Survival in the Serengeti by Kerri Miller and Sasha Aslanian

Listen to the radio documentary Survival in the Serengeti, read parts 1, 2, and 3, or join Kerri Miller and Sasha Aslanian for a continuing discussion.

Savannas Forever

While Packer's team documented the man-eating lion attacks and livestock raids across Tanzania, he wanted to turn his attention to helping rural Tanzanian people.

In 2006, Packer and his wife Susan James launched an organization called Savannas Forever. James is a former executive at Minnesota Public Radio with a background in international business. Packer and James wanted to lend their research expertise to help impoverished Tanzanians see their impact on the environment around them. The goal is to help people co-exist with threatened animals. This is where Packer's work starts to look very different from that of your average evolutionary biologist.

Packer and his wife hired Tanzanian graduate students to embark on something they call "The Whole Village Project." Packer is committed to hiring and training Tanzanians so the country can build up its capacity of scientists and eventually take over these projects.

The "Whole Village" Project

When the young team members aren't huddled over their laptops in Packer and James' living room analyzing their data, they're out in the bush. Packer and James sent them into 26 villages that ring the Serengeti.

Some of the villages were so remote that the teams came back with tales of walking for hours to find houses unreachable by car. "You can just tell from their receipts their jobs are hard," says James. "I got one for 'three men pulling a Land Rover from a river' and I thought, is that going to fly at the University?"

Savannas Forever is linked with the University of Minnesota but operates in very different terrain. SF researchers try to find out what day-to-day life is like in villages near Tanzania's national parks. They use detailed surveys to gauge people's economic well-being, public health, and education. And they want to know about conservation and attitudes toward wildlife. Where do people get their firewood to cook with? Is it coming from a protected area? Which wild animals are causing them problems? How well are the people eating?

One of the most revealing things researchers did was to persuade local parents to plop their babies onto a makeshift scale. The team would advertise the weighing sessions ahead of time driving through the village with a megaphone urging, " Come get your children weighed and measured!" James says villagers would bring their children and stand in line and the weighing sessions would go on all day.

They weighed and measured thousands of children and compared them against world health standards. According to Packer, children's growth mirrors the wealth and well-being of a community. If the kids are stunted, the whole community is probably not getting enough to eat.

Those day-long weighing sessions also uncovered something the parents were hesitant to say because it would be admitting to eating illegal bush meat. The kids who looked healthy--chubby arms and legs, bright eyes--were probably eating meat. That could mean less gazelle and wildebeest for the lions. SF is evaluating how raising chickens would be a nutritious and economical alternative that would take humans out of competition with wildlife.

The Researchers Return

After months of crunching the data and comparing villages to one another, the team returns to one of the 26 villages it surveyed outside the Serengeti to share its findings. Men and women wearing bright Masai blankets file into the church in Tingatinga and the SF staffers fire up a generator to power their computer. They use pie charts and line graphs to show the village how they compare with their neighbors.

The room is full and the community listens intently. There's great interest in the section on problem animals. The town is shocked to learn other villages are plagued by elephants too.

As the meeting breaks up, the villagers separate. The men sit down under a tree, the women on benches with a makeshift chalkboard, and they throw out ideas; suggesting solutions to improve life in their village. They can speak more candidly among themselves.

And at the end of a long day, the village elders decide it's time to make some changes in conservation: They want to know which species of trees have been lost so they can chop fewer endangered trees for firewood. They also tackle community issues: They want more children in school instead of tending cattle, and pit latrines for every family. This community organizing is exactly what Savannas Forever hoped to inspire.

And the team has won big points with the locals for bothering to come back at all. "Many villagers have been complaining that researchers come and they don't bring back their results," says SF researcher Cecilia Lukindo. Over and over the people in Tingatinga say Savannas Forever is the first team that's ever come back to share what they learned. Lukindo hopes the team can travel to the other 25 villages it surveyed and repeat the successes here.

As the day winds down, Packer and James congratulate the young researchers on their work.

Shooing the Elephants

The day in Tingatinga that began with our tour of corn fields trampled and eaten by elephants ends with elephants making one last appearance. As the team drives out of town, a cluster of children by the side of the road waves them down and asks them to scare off the elephants blocking their path home.

Packer gamely obliges and drives slowly toward the elephants. He shuts off the engine to watch the lumbering herd. More elephants file through the trees and walk toward the cars.

There are baby elephants sticking close by the legs of the adults. A large male stands closest to us and eyes the vehicles, looking protective of the herd. He is wearing a GPS collar. "He's one of Alfred's," says Packer. Alfred Kikote's colorful map of elephant movements has materialized in front of us.

Susan James tries to estimate the number of elephants standing before us and guesses fifty. It's an awesome sight, but Packer is thinking about the villagers who live near here. "You know in Hawaii, people complain about pigs. In parts of America, people complain about deer. In the [Twin] Cities people complain about raccoons," he begins. "And this weighs five to six tons and it's as smart as a monkey. The point is these are really, really smart pests."

The elephants mosey on and we turn back onto the road. The gleeful children hold out their fists to Packer in a show of thanks. He playfully taps his knuckles against theirs and drives off. "See, we're the good guys!" he says to his team and laughs.

But Packer doesn't feel like the good guy for long. Savannas Forever is in trouble.

Savannas Forever Embattled

Craig Packer's research money has been delayed for months. The grant money won't flow until the Tanzanian government gives Savannas Forever clearance to do its field work.

The trouble started when Packer began pushing for more transparency from the government's wildlife division. He didn't think the number of lions and other big game are taken by trophy hunters should be a state secret. Packer's concerned the lion population may be dwindling, but he can't get his hands on all the government data. There may be fewer than 50,000 lions in Africa. As many as a half of them live in Tanzania, so there's a lot at stake.

To make sure Tanzania's lion population doesn't get over-hunted, Packer reached out to hunting companies. He talked to them when a lot of conservationists wouldn't, because Packer knew they too were worried about overhunting and poaching. "Often scientists come across as bunny huggers and that if they're going to deal with me as a scientist, they're going to have to deal with some sort of animal rights agenda. That's been a very hard message to dispel." Packer says he has no objection to hunting. He grew up hunting as a kid in Texas. "I view that hunting can be a valuable tool for conservation but only if it's regulated."

A Partnership with Hunters

Packer collaborated with hunters on a book showing how to tell the age of a lion by the color of its nose. He was convinced that if the hunting industry was vigilant-- only shooting older males-- the lion population would stay healthy and Tanzania would reap economic benefits from its wildlife.

"The original framework that he was following was excellent and everybody backed that," says professional hunter Charles Beukes. Beukes recalls that when Packer made his Savannas Forever pitch about sustainable hunting he held a crowd of 600 in rapt attention. "You could hear a pin drop. He went for an hour and a half, unanimously-unanimously-- which never happens in wildlife-did everybody agree that this is the right way to go in an industry," remembers Beukes.

But according to Beukes, Packer overplayed his hand. "He expanded the program, and he changed the goal posts, and he started wanting to do a little bit more than actually told us and started stepping on people's feet, other NGO's [Non-Governmental Organization's] toes."

Beukes refuses to be more specific about how Packer alienated his newfound supporters in the hunting industry.

But it might have something to do with how Packer questioned the cozy relationship between the government and hunting companies.

Support Crumbles

The hunting companies lease their land from the government and Packer's convinced they don't pay enough for it. And that means the rural people aren't getting the full benefit from the wildlife.

The bottom line, according to Packer, is that rural people don't see enough upside to living next to dangerous animals. The Tanzanian government is trying to address this by creating local Wildlife Management Areas. A village could cut its own deal with a photo safari company so it would have an incentive to tolerate the animals tourists pay to come and see. But this effort is just getting off the ground.

Fighting to Continue

In his Serengeti days, Craig Packer was tenacious and focused, staking out lions for four days at a time to track their every movement and meal. Now he's applying that zeal to winning Savannas Forever's research clearance.

Susan James tells a story about the time Packer made an appointment with a key government minister to lobby him about Savannas Forever. But when Packer showed up for the appointment, he learned the minister was on his way to Arusha. "So Craig says, 'What flight?'" recalls James. "And they told him and he raced to the airport and bought the seat right next to him so he could give him the Savannas Forever presentation on the plane!"

But for all of the effort, Savannas Forever hasn't made much headway.

Packer feels like some of the resistance comes from suspicion of his motives. He says his opponents just can't believe he and his wife would sacrifice so much and not make money in return. "When I tell them Susan's been doing all this work pro bono for a year and a half now and that we've got three kids in college, it's incomprehensible, that must be a lie." Packer sighs and says, "No one would do that, not in their world. No way. They don't believe it and so, too bad." Packer is stuck. He can continue to do his lion research, but Savannas Forever's Whole Village Project must wait.

Poaching and Poverty

Packer is not the only person who sees the link between human poverty and conservation. Hunting companies come face to face with it in trying to protect the timber and animals on the hunting areas they lease. Some of them have begun working with communities to help alleviate the economic troubles that lead to poaching.

Keith Roberts of The Friedkin Conservation Fund does anti-poaching work for TGT, the same hunting company Charles Beukes worked for. Roberts shows a stack of photographs of some of their anti-poaching raids: butchered animals with meat hurriedly hacked off and carried away, poachers using bicycles to wheel out stolen trees. Roberts seems empathetic to the poachers' plight. "You've got to be really desperate. You've got be really hungry. That's the only form of income they've got."

He remembers one village where things were especially bitter. "We caught a huge number of poachers from there and we started getting extreme aggression from that particular village, they started stoning our vehicles and a couple of other things that happened." So Roberts and his team approached the village elders who explained the village's only income came from poaching. Roberts asked what kind business they would like to run and the elders said beekeeping. It was their traditional livelihood, and they could sell the honey for a profit.

The Friedkin Fund agreed to underwrite their beekeeping business, and Roberts says the poaching ring was closed down. It's a big success but, oddly enough, they don't talk about it very openly. Dealing with poachers is politically sensitive.

Roberts gets uncomfortable talking about it. He hints that some people in the government get a cut of the poaching. "I'm not happy talking on radio because this could cost me my career in this country which I'm not prepared to give up. I think we are doing a good job even though we're severely hamstrung at times. It's like a chess games, sometimes you have to sacrifice a few pawns to win the game."

Packer has run into the same problems with the government, but he isn't as willing to play the game. He's not afraid to talk about Tanzania's diminishing wildlife populations, the deadly lion attacks and human poverty, none of which is great public relations for the country.

Questioning Tanzania's President

The government is also on the defensive because there have been allegations of corruption in the wildlife management division. Its critics say officials profit from kickbacks from the lucrative hunting industry. While we were in the country, a newspaper reported on illegal ivory sales to Taiwan.

We wanted to talk to government officials, but they declined our repeated requests for an interview. Finally, Kerri Miller approached Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete as he was leaving a conference in Arusha. Recording wasn't allowed, but Miller asked him if he still had confidence in his wildlife director. He said, "Of course I do." And then she asked if the director was going to keep his job, given the recent news. Kikwete answered, "Yes he is," before being hustled away to a waiting limo.

Five months later, Wildlife Director Emmanuel Severre was sacked.

A Dislike for Confrontation

Craig Packer's friends will privately admit to serious concerns about wildlife management policies in Tanzania, but they're also worried about the way Packer has decided to confront those problems.

Tony Sinclair is one of Packer's oldest friends in the Serengeti. He runs the Serengeti Biodiversity Program. He was raised in Tanzania, so he understands the cultural dislike of confrontation. Tanzania is the kind of place where your opponents might never tell you "no," but after a million delays, you get the picture. And that's not how Packer operates.

Sinclair says Packer is brave. "He faces up to issues and takes them head on and I respect that hugely," says Sinclair. But he himself takes a different tack, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes, and advise leaders of the ecological consequences of different policies.

Sinclair takes Packer for a late afternoon drive through the Serengeti and the two scientists trade information about the rise and fall of the species they've been tracking for decades. Packer lets off some steam about his battle for his Savannas Forever research clearance. "I frustrate therefore I am. No, I am frustrated, therefore I am!"

"You're in serious need of a break," Sinclair counsels. Packer responds, "I need a new planet." Sinclair advises him to think of something else for a while and let things cool down a bit.

But Packer can't. He's in an extremely tenuous position: Isolated by former supporters, denied research clearance from the government, and drawing down his final reserves of cash. On one of our last days in Africa, Packer conceded he'd grown weary of the battles.

"We've been trying this for a long, long time. And we put a lot into it. And, we'll just have to think of something else."

Packer is deeply invested in Tanzania. He has spent 35 years studying its wildlife, publishing papers that have brought him international acclaim. He despairs that he can't give more back to the place. "Everywhere we go, look at all those people. Look at how poor they are. We've seen a lot of places in Africa where the wild places have pretty much been lost-Kenya, Zimbabwe." As human populations have grown, wildlife has diminished. "It's kind of sad to think that that's going to happen here," says Packer.

When asked if his tactics-- his increasingly pointed criticism of the government-- might have damaged Savannas Forever's prospects, Packer doesn't see it that way. "My tactics consist of openly saying that we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out what to do because there are some problems here."

Tanzania has set aside a quarter of its land for parks or hunting areas. It has phenomenal natural resources but Packer says it will take hard work to protect them. "Everything looks great on paper, and everybody says the right thing, so it's really frustrating and puzzling that so many powerful people seem to be lined up against what we want to do."

Packer was originally drawn to study lions because they are a species that cooperates. "One of the reasons I like lions is that they're egalitarian," he told us in the Serengeti. " And the larger your group, the more successful you are against your neighbors. Because when you're the top predator in an ecosystem, there's no real threats to you except each other. Sound familiar?" He pauses for the comparison to sink in. The top predators that have stumped this brilliant animal researcher are his fellow humans.