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Lions of Tsavo

Logo for 'Lions of Tsavo' Research Project, based on Terry's Maxwell's design
for the 2004 meeting of the Texas Society of Mammalogists.

The lion (Panthera leo) is one of the world’s best known mammal species. Illustrated by Pleistocene cave painters and ivory carvers and chronicled by Homer and Herodotus, lions remain the focus of intense scientific and public interest. But their ecological roles as apex predators leave them perpetually at odds with an expanding human population and lion numbers and geographic range have shrunk dramatically. Lions now occupy less than 40% of their African range only a century ago.

Two of our Earthwatch lions, Bahati and Kabochi in 2004

This sad situation can only be mitigated by ecological understanding and social, political, and economic controls. Most scientific knowledge about lions comes from a long-term research program initiated in the Serengeti high-plains ecosystem of Tanzania and Kenya by George Schaller and continuously investigated ever since, most notably by Craig Packer and his associates. These studies have yielded myriad insights into behavior, ecology, and evolution and spawned scores of films and documentaries. Yet studies from a single ecosystem necessarily generate an incomplete view of a species, especially one as remarkably variable as Panthera leo. We do not know the number of evolutionary units in P. leo, cannot explain contrasting reports of behavior, ecology and even appearance, or even determine the species’ numbers, status, and threats across its range. Lions are impressively variable in morphology, genetics, behavior, and ecology.

The purpose of our research program has been to document lion behavior and ecology in dry woodlands, an environment that contrasts sharply with the Serengeti Plains but may be more typical of the majority of the lion's remaining range. This work has involved many collaborations with fellow scientists, chief among them Dr. Samuel Kasiki of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Mr. Alex Mwazo Gombe of Kenyatta University, Dr Jean Dubach of the Loyola University Medical School, and most recently Dr. Larisa DeSantis of Vanderbilt University. Besides clarifying evolutionary and ecological patterns of lion, understanding lion variability should enable more accurate predictions of the lion’s responses to altered environments and changing climates, both meteorological and political.



The links below include a description of our partnership with Earthwatch Institute, a page of publications and associated news reports, and some miscellaneous pages.