When Lions Hunt Elephants and Crocodiles

By Kristoffer Everatt, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist and Director, Panthera Canada

Lion and elephant

Did you know that lions sometimes hunt elephants and crocodiles? Dr. Kris Everatt, Conservation Scientist and Panthera Canada Director, is intrigued by this phenomenon. Learn more about these unusual behaviors in his blog. 

When people think of lion hunts, they probably think of a group of lionesses running in the savanna — followed by a stealthy pounce on zebra, wildebeest or even buffalo. But lion hunts are much more varied than this, and lions have been known to hunt many strange creatures, from monkeys to giraffes. But two of these prey species are likely the strangest of all — the largest living land mammal and a fearsome reptilian carnivore. Indeed, lions have been known to hunt both elephants and crocodiles in certain parts of Africa.  

There are a few parks in southern Africa where lions regularly hunt elephants, all located in the KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area). During the peak of the dry seasons in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, elephants must rely on a limited number of water holes. When they approach these water holes, they face hungry lions waiting in ambush to hunt elephant calves. In many of these situations, elephants are in poor condition due to the difficult conditions of the dry season, making them easy targets for predators. Lions are known to hunt elephant calves even when there are sufficient buffalo, zebra and wildebeest populations available.

Lion males
©nick garbutt
Male lion coalitions have been known to hunt elephants.

In nearby Matusadona National Park, however, there are individual coalitions of males which seem to specialize in hunting adult elephants. It's difficult to comprehend why or even how they do it, especially because they are in an ecosystem with adequate alternative prey, which makes it more baffling. This may be a case of learned behavior that is very localized. There is speculation that these lions may have developed a taste for elephants from scavenging on elephants poached for their ivory. However, I'm not convinced, as I have documented high scavenging of poached elephants in other parks where there was no elephant predation that accompanied it. 

Crocodile predation is also a rare occurrence that can be difficult to explain. Why would lions risk taking down such a dangerous carnivore, especially one that spends so much time hidden beneath the surface of a river? The mere presence of crocodiles does pose a risk to lions — crocodiles have been known to kill lion cubs. However, crocodile predation is oddly very common in and around Matusadona National Park. I have also documented it in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Both of these sites have high densities of alternative prey. The lions of Matusadona seem to hunt crocodiles — which can be up to 12 feet long — when the reptiles leave the water, possibly in search of a nest site. In Kruger National Park, I also documented lions hunting crocodiles who themselves were out of the water scavenging from elephant and hippo carcasses.

Lion eating crocodile

Lions are not the only wild cats who go after dangerous prey. For example, some Siberian tigers predate on brown bears. And of course, there are the famous jaguars of the Pantanal who hunt caimans and even a case of jaguars feeding on dolphins. It is possible some big cats develop individual tastes and specializations for certain prey. Still, the fact that lions would hunt such large and formidable prey is fascinating and speaks to the incredible complexity of wild cat ecology. 

So, the next time you see an elephant or a crocodile, just think — there is a mammal capable of taking on these large animals — lions