University lab conducts research on lions

by Kevin Behr

There’s a laboratory building hiding behind the Huron parking lots on Sixth Street Southeast.

Inside that building, researchers work on data regarding population preservation, family dynamics and mane color’s effect on female lions.

The research program has been around for about 40 years, said Bernard Kissui, a doctoral student originally from Tanzania currently working in the Lion Research Center.

on the web

For more information on lion research, go to The Lion Research Center Web site

It’s one of the few lion research centers in the country and led by arguably the leading lion expert in the world, Craig Packer, who’s been studying lions since about 1979, said Kim VanderWaal, an undergraduate research assistant at the center.

“He definitely knows his stuff,” she said.

The program started in 1966 with long-term studies about the behavior of lions and why they live in groups, Kissui said. Current research focuses on carnivore diseases and unique human-lion interactions in Africa.

Of course, there aren’t any lions here in Minneapolis or St. Paul. The lions are all in national parks in Tanzania, where the University has permanent research sites and four permanent researchers constantly observing and recording the behaviors of African lions, Kissui said. The sites are located at the Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks and the Ngorongoro Crater all in Tanzania.

He said the center usually sends a researcher to Tanzania once a year. Packer is there now and could not be reached for comment.

VanderWaal, who started volunteering at the center as a senior in high school, made the trek this past winter. She visited the sites to do firsthand research regarding her honor’s thesis project on female lion dispersal. In layman’s terms, she studied why some female lions just leave a pack to start their own.

VanderWaal will present her project at a symposium in Coffman Union today.

Kissui’s current project involves the interaction between humans and lions, particularly regarding livestock predation and the retaliatory killing of lions.

He said, during the past year, more than 200 livestock were killed while 85 lions were killed in retaliation – a staggering number considering the lion population in the area is less than 500.

“I’m trying to understand what factors contribute to the conflict,” Kissui said. “I’m looking at ecology factors and human-related factors.”

With his research, he said he hopes to initiate programs to help reduce the impact of the conflict.

The center’s research is often published in scientific journals and posted on its Web site, Kissui said.

Ben Schmitt, a political science senior and former student of Packer’s, said he spotted the researcher on the Discovery Channel in the past.

Despite the exposure, many people are still in the dark about the University’s lion research.

Colin Westermeyer, a political science junior, said the research sounds “fascinating” and comes to him as a surprise.

“The University does a lot of international work,” he said. “But I never would have imagined this.”

Law and public health graduate student Ilina Chaudhuri said the research is great.

“They’re pursuing a body of knowledge larger than the lions themselves,” she said referring to the human-lion interaction research.

Schmitt said better understanding of exotic aspects of the world, including lions, is always helpful.

“I think lions are awesome,” he added.