By Craig Packer
Founded by George Schaller in 1966, the Serengeti Lion Project is the second longest field study in all of Africa, ranking only behind Jane Goodall’s long-term chimp study. The Serengeti lions are by far the best-studied carnivores anywhere in the world, and our research efforts directly led to the discoveries of why lions live in groups and why male lions have manes.
Lions are the most cooperative of any cat species: they hunt together and raise their cubs together, but their defense of a common territory truly distinguishes them from other cats. A lion pride is a gang that defends a joint territory against its neighbors; large prides monopolize the best bits of savanna habitat, small prides are forced into marginal areas with little chance of reproducing. Lion males form coalitions that protect the pride from invading males, so they, too, find safety in numbers. But each individual male tries to get as many matings as possible, and a black maned male wins the hearts of the most ladies by honestly advertising his ability to produce offspring with the best chance of survival.
After learning so much about lion society, we want to know as much as possible about the lion’s true role as the King of Beasts. So we are now running the largest camera-trap study in the world. We have set out 225 camera traps over a 1,000 km2 region of the lion study area, and we capture over a million photographs each year of the Serengeti’s migratory wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, its resident warthog, buffalo, impala and dikdik, even its most reclusive species like leopards, cheetahs, aardvarks, caracals, aardwolves and zorillas.
We’ve never before been able to study how lions respond to day-to-day movements of their prey and how they shift their territories when the migratory species come and go each year. We’ve never before known how leopards, cheetahs and hyenas manage to coexist with lions – which try to kill any smaller predator they can catch.
With so many photographs of so many species to plow through each year, we developed Snapshot Serengeti so that volunteers from around the world can help classify and count the animals in each image. Since December 2012, over a hundred-thousand volunteers have helped sort through over four million photos – and our citizen-scientists quickly become as reliable as field biologists who have worked in Africa for years!
But after 29 consecutive years, our funding from the National Science Foundation will run out at the end of September. We have started a crowd-funding campaign named Save Snapshot Serengeti (www.igg.me/at/Serengeti) to try to raise enough funds to last until the end of 2013. The Expedition Council at National Geographic recently awarded a small grant to keep us going for a few months, but we need as much help as we can get!
Readers of National Geographic have enjoyed the story by David Quammen and the photos by Nick Nichols – but none of this would have been possible without the help of our radio-collared lions and our decades of insights into lion behavior. Please learn more at www.lionresearch.org and please consider donating to www.igg.me/at/Serengeti.
Tracking the Prides: A National Geographic interactive featuring Craig Packer.
Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center and the Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota, has headed the Serengeti Lion Project since 1978. Born in Texas, he received his undergraduate degree from Stanford in 1972. While there, he went to Tanzania to study baboons with Jane Goodall at the Gombe Stream Research Centre, then completed his Ph.D. research on Gombe baboons at the University of Sussex. In 1990 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2003 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Into Africa and more than a hundred scientific articles, most of which are about lions.