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Monday, 7 November 2011

Big cat, panic! An evidence-based approach to dealing with UK lion sightings

"Did you hear the one about the humans hiding
from a lion on train in north England?!"
A whole train was delayed for 2 hours because of one claimed sighting of a lion. In West Yorkshire. In England.

This whole episode epitomises safety-first culture, where any discernible risk must be mitigated if at all possible, no matter the inconvenience to the wider public.

The same tale is repeated with other risks, both virtual and real.  The "ban it" brigade are only trying to create a better world, it's just they often fail to balance an accurate assessment of risk and likely individual harm against wider inconvenience, cost or risk to society.

Members of the public are easily convinced of the immediate risk to their health from dangers they don't understand, like lions.  I understand this feeling, having camped in Ishasha, Uganda, in search of tree-climbing lions, and walked through prime lion habitat in Queen Elizabeth National Park (also in Uganda).

Seeing how locals get on with life despite an actual threat from real lions calmed my nerves, a bit.  Besides, hippos, crocodiles, snakes, elephants and the tiny mosquito (and the diseases they spread) pose a bigger threat to life than lions - in sub-Saharan Africa!

An evidence-based approach to UK lion sightings

Big Cat Deaths

As far as I can tell, the last UK mauling by a big cat was earlier this year.  But this involved zoo workers inside a zoo at Eynsford, Essex.  The last reported death seems to be that of a zoo keeper in a private zoo in London in 1994.  Before that?  A mad reverend who preached from inside a lion cage in Skegness, the year: 1937.

Likelihood of escape?

Whilst there are a number of reported "escapes" of big cats from UK zoos, all seem to have been addressed rather rapidly. A jaguar escaped from a Devon wildlife park - but found his way not into the wild but into the tiger enclosure of a neighbouring park.

When a tiger did actually escape from Belfast Zoo it was shot dead by police marksmen before it caused injury to anyone other than a keeper attacked during the escape.

Here's a thought. We've established we're all scared of lions. And we've established news travels very fast in the age of the social web.  And also it would be reasonably safe to assume an escaped lion would be reported promptly to police, since licensing conditions under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 make "casual" ownership all but impossible.

Any lion spotted by a member of public has to have come from somewhere. And, chances are, in the highly unlikely event of a genuine escape, the general public would be aware - through social media channels etc - within minutes of the escape being notified.

If you're working at a police call centre and the first you hear of an escaped lion is a member of the public claiming to have spotted it, there's a very good chance you're not dealing with a real lion.

Risk of death

Animals attack for two basic reasons: defence or resource. They kill to eat, or maybe get to a vital resource like water or a mate.  And they kill to defend themselves.  Again, in the unlikely event of a lion escaping, it should only kill if it's hungry or in fear.

The risk of attack is low enough not to put-off visitors to areas where actual lions live, such as national parks in the US and African safaris.  The US national park service says:
"The chance of being attacked by a mountain lion is quite low compared to may other natural hazards. There is, for example, a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a mountain lion."



  1. Q. How many lions does it take to stop a British train? A. None. Raucous laughter. Applause.

  2. So I suppose you'd be happier if the police and authorities actually put people in danger, even if the risk is small? How would you feel if the police or train company or whatever don't take such a threat in future seriously and someone gets eaten??

  3. I think this post related to forest.this remember me the Uganda safari. Thanks for letting know me to animals attribute.

  4. Uganda is the finest place in which the fascinating jungle wildlife and Gorillas are waiting around for its explorer. So I have saw many times from here!


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