Elephant Killers

“Do lions develop a taste for specific prey species?” I was asked this question during a safari, while we watched a pride of lions feeding on an elephant carcass. The elephant had probably died of old age and the lions, known for their scavenging, had picked up the scent of the carcass.

I’ve observed lions feeding on elephants on numerous occasions. In most of these incidents the elephant had been an adult.

At the time, this led me to presume that the elephant had died of old age, but was this really the case? A much more intriguing question lay at the heart of this encounter. Could the Savuti pride have potentially brought down an adult elephant?

Hunting and scavenging

Throughout the wilderness areas of Africa there are lion prides that specialize in killing certain prey species. This specialization has developed over time, arising from the availability of prey, terrain, adaptability and the effects of different seasons. Some prides will specialize in buffalo, some in smaller antelope, and other prides will rely mostly on scavenging for their food.

In most parts of Africa, elephants will generally chase lions when they come across them. There is one notable exception. In Botswana there is a pride of lions that hunt and kill adult elephants!

David hunts Goliath

In some areas, lions have been recorded preying on young elephants. When it came to adult elephants, however, it was always believed that they were too large to be preyed on by lions. So how did this Savuti pride develop the technique to kill adult elephants, and why did this technique develop in the first place?

Lions scavenge when they get the opportunity, often stealing prey from other predators. At a large carcass such as an adult elephant, lions will spend more than a week feeding. I have personally witnessed a pride feeding on an elephant carcass for eight days.

The Savuti region of Botswana is home to many bull elephants of varying ages (including some very old ones) and it was not uncommon for a weak and elderly elephant to fall down, unable to get back up.

Lions scavenge when they get the opportunity and at a large carcass such as an adult elephant they will spend more than a week feeding.[/p]

Death of an elephant

Journal entry, 1995

An old elephant bull went down near Pump Pan, in Chobe, early yesterday. Not long after, a pride arrived on the scene. The elephant had been trying to get up but was too weak. With the pride’s arrival the old bull’s attempts became increasingly frantic and panicked. Other elephants attempted to chase the lions off but each time the pride would back off a little only to return. The lions began to eat the still-living elephant from the rear end.

The drama continued through the night and into the next day until eventually, after many ever-weakening attempts at getting up, the elephant died. The lions had gorged themselves while the elephant was still alive.


My response to the initial question regarding the development of taste for prey, is simple. Lions specialize in killing certain prey because, circumstance and survival dictate this change. As predators, they adapt to available prey. It’s not so much a matter of taste as a matter of survival

With respect to the Savuti pride, I propose the following theory. Could the above incident be the explaining catalyst for the present hunting methods of the Savuti pride?

Perhaps the the elephant’s death throes brought to the surface memories of ancient predatory behaviour. Alternatively, the elephant death could merely have become an opportunity for the pride to realize that they had the means to hunt elephant?

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