Where we work

Lions in the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater have been studied continuously since the 1960s. Craig Packer took over the project in 1978 and first focused on why lions are social and why their behavior is so cooperative. Our research has since broadened to include genetics, epidemiology, population ecology, community ecology and conservation. We have also broadened our geographical reach to include Tarangire National Park, Selous Game Reserve, Rufiji and Lindi Districts and western Tanzania.

University of Minnesota

Ecology Building, University of Minnesota

Identification cards, datasheets, and field notes dating back to the 1960s are housed in the Ecology building on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. “The Lion Lab” is home to a team of graduate and undergraduate students who analyze the long-term behavioral and demographic data from Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.

Although a lab in St. Paul may not seem as glamorous as the African savanna, some of our most exciting discoveries have been made here. We use software programs such as ArcGIS to analyze complex spatial patterns, Mathematica to develop and test mathematical models, and statistical packages to confirm the generality of our findings.

We are currently analyzing 20,000 images from a recent survey in the Serengeti that used 100 camera traps near game trails and water holes to photograph passing wildlife—predators and prey. The spatial and temporal patterns of species distributions will provide valuable new insights into the Serengeti ecosystem.

Past projects

Serengeti National Park

The 30,000-km2 Serengeti ecosystem is famous for its annual migration of nearly two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle and its extensive population of large carnivores. We study the lions living in a 2,000-km2 area of the southeastern Serengeti, and much of our research here involves a comparison between the behavior and ecology of lions living on the plains versus those in the adjacent woodlands. Relying almost entirely on migratory prey, the plains lions must endure stark contrasts in food availability each year, whereas the woodlands lions have access to resident herds of buffalo and antelope.

Lion Project field assistants and graduate students live in the Serengeti Wildlife Research Center—a small community of houses and research offices near the park headquarters in Seronera.

Ngorongoro Crater

The 250-km2 floor of the Crater is home to about 50,000 wildebeest, zebra and buffalo and a small population of lions. Located at the eastern limit of the Serengeti plains, the 8,000-km2 Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to people as well as wildlife. Maasai are permitted to pursue their traditional pastoralist lifestyle throughout the Conservation Area, except for the Crater floor. The number of Crater lions has fluctuated widely since records began in 1962, and the Crater has become increasingly isolated by the growing human population around the Crater rim, making the lion population highly vulnerable to extinction. The primary goal of our research here is to determine the impacts of persistent close inbreeding and conflicts with Maasai.

Serengeti Lion Project assistants visit the Crater for about five days each month, usually camping on the Crater rim.

Tarangire National Park

Since 2003, Dr. Bernard Kissui and his staff have systematically monitored the lions in a 1,000-km2 area in the northern half of Tarangire National Park. Whereas the Serengeti migration remains within the boundaries of a protected area throughout the year, the Tarangire ungulates disperse into agricultural and pastoralist areas each wet season, thus the lions only remain within the safety of the National Park for about 5–6 months each year. While outside the park, the lions kill Maasai cattle and are subject to fatal retaliation. Kissui’s team simultaneously monitors the lion population and works with dozens of nearby Maasai communities to try to mitigate this conflict.

The Tarangire Project team lives near the park headquarters at the northern entrance of the park.

Selous Game Reserve

Henry Brink and Kirsten Skinner have monitored lions in a 725-km2 area of the Matambwe photo-tourism sector of the Selous Game Reserve since 2006. The Selous is the largest protected area in Africa (47,000 km2) and the foremost destination for sport hunting of African lions. The research here aims to assess the impact of trophy hunting by comparing lion densities in Matambwe with the Selous hunting blocks; densities in the hunting blocks are estimated from spoor counts and call-ups.

Brink and Skinner are stationed at the Matambwe Sector headquarters.

Rufiji/Lindi Districts

Over the past 20 years, villagers in these two districts have suffered the highest number of lion attacks in Africa—far more than the number killed by the man-eaters of Tsavo in the 19th century. Our research team has worked with communities in these districts since 2004, first documenting the context of lion attacks, then determining the risk factors that put people at greatest risk and now focusing on practical strategies to help prevent future attacks. This is one of the poorest parts of the country, and we face the challenge of scaling up effective mitigation strategies to cover the entire area.

We have no permanent base here; Harrunnah Lyimo and Hadas Kushnir visit the area periodically from Dar es Salaam and the United States.

Western Tanzania

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and her students have studied the Sukuma for the past 20 years, and they have recently started investigating the cultural and ecological significance of the “lion dance” by Sukuma warriors. While the local community duly rewards the successful eradication of a cattle-killing lion by observing and paying for the performance of a spirit-cleansing lion dance, many young men have started killing lions preemptively—thus dancing has become profit-driven rather than community-minded. Borgerhoff Mulder’s team is exploring ways to restore traditional values so as to prevent over-hunting of the lions in and around Katavi National Park.

The University of California has a permanent camp in Mpimbwe village, just north of Katavi.