Few figures have made a more significant, if sometimes controversial, contribution to the debate than Craig Packer. Packer’s credentials as a ‘lion expert’ are hugely impressive. He has spent decades researching the subject, published widely, guided dozens of graduate students to their PhDs, and his knowledge of (and affection for) the Serengeti and surrounding regions appears to be boundless.
No-one likes lions more than Packer and no-one is more keenly aware of the threats they face: from disease to the encroachment of farming to human population growth. There is also the issue of human beings killing lions for sport. Packer, rest assured, is not attracted by the ‘grinning idiots who think they’re Real Men because they just shot a lion’. He looks askance at the ‘macho chat around the campfire’ and the ‘inexperienced, impatient nouveau riche who spray bullets at anything that moves’.
For all this, however, Packer was willing to explore the notion that hunting, if only out of its own self-interest, might be able to play a role in lion conservation. In an ideal world, responsible companies, who played by strict rules, cared for their territories, and ploughed money into conservation projects might turn out to be unlikely allies. The world, alas, is not ideal, and that included Tanzania – the focus of Packer’s energies. He claims to have discovered widespread mismanagement within the hunting fraternity: trophy quotas that were frequently ignored and short-term gains trumping long-term sustainability. Into the bargain, rural communities apparently gained precious little financial or social benefit from their proximity to hunting blocks – they were sometimes ‘treated like pests’ – and, perhaps most damagingly of all, the wrong kinds of lions were routinely being shot. Kill a male lion before he reaches the age of six and you remove the possibility of him siring offspring. The youngsters were being killed with abandon.
“This candid volume is sure to divide opinion but it is far more than a chronicle of Packer’s campaigns”
In the middle of the last decade, Packer floated the idea of a strict certification and monitoring system. Rubrics, especially regarding the age of killed lions, would have to be enforced, data would be collected, inspections would be made, and the whole enterprise would benefit from funding by the private sector: the hunting industry would naturally be expected to dig deep since its reputation could soar because of the improvements from such a scheme. Finally, everything would be tied to habitat conservation and improving rural communities.
The keystone of Packer’s proposal was pragmatism and, whatever you make of his ideas, you would have to concede that they were well-intentioned. He and his colleagues received a truly extraordinary response. The book, arranged in a diary format, charts encounters with government officials, bureaucrats, the hunting lobby, and rival conservationists: hostility, obstruction, and disappointment loomed large. Packer’s views and plans appear to have been misrepresented or misunderstood with alarming frequency. He pulls no punches in the reportage: naming names, pointing to corruption, and growing increasingly frustrated with just about everyone involved. By the end, Packer was regarded as a troublemaking activist by some within the Tanzanian government – even his scientific research clearances were in jeopardy – and scant progress had been made. A law was passed in 2010 prohibiting the killing of lions under six-years-old but Packer writes that no-one seems to have been particularly bothered about enforcing it.
This candid volume is sure to divide opinion but it is far more than a chronicle of Packer’s campaigns. There are also dozens of surprising facts about the book’s heroes – the lions – and measured commentary on a host of complex issues: the way Tanzanian rural populations think of the wild creatures in their midst, the pros and cons of fencing in wilderness areas, and a sustained effort to recognise the ‘contrast between romantic fantasies and harsh realities.’ The structure is sometimes chaotic and the lack of an index is frustrating but, goodness, the book will make you think.
LIONS IN THE BALANCE: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns by Craig Packer; The University of Chicago Press; £24.50; hardback
This review was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.