Picture this: You’ve recently lost your wife, and you and your two teenage daughters take a family vacation to the South African reserve where you first met her. To your horror, the trip turns from a bittersweet homecoming to a fight for your life when a massive lion that’s been terrorizing the reserve begins stalking your family. The good news is, you’re played by Idris Elba, so you might have the upper-body strength required to fend off the man-eater. This is the plot of the upcoming movie Beast, and in the final fleeting seconds of its trailer, it all builds up to the moment when Dr. Nate Samuels (played by Elba) is pinned to the ground by the eponymous beast and swings a solid right hook directly into the lion’s nose.
You may have heard the (somewhat true) claim that if a shark attacks you, you should punch it in the nose to deter it. Elba’s character has taken this advice and applied it to another apex predator. The question is, would this work? Are lion noses particularly sensitive and, by punching one, would you convince the lion you’re too much trouble to eat? It sounded to me like a recipe for getting your arm ripped off, because if you miss the nose, that gaping jaw is right below. I reached out to a couple of researchers who study lions in the field to find out.
It turned out I was overly optimistic. “Losing an arm would be a lucky outcome after punching a lion in the face,” Natalia Borrego, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota Lion Research Center, informed me. That approach might work for a lion cub, but the behemoth that Samuels is up against? Definitely not. “It’s likely to anger the lion and result in death.” That’s probably because a lion, which can weigh up to 550 pounds, will barely feel your punch. Nkabeng Maruping-Mzileni, a regional ecologist at South African National Parks, agreed, explaining that there’s no chance of taking down a lion without a weapon. A knife might work in a pinch, especially if you can cut the mouth or other sensitive areas, Maruping-Mzileni noted, but personally, a gun would be my first choice, since it can be fired from a distance. And while there is one story from December 2020 of a wildlife researcher who punched a lion and survived to tell the tale, that particular lion was not only elderly but withered to “skin and bone” from starvation, by the researchers’ own admission—and even then the desperate old lion only left after a colleague threw a flash-bang at it and ran it over with a Jeep. When I asked if it made a difference that Idris Elba was doing the punching, since he is a paragon of strength and masculinity and can therefore do what mere mortals cannot, Borrego was still unconvinced. However, she stressed the importance of distracting a lion before it can pounce, and admitted that “the sight of Idris Elba, one of the most handsome and charming men alive, is possibly one of the few things that has a chance of stopping an attacking lion.” Otherwise, unless Elba’s character is clutching hidden blades between his knuckles, like a pseudo-Wolverine, or like the wolf-punching Liam Neeson in The Grey, he’s pretty much out of luck.
The good news is that lions don’t act like this in real life. While lion attacks aren’t rare, hunting “just to kill, and not actually eat—it’s a misrepresentation. In nature, they’re not going to do that,” Maruping-Mzileni reassured me. If you do happen to find yourself in Samuels’ position, your best bet is to act big and scary, just like you would with a mountain lion in America. According to Borrego, lions will often do a “mock charge” to intimidate you. Prove the lion wrong by standing tall, shouting in a “deep, loud voice,” and whatever you do, don’t turn your back and run. Unfortunately, if the lion does decide that you’re prey, “there is not much you can do other than say your last words.” The best way to avoid getting attacked in the first place is to stay inside your vehicle (which Samuels fails to do not even one minute into the trailer), to be aware of your surroundings in the day, and to never walk around at night.
Despite the trailer’s zoological inaccuracies, both experts weren’t too concerned about audiences being misled by Beast. “I wouldn’t put it along the same lines as Jaws,” which popularized the false perception that sharks regularly feasted on beachgoers. “I think it’s one of those things—it’s going to make people want to go out more to parks that have lions in them,” said Maruping-Mzileni. She did add that she hopes people won’t test out their own punch on a lion. “Did you ever watch the movie The Ghost and the Darkness?” She asked me. “It was about man-eaters in East Africa. You don’t watch that movie while you’re doing field work.” The Ghost and the Darkness is a fictionalized account of the Tsavo man-eaters, two lions that did attack and kill dozens of railway workers in Kenya in 1898. Maruping-Mzileni explained that lion attacks are much more common and dangerous in East Africa, where people live with wildlife, than in South Africa, where the lions are only a danger if they break out of a park (or, for Samuels, if you get stuck in a reserve with one). Borrego also brought up the Tsavo man-eaters, but said that more commonly, “lions will leave reserve boundaries to kill livestock, which people depend on for their livelihood.”
Having thoroughly established that no, you can’t punch a lion in the face (even if it looks badass), I had to ask our experts what size cat they could fight off with a punch. (Disclaimer: I don’t condone punching cats of any size, both for your own sake and the cat’s.) Where is the line drawn, from housecat to lion? After conferring with her colleagues, Borrego responded with a detailed list: housecats, sand cats, and black-footed cats are in the category of “adorable and punchable with minimal risk.” (Unfortunately, sand cats and black-footed cats really are adorable, so I don’t even have the emotional strength to punch them.) Bobcats, servals, and caracals are the largest punchable cats, but they’re “feisty” and so you would “walk away with some serious injuries.”
The cheetah was where the line got blurry. While Borrego’s team was divided between death and seriously-injured-but-alive, Maruping-Mzileni thought a cheetah fell into the punchable category, thanks to its skittish nature. “A cheetah? They purr. I mean, come on.” She told me that she could scare off a cheetah with a big stick, and that there are no records of a wild cheetah killing a human. (That could change if you punched one in the face unprovoked, of course.) Anything of a comparable size to a lion, such as a cougar, leopard, jaguar, or tiger? Borrego put it plainly. “Death. 0/10 do not recommend punching these cats. If you live, it is because the cat was too astounded at your audacity.”