Are predators smarter than prey on average

Obviously, lions are not as smart as elephants

Observations have shown that African elephants know very well where the boundaries run between protected areas and regions in which they are threatened by humans. Their activity patterns then differ: They prefer to visit dangerous areas at night (for example because people have grown delicious vegetables there), and they move faster there on average than in safe areas. They have already been seen hurrying to get out of a danger zone - and then strolling just beyond the border of the protected area.

Apparently, word of this tactic did not get around as far as the Lions. This is suggested by a study by the University of Michigan, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which examined the hunting habits of endangered lions in West Africa. The big cats apparently make no distinction between protected areas and regions where people hunt.

The last lions in West Africa

The West African lion (Panthera leo senegalensis) is not the most magnificent subspecies of the lion. The animals are slimmer than the average of their relatives, the males mostly only have the beginnings of a mane. Their appearance seems to reflect the shadowy existence they lead today: In the last comprehensive survey in 2014, researchers in the specialist journal "Plos One" found only around 400 animals. Once upon a time there were tens of thousands.

Around 90 percent of them live in an approximately 26,000 square kilometer region that extends over parts of the states of Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin. It includes the so-called WAP complex (W-Arly-Pendjari), a network of three national parks, but also a number of areas where hunting is permitted. It is a continuous habitat, even if the risk for animals varies greatly depending on the region.

Network of camera traps

In order to record the behavior of the big cats, the team led by Kirby Mills and Nyeema Harris set up camera traps with motion detectors in three national parks and eleven areas with hunting permits, a total of 238. In the course of the field study, which ran from 2016 to 2018, around 1.7 million pictures were taken. Only 360 of them showed lions. And since the cameras were set in such a way that they took several photos in quick succession with each motion alarm, the result was a total of 96 lion sightings - proof of how rare this subspecies has become.

Usually, lions avoid contact with humans. The researchers now checked whether this was reflected in their movement and distribution patterns and developed model calculations for the overall situation from the viewing data. The result: when the lions go hunting for antelopes, warthogs or buffalo, they make no distinction between protected areas and those where humans can at least run into them as hunting rivals. They are just as frequent in the parks as they are in the areas surrounding them, where private companies grant hunting licenses. Their hunting instinct apparently outweighs their avoidance behavior towards humans.

National parks have to become more attractive

This is not least due to the attractiveness of the dangerous areas, as the researchers report. The areas designated for (human) hunting have, on average, a better infrastructure than the national parks, which suffer from a lack of resources. And this infrastructure also includes well-developed irrigation systems. However, access to water creates a richer ecosystem, attracts herbivores - and the lions follow suit. The solution to the problem would be "simple": The national parks would have to be given more resources to make them more livable for the animal world. Otherwise this subspecies of the lion, which has become rare, could finally end. (jdo, April 13, 2020)