Lions are the king of the jungle. They are big, powerful, and feared by all. But what happens when they come across a cheetah? Do lions eat cheetahs?
No, lions don’t normally eat cheetahs, but they will kill them nonetheless. Lions see cheetahs as a potential threat to their cubs, motivating them to attack and kill. Only on very rare occasions, such as extreme starvation, will a lion eat a cheetah.
To be fair to cheetahs, they don’t normally kill or harm lion cubs. They give cubs a wide berth in fear that the pride is close by. A cheetah may harm a lion cub when the cubs are very close to them.
Let’s look at a few more reasons why there may be a conflict between lions and cheetahs.
Reasons why lions kill cheetahs
There are many reasons why a lion will kill a cheetah. And as mentioned above, it is not necessarily for food.
Here are the main reasons why lions kill cheetahs whenever their paths cross.
Neighbors that don’t get along
Lions are very territorial creatures. They establish territories that cover several hundred kilometers and patrol them regularly. Unfortunately, these territories overlap those established by cheetahs.
When a lion sees another predator in its territory, it immediately assumes it is a threat and tries to drive the rival away. This can come in the form of threatening calls, chasing, and other physical displays of power.
Very rarely does it come to a point where a lion gets near an adult cheetah and kills it because it encroaches on its territory. But it is almost always fatal for the cheetah when it does happen.
You could say lions don’t make good neighbors.
Preying at the table
Although lions and cheetahs are considered the top predators in the African savannah, they don’t share the same prey species. Nor do they share the same hunting tactics.
While lions rely on brute strength and numbers, cheetahs make do with lightning speed and quick tackles.
Cheetahs also hunt during the day, while lions hunt at night.
With all these differences, we can safely assume that a lion will never compete with a cheetah in hunting. But lions won’t say no to a quick meal with minimal effort.
And a kill made by a cheetah is the equivalent of a free meal.
Since cheetahs are not built for strength and don’t have the numbers to fend off a pride of hungry lions, they often give up their kill in exchange for their lives. Even a single lion can drive off a small coalition of cheetahs.
Cheetahs who are unaware that a lion is approaching or those who choose to ignore the warning signs often end up dead. A lion will most often roar or bellow to announce its approach.
Foolish cheetahs who continue to feed despite the issued warnings end up as a cautionary tale to other animals that cross the path of the lion.
A case of infanticide
One of the main reasons why lions kill cheetahs is to protect their young. Although a cheetah doesn’t stand a chance against a full-grown lion, it is more than capable of killing an unprotected cub if it finds one.
Studies have shown that many lion cubs die due to infanticide or being preyed upon by other predator species.
The most notorious lion cub killers are the male lions themselves. Once a male lion takes over a pride, it systematically kills the cubs to bring the females back to the estrus.
Any cub that is fortunate enough to escape may eventually die due to starvation or getting picked off by leopards, hyenas, vultures, cheetahs, and everything else that is bigger than it currently is. Only a small fraction of these cubs manage to survive to adulthood.
Lions instinctively know that other predators will kill their young if the cubs are left unprotected. To prevent this, lions go on the offensive and kill as much competition as they can, regardless of species.
This wanton killing only happens if the competing predator species invade spaces nearest the cubs. Otherwise, they are mostly left alone or given a fair warning to leave immediately.
Although we’ve already mentioned that a lion won’t eat a cheetah, there are extreme circumstances that would drive a pride of lions to make a meal out of one: extreme hunger and lack of prey species.
Lions won’t actively pursue a healthy cheetah as that is a massive waste of energy resources. Even in tip-top shape, a hungry lion can’t ever hope to outrun a healthy cheetah. And if it does capture one, the nutrition gained from eating a cheetah is dismissible.
There’s just not enough incentive for a lion to feed on a cheetah unless:
- it’s already dead
- it’s injured or unable to run away
- it’s too young to fight back
- it’s caught unaware
In all these instances, the amount of energy the lion would need to kill the cheetah is near zero.
It can also be argued that lions mistake cheetahs for leopards.
Leopards are excellent hunters and pose a threat to the food supply of lions. And as leopards haul their kill into the trees, out of the reach of lions, they can’t steal the kill like they would for a cheetah.
For this reason, lions naturally attack leopards to avoid competition.
Unfortunately for cheetahs, they slightly resemble leopards with their spots, but they’re not nearly as good of a climber as a leopard. This leaves them no choice but to run away when a lion approaches.
Lions hunt cooperatively, so if a lion gives chase to a fleeing cheetah, its only hope to catch up is to take turns chasing the animal. A cheetah may be fast, but they cannot sustain high speeds for extended periods.
This is the case of fatal consequences for mistaken identity.
Final thoughts on lions eating cheetahs
Although lions don’t list cheetahs as part of their diet, they will still kill any who enter their territory. Luckily for cheetahs, they can quickly outrun a single lion.
Cheetahs caught and killed by lions are often too old or injured to run away.
The problem is the cubs don’t usually have enough speed to outrun the “king of the jungle” and end up most often the victims of these violent interactions.