The African lion Panthera leo, spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta and leopard Panthera pardus are all killed in retaliation for livestock predation, but each species suffers differently from these impacts due to differences in predatory behavior and cultural attitudes of pastoralists. Using detailed data on livestock predation in the Maasai steppe landscape in Northern Tanzania, I investigated how prey preference, location and timing of livestock attacks contributed to the vulnerability of lions, leopards and spotted hyenas to retaliatory killing. Lions mostly preyed upon adult cattle and donkeys. In contrast, hyenas and leopards primarily killed small stock (goat, sheep and calves) and dogs. Hyenas and leopards mostly attacked livestock at night, whereas lions often attacked grazing livestock during the daytime. These behaviors made lions the most vulnerable to direct retaliatory killing, although some villages specifically targeted hyenas with poison, and the cultural traditions of pastoralists also exacerbate the retaliatory killing of lions. I highlight the complex interactions of social (human) and ecological dimensions of livestock predation and retaliation against predators. Any conservation intervention should strive to address human–carnivore conflicts at the appropriate social scale.