The mane event: Southwest prof is lion expert

Dr. Craig Packer has studied the king of the beasts for 25 years -- to the point that he knows what turns on the queen of the beasts

East Isles resident Dr. Craig Packer has made a career studying the king of the beasts. For the past 25 years, Packer, a University of Minnesota professor, has split time researching lions at his compound located on the Serengeti Plain, a world-renowned wildlife preserve located in northern Tanzania, Africa, and disseminating that information to his students. He compares lion prides to street gangs, where the law of the jungle most definitely prevails.

"It is easy to think of lions in human terms because they have no natural predators and, like man, are their are own worst enemy," said Packer. "Most people haven't really appreciated the analogy of lion prides and street gangs because on public television documentaries they are often seen working cooperatively. They care for each other's offspring and, within the bosom of the family, they are quite communal. But the fact is that it is much nastier than that."

Packer said young males form coalitions with other males to gain hegemony over prides by killing or chasing off the top cat. Once in control, they dominate the females. If a female has a cub, it is not uncommon for a male to play evil stepfather, chasing off the cub or even killing it, because once the mother is cut loose from her offspring, she begins breeding with the dominant male immediately.

Packer's detailed studies have been featured in National Geographic and Scientific American magazines. His book "Into Africa," published by University of Chicago Press, won the John Burroughs Award for outstanding writing about natural history in 1995.

He will present his lecture "Into Africa: The Lions of Tanzania" -- which he calls part travelogue, part research presentation -- on Saturday, Nov. 22, 4 p.m., at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum.

African attraction Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Packer said he has had a romance with the dark continent from the first. "Africa is the cradle of civilization and, in many ways, it is so old that it feels like you've been here before; but it is so pristine that it seems so fresh and new at the same time."

While attending Stanford University for his undergraduate degree, he went to Tanzania to study baboons with Jane Goodall in 1972. He got his Ph.D. from Sussex University in England, joining the University of Minnesota faculty in 1984.

A grant from the Guggenheim Foundation financed his first Africa project in 1978. At the time, the foundation was interested in the evolution of aggression and financed research projects to see if animal behavior provides insights into the evolution of human aggression. Intended as a three-year project, Packer said, it has evolved over a quarter-century, as his answers and questions kept changing.

"The gang warfare that we see in lions is depressing," Packer said. "When I first got to Africa, I thought of it as one-on-one, what one individual might do to another individual. It took a long time to realize the startling aggression was not one-on-one -- it was group against group, between neighbors.

"My conclusion is that though we are often ennobled by feeling that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, like working together on some common project, too often with lion's that common project is murdering your neighbor. You can't help but see a lot of parallel with human behavior in that."

Since 1978, Packer has rented the same three-bedroom house at the Serengeti Wild Life Research Center, where dozens of international scientists work. The compound is six hours away from the nearest city, Dar Es Salaam, and sometimes during the rainy season the roads become so muddy that even his Land Rover can't get through. There are no stores or markets close by, and when he arrives in Tanzania he has to buy food and supplies in the city to last his entire stay. He said that Tanzania is the least tribal nation in Africa, and therefore the most stable politically.

The Serengeti Plain is about the size of Delaware, with topography similar to the Great Plains of Montana. It is the home of the Maasai and Bantu tribes. Unlike much of Africa, the soil there is rich due to volcanoes that spew out calcium- and phosphorus-rich ash. Its abundant grasslands draw a wide array of grazing animals -- zebra, wildebeests and warthogs -- which in turn, attracts lions that feed on them.

Packer has never been attacked or mauled by a lion. He said the closest he's come is when he tried to put a radio collar around a female's neck from the protection of his car. When her male mate got jealous, the male attacked; Packer got inside the car in time. He said the jungle's deadliest animal is not the lion at all but the Hippopotamus.

"I've known people who set up camp next to rivers, thinking it is a nice piece of flat land and a comfortable place to put up a tent only later to find out that it is a hippo trail," he said. "The Hippos will go where they want to go and if people are in the way, they are going to get hurt. They will come out of the river in the middle of the night and, paying no attention, will trample everything in [their] path. There are so many people living beside rivers that there is much more potential for conflict. [Hippos] also have big teeth and they bite. More people actually die from hippos than any other animal in the jungle."

Remember the mane Packer's November talk will focus on his latest research into the sexual significance of the lion's mane that only males possess. It seems that tall, dark and handsome carries weight in the lion world as well as the human; Packer and his research assistant, Dr. Peyton West, proved over three years that a lion's sex appeal is relative to its dark mane.

He experimented with life-size toy lions, custom-made in Amsterdam, to test the sexual preferences of lionesses. There were two models, one with a blonde mane and another with a dark mane. They put the two dummies about 10 yards apart behind some acacia trees 75 yards away from three females. To call the females over, Packer used a tape recording of hyenas feeding at a kill. When lions hear that, they often come and chase away the hyenas and steal their food.

"All of a sudden, the females caught sight of these two fantastic males with large manes," Packer said. "After some deliberation, one decided that she liked the one with the dark mane. She started licking him on the leg and rolling over on her back and nothing happened. She put her tail under his nose and nothing happened. Finally she sniffed him under his tail and, with that, walked away somewhat perplexed."

That day's results remained consistent throughout their research. The females all chose the doll with the dark mane, while the blonde male counterpart was ignored. Males coming across the same models were more frightened by the dark-maned model. Packer said they would pussyfoot, so to speak, up to him with great caution, ignoring the fact that he had no scent because they were so in awe of his stature.

"We know that if a male gets wounded in a fight, his mane will fall out from stress hormones, which can be so important because it cuts off testosterone production," said Packer. "So if you see a male with a big dark bushy mane, it is an intimidating sign of male virility. He's a stud muffin. Females need males around to protect their children from other males, and so a female is more likely to choose a big studly male to make sure that his kids are going to be reared properly and protected."

Future work Currently, he is working with the Tanzania government to alleviate canine distemper and rabies among the Serengeti's domestic dogs because those diseases are contagious and deadly to the lion population.

Packer scoffs at a recent claim in New Scientist magazine that lions are nearing extinction in Africa. The magazine reported that over the years, the lion population has decreased 90 percent. Packer thinks that's baloney because there were no estimates 20 years ago. Though he concedes that outside of game preserves lions are doing very poorly, he estimated that there are 23,000 left in Africa. Most parks are only big enough to host 100 lions. The Serengeti probably has the highest population that it has ever had, he said.

Packer's lecture is part of the Bell Museum's exhibit "The Art of Cats." The cost is $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. For more information, call the Bell Museum at 624-9050 or at [email protected]