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AAAS Fellow Craig Packer Runs with Lions

Craig Packer
Craig Packer. Image credit: University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.

Few scientists can say their stories from the field include facing down ferocious animals and armed robbers in Africa.

Meet Craig Packer, a Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota (UM) in Minneapolis, and a 2019 AAAS Fellow. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the African lion, which he has spent most of his adult life studying.

Packer treats lions with empathy and respect. He's ordinarily careful to observe them from a vehicle, approaching them, if he needs to take a blood sample or fit a transmitter, after they've been tranquilized with a dart. Still, alert and hungry lions have surprised him. On one occasion, he yelled and clapped to divert a lioness and dove for his Land Rover.

"Whenever I’ve had a close shave with a lion, I’ve always felt really stupid," he says. "I haven’t wanted to make them shy or uncomfortable."

Packer is serious about doing what he can to keep lion populations as robust as possible. Even though the species’ numbers have dwindled to 10% of what they were a century ago, he says he's still cautiously optimistic about lions' survival.

"It depends on what you mean by surviving," says Packer, who is also the founder of the Lion Research Center at UM, and a prodigious researcher and author. "There are some conservation efforts that could provide good, stable habitats for lions well into the future, but you know, we're talking about Africa. There's a lot of political uncertainty and the most pressing issue is very rapid human population growth."

Trends that have decimated lion populations all over Africa are still on the rise. The continent's human population has grown from 220 million in 1950 to 1.3 billion today. Most of the world's remaining wild lions live in Africa, and human encroachment on their habitats is a major threat to their survival. Lions are often killed in retaliation for eating people's livestock, or people themselves.

As long as they have access to animals they can hunt, and are protected from lethal interactions with humans, lions will proliferate, Packer says.

“There are some strategies we know work,” he says. He has conducted research that shows that wildlife-proof fences can protect people and livestock from lions, and are the cheapest and most successful method for doing that. Fencing won't work in places where lions hunt migratory animals, though.

Packer helped found Snapshot Safari, in which trail cameras capture images of animals to help managers monitor their wildlife and gauge the success of their conservation efforts. The project first began in the Serengeti when Packer was working there and has engaged the public with identifying animals shown in the photographs as well as with conservation efforts in general.

"Lions are an umbrella species," Packer says. "In protecting them, you're protecting the habitat, which includes a lot of other species."

Packer teaches these types of lessons and others in his introductory biology class for undergraduates at UM. In February, he will travel to Botswana and Namibia to observe conservation efforts there. He has also written two books and more than 200 scientific papers, mostly about lions.

His most recent, "Lions in the Balance," from 2015, pulls back to look at the politics, dangers and frustrations behind lion research.

Packer has seen his share of setbacks. He survived close encounters not only with lions but also with armed robbers, who once invaded the home where he was staying. He's also no longer allowed into Tanzania, where for 37 years he oversaw the Serengeti Lion Project, after he spoke out several years ago about corruption and duplicity in the trophy-hunting sector.

Packer traveled to Africa in the early 1970s, while an undergraduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, as a research assistant to the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall, for a project on baboons at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania.

It was there, he says, he was “hooked” on studying animal behavior. But an earlier episode, when he attempted a junior-high-school science-fair project on the topic of evolution, also might have had an influence on his choice of a career, Packer says.

“This was Texas in the 1960s,” he recalls. He grew up in Fort Worth. “I was told, 'Nope,' so weirdly enough, evolution became kind of a forbidden fruit for me."

Later, Packer worked with primates through graduate school in biology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. He also became interested in lions, he says, because while most cats are "militantly solitary, lions are extraordinarily co-operative."

It was Packer and his colleagues who showed that lions team up to control prime territories, by a stream, for example, where prey will be plentiful. His lab also conducted experiments in Africa that demonstrated male lions' manes signal relative fitness to other lions.

Packer says he's proud to be a AAAS Fellow. "AAAS has been an important voice for science and science education," and does an excellent job as a liaison between science and the policy makers, he says.

Craig Packer
Craig Packer. Image credit: University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.

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