Craig Packer has a love-hate relationship with the lions he has researched for more than 30 years.
But the University of Minnesota ecology professor and lion behavior expert said he has more love than hate for the creatures and wants to bring them closer to University students and the general public.
He and other researchers are utilizing a new “crowdfunding” strategy to earn enough money to transmit thousands of images of lions from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
“Lions are mean, terrible, awful animals and kill everything that gets in their path,” Packer said. “But the general public knows very little about them and they are fascinating in that aspect,” Packer said.
With more than 45 years of lion research at the University, researchers are still trying to better understand the Serengeti ecosystem and bring the latest technology to the park.
Packer and a crew of staff and students from the University have placed more than 200 heat-and-motion activated cameras over a 1,000-square mile grid of the park to capture detailed images of lions and how they coexist within their habitat as part of the Serengeti Lion Project.
The cameras produce more than a million images a year but bringing these images back to the University has become a daunting task for the team due to lack of internet access.
“These camera trappings we have set up capture an incredible amount of pictures and we are now in position to share them with the public, but this where our project has stalled and we could use the public’s help,” Packer said.
The team currently has no internet access at its research station. Its goal is to get the park online, where it will be able to transmit images from the park daily and make them accessible to the public.
To acquire and enable satellite internet, the team is looking at a price tag of $14,000. To meet that goal, it’s fundraising through the SciFund Challenge online, which utilizes a “crowdfunding” strategy that enables the public to make small donations to a variety of scientific projects.
Packer said they get most of their funding through the National Science Foundation, but that with budget cuts, they need the public to support the project through crowdfunding.
“People who are interested in this type of work can actually donate and do their part in helping us complete this project,” Packer said.
Packer also said they also want to encourage the idea of crowdfunding for scientific research in general.
“We really do want to engage a large number of people to become citizen scientists and share that sense of excitement we feel when we’re conducting our research,” he said.
Ali Swanson, a Ph.D. student working with Packer on the project, said she is enamored with lions. It shows in her extensive research on carnivore coexistence.
“My research focuses on how lions are interacting with hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs and understanding this interaction can inform our understanding of coexistence in other systems where species kill or steal food from another,” Swanson said.
Swanson, who spent some time at the station in Tanzania, said there are benefits to keeping up with long-term research on lions because years of collecting data allows researchers to “take an anecdote and turn it into a story about the lions and how they live.”
Patrick Dousa, a grad student at the Humphrey School and a research assistant for the Ecology department, was brought on by Swanson and has gotten up close and personal with the lions.
He was involved in setting up the 200 cameras throughout the park. He said some of the lions even ate his cameras late at night.
“I’m really interested in the idea of citizen scientists and having people see these images and know the differences between the lions,” Dousa said.
He said the team hopes to involve more undergraduate and graduate students as they continue their work.