Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns

  • By Craig Packer
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 346 pp.
  • Reviewed by Christine Baleshta
  • November 9, 2015

Both timely and thrilling, this memoir details the complexity (and moral ambiguity) of trophy-hunting.

Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns

“Lions are in the balance, and their future is far from certain,” said Dr. Craig Packer, ecologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, summarizing his life’s work during the Chicago Humanities Festival.

But there is more in the balance than just lions.

In a follow-up to his first book, Into Africa, which won the 1995 John Burroughs Medal, Packer, in Lions in the Balance, explains how lions and trophy hunting affect the economy of Africa and the part the big cats play in the ecosystem.

More than an exposé, Lions in the Balance is also part memoir, in which Packer recounts his own experiences over the past 15 years and his efforts to contribute to conservation in Africa. In the aftermath of the recent tragic death of Cecil the lion, readers will be shocked by normal practices in the trophy-hunting industry and the absence of government control in countries where “the hunting industry regulates the government, not the other way around.”

Beginning in 1999 with a violent incident in the Nairobi home of a friend, Packer weaves his way through the complex web of trophy hunting, conservation organizations, and government institutions. He introduces us to CITES, TAHOA, SCI, and a long, long list of players, including politicians, wealthy businessmen, government officials, Maasai tribal elders, and graduate students.

Zigzagging through Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique, Packer takes us to backroom meetings at the Tanzania Wildlife Division’s Ivory Room, gala dinners given by foreign hunting organizations, and out in the field to track lions.

Lions in the Balance is also Packer’s story of his struggles to negotiate between the hunting industry and conservationists, and governments and native tribes living a traditional agricultural lifestyle. The book follows Packer in his lion studies and chronicles his efforts to identify factors affecting lion survival and solutions to overhunting, poaching, and loss of habitat.

What makes this book so engaging is the writing. Lions in the Balance is far from a dry dissertation; at times, it reads like a political thriller. Narrated chronologically, through backtracking and flashbacks, a certain tension is created that keeps the reader on edge. At the same time, some readers will be relieved that the few lion killings mentioned are described in an unemotional manner.

The author also shares parts of himself with us. It’s easy to identify with Packer when his son’s visit to Africa is purposely sabotaged, and when he worries about his wife and fears his own professional life is in jeopardy.

“I was in the middle of paradise, with animals I had known for years, but my mind kept turning to my uncertain future. Would this be my last tour of Eden? What would I do instead? Where else could I go?...This chapter of my life was possibly ending and why? For telling the truth? For losing patience? Or for being so naïve to think I could actually make a difference out here?”

Curiously, Packer is not passionate about lions; the cats are not his spirit animal. Instead, he is passionate about his work and is totally absorbed by the landscape.

“My dreams of building Savannas Forever have largely been replaced by the less noble desire just to neutralize a few people in the hunting industry. But I still have the lions to think about and a whole new project with the camera traps…The moon is bright at the moment, but it will set about an hour after midnight tonight. Where will all the wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and gazelle go in the deepening darkness? No gentle hand will be there to push them safely back toward the fire, but our electronic eyes will certainly be there to watch.”

Although some readers may initially be confused by the myriad African names and acronyms, they’ll get the big picture soon enough. Unfortunately, the book includes only a few black-and-white photos of lions and the places described by the author. Maps of the various regions, national parks, and conservation areas would’ve been helpful and a welcome addition.

Still, Craig Packer has written a fascinating book exploring some controversial and emotional subjects. More than once, I was struck by the similarities between Africa and America’s Serengeti, Yellowstone National Park, particularly in regard to the conflicts brought by wolf reintroduction and the brucellosis carried by bison. Readers will come away from Lions in the Balance with a better understanding of the benefits and consequences of trophy hunting, as well as who wants lions, who doesn’t, and why.

Christine Baleshta lives in Austin, Texas. She is the author of Looking for 527, and her essays have appeared in and Yellowstone Experiences.

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