Dr. Craig Packer is an ecologist. His research interests include ecology of infectious diseases, ecosystem processes in African savannahs, and conservation strategies for mitigating problem-animal conflicts.
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I've been studying lions in Africa for nearly 40 years. My research has been important in reducing the prevalence of lion trophy hunting and raising awareness regarding conservation challenges. I spend my days working to improve the future for African lions in both fenced and unfenced reserves, and starting at 5:00pm Central Time, I'm an open book. Ask me anything!
Edit: We're done for the day. But if you'd like to learn more about lions, the Lion Center or me, you might be interesting in checking out my two books on Amazon:
Lions in the Balance
Want to help out? We're currently hosting a Crowdfunding Campaign to raise money for additional camera traps in Africa!
I've heard that trophy hunters actually fund more conservation of lions with the money it costs them to obtain permission to hunt a single lion, is that true?
This is only true in a few parts of Africa. In most places, the hunting fees are far too low to cover the costs of protecting the hunting blocks from poachers, cattle herders, etc. The hunting blocks are typically rented out to individuals with close contacts inside the range-state governments. So the government "official" gets the money rather than the government agency that pays the rangers' salaries, etc. In short, the high idealism of sport hunting fails because of rampant corruption.
Are there more lions in captivity than wild?
There are at least 20,000 lions left in the wild, so they still out-number captive lions -- but not by much!
Hi Craig! I'm going to South Africa in a few weeks for a wedding, can you tell me the best way to see lions? And what's your favorite fun fact about lions? Thanks for the AMA!
There are a lot of good places to see lions in South Africa. You are almost certain to see them in Kruger National Park. The Sabi Sands Conservancy is another great area. But you can find lions in a number of the smaller parks in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and and Mpumalanga. My favorite fun fact about lions is that they can count.
Who would win in a fight between a lion and a tuna?
I suppose if the fight were to take place in the deep ocean....
How do you feel about the Cecil shooting? All permits were in place for the shooter. What's your take on what happened?
Cecil was shot illegally. The Zimbabwean guide only had permission to shoot a lion in an area in a different part of the country -- and he brought his client to a site where lions from Hwange National Park are often found. But even if Cecil had been shot legally, the client only spent $50,000 -- when the true conservation costs of shooting a fully adult lion is well over $1,000,000 -- lion conservation is expensive and sport hunting in most countries raises pennies on the dollar of the true costs of wildlife management.
Where does the majority of your funding come from and what is your daily work routine?
For the past few years, the majority of my funding has come from National Geographic in the US, with additional funding from the National Research Foundation in South Africa.
During the fall semester each year, I teach at the University of Minnesota. For the rest of the year, I work with researchers and wildlife managers in various parts of Africa, including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe -- I also advise various projects in Tanzania. This mostly means that i spend a bit of time with lions in the protected areas and the rest of each day working with people who spend all their time in the field.
Hi there craig! Do big cats like lions respond to catnip? Although I am aware and respect big cats are not house pets, have you noticed any similarities with thier distant cousins? Do you have any funny or cute stories to share? Thank you!
Lions don't go for catnip, alas. It seems to be something that only the smaller cats get excited about. But besides the fact that lions are amazingly sociable and do so many things together, you are always struck by their basic "catness" -- they rub their heads together just like a cat my rub your ankle and they make a funny face when they sniff something odd. And the moms carry their cubs just like cats carry their kittens. To me lions are cutest when they flop on top of each other -- they are very tactile and affectionate, but they also weight a ton, so the lion at the bottom of the pile may have to struggle to get from under the scrum....
What is your opinion on lions (or other animals for that matter) in zoos? Do you wish they had more freedom or do you feel that the lions are cared for in zoos?
By one important measure - breeding - lions fare very well in zoos. Most zoo lions have been sterilized or fitted with contraceptives to prevent a baby boom. Otherwise, zoo lions don't really have enough to do, and they often get obese because of a lack of exercise. If their enclosure were bigger and they were allowed to catch dinner -- and also to fail most of the time -- their lives would be much better.
Who is the Craig Packer of gorillas and how can they ensure that gorillas have a better 2017 than 2016?
There are a lot of good people who study gorillas. Peter Walsh is concerned about the risks of Ebola to gorillas. Amy Vedder has done a lot to protect the mountain gorilla in Rwanda.
I love the idea of crowdfunding to support this sort of conservation work. What funding agencies or sources do you mainly rely on to do basic research?
Thanks. Up until about 4 yrs ago, almost all my lion research was funded by the National Science Foundation in the US, but when the grants ran out, I needed to find bridge funding to keep the Serengeti lion project and SnapshotSerengeti running at full capacity in Tanzania until I could find a new funding agency. So we ran a highly successful crowd-funding campaign that raised over $50,000 and saved us until National Geographic stepped in and supported us for the following few years. Now we are trying to expand into a new set of conservation issues in South Africa, and we need outside help because the South African parks have to devote their entire budgets to safeguarding their remaining white rhino. Our new projects aim to help lions and their primary prey species.
What is perhaps the biggest threat facing wild lions today? Also, if every trophy hunt were 100% legal and the funds always went towards lion conservation with no corruption present, would trophy hunting (with the fees as they are today) help conservation efforts more than it harmed the lion population?
The biggest threat, ultimately, is rapid human population growth across Africa == by 2050 population density in much of Africa will be similar to India today. Lions need vast tracts of land -- and open areas outside the parks are disappearing fast while the parks themselves tend to be underfunded.
Sport hunting could only make a difference if it raised about twenty-times as much money per square mile. Lion conservation costs about $2,000 per square kilometer, and lion hunting seldom generates even a third as much -- and in many places, hunting only generates $20-100 per sq km.
This could either be achieved by greatly increasing the fees per client or making it much more difficult to actually shoot a lion -- most lions are shot at baits and outfitters practically guarantee one lion per client. If only 1 in 20 were successful, a lot more revenue would be generated. So big changes would be necessary.
How did you get into this field? What made you want to do it and how did you follow through?
i was extraordinarily lucky to be able to go to Africa as a field assistant to Jane Goodall when i was an undergraduate. Very few people watched animals in the wild in those days, so when I caught the bug for research, it was relatively easy to keep going. In my case, I went to graduate school in the UK so as to return to the primate project with Jane, and when i finished my degree, I was able to take over the Serengeti lion project from a couple of friends. The field is far more crowded today!
Ten years ago I gave $3,500 to the African Wildlife Assoc. because I wanted to do something to help the lions, elephants and rhinos. Was that money put to good use?
I'm not familiar with a lot of that particular organization -- some of them spend a lot on fancy offices in NYC or London. Some are more focused on specific projects
Do you work directly with the lions?
If so,are you not afraid of them somehow hurting you?
I've handled hundreds of lions over the years, and I was never worried -- because they had always been immobilized so that we could take a blood sample or attach a radio collar. We would sometimes dart one lion in the middle of a large group then drive our LandRover between the immobilized lion and its pridemates, operate quickly with the syringe and collar, and then hop back in the car. But I also interviewed a number of families whose loved-ones were eaten by lions, so I would never encourage ANYONE from getting too close to a wild lion.
How do you feel about the obvious inverse correlation between lions having a good/bad year and the rest of the world having a good/bad year? I drew a graph for clarification. http://iob.imgur.com/uYGg/NXGvi7Iiuz
Edit: Lions broke my upload :(
Despite the bad stuff in 2015 for lions -- and the bad stuff in 2016 for the rest of us -- a lot of good things may be starting to happen for lions.
First, the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service has been very strict about preventing the import of lion trophies from Africa to the US -- USFWS requirer the African countries to provide solid evidence that sport hunting makes a POSITIVE contribution to lion conservation in their territories, and so far South Africa is the only country to make a convincing case. Thus across all of Africa, only a handful of wild lions were shot for export to the US in 2016, whereas in earlier years hundreds of wild lions were shot and imported to the US every year. In addition, USFWS banned the importation of "canned" lion trophies in 2016. Canned lions are raised on lion "farms" in South Africa and shot at close range. Over 500 of these "trophies" had been imported into the US every year for the past decade. Thus the American market for lion trophies has virtually disappeared. Let's hope that USFWS will be allowed to continue these strict policies into the new Administration in Washington DC.
Second, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the world must find a better way to finance African wildlife conservation than has been possible thru sport hunting or ecotourism. The costs are simply too high to be shouldered by Western families on holiday in the Serengeti or sport hunters chasing after lions like Cecil. I attended a meeting in Oxford in September where a number of lion conservationists like myself were able to make the case to the British Govt and to organizations like UNESCO and UNEP that Africa's iconic parks and wildlife will only survive if the entire world helps cover the costs through some sort of global funding program to the National Parks services of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, etc. We received quite a sympathetic ear, and I think we might be able to move the idea forward to world leaders in the coming years -- though the US Govt may not be the best place to start right now!
Thank your for your clear and erudite answer.
Now, for a follow up? Who was to blame? I think the dentist did his due diligence. Also? I heard the lion in question was lured from the park and shot on ground that was, in fact, legal.
I understand that it's murky. I want and respect your opinion. You know more than I do.
Hunting was permitted at the site where Cecil was shot, but the local hunting operator's permit was restricted to a different part of the country -- so the outfitter pulled a fast one, and it left the dentist looking like the bad guy. It is extremely common for hunting operators to set out baits at the borders of the national parks so as to lure the lions into the hunting concessions.
Any opinion as to why the Tsavo Lions behaved the way that they did, and what is the likelihood of a similar occurrence happening in this day and age?
There had been a disease in cattle called Rinderpest that struck East Africa in about 1889, thus the lions of Tsavo lost most of their prey and were forced by hunger to start eating people. The Man-Eaters of Tsavo killed about 35 railway workers in the early 1890s.
There was a much worse outbreak of man-eating lions between about 1990 and 2005 in southern Tanzania where nearly a thousand people were attacked. This problem was caused by similar factors -- rapid habitat loss in that part of the country left the lions with little else to eat.
What is the craziest thing you have seen throughout your 40 years in Africa? (Wildlife related).
We did a research project about 15 yrs ago that tested why lions have manes, so we obtained a set of life-sized toy lions with removable manes and set them out two at a time to see if females preferred long manes over short manes or dark manes over light manes. We didn't really know if it would work until we tried it the first time -- and we gave a set of 3 females a choice between black and blond. Amazingly, they responded as if the dummies were actual male lions - and approached them with considerable interest (and a certain amount of flirtiness). That first group of females clearly preferred the dark maned dummy and even tried tugging on its tail to get it to respond. Our later tests all showed the same thing, and we eventually learned that real live males with dark manes are superior competitors to their blond rivals. But that first test made my students and me all laugh and hop up and down with such excitement that it was one of the true highlights of my scientific career.
Are you familiar with the incident in Ohio a few years ago where the owner of several exotic animals released them before committing suicide? I live in Columbus and remember Jack Hanna saying at the time that there was no other choice but to put them down. Do you agree with this? Was there really no way to save them?
The problem with captive lions is that they can never be returned to the wild -- they don't hold enough fear of people. And they are very expensive to feed (~15 lbs of meat a day), so they only could have gone to another captive facility that can safely hold such large dangerous animals -- and such places are usually filled to capacity already!
What country/regions are they faring the best? Which areas are they doing the most poorly? Are there any diseases that you are really worried about? I've seen some with terrible flies on them, is that condition normal? Are their numbers down greatly and if so are their prey populations growing? Are other apex predators taking their place? What's the overall effect of reduced lion populations on their ecosystems?
Lion numbers are declining throughout most of West, Central and East Africa, largely owing to loss of habitat, loss of prey and human-lion conflicts. Lions eat people and their livestock. People retaliate with spears, guns and poison. The only areas where lions are thriving are in southern Africa -- either where all the reserves are fenced (like in South Africa) or where the reserves are located in deserts with no surrounding populations of people (like in Botswana and Namibia). Where lions are declining, leopards tend to fare better -- lions ordinarily keep the leopard populations lower -- leopards also survive better around people. The only real disease problems are bovine tuberculosis in inbred lion populations (outbred populations can withstand bTB ok) and canine distemper virus when an epidemic happens to coincide with an outbreak of tick-borne disease -- otherwise lions seem to cope with CDV ok. The flies are usually a sign that the lions are too sick to brush them off.
How similar to lions are house cats? Is it true they're essentially 'tiny lions'?
Tiny lions except for doing things together (like catching a large prey animal) and engaging in gang warfare against their neighbors.... House cats are solitaries at heart! Also, lions don't purr!
A Packer, from Minnesota, who's into Lions...
Do you realize that if you were a Bear you would encompass the NFC North and have your very own Visa commercial?
Do you need an agent? Cause I think we've got gold here.
Ha! All good suggestions appreciated!
Makes sense, just wish they could've done something else I guess. Thanks for taking time to answer.
It's always a tough situation when it comes to exotic animals -- lions are just too dangerous!
Will the Lions get to the Superbowl this season?
Joke Question aside, Is it true that Lions are basically overgrown cats? Like, do the like getting petted and things of that sort?
Egad, I'm afraid i was a Packer before I started studying lions -- and besides who would ever make a lion wear a blue uniform -- so I will be rooting for my namesakes this weekend....
Lions like it when they rub up against their companions -- they are very tactile and affectionate to members of their own immediate family. But they also engage in gang warfare against their neighbors. So they are certainly very catlike -- but also a lot like humans in the sense of doing things as a group.
What do lions taste like?
I don't know. A number of American restaurants have served lion meat over the past few years, but they got into a lot of trouble with animal rights organizations!
Hi Craig! What is your favorite lion of all time? Have you ever thought about combating lion poachers first hand by creating a rogue force? If so, please IM me- #JusticeforCecil
There was a lion I got to know when I first started working in the Serengeti. Our predecessors on the lion project had named her Goka. When i first met her, she was about 3 yrs old, playful and curious. She was mating with a big black-maned male, and she blithely came up to chew on the tire of my Land Rover -- I worried that she might bite all the way thru the tread and leave me stranded with a flat tire. So I reached out the window and banged on the side of the car with my fist. She jumped back half a step, but her consort partner leapt straight at my arm in a fit of jealousy. I pulled my hand back inside in time, but I wondered if I would survive the next few years in the Serengeti.
A few months later, Goka unhitched the guy ropes of a tent with a BBC film team inside and tried to drag everyone across the plains. The following year, I got out of my car near a rocky outcrop (kopje) and walked around to stretch my legs. When I turned back, Goka was stalking me -- and she was halfway between me and my car. I made a lot of noise, clapped my hands and made it back to the car -- and Goka just watched as I ran past. Nothing really seemed to bother her, and there was something about her that made her seem really intelligent. She lived to be 15 yrs of age (the oldest female we ever studied in the Serengeti lived to 19), so she had a long life, but her pride territory was in a really challenging part of the park with little to eat for much of the year, and she only ever managed to raise one cub to maturity, a son who moved to a different part of the park, found a companion, and started his own family.
As for saving lions, there are almost no lion "poachers" -- people kill lions that have attacked their families of livestock, so they are trying to protect themselves and their property. The best solution is to build wildlife-proof fences wherever possible so as to protect people from lions and eliminate the need for retaliation. Where fences can't be built, it is important to help local people improve their livestock husbandry.
Hi Craig, thanks for your hard work! I've always wondered, all lions look similar, if not identical, to me. Have you ever had difficulty distinguishing lions from each other? Or they just have distinct personalities and roles in their groups that it wouldn't be too hard to tell them apart?
If you have a cat on hand, take a close look at its whiskers -- there is a unique pattern of dots on each side. We use whisker spots to identify each lion when they are young. As they get older, they acquire various notches in the ears, some get broken tails, others have conspicuous scars on their noses, etc. These all help, but, you are right -- they are very hard to keep straight without a good pair of binoculars! Except for the males, of course, which have quite variable manes.
Oh, and, yes lions do have distinct personalities -- some are bold, some are shy, some are more attentive to the needs of their families -- some fight harder in certain situations than others. Every pride is its own little soap opera.
Hello Craig! First I'd like to Thank you for your work and perseverance. I would like to know your opinion on how the whitetigerblackjajuar foundation, specially the way they "play" with the kitties. Do you think it is correct to be so confident around them? Have you collaborated with them in any way?. Thanks.
I had never heard of that group until today. I try to stay focused on wild lions in their natural habitat. There's always the risk that some of these captive facilities are not merely "rescuing" animals, but also breeding them so that they can have a constant supply of cubs. That leads to all sorts of ethical issues which are best addressed by people who specialize in those sorts of problems. I'm an ecologist, so I care about wild animals in the wild!
You have mentioned animal rights organizations, is there some personal prejudice that is leading you to ignore the left side of the animal?
I'm not sure I understand your question. Can you clarify?