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Biologists long believed that lions band together to hunt prey. But Craig Packer and colleagues have found that's not the main reason the animals team up. (Anup and Manoj Shah / www.shahimages.com)

The Truth About Lions

The world's foremost lion expert reveals the brutal, secret world of the king of beasts

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The sides of the ditch looked unpromising, but Packer and Jansson couldn’t resist. 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. The ditch was 15 feet deep, so we could no longer see the pride, but as we’d slipped downward, a row of black-tipped ears had cocked inquisitively in our direction.

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. “An umbrella,” Jansson said. Apparently, lions don’t like umbrellas, particularly if they’re painted with large pairs of eyes.

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. To figure out if a sedated lion is truly down for the count, he’ll get out of the truck to tickle its ear. 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. (His daughter, Catherine, 25, is a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Packer never tried such a stunt with son Jonathan, now 22, although Jonathan was once bitten by a baboon. Packer and Pusey divorced in 1997; 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. Packer’s nonchalance was not contagious. I could not decide whether I should creep or sprint. Every time I glanced at the grassy riverbanks above I was sure that I would find myself the object of some blond monster’s greedy regard. As I bent to claw stones out of the ground, I knew suddenly, with complete, visceral certainty, why Tanzanian villagers might rather be rid of these animals.

I’d already taken stock of their carving-knife incisors and Cleopatra eyes, observed their low, rolling, hoodlum swaggers, heard their idling growls and nocturnal bellows. If you live in a mud hut protected by a bramble fence, if your cows are your bank account and your 7-year-old son is a shepherd who sleeps in the paddock with his goats, wouldn’t you want to eliminate every last lion on earth?

“People hate lions,” Packer had told me. “The people who live with them, anyway.”

After more than an hour of reed-whacking, stone-wedging and wrestling with mud ladders placed under the tires to provide traction, the vehicle finally surged onto the far side of the ditch. Incredibly, the lions remained precisely where we’d seen them last: sitting with Zen-like equanimity on their little doily of shade.

Jansson looked through binoculars, taking note of their whisker patterns and a discolored iris here and a missing tooth there. She determined this was the seldom-seen Turner Springs pride. Some of the sun-dazed lions had bloodstains on their milky chins. Though they hadn’t displayed the slightest interest in us, I uttered a silent prayer to go home.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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