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Minnesota researcher says saving lions requires that we fence them in

The F-word to conservationists is “fence,” says Craig Packer. But nothing else can halt their steep decline.

african lion photo
Some think the lion will simply vanish over the next few decades from all but a few islands on the African continent.

Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota wildlife biologist sometimes described as the world’s leading expert on African lions, published a paper in the journal Ecology Letters a few weeks ago that swiftly found a much wider audience.

Joined by 57 co-authors, Packer surveyed the decline of a majestic animal that has been pushed onto perhaps one-quarter of its former range, and driven into perpetual conflict with humans at the edges of what habitat remains.

Research suggests that Africa’s lion population has fallen in the last century from 200,000 to 30,000, give or take. The gene pool is shrinking, too, with population decline and habitat fragmentation; the consequences are showing up in lower reproductive rates and lessened resistance to disease.

Some think the lion will simply vanish over the next few decades from all but a few islands on the African continent. And when the top predator exits an ecosystem, much trouble rolls downhill.

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Packer’s paper suggests that the cost-effective solution to these interrelated problems is to put lions behind fences.

Drawing on a Kilimanjaro of data, it concludes that fenced lions could be maintained at 80 percent of their potential maximum density for $500 per square kilometer per year. Without fences, it would cost $2,000 a year to maintain populations at just 50 percent of maximum.

Speaking to reporters after the paper came out, Packer has made plain his personal conviction that fencing lions is not only the most affordable option, but the only realistic approach available now. His anger and frustration over this sorry circumstance have been evident as well.

On Wednesday morning I reached him at his research station in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and we talked for an hour about his work, his paper and the reactions to it.

I also asked his thoughts on the Tanzanian government’s opposition to moves by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lion as an endangered species as a way to suppress hunting; such a listing would make it illegal for American hunters to bring their trophies home.

The following is a condensation of our interview.

MinnPost: It seems to me you’ve set off quite a stir here, but I don’t know what’s normal reaction when you publish a paper about a subject like saving the African lion.

packer photo
Craig Packer

Craig Packer: Ha! Normally you publish a paper and nobody reads it.

I wrote this one as a provocation, because it’s perfectly clear that the way people approach conservation of these large, dangerous animals is failing. There needs to be a shakeup.

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The working title in my mind was, “How Much Does It Cost to Conserve a Lion?” It’s far more than people want to admit: Lions are dangerous, they cause a lot of harm, they range over wide areas.

In putting that all together it became so obvious that putting a fence around them is the only practical solution.

MP: My take on your findings, distilling it all down, is that if lions are fenced within sufficiently large territory, nothing else needs to be done to help them. But if they’re not fenced, anything else we do may not make much difference.

CP: That’s right. Fair enough. But to conservationists, the F-word is “fence,” and they are really unhappy to hear this kind of talk.

Well, too bad. We have to be realistic.

Having lived in Africa so long, I really resent the lack of compassion among conservationists for the people who have to live with this dangerous species.  I’ve talked to people who’ve had children ripped out of their hands, to mothers picking up their dead.

It’s crazy to me for conservationists to stand up and say, oh, lions are much more important than people. And that’s really what they’re saying.

MP: But isn’t fence also the F-word to people in the Maasai country, for example, who see them not as wildlife enclosures but cattle exclosures, shutting them out of grazing lands they feel they have a right to?

CP: Well, yeah. But politically, locally, the best thing is to say you’re protecting people from wildlife. But I think it’s also very important that you’re protecting the wildlife from people.

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People need to be protected. And you know that once the lions misbehave themselves they will be killed. There’s no tolerance. It’s one strike and you’re out. So the way to protect lions is to keep them from getting into trouble in the first place.

MP: How often are people actually attacked and killed by lions in Africa?

CP: Ten years ago it was about 100 people attacked per year, but the numbers declined after 2008, so about 1,000 over a 15-year period.

Two-thirds of those were killed. Now, imagine if that many people were attacked in California by mountain lions, or in Minnesota — the National Guard would be called in.

MP: When did you begin thinking of fences as the solution?

CP: I started going down to South Africa about 15 years ago, after apartheid, and I was really impressed that in many places people have been able to do very successful restoration projects on lands that had been cattle ranches for 100 years.

Cattle ranching was never very economical, so landowners thought, well, maybe we could do game ranching — bring back lions, buffalo, elephants, etc., etc., and it was really interesting to me how they went about it.

They told local villagers, first and foremost, we’re going to do this safely. We’ll do our level best to confine the animals with completely wildlife-proof fences, and if they do somehow escape, we promise to deal with it. And the people said, “OK, sure.”

What we have here in east Africa is a completely different tradition. The land was never lost to agriculture in the past, but now the human population has exploded and people are farming right up to the edge of the game reserves. And this is permanent. The people aren’t going to move.

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On the west side of Serengeti National Park there are cotton fields and maize fields right up to the park boundary. You can see the line from space, you can see it for yourself on Google Earth, the fields and the villages.

And so the wildlife goes into the people, and the people go into the wildlife areas, but nothing’s being done because “we don’t like fences” and “that would spoil the view of wild, romantic Africa.”

MP: What does a wildlife-proof fence look like?

CP: It’s built with heavy steel cable, first of all. You don’t use wire fences like people in Minnesota might think of because these are big, strong animals —and, also, wire makes good snares, so people will come and destroy the fences to get the wire.

The fences are electrified and they’re about three meters high, about 10 feet high.

It’s expensive, but once it’s built the maintenance costs are low. You do have to patrol the fence line, of course, but that costs a lot less than patrolling every square inch inside.

MP: Your paper seems to say that the lion’s predicament is not the same everywhere in Africa — that they’re doing OK in the Serengeti region, not so well in other places.

CP: One thing we had to do in that paper was make some guesstimates. My research area is only about 2,000 square kilometers, right smack dab in the middle of Serengeti National Park, which has a huge budget. But the Serengeti ecosystem is far bigger than that, and I can’t be sure how the lions are doing even a few miles away.

The park is under huge pressure — one of my former graduate students is looking at the extent of bush-meat poaching in Serengeti and it’s phenomenal, like 100,000 wildebeest being killed by poachers every year. And there are 250,000 cattle coming into the park illegally every year.

Serengeti is one of the few real money-earners in the Tanzanian system, but they have to move a lot of money to support other parks that aren’t visited by as many tourists.

It also has nearby some hunting reserves that are leased out by the richest hunting organizations in this country. Two of them are American-operated, under the leadership of a couple of billionaires.

Hunting reserves help the park by reducing poaching at the perimeter. One idea some people have is to put fences on the outside of the hunting blocs, in effect annexing them to the national park. And there are some rich companies that might be willing to pay for that.

MP: You are not opposed to sport hunting of lions, I take it.

CP: Not as long as it is done sustainably. One of the biggest challenges we wildlife biologists face is getting people to understand that our focus is preserving species, because often they’re so focused on each individual animal.

MP: Your leading candidate for fencing seems to be the Selou area, in southern Tanzania.

CP: That’s right. It’s about the size of Switzerland, and it probably has the largest lion population left in Africa. And it doesn’t have a migratory system, so fencing that would be OK.

Other places, you wouldn’t want to fence them because of the migration. You wouldn’t want to fence much of the eastern side of Serengeti National Park because of the wildebeest moving through there. Fencing the western side would be OK.

MP: And you put the capital cost of that at about $30 million, which is pretty close to the $36 million a year you said is Tanzania’s budget for all its wildlife management.

CP: Yes. It’s a lot of money.

MP: Even if someone were willing to write a $30 million check, would that project be politically feasible in Tanzania?

CP: That’s a fascinating question, and I don’t know the answer yet. I’ve been meeting with various government officials and I think people out here are desperate for new ideas.

They’ve been told they have to protect the wildlife in their parks, but they have nowhere near the resources required to do so effectively. Meanwhile, the human population keeps growing and people are complaining that the elephants are eating their crops, lions are killing their livestock, and they want some kind of compensation.

Rather foolishly, I might say, the Tanzanian government dared to pass a law a few years ago that requires some sort of payment for those losses. Well, there’s not enough money in the world to pay for that. And so when I talk with to the government officials about how this could reduce their responsibility for those losses, that certainly appeals to them.

I will say, too, that the next country to the north of us, Kenya, has had a lot of romantic opposition to fencing, but in fact has fenced one of  its national parks and is putting a fence around part of another.

So I think it’s inevitable, and I think in the end the impact I will have had is to speed up a process that should have been started by now.

MP: What’s your view of Tanzanian opposition to adding the African lion to the U.S. endangered species list, as a way to discourage sport hunting?

CP: Well, the man who wrote that op-ed in The New York Times, the Tanzanian director of wildlife, I’m actually meeting with day after tomorrow to talk about fences, and money, and protecting these areas. I don’t really want to talk to him about hunting.

In that piece he pretty much stated the standard excuse for trophy hunting. But if you look at his numbers, it’s phenomenally little money that’s generated by trophy hunting.

They only charge about $10,000 to shoot a lion, and $10,000 is nothing. It’s really quite shocking how cheap it is to shoot a lion and how little revenue it generates for the management of these lands. And almost none of it comes back to local communities.

Further, there’s been a lot of research on whether lions in these hunting blocs have been well conserved. All the data we see suggests that positive impacts by trophy hunting companies are very limited. The majority of hunting areas have been over-hunted and this has contributed to the overall downward population trend.

MP: As someone who has devoted his life to studying this magnificent animals, what does it do to your heart to picture them behind fences?

CP: I think it’d be great. I think it’d be great. I mean, where lions are killing livestock, they’re being speared, shot, snared — horrible ways to go. But that’s what’s happening. That’s reality.

In the last 10 or 20 years, pastoralists have realized how effective poison can be — rat poison, first, and then an insecticide called Furadan, which works incredibly effectively. These pesticides are available everywhere and they’re really cheap.

Having a fence says, here’s a green area for wildlife, here’s a red area for people. If a lion comes into the red area, well, you know … Sorry.

But what people have been trying to do is have sort-of green areas, areas we hope are green, and then we have a bunch of yellow areas with lions and people, and we hope that’ll work out OK … . It’s not working out.

The lions wouldn’t have any issues with the fence.

They won’t even see it.

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For further reading about the African lion and some of the research that contributed to Packer’s paper, I recommend this blog post by a former graduate student in Scientific American.