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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

Packer and Susan James, a former business executive he married in 1999, founded a nonprofit organization, Savannas Forever, which is based in Arusha and monitors the quality of rural village life. They’ve hired Tanzanians to measure how development aid affects such variables as children’s height and weight; they’ll spread the word about which approaches are most effective so other programs can replicate them. The hope is that improving the standard of living will bolster local conservation efforts and give lions a better shot at survival.

As hard as it is for Packer to imagine the prides he has followed for so long ending in oblivion in the next few decades, he says that’s the most likely outcome: “Why am I doing this? I feel like I owe this country something. So 100 years from now there will still be lions in Tanzania.”

Before I left the Serengeti, Packer took me to see a fig tree that had served for decades as a lion scratching post. As we drove across the savanna, graduate student Alexandra Swanson fiddled with a radio scanner, searching for signals from radio-collared lions, but we heard only static.

The tree was on a kopje, one of the isolated piles of rocks in the grasslands that are popular lion haunts. Packer wanted to climb up for a better look. Lulled, perhaps, by the silence on the scanner, I agreed to accompany him.

We’d climbed most of the way up the pile when Packer snapped his fingers and motioned for me to crouch down. The world seemed to zoom in and out, as if I was looking through a camera’s telephoto lens, and I imagined hot lion breath on my neck.

Packer, at the top of the kopje, was waving me closer.

“Do you see that lion?” he whispered. “No,” I whispered back.

He pointed at a shadowy crevice beneath the fig tree, about 20 feet away. “You don’t see that lion?”

“There is no lion,” I said, as if my words could make it so.

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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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