‘Poachers working at night in thick bush are vulnerable to lions, even when the poachers are armed and used to the bush. Lions are opportunist hunters and, dating back to early hominids and Felid predecessors of lions, have included humans as possible prey items. It is very likely that the hunters were lying in ambush for rhinos or trying to track them and were themselves ambushed by or stalked by lions.
‘Lion predation on humans is uncommon as man has become more proficient and well-armed in defence against lion attacks or as a killer of lions. When lions do prey on people it usually has clear reasons such as shortage of natural prey, injured or old lions, or sub-adult males forced out of their birth prides and inexperienced as hunters.
‘But sometimes and in some areas, such as southern and south-western Tanzania, there have been more regular outbreaks of man-eating, where there is thick bush, lower natural prey density and people out at night protecting their fields from marauding bush pigs. These all provide opportunities favouring sporadic or even regular killing and eating of people.
‘There were also frequent occurrences of lions killing people in the 80s and 90s in Kruger National Park when thousands of Mozambican refugees were using the park to flee the Mozambican civil war and the poverty that resulted. No one knows how many were killed.
‘In this particular case, as the reserve owner, Nick Fox said, a pride of lions appeared to have killed the men. This would be pure opportunism with lions being surprised by people at night and attacking in response, or coming on slow moving human prey that is unaware of their presence.
‘The photographs of the reserve show quite dense bush, which would mean lions could approach or be lying in wait undetected but aware of the poachers. That the attack took place in eastern South Africa is indicative of the way that poachers are seeking rhino to kill away from Kruger, where rhino security has been massively enhanced. This has cut Kruger losses but prompted poachers to diversify their targets.’
Professor Keith Somerville is a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent and is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.