Craig Packer is one of the world’s leading authorities on the African lion and founder of the world’s first research center dedicated to the study of lions, the University of Minnesota Lion Center, established in 1986.
A Distinguished McKnight University Professor in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, Packer led the Serengeti Lion Project in Tanzania for 35 years, dividing his time between Minnesota and Africa. He and teams of graduate students have conducted studies of lion behavior that have shaped modern understandings of the big animals, including that lions are remarkably cooperative.
Some of Packer’s findings include: large male coalitions are always composed of close relatives, male lions cooperate in small groups of two or three with non-relatives as they do with kin, adult females do not displace each other from feeding sites at a carcass, and those who give birth within a few months of each other raise their cubs together and nurse each other’s cubs. A study in collaboration with a Dutch toy company, whose staff constructed a set of life-sized lion dummies, showed that dark-maned male lions are clearly preferred by females.
Keeping lion populations as robust as possible is an important part of Packer’s work in Africa. He is credited with helping to establish an age limit for hunting male lions as a best management practice in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as it was found that the biological consequences of taking lions can be minimized if the lions are six years of age or older.
Raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Packer attended Stanford University in California, with the intentions of going on to medical school. But after traveling to Tanzania in 1972 to work as a field assistant to British primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall in Gombe National Park, his focus changed. He attended the University of Sussex in England to complete his Ph.D. research on the Gombe baboons and then returned to Tanzania in 1978 to head the Serengeti Lion Project.
Packer joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota in 1983, returning to the Serengeti for several months each year until 2014, when comments he made about corruption in the government-run trophy hunting industry led to Tanzanian authorities barring him from returning to the country.
Packer is the founder of Savannas Forever, an NGO measuring the effectiveness of foreign aid projects in rural Africa, and Snapshot Serengeti, a large-scale camera-trapping survey that has monitored more than 5,000 lions over the past four decades and has enabled scientists to study more than 30 species across the landscape and how they interact with lions and one another. The project encourages citizen explorers from around the world to participate. Snapshot Safari has partnered with the Disney Conservation Fund and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to bring the project to zoos throughout the United States.
Packer received a J. S. Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990, became a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in 1997 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2019, he was named a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He is the author of two books detailing his research and the politics, dangers and frustrations that were part of it, Into Africa (1994) and Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns (2015), both published by the University of Chicago Press. Into Africa won the John Burroughs Medal in 1995.