When lions attack porcupines, humans suffer unexpected consequences

The first study of lion-porcupine interactions shows the spiny creatures can kill or seriously injure the big cats, with surprising impacts.

By Douglas Main
Published 8 Jul 2019, 14:50 BST
A lion with porcupine quills stuck in his face and neck, in South Africa's Kgalagadi Transfrontier ...
A lion with porcupine quills stuck in his face and neck, in South Africa's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Photograph by Tony Heald, Minden Pictures

In 1965, the “man-eater of Darajani” became famous after an article in Outdoor Life featured the lion’s attack on a Kenyan hunter. He wasn’t the only one—a deepening drought made the big cats desperate for prey, and there were lion attacks on other people in southern Kenya that year. But there was something curious about the Darajani lion. After he was killed, it was discovered the lion had a porcupine quill sticking out of his nose.

In a recent investigation, led by Julian Kerbis Peterhans, a researcher at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, scientists examined this lion’s carcass and found that the quill penetrated more than six inches into the cat’s snout, nearly piercing its brain. The quill is almost certainly the reason it became a “man-eater,” Kerbis Peterhans says. With the quill in his snout, the lion had trouble hunting, became emaciated, and targeted humans out of desperation, he posits.

This is just one conclusion from a paper by Kerbis Peterhans and colleagues, the first large-scale study of interactions between lions and porcupines. The report, published in the Journal of East African Natural History in May, suggests that lions usually avoid porcupines, unless a shortage of prey drives them to the prickly critters. These interactions can lead to death or severe injury—which in turn can prompt lions to hunt humans, cattle, and horses.

Lions are also more likely to do so in drought years, like 1965—which was an abnormally dry one in Kenya. The team examined another lion shot that year that also had killed at least one person. It had a porcupine quill lodged in one of its fractured teeth.

The 'man-eater of Darajani,' a lion that killed a Kenyan hunter in 1965, with a porcupine quill visibly sticking out of the snout.
Photograph by John Perrott

“Porcupines are not their preferred prey, for sure,” Kerbis Peterhans says. Nor are humans, he adds, though it makes sense an injured lion would try. “People are slow.”

The conclusions are important for lion conservation, Kerbis Peterhans says. It makes it even more important for mobile veterinary units, for example, to treat lions with visible porcupine quills. It also shows the importance of porcupines as a potential cause of death, something that could get worse in areas where droughts are becoming more severe or common.

Hunted and killed

Nearly 70 years before the Darajani man-eater struck, a much more famous pair of lions went on a rampage in the Tsavo region, only a couple of dozen miles away. In a short period, they allegedly ate more than 100 people. These two big cats, immortalised in a famous book and the more recent film, The Ghost and the Darkness, also had porcupine quill fragments stuck in fractures within their teeth, Kerbis Peterhans says. That year, 1898, was also a drought year, and though injury by the quilled critters doesn’t appear to have driven the lions toward human-hunting in this case, it suggests that the animals were more desperate than usual.

In all, the study documents scores of interactions between lions and porcupines. It details 40 cases where lions were seriously injured by the animals’ quills and another 10 instances where they were outright killed. This can happen when the quills pierce the heart or major arteries, Kerbis Peterhans says.

Lions also tend to go after more porcupines during serious droughts and in arid areas where large prey are less abundant. In places with low levels of rain, for example, porcupines comprise an average of 28 percent of the big cats’ diets, whereas in wetter areas, they typically make up less than four percent, the study found.

Young, foolish, male

Young males generally go after porcupines more often than other lions. Solo youngsters are also more likely to be seriously injured by them, as they have no pride mates to remove the quills. (Lions will help groom each other and remove things like quills.)

These young males are often those that have been recently kicked out of their prides by their parents and have just begun to learn how to hunt by themselves. “It’s hard to be a young animal that’s no longer being fed by its parents,” says Laurence Frank, a lion expert with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He adds that interactions between these two animals should be investigated more thoroughly “because it’s a common cause of serious injury, if not death, particularly to young male lions.”

James Stevenson-Hamilton, who served as game warden of South Africa’s Sabi Game Reserve, which was expanded and renamed to Kruger National Park under his leadership, observed the same thing long ago, in the early 20th century. He noted old males rarely are wounded by porcupine quills, but “on the other hand, quite a percentage of young and those in the prime of life do, and are discovered to be thus practically incapacitated,” he wrote. “It appears to be very exceptional however, for females to commit this imprudence.”

Lions that go after porcupines or often young and male, as is the case with this youngster chasing a crested porcupine in Masai Mara, Kenya.
Photograph by Michel and Christine Denis-Huot, Minden Pictures

Porcupines’ defence

Porcupines that live in Africa, known as crested porcupines, have spines that are not barbed but can exceed a foot in length. Besides serving obvious defence purposes, the animals may also play an “active defence,” intentionally stopping while being chased to impale their would-be predator, or jumping backward spine-first.

Craig Packer, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has seen porcupines wield their quills in an aggressive manner.

“I've several times seen porcupines come up to a group of resting lions then do a 180, erect its quills, walk backwards—and get the whole group to move out of its way as it proceeded to wherever it was going,” Packer says. “The adults steered clear, though some of the subadults moved cautiously forward and tapped at it with their paws—and quickly learned that tapping at the quills was a bad idea.”

Lions can succeed in hunting and killing porcupines, as is the case in this photo taken in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Photograph by Roy Toft, Nat Geo Image Collection
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