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May 10, 2013

This blog entry is written, because I am fascinated by lions and their behaviour. The last two decades have brought so much new information about lions, their behavior in the wild, their hunting and pride habits, so I decided to put combine data from various sources. What most astonished me is left last.

The world's foremost lion expert reveals the brutal, secret world of the king of beasts.
By Abigail Tucker
Smithsonian magazine, January 2010
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 /, Edited version


Mr, Packer, 60+, has spent a good part of his life at the park’s Lion House, a concrete, fortress-like structure that includes an office, kitchen and three bedrooms. Packer has been running the Serengeti Lion Project for 31 of its 43 years. It is the most extensive carnivore study ever conducted.

Packer’s reward has been an epic kind of science, a detailed chronicle of the lives and doings of generations of prides: the Plains Pride, the Lost Girls 2, the Transect Truants. Over the decades there have been plagues, births, invasions, feuds and dynasties. When the lions went to war, as they are inclined to do, he was their Homer.

“The scale of the lion study and Craig Packer’s vigour as a scientist are pretty unparalleled,” says Laurence Frank, of the University of California at Berkeley, who studies African lions and hyenas.

One of Packer’s more sensational experiments, documented by BBC, took aim at a longstanding mystery. A male lion is the only cat with a mane; some scientists believed its function was to protect an animal’s neck during fights. But because lions are the only social felines, Packer thought manes were more likely a message or a status symbol. He had 4 stuffed lions made with manes of either dark or light colour. He attracted lions to the dolls using calls of scavenging hyenas. When they encountered the dummies, female lions almost invariably attempted to seduce the dark-maned ones, while males avoided them, preferring to attack the blonds, particularly those with shorter manes.

Dark maned lion:

Consulting their field data, Packer and his colleagues noticed that many males with short manes had suffered from injury or sickness. By contrast, dark-maned males tended to be older than the others, have higher testosterone levels, heal well after wounding and sire more surviving cubs - all of which made them more desirable mates and formidable foes. A mane, it seems, signals vital information about a male’s fighting ability and health to mates and rivals.

Lately, Packer’s research has taken on a new dimension. Long a dispassionate student of lion behaviour and biology, he has become a champion for the species’ survival. In Tanzania, home to as many as half of all the wild lions on earth, the population is in free fall, having dropped by half since the mid-1990s, to fewer than 10,000. Across Africa, up to one-quarter of the world’s wild lions have vanished in little more than a decade.

The reason for the decline of lions can be summed up in one word: people. As more Tanzanians take up farming and ranching, they push farther into lion country. Now and then a lion kills a person or livestock; villagers, once shooting nuisance lions, have started using poisons to wipe out whole prides. It is not a new problem, this interspecies competition for an increasingly scarce resource, but neither is it a simple one. Among other things, Packer and his students are studying how Tanzanians can change their animal husbandry and farming practices to ward off ravenous felines.

Scientists used to believe that prides, groups of a few to more than a dozen related females typically guarded by two or more males, were organised for hunting. Other aspects of the communal lifestyle, the animals’ affinity for napping in giant piles and even nursing each others’ young, were idealised. Packer and his collaborators have found that a pride isn’t formed primarily for catching dinner or sharing parenting chores or cuddling. The lions’ natural world - their behaviour, their complex communities, their evolution - is shaped by one brutal, overarching force, what Packer calls “the dreadful enemy.”

Other lions.

The Jua Kali pride lives far out on the Serengeti plains, where the land is the dull color of burlap, and termite mounds rise like small volcanoes. It’s marginal habitat at best, without much shade or cover of any kind. (Jua kali is Swahili for “fierce sun.&rdquo Water holes look more like wallows, prey is scarce and, especially in the dry season, life is not easy for the pride’s four females and two resident males, Hildur and C-Boy.

Early one morning last August, Serengeti Lion Project researchers found Hildur, a Herculean male with a blond mane, limping around near a grassy ditch. He was sticking close to one of the pride’s four females, whose new-born cubs were hidden in a nearby stand of reeds. He was roaring softly, possibly in an effort to contact his darker-maned co-leader. But C-Boy, the researchers saw, had been cornered on the crest of a nearby hill by a fearsome trio of snarling males whom Packer and colleagues call The Killers.

The whole scene looked like a “takeover,” a brief, devastating clash in which a coalition of males tries to seize control of a pride. Resident males may be mortally wounded in the fighting. If the invaders are victorious, they kill all the young cubs to bring the pride’s females into heat again. Females sometimes die fighting to defend their cubs.

The researchers suspected that The Killers, who normally live near a river 12 miles away, had already dispatched two females from a different pride, thus The Killers earned their names.

Fighting lions:

C-Boy, surrounded, gave a strangled growl. The Killers fell on him, first two, then all three, slashing and biting as he swerved, their blows falling on his vulnerable hindquarters. The violence lasted less than a minute, but C-Boy’s flanks looked as if they’d been flayed with whips. Apparently satisfied their opponent was crippled, The Killers turned and trotted off toward the marsh, almost in lock step, as Hildur’s female companion crept toward a stand of reeds.

None of the Jua Kali lions had been spotted since the fight, but we kept riding out to their territory to look for them. Not known, if C-Boy had survived or if the cubs had made it, one afternoon we found JKM, the mother of the Jua Kali litter, lolling atop a termite mound as large and intricate as a pipe organ.

JKM had her eye on a kongoni antelope a few miles away; unfortunately, it was watching her, too. She was also scanning the sky for vultures, perhaps in the hopes of scavenging a hyena kill. She stood up and ambled off into the hip-high grass. We could see dark circles around her nipples: she was still lactating. Against the odds, her cubs seemed to have survived.

Perhaps the apparent good fortune of the Jua Kali cubs was linked to another recent sighting. A female from another nearby group, the Mukoma Hill pride, had been seen moving her own tiny cubs. The cubs were panting and mewling pitifully, clearly in distress; normally cubs stay in their den during the heat of the day. The Killers might have forsaken the Jua Kali females to take over the Mukoma Hill pride, which inhabits richer territory near river confluences to the north. The woodlands were controlled by a series of “dinky little pairs of males”: elderly Fellow and Jell-O; Porkie and Pie; and Wallace, the Mukoma Hill leader, whose partner, William, had recently died.

Packer recalled a similar pattern of invasion in the early 1980’s by the Seven Samurai, a coalition of males, several with spectacular black manes, who had once brought down two adult, 1,000-pound Cape buffaloes and a calf in a single day. After storming the north they’d sired hundreds of cubs and ruled the savanna for a dozen years.

Packer had been working under Jane Goodall in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, observing baboons. He slept in a metal structure called The Cage to be closer to the animals. In 1978, when Packer’s plan to study Japanese monkeys fell through, he and a fellow primatologist, Anne Pusey volunteered to take over the Lion Project started 12 years earlier by the American naturalist George Schaller.

Scientists were well aware that lions are ambush predators with little stamina and that they gorge at a kill, each one downing up to 70 pounds in a sitting. Lion territories are quite large - 15 square miles on the low end, ranging up to nearly 400 - and are passed down through generations of females.

Packer and Pusey set out not just to document lion behaviour but to explain how it had evolved. “What we wanted to do was figure out why they did some of these things,” Packer says. “Why did they raise their cubs together? Did they really hunt co-operatively?”

They kept tabs on two dozen prides in minute detail. They noted where the lions congregated, who was eating how much of what, who had mated, who was wounded, who survived and who died. They described interactions at kills. It was slow going, even after they put radio collars on several lions in 1984. Packer was always more troubled by the lions’ sloth than their slavering jaws. Following prides at night, the animals are largely nocturnal, he sometimes thought he would go mad.

Still, they began to see how prides functioned. Members of a large pride didn’t get any more to eat than a lone hunter, mostly because a solitary animal got the proverbial lion’s share. Yet lions band together without fail to confront and sometimes kill intruders. Larger groups thus monopolise the premier savanna real estate—usually around the confluence of rivers, where prey animals come to drink—while smaller prides are pushed to the margins.

Even the crèche, or communal nursery that is the social core of every pride, is shaped by violence, Packer says. He and Pusey realised this after scrutinising groups of nursing mothers for countless hours. A lactating female nursed another’s young rarely, usually after an unrelated cub sneaked onto her nipple. An alert lioness reserves her milk for her own offspring. During take-overs by outside males, solitary females lost litter after litter, while co-operating lionesses stood a better chance of protecting their cubs and fending off males, which can outweigh females by as much as 50 percent.

A lion créche:

Surviving cubs go on to perpetuate the bloody cycle. Juvenile females often join forces with their mother’s pride to defend the home turf. Males reared together typically form a coalition around age 2 or 3 and set out to conquer prides of their own. (Hard-living males rarely live past age 12; females can live longer.) A lone male without a brother or cousin will often team up with another singleton; if he doesn’t, he is doomed to an isolated life. A group of lions will count its neighbors’ roars at night to estimate their numbers and determine if the time is right for an attack. Lions had evolved to dominate the savanna, not to share it.

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.

Cave lions, an artist’s interpretation:

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, 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 coloured and abstract, with hooves instead of paws; archaeologists believe these may be shamans.

Lions pictured in Crotte Chauvet:

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 behaviour, 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.”

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.

Gir Forest lions:

Lions persist in a handful of countries across south-eastern 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 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 centre, the number of lions is stable or even rising. But the Serengeti was the exception, now the lions are poached there, too.

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, about 42 million or so, 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.

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 south-east of Serengeti National Park. Kissui said five lions nearby had recently died after eating a giraffe carcass laced with tick poison. 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, so little boys 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 subsidises 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.

Traditional Maasai village:

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.

Packer and Susan James 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.”

A fig tree in the savanna had served for decades as a lion scratching post. Under it, in the shadow, were tiny, yellow, heart-shaped faces. Mothers often leave their cubs for long stretches to hunt, but this was only the second time in Packer’s long career he’d found an unattended den. Young cubs are almost completely helpless and can starve or be eaten by hyenas if left alone too long.

But there is more to the lion story: White lions.

White Lions Return To Lowveld

Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) translocated four white lions from Sanbona in the Western Cape to their new home bordering the Timbavati and the Greater Kruger National Park. The GWLPT is committed to protecting the white lion, as well as the indigenous knowledge that holds them sacred and strives to re-establish them in their endemic birthplace, following a strict scientific protocol. This is according to Linda Tucker, founder of the GWLPT and author of a book about the white lions, ‘Mystery of the White Lions’.

“The GWLPT’s commitment to conservation through sustainable development and community upliftment led them to secure an agreement with the Mnisi Tribal Authority,” says Tucker. It is here that the lion will finally be set free to roam the wild once they have been rehabilitated says Turner. According to Tucker, the Mnisis are claimants on the Andover Provincial Game Reserve, which borders communal land and is situated close to the Orpen Gate of the Kruger National Park and some 38km from the GWPT rehabilitation property.

“Taking its cue and guidance from African elders the GWLPT is committed to the protection of the white lions, and the indigenous systems, which holds these lions sacred. The GWLPT ultimately hopes to have them protected as this country’s ‘national treasure’,” says Tucker. “Returning the white lions to the Timbavati region is their birthright, we owe it to them – it’s our chance to restore the balance of nature.”

White lion male:

Says Tucker: “According to African tradition, it is sacrilege to so much as harm a white lion. Yet these majestic creatures were not protected by the previous government. They were artificially removed from the wilds of Timbavati into canned hunting and captive breeding operations in South Africa, and exported to zoos and circuses around the globe.”

“According to traditional belief, lions and land claim issues are closely related, because the King of the Beasts is also understood to be the ‘guardian’ of the land. This makes the already heated issued of land claims and lion hunting in the region all the more sensitive,” says Tucker. At present the land is managed by Parks and Gaming Limpopo, which is under the auspices of the Limpopo Department of Economic Development and Tourism headed by MEC Collins Chabane.

Not all the neighbours are equally excited about the re-introduction. Thornybush Game Reserve lodged a formal complaint on March 3, with Dr Rampedi of the Limpopo Provincial Government about the import of the white lion. The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (TPNR) “consider the release of lion on a 280ha property inappropriate in terms of the DEAT draft rules and regulation on sustainable use of large predators.”

They specifically refer to the regulations regarding the suitable habitat needed to accommodate a viable group, the need for an EIA and the fact that no comment from adjacent landowners was called for by the GWLPT of their own accord. Dr Freek Venter, head of Nature Conservation in KNP said Dr Gus Mills, specialist on carnivore conservation, has serious misgivings over the introduction of these animals into the greater Kruger Park ecosystem for a number of reasons:

“The 3.5 year old white lioness and her cubs are almost certainly inbred as they have been selectively bred in captivity for a number of years. In his proposal Mr Turner admits that “Since the forced removal of white lions from this region, they have been kept in captivity and in most instances inbred to guarantee white offspring.” The introduction of inbred animals into the system can only have detrimental effects.

“Even if the lions to be introduced were not inbred, white lions did not only occur in the Timbavati area. As recently as 1992 a white lion male was regularly seen between Tshokwane and south of the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park (Annual Reports KNP 1990/1991 and 1991/1992). Furthermore, Turner maintains that his observations in the Timbavati region indicate that “certain tawny lions in this area are still carrying the white lion gene.” The genes are therefore still entrenched in the area. Given this we do not see the necessity forthe bloodline to be strengthened. White lions will in all probability reappear in the system in time, but it is likely that these individuals have a disadvantage over normal tawny lions and tend to be selected out, thus making their occurrence in the population a rarity.

White lion cubs:

Wikipedia: The white lion is a rare colour mutation of the Kruger subspecies of lion (Panthera leo krugeri) found in some wildlife reserves in South Africa and in zoos around the world. White lions are not a separate subspecies and are thought to be indigenous to the Timbavati region of South Africa for centuries, although the earliest recorded sighting in this region was in 1938. Regarded as divine by locals,[1] white lions first came to public attention in the 1970s in Chris McBride's book The White Lions of Timbavati. Up until 2009, when the first pride of white lions was reintroduced to the wild, it was widely believed that the white lion could not survive in the wild. It is for this reason that a large part of the population of white lions now reside in zoos.

White lions are not albinos. Their white colour is caused by a recessive gene known as the color inhibitor gene, distinct from the albinism gene. They vary from blonde to near-white. This coloration does not appear to disadvantage their survival. The white lions of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) have been reintroduced into their natural habitat and have been hunting and breeding successfully without human intervention for a significant amount of time. White lions in South Africa are currently being bred almost exclusively for hunting, but Linda Tucker (the founder of GWLP and author of The Mystery of the White Lions) and her team are trying to change the South African hunting laws.

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Posted: Friday May 10, 2013, 3:27 am
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