Agence France-Press wrote:
Addis Ababa - Ethiopia was abuzz on Wednesday over reports that a small pride of lions rescued a 12-year-old girl from pursuers intending to force her into marriage, but wildlife experts scoffed at the accounts.
In a country recently embroiled in deadly post-election violence, the story of big cats saving a vulnerable maiden from unsavoury captors resonated throughout the capital and other cities where residents spoke excitedly of "miracles" and "divine intervention."
Experts expressed extreme doubts about the report which was first carried by the official Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) on Tuesday and then picked up by state-run media, saying it was most likely too good to be true.
In fact, they said, far from displaying highly unusual empathy with a human being, the lions were almost certainly preparing to eat or attack the girl when they were surprised by police searching for the missing youngster.
According to a police officer cited by ENA, who repeated a similar account to AFP on Wednesday, the three lions chased away seven men who had abducted and beaten up the 12-year-old in an attempt to force her into an arranged marriage.
They then stood guard over the traumatised, sobbing girl before disappearing into the bush when police and family members arrived on the scene in the remote region of Bita Genet about 400km southwest of Addis Ababa.
Bita Genet police Sergeant Wondimu Wedajo said it appeared the lions had been attracted by the girl's screams and taken pity on her.
He called the incident "a miracle" and described the behaviour of the cats "something unbelievable."
Unfortunately for those enamoured by the tale, the latter opinion was shared by a decidedly sceptical animal expert and seasoned hunter who placed little credence in lions' supposed altruism.
Colonel Lemma Legesse, a professional big game hunter with experience in Bita Genet, said the lions, having chased off the larger humans, were likely getting ready to devour the helpless girl like other prey when they were interrupted by intruders.
"They were probably preparing to eat her but were intercepted by the police and the others," he said, noting that lion attacks on humans and farm animals have become increasingly frequent in the region.
"They have been attacking children and small animals like goats, so unless this was truly a miracle, it was merely a coincidence or luck," Lemma told AFP.
Ketma Amberber, the head of the Zoological and Natural History museum at Addis Ababa University, echoed that sentiment but offered an alternative theory.
"This was pure luck, it was not a question of guarding the girl or keeping her safe," he said. "Either the lions had already eaten and were full or the police arrived as they were deciding whether to eat her or attack.
"Otherwise, as they are wild naturally, it is more likely they would have killed the girl," Ketma said.