George Schaller and the Serengeti Lion

To bring myself up to speed with the fundamentals of lion research in the Serengeti, I have spent the last week or so reading through the classic work The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations, by the reputable George B. Schaller. For a collection of field notes, the book it quite a page-turner. The work covers everything remotely relating to lion biology, from social systems to predation patterns, and manages to capture both the drama of the dynamic Serengeti system and the dusty, hot, sweaty reality of watching big cats sleep for 18 hours a day.

Although the focus of the book is the life of lions, the life of George B. Schaller himself turns out to be just as intriguing. Digging a little into his background, I discovered that Schaller, dubbed the “Megafauna Man” by National Geographic, has undertaken a 50-year career in field biology studying some of the most iconic systems in the world.

Schaller had moved to the Serengeti with his wife and two sons for two years in 1966 to uncover the intricacies of the lives of big cats and their prey. This, however, was not the start of his field career. Back in 1959, when he was a mere 26 years old, Schaller packed up and headed off to Central Africa to study the mountain gorilla. For two years, amidst dodging poachers and eluding Watusi invaders, he uncovered facts about these great apes which helped to dispel common notions about their brutishness and revealed them to be gentle and intelligent animals. His work paved the way for other naturalists, including the well-known Dian Fossey, and led to the creation of Virunga National Park.

In the ‘70s, Schaller worked in both South Asia and South America, studying large mammals including the blue sheep and snow leopards of Nepal and the jaguars, capybaras, and caimans of Brazil. The American novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen accompanied Schaller to Nepal and wrote a travelogue on their exploits (The Snow Leopard) that went on to win the 1979 National Book Award. Matthiessen describes Schaller as “one of the finest field biologists of our time. He pioneered the practice of turning regions of field research into wildlife parks and preserves,” a epithet that held true yet again when five years later, the Nepalese government used Schaller’s research to form Shey-Phoksundo National Park.

Following these adventures, Schaller and his wife were given the distinction of being the first westerners invited by China to enter the remote southwest Asian wilderness and research the Giant Panda in its native habitat. As part of this work, Schaller focused on understanding threats to the diminishing panda population and discovered that the primary culprits in their demise were poaching and logging. In his book, The Last Panda, Schaller writes “The panda has no history, only a past. It has come to us in a fragile moment from another time, its obscure life illuminated through the years we tracked it in the forests.” Despite this foreboding prophesy, since Schaller’s work on panda biology, the number of panda in the wild has increased by 45%.

In the 1990s, Schaller worked in Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet studying antelope and in the process discovering and rediscovering several species of mammals including a bovine, a pig, and a type of deer. More recently, he has been collaborating with agencies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China to develop a 20,000-square mile “Peace Park” for the protection of the world’s largest wild sheep species, the Marco Polo sheep.

Over the span of his career, Schaller has made profound contributions to our knowledge about large mammals, both their biology and ecology, and has greatly furthered species conservation in the creation of over 20 parks and preserves throughout the globe. I can highly recommend his writings on the Serengeti Lion, and if you want to delve further into his life and career, his other authored books (there are over 30) include The Year of the Gorilla, The Last Panda, Tibet Wild, and A Naturalist and Other Beasts.


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