• Open Access

Humans displacing lions and stealing their food in Bénoué National Park, North Cameroon


*E-mail: iongh@cml.leidenuniv.nl


The present paper describes an observation on humans taking meat from the kill of lions (Panthera leo Linnaeus). This behaviour is common between large carnivores such as lions, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), occurring both intra- and interspecific. It is then known as kleptoparasitism, the stealing of food from one individual by another (Macdonnald, 2001). Scientific reports are available on lions kleptoparasitizing hyaenas (Cooper, 1991) and vice versa (Höner et al., 2002; Trinkel & Kastberger, 2005). In addition, some authors reported spotted hyenas stealing prey from African wild dogs (Carbone, Du Toit & Gordon, 1997; Gorman et al., 1998; Carbone et al., 2005). Indirect evidence suggests that cheetahs may be kleptoparasitized by hyaenas and lions (Durant, 2000).

Study area

The observation was recorded on March 28, 2006 in the central region of Bénoué National Park situated in the North Province of Cameroon. Bénoué NP occupies 1800 km2 and its vegetation is associated with a Sudan-savannah climate (White, 1983) as is its diverse fauna. A small population of 30 lions is believed to be present in the park (De Iongh, Bauer & Hamling, 2005). They prey mostly on middle and large sized prey species such as kob (Kobus kob kob), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus unctuosus), western Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus major), Lord Derby’s eland (Taurotragus derbianus gigas) and oribi (Ourebia ourebi; Breuer, 2005; pers. comm. Wiggers) among other available prey species in the park.

The park is not fenced and villages are situated at the boundary of the park. A study was conducted, where 114 households, seventeen park staff and seven professional hunter guides were interviewed around Bénoué NP, who confirmed that illegal activities (e.g. poaching) take place in the park and surrounding hunting zones (Weladji, Moe & Vedeld, 2003).


At 9.30 hours, two adult radio-collared lions (male and female) were observed feeding on a carcass of western hartebeest. On approach by car, both lions fled into a thicket approximately 25 m from the observers, where they remained hidden until the observers left about 2 h later. Visual examination of the carcass showed that there was still a considerable amount of meat present on the remains for the lions to feed upon (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

 Remains of a Western hartebeest in the morning of the 28th of March, 2006.

In the afternoon, around 17.00 hours, we returned to the site for further observations. Near the carcass we encountered several persons, who ran away and hided in the dense vegetation upon our arrival. The lions, obviously disturbed, had left the carcass and were not observed again. Cut marks made clear the carcass was stripped from all meat with a knife. The only remains left were the head, the feet and few remains from the skin (Fig. 2). In addition, freshly cut leaves were found at the remains, suggesting they wrapped the meat in leaves for transport.

Figure 2.

 Remains of the Western hartebeest in the afternoon of that same day. Note the presence of fresh leaves (arrows) and the absence of backbone, ribs and haunches.

In the pictures a wooden pole is visible. Similar poles may be used for wire snares by poachers. If the pole would have been attached to a wire, this would have completely altered the interpretation of our observation. However, after thorough investigation, we found that no wire was attached to the pole or to the hartebeest. Also we found more poles in the surrounding, as it is close to the river and people frequent this place to cut fuel wood and to fish.


In this case, the lions may have been chased off by people who took over their prey. However, we have no direct proof and the lions might also have left their kill before local people took the meat. This act of meat taking at least deprived the lions of their follow-up meal. This role-reversal shows another aspect of human-lion conflict, lions commonly being the aggressor attacking livestock. Scientific evidence for recent ‘human kleptoparasitism’ in Africa is limited and based on very few peer reviewed articles. In fact, our search only found a single publication for Africa. A study in Uganda describes nine reports in which humans actively scavenged meat from lions and leopards (Treves & Naughton-Treves, 1999). This may suggest that this phenomenon is common in Africa and several anecdotal reports indicate that the practice may still be wide-spread. For instance, it is thought to be a common practice with the nomadic Mbororo in North Cameroon (pers. comm. Gomse). And in the Maswa Game Reserve, Tanzania even park staff has been reported to participate in obtaining meat from lion kills (pers. comm. Whitman). In remote (park) areas in the northern region of the Central African Republic, illegal diamond extraction activities are thought to attract local people who are reported to scavenge on kills of large carnivores. Noteworthy, one village in the Central African Republic is known to allow lions living in their surroundings, solely for easy access to meat (pers. comm. Chardonnet).

The importance of this human behaviour in relation to conservation may be that humans receive benefits from their co-existence with lions and other large carnivores, possibly influencing their attitude and behaviour towards these large carnivores. However, more research is needed to prove this relationship.

Far more peer reviewed publications are available suggesting kleptoparasitism by ancient man (Bunn & Kroll, 1986; Bunn & Ezzo, 1993; Oliver, 1994 and Mussi & Palombo, 2001). Most of these publications refer to hominids from the (Plio-) Pleistocene and confirm that humans have included meat in their diet in an opportunistic way via hunting, searching for carcasses, scavenging leftovers and maybe even displacing other carnivores and stealing their prey.

The phenomenon may have been a survival strategy of ancient humans that still exists in the present day Africa as a strategy to obtain additional animal protein. As this ‘human-kleptoparasitism’ seems to take place regularly in a large part of Africa, the question arises at what scale it occurs and what its consequences are for conservation (in addition to conventional poaching). Observing the possible importance of humans scavenging on kills of large predators for obtaining meat and the unknown impact on large predators, more research into this phenomenon is required.


We acknowledge the assistance of the former Chief game Warden of Bénoué NP, Mr. Assan Gomse, our driver Steven Lambi and the African Lion Working Group. We are grateful for the continuous support by Ralph Buij, Hans Bauer and Jean Pierre Mvondo.