A lion was shot dead in Kenya on Wednesday after attacking a man, while trackers in South Africa searched for a lion whose own escape from a park prompted appeals to wildlife officials to relocate it rather than kill it.
The two cases of African lions on the loose highlight the difficult balance between protecting people and conserving lions, whose numbers have declined dramatically over the past century because of unregulated hunting, a loss of habitat and growing conflict with livestock herders.
Concern about the threatened species intensified last year when an American dentist killed a lion named Cecil in a hunt in Zimbabwe that officials said was illegal.
The circumstances of the stray lions also fuelled questions about whether to dart a potentially dangerous predator with a tranquilliser and return it to a fenced area, or kill it before it can attack people.
Such decisions depend on factors including the training of wildlife experts, their resources and whether the area where a lion is roaming is densely populated. In some cases, local residents have killed lions before officials arrived on the scene.
Wildlife officials in Kenya shot the escaped lion several times after it injured a man in the Kajiado district, 57 kilometers (35 miles) from Nairobi, the capital, said Paul Udoto, a spokesperson for the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Officials had planned to capture the lion and save it from a crowd, Udoto said. But by the time officials arrived, the animal had become too agitated and dangerous, he said.
“We didn’t have a chance to save the lion,” he said.
Another senior Kenyan wildlife official, Kitili Mbathi, blamed a faulty electrical fence for the escape of the lion from Nairobi National Park.
“The lions periodically test the fence to see if there is a charge in it, and when there is no charge sometimes they will jump over and try and get to the livestock that is being kept next door to us at the army barracks” or in other nearby animal enclosures, he said.
It was the second incident this month involving a stray lion in Kenya. On March 18, a lion mauled a pedestrian in Nairobi before being captured.
Nairobi National Park, which covers 117 square kilometers (45 square miles) on the outskirts of the city, is home to endangered black rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes and diverse birdlife. The park is not entirely fenced and its wildlife is under growing pressure as the city expands.
In South Africa, wildlife officials backtracked from earlier statements that they would kill a lion that escaped from Karoo National Park because it was a threat to humans.
Those statements were met with an outcry from people who say the lion, dubbed Sylvester in local media, should be captured and relocated to another park if necessary. It is the lion’s second escape from the park, located in an arid and sparsely populated pat of South Africa.
Last year, wildlife staff also labelled the Karoo lion “Spook” — “Ghost” in the Afrikaans language — because of its ability to stay one step ahead of searchers during its first breakout.
The South African parks service said they are now considering various options, including returning the lion to the park and improving its fencing, moving the lion to another park, donating the lion to a conservation group or killing it if it causes “massive” damage — an apparent reference to livestock it may kill — or is a direct threat to humans.
“Specifically, the loss of human life poses an even greater danger as the animal may lose fear for humans and see them as easy prey,” the parks service said in a statement.
It said the search for the lion is hampered by difficult terrain and windy conditions that prevented an aerial search. Trackers on foot are also concerned about “a possible ambush” by the lion, the statement said.
The 3-year-old male lion escaped several days ago. It is wearing a satellite tracking collar that was installed after last year’s escape, during which it eluded capture for more than three weeks and killed 28 sheep, one cow and one kudu antelope.