk With Lions… sort of

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One of the highlights of my recent study trip in South Africa was the Ukutula lion center. This was also on the very first day of the trip, not counting our arrival day. The center is located near Pretoria and sits in the heart of Ukutula’s 260 hectare preserve.

We began our time at Ukutula with a tour of their lion enclosures where we saw the bigger lions. The first enclosure held a large male lion from the Kalahari along with four females, two of which were white. The tour guide informed us that the white females had been strategically placed with this male as the center does not want to breed white lions. The parents of these white females were normal colored lions that happened to carry the trait for this genetic mutation. However, for some reason Kalahari lions do not carry this trait so the females were placed with him to ensure normal offspring. With these lions was proof that the breeding strategy had worked as we were able to see two litters of cubs. One litter was almost four weeks old and the other was barely two weeks. When they are old enough the cubs will be pulled from the mothers to be raised by the staff. This keeps the lions docile enough to use for their education programs.

Next we saw some of their juvenile lions which are used in the lion walks they offer to tourists. If one would like to feel like George Adamson this is the opportunity. One of the young males in this group disproved the myth I had always heard about lions not being able to climb. Although I am sure many of my African readers already knew this myth to be false. 

The real highlight of the day though, especially for someone as passionate about lions as I am, was the opportunity to play with the younger lions. We started with lions that were only a month and a half old. These little ones liked to cuddle with the girls of the group more than anything. While that was fun it was a little mellow for my tastes. So next we moved on to the real excitement.

Our final stop of the day was to visit the older cubs, these ranged from four months to six months and were about the size of your average Australian shepherd. In fact playing with them was more like playing with a dog. I lost my hat to a game of tug-of-war and one girl actually received a bite to the stomach when one of the cubs became to excited. All the while the older lions could be heard roaring on the other side of the grounds.

Places like Ukutula can be great conservation tools by educating people about lions and lion conservation. Also the ability to interact with the lions could make people more interested in actively supporting conservation efforts. However these kinds of places pose dangers as well. They can give people a sort of “Disneyland” mentality about lions and other wildlife. What must never be forgotten is that these are wild animals, and carnivores on top of that. If people become too comfortable with the lions accidents could happen and someone may be hurt or killed. These places also have the ability to distort people’s opinions of proper management. In an ideal world management would not be necessary. But this is not an ideal world. Man has limited the habitat and manipulated the natural system. Hands on management of wildlife is necessary, even the occasional cull or hunt to remove excess individuals or problem animals.

As a lion fanatic this was an awesome experience. Not only did I get some up close photos of lions I had the opportunity for some hands on interaction with the younger ones.

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~

Anyone interested in visiting or volunteering with Ukutula follow the link listed below:


Prince of the Savanna: Conservation of the African Lion

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I love lions so I wanted to make them the topic of my final week for this Africa kick I have been on. If you are wondering about the title of this post I have to say that while I love lions the tiger as the larger species takes the title of king, and although lions can be found in jungles they are more of a savanna species. Although after reading Machiavelli I believe the title of prince is probably a better fit anyway.But enough about semantics let’s get to the facts.

The African lion, Panthera leo, has been one of the flagship species for conservation in Africa. This is due to their characterization as charismatic megafauna, a.k.a most people love lions, and their position as an umbrella species, being that lions need large territories of prime habitat which means efforts to conserve lions tend to benefit all other species in their range.

Currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the African lion has lost nearly 83% of its range (Hazzah 2009). Several surveys have been conducted trying to estimate the total population of lions left in Africa. Estimated numbers range from as low as 23,000 (Bauer and Van der Merwe 2004) to as high as 47,000 (Chardonnet 2002). These surveys did not include private game farms such as are found in South Africa. According to Professor van Hoven from the University of Pretoria there are more than 5,000 lions in South Africa on private ranches. While these are currently of no breeding use to wild prides they could be used in the future to boost wild populations.

The biggest threats to lions today are loss of habitat and revenge killing. As stated before lion habitat has been decreased over 80% with a reduction from 22,211,900 sq. km to 3,802,873 sq. km. Lions need large ranges in order to hunt and breed successfully and any reduction in habitat leads to lower numbers of lions which can be sustained. As for revenge killings these mainly happen in areas where pastoralism still occurs. When cattle or people are killed the local pastoralist tend to retaliate by killing lions. This is typically done by leaving out poisoned carcasses, poisoned carcasses which not only kill the problem lions but most or all of the pride if they also feed from the carcass (Hazzah 2009).

So what is being done to protect these magnificent beasts? Aside from national parks such as Kruger and the Serengeti there are many preserves managed specifically for lions like the one built by George Adamson. These parks and preserves are supported through ecotourism and by private organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund.

What may surprise many people though is the impact of hunting on lion conservation. Trophy hunting in Africa when well managed means low off take particularly old males beyond their prime that yield high prices, recent figures show an average of $201 million per year is generated in sub-Saharan Africa by trophy hunting (Lindsay 2007). Thanks to the significant financial value of hunting more land has been preserved for this purpose than in all of Africa’s parks combined. According to the same study 1,394,000 sq. km is conserved in sub-Saharan Africa for the purpose of hunting while only 1,142,623 sq. km are conserved in the parks (Lindsay 2007). That is about 22% more land conserved through hunting than through parks. While these numbers encompass the trophy hunting of all game species in Africa they still apply to lions. In fact, lions are typically the most valuable species in hunting concessions with the ability to fetch up to $130,000 per lion in certain areas (Loveridge 2007).

However it is important to ensure lion hunts are managed properly and ethically. Dr. Whitman of the University of Minnesota conducted studies on the effects of trophy hunting on lions. As long as only old males, of at least 6 years of age, were hunted lion populations actually increased. But when females and young males were harvested populations tended to show decreases in numbers (Whitman 2007).

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~


Bauer and Van der Merwe, 2004. Inventory of free-ranging lions in Africa. Oryx 38(1): 26-31

Chardonnet, 2002. Conservation of the African Lion: Contribution to a status survey.    International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife, France and Conservation Force, USA.

Hazzah et al, 2009. Lions and Warriors: Social factors underlying the declining African lion populations and the effect of incentive-based management in Kenya. Biological Conservation 42: 2428-2437.

Lindsay et al, 2007. Economic and Conservation Significance of the Trophy Hunting Industry in sub-Saharan Africa. Biological Conservation 34: 455-469.

Loveridge et al, 2007. The Impact of Sport Hunting on the Population Dynamics of an African Lion Population in a Protected Area. Biological Cosnervation 34: 548-558.

Whitman et al, 2007. Modeling the Effects of Trophy Selection and Environmental Disturbance on a Simulated Population of African Lions.Conservation Biology 21 (3) 591-601.

The Last Laugh: Setting the record straight on hyenas

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As I return to my Africa theme for the next couple of weeks I wanted to move away from the more charismatic species and discuss one of the less understood animals of Africa. There are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding Africa’s hyenas which we discussed during my time there this summer. Much of the information I am about to provide comes from one of our guides at a reserve within the Greater Kruger area. Jaco, has had many years of experience in the field and the university selected him as our guide due to his vast knowledge of African fauna, particularly predators. For the most part I will be addressing the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta, otherwise known as the laughing hyena which is the largest of the three species. The other two species are the brown hyena, Hyaena brunnea, and the striped hyena, Hyaena hyaena.

Hyenas are often despised and considered filthy vermin. Perhaps this is because of their reputation as scavengers who steal from other predators. Maybe it is their predation habits; hyenas often begin to feed on their prey while it is still alive. They have even been known to attack humans. Whatever the reason for our poor disposition it is probably unjustified like our hatred of most other predators.


Actually spotted hyenas are quite interesting creatures and we are just now starting to understand them. For instance, until 1991 it was believed that hyenas are hermaphroditic. Even my zoology professor at OSU told us this as recent as 2009. However this is not true. The base of this myth is the false penis and high testosterone levels found in females. Actually female hyenas have higher testosterone levels than males and tend to be larger.

Hyenas have an interesting social structure. They live in clans which are led by the females. These clans will occasionally go to war with each other over control of territories, during which they will kill and eat the young of rival clans. Though they appear to be canid, hyenas are closer related to cats.

Although they do play an important role in the environment as  scavengers, hyenas are very efficient predators. In Ngorongoro hyenas have been known to kill up to 90% of their own meals rather than scavenge. Their main tactic for hunting is to run the prey until shock and exhaustion overtake it at which point the begin to feed on while it is still living. Though they have carnassial teeth like other major predators they tend to rely more on their powerful jaws to rip and meat rather than cut it. These jaws are so strong they can crack open bones that are to tough even for lions.

Humans and hyenas have always had a tense relationship which has only been further aggravated by an expanding human population. Hyenas occasionally attack chickens, livestock and even humans, humans who then retaliate by killing hyenas. I once read an account of an old time African hunter who discussed the hatred of his maasai trackers for hyenas. They would take great pleasure in seeing one mauled by lions or shot by the hunter for they knew that one day fisi, as the hyena is called in swahili, would have the last laugh as it was the tendency of the maasai to leave their dead or dying out in the bush where the hyenas would come for them.

There is still much to learn about these interesting creatures. Sadly they are heavily persecuted and treated as pests. Hopefully as we gain further understanding of these animals we will also gain more tolerance for them.

More information about hyenas can be found at:


Saltwater Crocodiles: Should limited hunting be allowed?

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It has come to my attention recently that Australia is considering the idea of opening trophy hunting for 50 saltwater crocodiles a year for a two year trial period. As such I have decided to take a temporary break from my Africa theme. Whether this proposal will pass remains to be seen but I can see this being a very interesting, and likely controversial, topic to follow once the public starts sharing their opinions. The most important opinion, that of the local Aborigines, is unknown. The majority of saltwater crocodiles are found on Aboriginal land so it is important that wildlife officials discuss their proposal with the local people before moving forward with this.

However, some groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have already spoken out against this as being inhumane and needless killing.

“There is no possible conservation benefit to be derived from the killing of crocodiles for      trophies, nor does it provide a means of controlling problem crocodiles,” said RSPCA Australia chief scientist Bidda Jones..

But what are the facts on saltwater crocodiles and this issue of hunting crocodiles in Australia?

Remnants of the dinosaurs this particular species of crocodile can be found in the more tropical, northern regions of Australia. These are some of the largest crocodiles in the world with record sizes of 7 meters in length and nearly one ton in weight, although average crocodiles measure 5 meters and weigh in around 1,000 pounds (National Geographic). They also have  a peculiar habit of leaping out of the water, just a little fun fact for you.

As for conservation of the species they have been protected since the 1970s when they were nearly wiped out due to the value of their skins in fashion (Oz Magic). Now, after roughly 40 years of protection their numbers are estimated between 200,000 and 300,000 individuals worldwide (National Geographic) with nearly 150,000 of those in Australia (The Telegraph). Numbers are so high that Australia’s current management plan has 500 crocodiles culled each year as a sustainable quota.

The 50 individuals to be hunted are to be taken as part of the 500 already on quota, thus there will not be any additional impact on crocodile numbers. However, these 50 would benefit conservation by providing funds for further conservation efforts and bringing jobs to rural areas. So in my opinion this is a no brainer. If the 50 allocated are already marked to be culled why not let the wildlife departments and local communities benefit from it?


National Geographic-    http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/saltwater-crocodile/

Oz Magic-    http://ozmagic.homestead.com/australiansaltwatercrocodiles.html

The Telegraph-    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/9330981/Australia-considers-crocodile-trophy-hunting-plan.html