Q&A with Jacalyn Beck: How Cattle Respond to the Threat of Lion Attacks

See caption.
Ph.D. candidate Jacalyn Mara Beck in Tanzania. Image © Jacalyn Mara Beck.


I met many fascinating people at The Wildlife Society’s Annual Conference in Cleveland last year. One of those individuals was Jacalyn Mara Beck: an inspiring Ph.D. candidate from Michigan State University. Jacalyn is currently studying the anti-predator behavior exhibited by cattle in Tanzania, which are sometimes attacked by lions (Panthera leo).

To oversimplify matters dramatically, Jacalyn’s field work involves following Maasai herders and recording how their cattle behave in areas where they are at high vs. low risk of lion depredation (attacks). I sent Jacalyn a list of questions about her and her dissertation, and here are her responses:


What sorts of significance or meanings do cattle have for the Maasai people?

Cattle contribute the milk, meat, and hides that people rely on to survive. And even more importantly, large herds of cattle act as a financial buffer: a possible source of income when times get tough.

But for the Maasai, and other East African tribes, cattle represent so much more than this: they are also a defining feature of their communal identity. Owning cattle improves a person’s status in the community and gives families a source of pride. Much of this stems from religious traditions; some tribes believe that cattle were handed down to them directly from God. So the importance is quite significant.

A herd of cattle in Tanzania.
Cattle are vital for the Maasai, both for their physical and cultural survival. Image © Jacalyn Mara Beck.

For your dissertation, you’re studying the “risk effects” of lion predation on cattle. What are risk effects?

Predators impact their prey in two ways: directly (through hunting and killing), and indirectly (by influencing the preys’ behavior).

When prey are “afraid” of predators they tend to spend more time moving to safer habitats, watching out for dangers, or grouping up with their buddies for safety. That is, animals change how they behave due to the risk of being hunted and killed. It is important to understand these risk effects because they can have huge impacts on prey populations over time.

What’s the importance of understanding how cattle respond to the threat of lion attacks?

When cows are killed by lions it can have devastating effects on individual families as well as whole communities. People sometimes retaliate by killing or hurting the lions they believe to be responsible for the attacks. This human-caused mortality is extremely high in some areas and lion numbers are decreasing quickly across East Africa. Given the many other threats lions face, it is imperative that we find ways to alleviate the conflicts between humans and lions.

A lioness lying down.
Lion populations are in decline throughout much of Africa; this page contains good information about the threats to Africa’s lions. Image © Jacalyn Mara Beck.

One very important way we can reduce human-lion conflict is by raising tolerance for predators. In recent years, scientists have only started to understand the complexities of predator-prey interactions on large scales, and some believe that risk effects can have even greater consequences on prey populations than direct predation.

Elevated levels of stress and reduced feeding, for example, can lead to lower birth and survival rates. But people are not sure how this applies to domestic livestock, especially pastoral herds (those that share the grazing lands with wild predators and are not confined to fenced pastures). By understanding how these cattle respond to the threat of lion attacks we may discover ways to reduce or avoid any negative impacts and support healthier, safer cows. Herders may be able to adjust their herding strategies based on this information.

Ultimately, a better understanding of cattle-lion interactions and a well-informed local community could increase tolerance for lions and reduce conflicts.

What have been some of your major findings thus far?

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A photo of Jacalyn in Tanzania. Image © Jacalyn Mara Beck.

To my knowledge, my study is the first to investigate differences in anti-predator behaviors of pastoral cattle in locations of varying degrees of depredation risk by lions. And although I did spend three months recording cattle behaviors every day from sun-up to sundown, more studies are needed to test the strength of my findings. However, I have made some important first steps.

I think people will be interested to learn that cattle in high-risk locations seem to be utilizing different anti-predator strategies than cattle in low-risk locations. For example, one of my major findings so far showed that cattle at high-risk of attack actually spent less time being vigilant (looking around for possible dangers) than cattle at low-risk. This may seem counterintuitive at first but there are theories to support this finding. And cattle at high-risk, although less vigilant, always formed larger sub-groups within their herds.

This could mean that not only are domestic cows aware of the risk of lion attack, but they also select from various anti-predator behaviors based on their relative level of risk.

As I understand it, your first trip to Tanzania in 2010 was a formative experience for you. In a few words, what made this trip so special?

A shot of a plain in Tanzania.
A shot of Jacalyn’s “office” in Tanzania. Image © Jacalyn Mara Beck.

I first studied in Tanzania as an undergraduate in the School for Field Studies’ Wildlife Management program. I was able to learn first-hand from East African professionals, collect my own data in the field, and present my findings to local community members. This experience was truly transformative for me. I realized I didn’t just want to study animals, I wanted to spend my life working to support human-wildlife coexistence; and that means learning to understand people as well as animals.

Lastly, do you plan to continue working in Tanzania in the future?

Sometimes a place can become a part of who we are. Tanzania is one of those places for me; it will always be a part of my life and my work.

Closing Thoughts

I would like to sincerely thank Jacalyn Mara Beck for working with me on this Q&A. Please visit this site to learn more about Jacalyn and the lab that she is a part of.

4 Thoughts

  1. We have some ankole watusi bulls among the free range cattle. They herd the cattle in a circle with the babies in the center, and face off the coyote packs who are too intimidated to attack, at that moment. They wait for the circle to break up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some ranchers in Latin America are using similar strategies: incorporating more aggressive bulls or even water buffalo in cattle herds to protect the more docile cows from jaguars. Most predators won’t risk injury through direct confrontation, unless they’re desperate.


  2. What a wealth of great information, the key to many of our problems is human/animal connection through communication and better understanding. I ‘ve just become aware of a gentleman that started a non-profit in Botswana that are rescuing rogue lions that predate on nearby cattle that were being shot, now they are working with the people to educate them and help the lions who are in trouble, a different problem, but none the less a hard hit to lions who are already dwindling. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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