National Geographic Society Newsroom

18 Amazing, Intimate Camera Trap GIFs of Serengeti Animals

Biologist Craig Packer has headed the Serengeti Lion Project since 1978. The director of the Lion Research Center and Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota has spent countless hours on the Serengeti plains, studying lion ecology, genetics, health, and other factors. (Hear some of Packer’s expert commentary in the interactive Serengeti Lion experience and read more in “The Short Happy...

Biologist Craig Packer has headed the Serengeti Lion Project since 1978. The director of the Lion Research Center and Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota has spent countless hours on the Serengeti plains, studying lion ecology, genetics, health, and other factors. (Hear some of Packer’s expert commentary in the interactive Serengeti Lion experience and read more in “The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion.”)

Packer spoke to National Geographic on the phone from Zanzibar, where a Muslim call to prayer could be heard in the background. “I was always puzzled as to how lions fit into the broader context of the Serengeti,” Packer said.

“They have the reputation as the king of the beasts, but what does that really mean?” he asked.

Packer pointed out that the Serengeti is known for tremendous wildlife diversity, which includes a dozen species of antelope, several major predators (lions, cheetahs, and leopards), and a host of other animals large and small. Packer has long tracked lions with radio collars, but he said it would be impossible to try to track so many other species effectively at the same time, especially when it comes to animals that live in vast herds.

“So we came up with the idea for lots of camera traps,” he said. Packer and colleagues set out 225 camera traps over an area of Serengeti that was 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles).

“We thought we’d keep them running day and night for years and years, so eventually we would see enough animals walking by that we would get a picture in space and time of what’s happening,” said Packer. He hoped to be able to track migrations, see rare species, and better understand how animals interact–especially around lions–when “no one is looking.”

The problem with direct observation is that the very presence of a human being tends to put many wild animals on edge, said Packer, so they don’t act as naturally as they do around a camera trap, which they largely ignore.

With literally millions of “candid” camera trap photos streaming in, Packer and team have learned some surprising things about Serengeti life. For example, he said he discovered where oxpicker birds go at night. Those birds spend their days picking parasites off large mammals like giraffes, buffalo, hippos, rhinos, and so on. “But when it gets dark, where do they go?” Packer asked.

The team found that many of them snuggle up under the belly of giraffes, where it is warm and where predators are unlikely to tread.

The traps also revealed behaviors of nocturnal animals that are rarely seen, such as the time a pair of bat-eared foxes chased off an aardwolf. Both animals eat termites and ants, Packer noted, so they may have been competing for a meal.

Another thing that surprised Packer was the fact that cheetahs and leopards seemed to get by OK even in close proximity to lion prides. ” Lions would kill them if they can catch them,” he said.

Packer noted that cheetahs tend to stay in the most open territory, where they run down their prey. Leopards tend to hunt along rivers and in dense vegetation. “They seem to have the same preferences as lions, and we don’t really know how they manage it,” said Packer.

Crowd-Sourcing Camera Trap IDs

When it comes to prey animals like gazelles and wildebeasts, Packer said his team would like to better understand how they coexist with lions. But since the camera traps were capturing literally millions of images of these abundant animals, sorting through the data was difficult. In response, the team launched Snapshot Serengeti in December, a website that invites anyone to help identify animals captured in the photos.

According to Packer, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world have logged onto the site. Each new user goes through a training process so they learn how to identify the animals of the Serengeti. Each photo is then shown to multiple users.

If the first 10 people identify the animal as the same species, the computer considers that a positive match. If there is any disagreement among the users, the photo is shown to 20 more people. The computer records the consensus view of those users, and then that result is reviewed by one of the experts on the team.

The consensus view matches an expert’s identification better than 96 percent of the time, said Packer. He added that the program does not have a button for “I don’t know,” so it forces people to guess if they’re not sure. “It turns out that people’s guesses are not that bad,” he said.

Snapshot Serengeti was launched on the platform of a larger program called Zooniverse, a citizen-science effort that has asked people to help classify galaxies and other natural phenomena.  The snapshot project was first supported by the National Science Foundation (and National Geographic), but that funding is running out, and Packer is looking for additional funds. (Update: Snapshot Serengeti has just received additional funding from National Geographic’s Expeditions Council.)

The public is asked to contribute directly to Save Snapshot Serengeti on the crowd-funding website indiegogo ( Unlike with Kickstarter, the group gets to keep every dollar pledged (minus a handling fee of 4.5 percent), even if the stated goal isn’t reached. The project’s goal is $33,000, and people have chipped in more than $26,000 to date. The campaign expires at midnight this Friday.

We asked Packer to share some of his favorite images from the Serengeti camera traps. He sent us a selection, and we teased out a set of 18 sequences of three images, which photo editor Chris Combs made into animated gifs:


2. Impalas

imapala family animated gif on Serengeti

“This is a lovely sequence that you wouldn’t see without a camera trap, because impalas are usually so alert when you are watching from a car,” said Packer. “Here’s a family group hanging around together. One of the youngsters is grooming one of the mothers.”


3. Lions

lion animated gif on Serengeti


4. Buffalo With Cattle Egrets

cape buffalo animated gif on Serengeti

The egrets like to follow large animals because they look for grasshoppers and other insects that are disturbed by their hooves, said Packer.


5. Giraffe

giraffe legs animated gif on Serengeti

“I like this sequence because it is such an interesting perspective,” said Packer.


6. Ground Hornbill

ground hornbill animated gif in Serengeti

“The bird is curious as to what’s stuck on the tree, and is checking out the camera with its beak,” said Packer.


7. Elephants

elephants animated gif in Serengeti

“This is a cool sequence; they are standing in the shade, in protective formation,” said Packer.


8. Topi

topi animated gif in Serengeti

“This is something you’d never see without a camera trap,” said Packer. “They are inspecting a warthog.”


9. Oxpicker on a Female Cape Buffalo

oxpicker bird on buffalo animated gif in Serengeti

The bird is looking for parasites on the large animal.


10. Wattled Starlings

wattled starlings animated gif in Serengeti

Packer said this sequence reminds him of Alfred Hitchcock.


11. Cheetah

cheetah yawn animated gif in serengeti

The big cat is yawning (cheetahs don’t roar).


12. Cape Buffalo

cape buffalo animated gif in Serengeti


13. Impala

impala animated gif in Serengeti

A young impala plays around.


14. Cheetahs

cheetah animated gif in Serengeti

This pair of male cheetahs is surveying their territory. According to Packer, the animals work together to hunt.


15. Secretary Bird

Secretary bird animated gif in Serengeti

“This bird was named by a male chauvinist ornithologist back in the day because it has pencils in its hair, mascara, and what looks like black tights,” said Packer. The birds eat primarly snakes.


16. Lion Pride

lion pride animated gif in serengeti


17. European Storks

European storks animated gif in Serengeti

A small grass fire burns behind the birds. Storks often cluster on the edge of blazes to collect insects that are fleeing from the heat.

Packer said he has lost some cameras to fires, as well as to elephants and hyenas. “We put them in reinforced steel cases, that cuts it down a lot, and we are putting spikes on the cases so elephants don’t rub up against them,” Packer added.


18. Cheetah

cheetah peeing animated gif in Serengeti

This male cheetah is marking his territory. “You’d never see that out of a car,” said Packer, who added that lions don’t seem to react to cheetah markings.

Learn more about how you can help Snapshot Serengeti, and view the Serengeti Lion experience.

Watch a video of Craig Packer explaining his process:


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.