BBC Wildlife Magazine
THE REAL LION KING
Meet the lion who became a legend of the Maasai Mara, along with his motley crew of companions
As the sun sets on the reign of the most famous lion ever to walk the Maasai Mara, we look back at the life of a legend – and the winds of change blowing through this iconic grassland.
The still night air echoed with a faint murmur, a sound resembling a hint of thunder that rolled across the savannah, building to a crescendo as the lion drew closer. Scarface turned his head to the wind, his right eye staring blindly into the darkness, his magnificent mane of chocolate-brown hair encircling his muscular neck. His flanks heaved with each grunting roar, his barrel chest forcing air from deep within his body to produce an explosion of sound. He stopped, listening intently. Five kilometres away in the Musiara Marsh, he could hear the faint sounds of his pridemates, as each added their voice to the wind.
This encounter near the Marsh in 2013, as the night closed around us, was just one of many memorable encounters Angie and I have enjoyed with this iconic lion. Scarface, now in his 13th year, is a legend of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. He has been a pride male for eight years, six of them with the same prides of females
– a success by any lion’s standards. Over the course of his dramatic reign, he has embodied what it is to be a male lion in these grasslands, with a life punctuated by bloody battles, infanticide and violent conflict with pastoralists. He has also witnessed – as we have – an era of great change in the savannah of his birth.
A life with lions
We have been following the tumultuous lives of the Marsh Pride since 1977. From the veranda of our stone cottage at Governor’s Camp, we look out over an expanse of Marsh Pride territory that extends from the Musiara Marsh at the northern edge of the reserve all the way south to Rhino Ridge – a distance of 7km. Back in the ’70s, the pride comprised three males, four females and half a dozen cubs, plus a satellite group of four younger female relatives trying to stake out a home of their own. It was their descendants that would later rise to fame in the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.
The Marsh Pride is a boundary pride living both in and around the Mara Reserve, occupying approximately 40km2. Its range is fluid, expanding and contracting according to the seasonal availability of prey and competition from neighbouring prides. A territory is owned by the pride females and is passed down a matriline of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts and cousins. Each pride has a core area where the females give birth and which they fight most fiercely to defend. For the Marsh Pride, that place was the Musiara Marsh in the dry season and Bila Shaka – an intermittent, tree-lined watercourse – year-round.
Every two to three years, nomadic males would oust the Marsh Pride males and kill any young cubs, bringing the lionesses back into season to breed with the newcomers. Infanticide is common in lion society – as it is
Sometimes the pride males turn and run, sometimes they stand and fight, and the ensuing battles are brutal.
in that of most big cats – but the approximate two-year interval between takeovers allowed for at least one generation of cubs to reach sub-adulthood and disperse or, in the case of young females, to try to remain within their natal pride. To prevent inbreeding, every male is forced from the pride at around 2.5 years of age to wander as a nomad. To have any chance of winning a territory, unrelated single males must forge an alliance.
When you are a nomad in a high-density lion area like the Mara, you are always in someone’s territory, forced to watch and wait. You remain invisible during the day and move like a shadow at night, warring with hyena clans over kills. Then, one day, your alliance makes its move, driving out an older, ailing or smaller coalition. Sometimes the pride males turn and run, sometimes they stand and fight, and the ensuing battles are brutal. Rivals face off, while others circle behind to bite into spine and legs. To see lions like this, their yellow eyes blazing, their mouths bloody, their bodies lacerated with wounds, is to witness how important it is to win the right to breed.
The dawn of a legend
It was 2011 when Scarface, along with three other young males, invaded the Marsh Pride territory. They were nomads, full of swagger and aggression and pumped with testosterone. They were almost impossible to tell apart, except for Scarface, who stood out straightaway due to his disfiguring wound. At four years of age, they bore scruffy, blonde-and-ginger manes that would, in time, darken and spread. We named them the Four Musketeers – Scarface, Morani, Sikio and Hunter.
The Musketeers’ defining moment came in October of that year, when they confronted two Marsh Pride males known as Clawed and Romeo. The duo had already lost the third member of their coalition and were in the twilight of their tenure. Males are considered beyond their prime by 9 or 10 years of age – Clawed was almost 14 and Romeo only a year or so younger. Hopelessly outnumbered, Romeo ran for his life towards Rhino Ridge. He was later spotted near Little Governor’s Camp, brawling with hyenas over scraps of food, and was never seen again. Clawed, incapacitated by age and injury, could barely hobble. The Musketeers caught up with him near Bila Shaka and beat him mercilessly. He survived the next few days, then, half-starved and desperate, broke into a Maasai homestead and attacked a cow. But with his teeth worn to stumps and the
strength ebbing from his emaciated body, he was unable to strangle his victim. Alerted to the fracas, the pastoralists speared the old male and left his remains to the hyenas and vultures. It’s a hard truth that most lions die a violent death.
Over the next two years, the Musketeers brought stability to the Marsh Pride. Then, in 2013, Scarface’s destiny took a different turn when he was shot during a conflict over livestock. The bullet passed clean through his abdomen and he recovered following veterinary treatment, but the episode left the Musketeers extremely wary of the pastoralists disrupting their territory. So wary, in fact, that they abandoned the Marsh Pride altogether.
The foursome headed deeper into the reserve, to an area known as Paradise Plain. They spent time in the Mara Triangle to the west of the river, killing buffalo and hippo by night as they consolidated their claim to this new land. The water was no barrier to their ambition and they eventually patrolled a tract of some 100km2.
King of cats
It was perhaps due to his blind right eye that Scarface was more proactive in altercations with his companions, often suffering injuries to that side of his face. But he was a tolerant lion, allowing the numerous cubs he and the Musketeers sired to play with him, burying themselves in his mane as he kept watch on the lionesses. Initially, he patrolled with his fellow Musketeers, but as he became less mobile, he would often rest alone in the heart of the territory, or close to the females. When we last saw him in October 2019, the years had taken their toll. His tobacco-brown teeth were worn and broken, his nose black as coal, lips slack, chin patterned with spittle. We knew it was only a matter of time before younger males caught up with him. But when? With long grass blanketing the reserve and the COVID-19 pandemic forcing camps and lodges to close, there have been no sightings.
During their reign in the Mara, Scarface and the Musketeers controlled the Marsh, Paradise, Serena and Rekero Prides, and more latterly, the Ol Keju Rongai Pride. The lions now spend about 70 per cent of their time in the Rekero and Paradise territories while continuing to monitor the Ol Keju lionesses. Their domination repeated the pattern we had witnessed from another coalition of six males, known as Notch and his Boys, after their own ousting from the Marsh Pride by Clawed, Romeo and their companion in 2007. Notch’s coalition went on to claim the same prides of females that the Musketeers would, with Notch 13 years of age when he died.
That large groups of males – such as the Four Musketeers, Notch and his Boys, and, more recently, the Six Warriors, who claimed the Marsh Pride territory in 2017 – survive for so long as pride males is not just down to strength in numbers. Conversely, their apparent success is a sign that something is amiss with the Mara lion population.
It tells us that young males ousted from their natal pride are not being recruited into
We knew it was only a matter of time before the younger males caught up with him. But when?
The Marsh Pride territory has changed dramatically, due to climate change, livestock… and elephants.
new prides as adults as often as in the past. These nomadic males roam widely until about four years of age and view cattle – whose presence has dramatically increased inside the reserve – as easy targets. Scientists with the Mara Predator Conservation Programme have discovered that some of these young males are being killed by pastoralists. With their rivals removed from the arena, pride males hold their position for longer – but can end up breeding with their female offspring, with obvious repercussions for genetic health.
To counter this, the scientists believe that groups of young lionesses are leaving their natal prides to seek territories of their own – something they otherwise do only when there are too many adult females and not enough resources. This – and the fact that some of these young females are also being lost to pastoralists – would explain why we are now seeing smaller groups of adult lionesses in many Mara prides.
Large coalitions may sire many cubs, but they often fail to invest sufficient time with the females to protect their offspring from encroaching males. Instead, they move between prides – mating and moving on again. In the ’70s and ’80s, the pride males we observed were generally vigilant when there were small cubs in the vicinity, staying close to the females and patrolling their territory. The threat posed by intruders was ever present, and we would regularly encounter nomad groups up to nine members strong, particularly when the wildebeest poured in from the Serengeti. Today, nomads are far less apparent.
Indeed, change is afoot in the Mara, and it’s not just the social dynamics of lion prides. Physically, the Marsh Pride territory has changed dramatically, due to climate change, livestock, fires, vehicles… and elephants. With poaching at a minimum, there are 3,000 elephants in the Mara ecosystem. These giants rip up acacia seedlings as they criss-cross the savannah, and have turned the once virtually impenetrable forest bordering the Musiara Marsh into a graveyard of fallen trees. The thickets that the lionesses prized as den sites are now fragmented and punctured by daylight, rendering them far less secure for raising cubs. Bila Shaka, likewise, is no longer the wooded landmark it once was.
Gone are the days, as in 2003, when the Marsh Pride reached 29 members – an all-time high. The pride has splintered into groups of two or three females trying to raise cubs in different parts of the territory, moving between Bila Shaka and Musiara Marsh and generally avoiding each other.
And while lion prides have shrunk, the number of visitors had been buoyant prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has halted international travel in its tracks. Tourism is a mainstay of Kenya’s economy and vital to funding the conservation of areas like the Mara. But the explosion in camps and lodges