Do female lions eat their cubs?

Do female lions eat their cubs? The answer is yes, female lions do, rarely, eat their cubs under certain circumstances.

Lioness at Leipzig zoo
Lioness at Leipzig zoo. I don’t know if this is the lioness who ate her cubs.
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Recently a lioness, Kigali, ate her newborn cubs three days after giving birth at a German zoo to the horror of her keepers (reported on wrcbtv.com).

The lioness was a first-time mother and gave birth to two cubs at Leipzig zoo in Germany on Friday. They were the first lions to be born at the zoo in 15 years.

Initially the mother took good care of her cubs. On Monday evening while she was grooming her babies she killed and ate them both. She had been eating normally throughout the day.

Understandably, zoo staff were shocked and saddened. However, Maria Saegebarth, a spokesperson for the zoo said that this behavior is not unnatural. It happens both in zoos and in nature.

Maren Huck, a lecturer in animal behavioural ecology at the University of Derby, UK said that lionesses do sometimes eat their cubs in the wild. However, it happens more often in captivity.

So why did it happen? The experts say that there are various factors such as:

  • The cubs behaving strangely because of illness or developmental issues. If they don’t respond as infants their mother may not recognise them as her cubs and her maternal instinct does not kick in. The cubs were fully consumed by their mother on this occasion so it was impossible to carry out an autopsy to discover if they were ill.
  • Another factor may be stress due to being in captivity in a zoo. When stressed lionesses are more likely to eat their cubs. Countering this is the fact that in a zoo lions are well fed. In the wild if a lioness is not fit enough she is more likely to eat her cubs.
  • If it happens again the experts say that the problem may be due to the inexperience of the mother or health problems in the infants.

The experts state that Kigali killing and eating her offspring does not indicate that there is something wrong at the zoo.

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