“Let’s go closer,” Packer said.
The first true lion probably padded over the earth about 600,000 years ago, and its descendants eventually ruled a greater range than any other wild land mammal. They penetrated all of Africa, except for the deepest rain forests of the Congo Basin and driest parts of the Sahara, and every continent save Australia and Antarctica. There were lions in Great Britain, Russia and Peru; they were plentiful in Alaska and the habitat known today as downtown Los Angeles.
In the Grotte Chauvet, the cave in France whose 32,000-year-old paintings are considered among the oldest art in the world, there are more than 70 renderings of lions. Sketched in charcoal and ocher, these European cave lions—maneless and, according to fossil evidence, 25 percent bigger than African lions—prance alongside other now-extinct creatures: mammoths, Irish elk, woolly rhino. Some lions, drawn in the deepest part of the cave, are oddly colored and abstract, with hooves instead of paws; archaeologists believe these may be shamans.
The French government invited Packer to tour the cave in 1999. “It was one of the most profound experiences of my life,” Packer says. But the dream-like quality of the images wasn’t what excited him; it was their zoological accuracy. By the light of a miner’s lamp, he discerned pairs, lions moving in large groups and even submissive behavior, depicted down to the tilt of the subordinate’s ears. The artist, Packer says, “doesn’t exaggerate their teeth, he doesn’t make them seem more formidable than I would. This was somebody who was viewing them in a very cool and detached way. This was somebody who was studying lions.”
The lions’ decline began about 12,000 years ago. Prehistoric human beings, with their improving hunting technologies, probably competed with lions for prey, and lion subspecies in Europe and the Americas went extinct. Other subspecies were common in India and Africa until the 1800s, when European colonists began killing lions on safaris and clearing the land. In 1920, a hunter shot the last known member of the North African subspecies in Morocco. Today, the only wild lions outside Africa belong to a small group of fewer than 400 Asiatic lions in the Gir Forest of India.
Lions persist in a handful of countries across southeastern Africa, including Botswana, South Africa and Kenya, but Tanzania’s population is by far the largest. Though devastatingly poor, the nation is a reasonably stable democracy with huge tracts of protected land.
Serengeti National Park—at 5,700 square miles, about the size of Connecticut—is perhaps the world’s greatest lion sanctuary, with some 3,000 lions. In Packer’s study area, comprising the territories of 23 prides near the park’s center, the number of lions is stable or even rising. But the Serengeti is the exception.
Part of the blame for Tanzania’s crashing lion population belongs to the trophy-hunting industry: the government allows the harvest of some 240 wild lions a year from game reserves and other unprotected areas, the highest take in Africa. Safaris charge a trophy fee of as little as $6,000 for a lion; animals are shot while feasting on baits, and many of the coveted “trophy males” have peach fuzz manes and haven’t even left their mother’s pride yet. The use of lion parts in folk medicines is another concern; as wild tigers disappear from Asia, scientists have noticed increasing demand for leonine substitutes.
The central issue, though, is the growing human population. Tanzania has three times as many residents now—some 42 million—as when Packer began working there. The country has lost more than 37 percent of its woodlands since 1990. Disease has spread from village animals to the lions’ prey animals, and, in the case of the 1994 distemper outbreak that started in domestic dogs, to the lions themselves. The lions’ prey animals are also popular in the burgeoning—and illicit—market for bush meat.