Mongoose Fends Off Lions

An expert weighs in on how the small mammal was able to fend off four large African lions.

A video making the rounds this week depicts a marsh mongoose tussling with a group of four African lions and, incredibly, coming out unscathed.

The amazing footage, captured in 2011 by wildlife photographer Jérôme Guillaumot in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, was only recently released to the public. (Watch another video of a mongoose battling a lion.)

Guillaumot said it was the first time he’d seen such a behavior on any of his 20 expeditions to Africa.

“Of course I was sure that the mongoose would not escape this fight,” he told National Geographic by email. “As always in this type of situation, [it’s] a mix of excitement to [see] such a rare behavior and grief/empathy for the expected death of the small one.”

But what’s “most extraordinary … is the [fierce] defense of the mongoose and how its determination made [it] possible to face [its] opponents and eventually escape.”

Related: Mongoose vs. Cobra

We contacted Jenni Sanderson, a research fellow at the U.K.’s University of Exeter who’s worked extensively with banded mongooses in Uganda, by email to get her views on the startling spectacle.

What exactly is the mongoose doing here, in your opinion?

The mongoose looks like it is trying to defend itself and/or its territory from the lions. It’s possible that the mongoose has some pups in the den, and that could be why it is fighting so hard to scare the lions away. Nearly all animals become strangely aggressive when they have young to protect. (Learn about National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.)

Can you speculate on the lions’ reactions?

It is important to point out that the lions in the video are quite young; you can tell that they are young because of the spotted patterns on their legs. [It could be] the young lions are only playing with it, rather than trying to eat it. I imagine that if the lions wanted to kill and eat the mongoose, then they could, quite easily. (See “‘Unusual’ Pictures: Lions vs. Hippo.”)

Is this kind of behavior common for a mongoose?

I don’t know how common it is for marsh mongooses, but I have seen banded mongooses attack many animals bigger than themselves, [such as] pythons, baboons, [and] monitor lizards. We are always bemused by the fact that the banded mongooses we study seem to attack pythons much more than is necessary. If they find one sleeping under a bush, they will attack it repeatedly—in fact, this even ended up with one of the banded mongooses being eaten by a python (something I don’t think would have happened if they had left it alone). (Watch video: “Stork vs. Mongoose.”)

Are they known to be aggressive animals?

Yes, mongooses are aggressive, but only when they need to protect themselves. The mongooses in India even fight off cobras—something made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.” Meerkats [which are a type of mongoose] can even kill and eat highly venomous scorpions! Mongooses may look and act cute most of the time, but underneath that they are very strong and can be very aggressive when they need to be.

Why would it keep fighting even after escaping into the safety of the burrow?

If the mongoose has some pups in the den, then it will become more likely to attack the lions when in or near its den. This is pure speculation, though, and it is difficult to say why the mongoose is behaving like that.