Craig Packer was behind the wheel when we came across the massive cat slumped in the shade beneath a spiny tree.
It was a dark-maned male, elaborately sprawled, as if it had fallen from a great height. Its sides heaved with shallow pants. Its mane was full of leaves. From a distance it looked like a deposed lord, grand and pitiable. The Serengeti usually dazzles first-time visitors, Packer had warned, making us giddy with an abundance of idyllic wildlife straight out of a Disney song-and-dance .
The sublime brute only 15 feet away was my first wild Panthera leo. Male African lions can be ten feet long and weigh pounds or more, and this one appeared to be pushing the limits of its species. I was glad to be inside a truck. Packer, though, opened the door and hopped out. Packer threw another stone. Unimpressed, the lion briefly turned its back, showing hindquarters as smooth as cast bronze. The beast yawned and, nestling its tremendous head on its paws, shifted its gaze to us for the first time. Its eyes were yellow and cold like new doubloons.
Packer, 59, is tall, skinny and sharply angular, like a Serengeti thorn tree. It is furnished with a faux leopard-skin couch and supplied only sporadically with electricity the researchers turn it off during the day to save energy and fresh water elephants dug up the pipelines years ago.
Packer has been running the Serengeti Lion Project for 31 of its 43 years. It is the most extensive carnivore study ever conducted. He has collected lion blood, milk, feces and semen. He has learned to lob a defrosted ox heart full of medicine toward a hungry lion for a study of intestinal parasites.
Over the decades there have been plagues, births, invasions, feuds and dynasties. When the lions went to war, as they are inclined to do, he was their Homer. But because lions are the only social felines, Packer thought manes were more likely a message or a status symbol. He asked a Dutch toy company to craft four plush, life-size lions with light and dark manes of different lengths.
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He attracted lions to the dolls using calls of scavenging hyenas. When they encountered the dummies, female lions almost invariably attempted to seduce the dark-maned ones, while males avoided them, preferring to attack the blonds, particularly those with shorter manes. Consulting their field data, Packer and his colleagues noticed that many males with short manes had suffered from injury or sickness. By contrast, dark-maned males tended to be older than the others, have higher testosterone levels, heal well after wounding and sire more surviving cubs—all of which made them more desirable mates and formidable foes.
Newspapers across the globe picked up the finding. In Tanzania, home to as many as half of all the wild lions on earth, the population is in free fall, having dropped by half since the mids, to fewer than 10, The reason for the decline of the king of beasts can be summed up in one word: people.
As more Tanzanians take up farming and ranching, they push farther into lion country. Now and then a lion kills a person or livestock; villagers—who once shot only nuisance lions—have started using poisons to wipe out whole prides. It is not a new problem, this interspecies competition for an increasingly scarce resource, but neither is it a simple one. Among other things, Packer and his students are studying how Tanzanians can change their animal husbandry and farming practices to ward off ravenous felines. Scientists used to believe that prides—groups of a few to more than a dozen related females typically guarded by two or more males—were organized for hunting.
Lion vs elephant: who is the king of the jungle?
The Jua Kali pride lives far out on the Serengeti plains, where the land is the dull color of burlap, and termite mounds rise like small volcanoes. Early one morning last August, Serengeti Lion Project researchers found Hildur, a Herculean male with a blond mane, limping around near a grassy ditch. He was roaring softly, possibly in an effort to contact his darker-maned co-leader.
But C-Boy, the researchers saw, had been cornered on the crest of a nearby hill by a fearsome trio of snarling males whom Packer and colleagues call The Killers. Resident males may be mortally wounded in the fighting. Females sometimes die fighting to defend their cubs. The researchers suspected that The Killers, who normally live near a river 12 miles away, had already dispatched two females from a different pride—thus The Killers earned their names. C-Boy, surrounded, gave a strangled growl.
The Killers fell on him, first two, then all three, slashing and biting as he swerved, their blows falling on his vulnerable hindquarters. None of the Jua Kali lions had been spotted since the fight, but we kept riding out to their territory to look for them.
The truth about lions
Finally, one afternoon we found JKM, the mother of the Jua Kali litter, lolling atop a termite mound as large and intricate as a pipe organ. JKM had her eye on a kongoni antelope a few miles away; unfortunately, it was watching her, too. She was also scanning the sky for vultures, perhaps in the hopes of scavenging a hyena kill. She stood up and ambled off into the hip-high grass. We could see dark circles around her nipples: she was still lactating.
Against the odds, her cubs seemed to have survived. The cubs were panting and mewling pitifully, clearly in distress; normally cubs stay in their den during the heat of the day. The Killers might have forsaken the Jua Kali females to take over the Mukoma Hill pride, which inhabits richer territory near river confluences to the north.
Packer recalled a similar pattern of invasion in the early s by the Seven Samurai, a coalition of males, several with spectacular black manes, who had once brought down two adult, 1,pound Cape buffaloes and a calf in a single day. It took a while for Packer to tune into such dramas. He slept in a metal structure called The Cage to be closer to the animals.
By the time Packer and Pusey installed themselves in the Lion House, scientists were well aware that lions are ambush predators with little stamina and that they gorge at a kill, each one downing up to 70 pounds in a sitting. Lions eat, in addition to antelope and wildebeest, crocodiles, pythons, fur seals, baboons, hippopotamuses, porcupines and ostrich eggs. Lion territories are quite large—15 square miles on the low end, ranging up to nearly —and are passed down through generations of females.
Lions are vigorous when it comes to reproduction; Schaller observed one male mate times in Serious black lioness wants elephant hours. Packer and Pusey set out not just to document lion behavior but to explain how it had evolved. Did they really hunt cooperatively?
They kept tabs on two dozen prides in minute detail, photographing each animal and naming new cubs. They noted where the lions congregated, who was eating how much of what, who had mated, who was wounded, who survived and who died. They described interactions at kills. It was slow going, even after they put radio collars on several lions in Following prides at night—the animals are largely nocturnal—he sometimes thought he would go mad.
Still, they began to see how prides functioned. Yet lions band together without fail to confront and sometimes kill intruders.
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Larger groups thus monopolize the premier savanna real estate—usually around the confluence of rivers, where prey animals come to drink—while smaller prides are pushed to the margins. He and Pusey realized this after scrutinizing groups of nursing mothers for countless hours. An alert lioness reserves her milk for her own offspring.
During takeovers by outside males, solitary females lost litter after litter, while cooperating lionesses stood a better chance of protecting their cubs and fending off males, which can outweigh females by as much as 50 percent. Surviving cubs go on to perpetuate the bloody cycle.
Males reared together typically form a coalition around age 2 or 3 and set out to conquer prides of their own. Hard-living males rarely live past age 12; females can reach their late teens.
As we crossed the plains one morning, the Land Rover—broken speedometer, no seat belts, cracked side mirrors, a fire extinguisher and a roll of toilet paper on the dashboard—creaked like an aged vessel in high seas. We plowed through oceans of grasses, mostly brown but also mint green, salmon pink and, in the distance, lavender; the lions we hunted were a liquid flicker, a current within a current.
The landscape on this day did not look inviting. Sections of the giant sky were shaded with rain.
Zebra jaws and picked-clean impala skulls littered the ground. Packer and a research assistant, Ingela Jansson, were listening through headphones for the ping-ping-ping radio al of collared lions. Jansson, driving, spotted a pride on the other side of a dry gully: six or seven lions sitting slack-jawed in the shade.
Neither she nor Packer recognized them. Jansson had a feeling they might be a new group. Jansson found what seemed to be a decent crossing spot, by Serengeti standards, and angled the truck down. We roared across the bed and began churning up the other side. Packer, who is originally from Texas, let out a whoop of triumph just before we lurched to a halt and began to slide helplessly backward.
We came to rest at the bottom, snarled in reeds, with only three wheels on the ground, wedged between the riverbanks as tightly as a filling in a dental cavity. Jansson stepped out of the truck, long blond ponytail whipping around, dug at the wheels with a shovel and spade, and then hacked down reeds with a panga, or straight-blade machete.
Earlier I had asked what kind of anti-lion gear the researchers carried. Packer is not afraid of lions, especially Serengeti lions, which he says have few encounters with people or livestock and have plenty of other things to eat. He says he once ditched a mired Land Rover within ten feet of a big pride and marched in the opposite direction, his 3-year-old daughter on his shoulders, singing nursery school songs all the way back to the Lion House.
Packer never tried such a stunt with son Jonathan, now 22, although Jonathan was once bitten by a baboon. Packer and Pusey divorced in ; she returned to studying chimpanzees.
Not being handy with a panga, I was sent a short distance down the riverbed to gather stones to wedge under the wheels. I could not decide whether I should creep or sprint.