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Craig Packer

Craig Packer in the field.

King of beasts in the line of fire

Increasing attacks by lions have led Tanzanians to kill marauding animals. How to protect people while preserving the magnificent cats?

By Deane Morrison

From M, fall 2005

A century ago, white settlers nearly wiped out every large predator in the American West, from wolves and coyotes to cougars, all in the name of protecting livestock. Today, a similar scenario is playing out in Tanzania as farmers try to defend themselves against lions. But there's a big difference: The lions are preying on people, often breaking into their huts and pulling victims from their beds. When lions strike, people strike back by killing the cats, using spears and nets. As long as this situation continues, both people and lions lose.

In an effort to find a way to protect both people and lions, University of Minnesota lion researcher Craig Packer and colleagues have analyzed the factors involved in attacks and identified the control of bush pigs, a major agricultural pest, as the most promising strategy for curbing attacks. The work was published August 18 in the journal Nature.

Run-ins between people and predators are not limited to Africa. In Asia, tigers are threatened by human encroachment, and in areas near Yellowstone National Park, development has brought people into increasing contact with grizzles. Successful conservation of wolves and cougars has allowed these species to spread toward human habitation. The need for practical solutions to these conflicts is growing, and Packer's work shows how careful analysis can offer hope. Conflicts between lions and people have escalated recently, in part because of Tanzania's rapid population growth--from 23.1 million in 1988 to 34.6 million in 2002--and an associated loss of lion prey outside protected areas. Since 1990 lions have killed more than 563 Tanzanians, including nursing mothers, children playing outside their huts and people dragged from their beds. About 39 percent of attacks happen during the March-May harvest season, when farmers often sleep in their fields to protect their crops from bush pigs; over 27 percent of attacks occur in fields. Most rural dwellers live in houses with thatched roofs, and lions simply force their way inside. Lacking indoor plumbing, people are attacked when visiting outdoor toilets.

Graduate student Hadas Kushnir, an author on the Nature paper, recently spent 10 weeks in Tanzania interviewing survivors and witnesses of attacks.

"One man lost his kids, ages 7 and 8, and parents in a single night in February 2004 when all four were sleeping in a makeshift hut in their field," she says. "In another district, a woman was killed, and they poisoned the remains of her body to kill the lion when it came back."

"Most conservationists regret the way cougars and wolves were largely exterminated from the United States in the 19th century, but we still have time to help Africans live with lions," says Packer.

"People in the United States often tend to think of lions, tigers, etc. as cute and cuddly because we don't know what it's like to live with predatory animals who threaten us and our familes," says Packer, a Distinguished McKnight Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences. "That's because 150 years or so ago, our ancestors in the United States killed off the most dangerous predators in the country. We need to understand that Africans are facing a far more dangerous threat today, and they are responding in the same way our ancestors did. Most conservationists regret the way cougars and wolves were largely exterminated from the United States in the 19th century, but we still have time to help Africans live with lions. Our primary concern is to protect people and their livestock without eradicating the lions. But people obviously come first."

The researchers' analysis showed that lion attacks are most common in districts with the lowest abundance of natural prety such as zebra, hartebeest or impala and the largest numbers of bush pigs. Several people interviewed reported that lions entered their villages or fields in pursuit of bush pigs, and some even said they tolerated lions because the big cats helped control bush pig numbers.

Moving people away from areas prone to lion attacks is not feasible, the researchers report. Thus, pig-control strategies offer the best hope for reducing encounters between lions and people. These measures would have the added benefit of reducing the need for village farmers to sleep in their fields.

"Human population growth has led to encroachment into wildlife areas and depletion of natural prey populations, but attempting to sustain viable populations of African lions places rural people at risk of their lives and livelihoods in one of the poorest countries of the world," the researchers wrote. "Mitigation of this fundamental conflict must take priority for any lion conservation strategy in Africa." Packer has set up an organization, Savannas Forever, to address this need.

Through its Web site, online donations can be made to help bring together different stakeholders to create the proper balance between conservation and human safety. Savannas Forever seeks to provide solutions through scientific analysis of the interplay between human population growth, the economics of ecotourism and sustainable trophy hunting, and government policy throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Packer plans to establish a series of interrelated projects inTanzania and Botswana by summer 2006.

Lion numbers have dropped substantially throughout the continent over the past 100 years due to habitat loss and conflict with people, but Tanzania still has some 12,000 to 16,000 lions, the largest number in any African country. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, Conservation Force and the Tanzanian Government.