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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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(Continued from page 6)

And then there is the understandable ill will that people bear lions, which loiter on front porches, bust through thatched roofs, snatch cattle, rip children from their mother’s arms, haul the elderly out of bed and seize women on the way to latrines. In the 1990s, as Tanzanians plowed large swaths of lion territory into fields, lion attacks on people and livestock rose dramatically.

Bernard Kissui, a Tanzanian lion scientist with the African Wildlife Foundation and one of Packer’s former graduate students, met Packer and me in Manyara, a bustling district southeast of Serengeti National Park. Kissui said five lions nearby had recently died after eating a giraffe carcass laced with tick poison.

“Is that one of your study prides?” Packer asked.

“I’m suspecting so,” said Kissui, who works in the nearby Tangire National Park. He wasn’t sure who had poisoned the lions or what had provoked the killings. A month earlier, lions had killed three boys, ages 4, 10 and 14, herding livestock, but that was in a village 40 miles away.

“Africa is not Africa without lions,” Kissui told me, but “human needs precede the wildlife’s. As the number of people increases, we take the land that would have been available to the wildlife and use it for ourselves. Africa has one billion people now. Think about what that one billion implies in terms of the future of lions. We are heading into a very complicated world.”

Young men from pastoral tribes no longer care to tend cattle, Kissui says. “They want to go to Arusha and drive a car.” So their little brothers are sent into the bush instead. Packer and his students have shown that lions tend to target livestock tended by boys during the dry season.

Packer, Kissui and other scientists are experimenting with ways to keep people and lions safe. Special funds repay herders for lost livestock—if no lion is harmed. They have suggested that corn farmers in southern Tanzania hang chili peppers in their fields, which repel the bush pigs that lions relish, or dig ditches around their crops to keep the pigs out. And Packer is assisting Kissui with a program that subsidizes herdsmen who want to replace their bramble-enclosed paddocks with fences of metal and wood.

In Manyara we visited Sairey LoBoye, a study participant. He was attired in stunning blue blankets and talking on his cellphone. LoBoye is a member of the Maasai tribe, whose traditional culture centers on safeguarding cattle: teenagers spear lions as a rite of passage. LoBoye said he simply wanted lions to leave him alone. Two years ago lions devoured one of his precious bulls, but since installing a modern fence, he hasn’t had any problems and his cattle and children are safer. “Now I can sleep at night,” he said.

Packer argues that the Serengeti, like some South African parks, should be surrounded by an electric, elephant-proof, heavily patrolled fence that would encompass the whole wildebeest migration route and keep the lions in and the poachers out. The idea has little support, in part because of the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to erect the barrier.

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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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