Visit the real cir­cle of life in Kenya


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OVER­RUN by his off­spring, Olerai grunts, growls and grinds his chis­elled jaw, but is far too weary to sum­mon a roar as ex­citable lion cubs tug at his tail.

Rais­ing an eye­lid to sur­vey the gran­ite out­crop where his rest­less pride has gathered, wind rus­tles through the for­mi­da­ble male’s mane and sun glints where crown jewels should shine. But rul­ing a do­min­ion is tir­ing work and a king surely de­serves his sleep.

A source of daily drama in Kenya’s Masai Mara, pride pol­i­tics are fas­ci­nat­ingly com­plex. Love, loy­alty, be­trayal and de­cep­tion fre­quently shape nail-bit­ing plot lines, which res­onate with all the poignancy of a Shake­spearean tragedy.

When Dis­ney’s The Lion King an­i­ma­tion was re­leased in cin­e­mas 25 years ago, au­di­ences quickly iden­ti­fied with young lion Simba and his quest to re­claim the Pride Lands from his schem­ing un­cle Scar. The film spawned a fran­chise of TV shows, video games and one of Broad­way’s most suc­cess­ful mu­si­cals.

Fea­tur­ing the voices of Bey­oncé and co­me­dian Don­ald Glover, a new live-ac­tion ver­sion is set to be a box of­fice hit, fu­elling our love of Africa’s li­ons once again.

Al­though scenes of Simba and his fa­ther Mu­fasa sur­vey­ing their home­land from an es­carp­ment are life-af­firm­ing, in real­ity, the fu­ture of his species is dangling pre­car­i­ously from a precipice.

In two decades, Africa’s lion pop­u­la­tion de­clined by an alarm­ing

42%, and the king of the jun­gle is cur­rently clas­si­fied as vul­ner­a­ble by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture. Loss of habi­tat has been the big­gest cul­prit, lead­ing to in­creased con­flict with com­mu­ni­ties when li­ons at­tack their live­stock.

It’s a bleak pic­ture, but one pocket of suc­cess is Kenya’s Masai Mara ecosys­tem. Home to the Marsh pride, which starred in Jonathan Scott’s Big Cat

Diary and David At­ten­bor­ough’s Dy­nas­ties, it’s thought to have one of the high­est lion den­si­ties in Africa.

Scott, who was in the Mara last year film­ing for Big Cat Tales, ad­mits most of the footage was cap­tured in the Mara’s con­ser­van­cies, com­mu­nity-owned land sur­round­ing the Na­tional Re­serve, where tourism is care­fully con­trolled.

I also find my­self trip­ping over mus­cu­lar golden cats when I visit Olare Mo­torogi Conservanc­y, where I’ve joined Kelvin Ka­mango, a re­search as­sis­tant at the Mara Preda­tor Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gramme (MPCP), on an early morn­ing game drive.

An ini­tia­tive sup­ported by The Kenya Wildlife Trust, MPCP con­ducts a lion count twice a year. Its data shows num­bers in the Mara ecosys­tem have risen from 418 in De­cem­ber 2014 to 464 in 2017.

Us­ing an app on his mobile phone, Kelvin records the GPS co-or­di­nates of sight­ings and iden­ti­fies in­di­vid­u­als by their whisker count – a unique ID akin to a fin­ger­print. Other dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures also help to clas­sify char­ac­ters. Olerai, for ex­am­ple, has a gash on his nose.

In this conservanc­y, the Oldikdik pride is flour­ish­ing, and broth­ers Olerai and Olek­iti are en­joy­ing a supreme and largely un­chal­lenged reign. Sons of leg­endary war­rior Notch, the pair mi­grated from the Re­serve in 2015 and took con­trol of three dif­fer­ent prides. Now their en­er­gies have been fo­cused into one big pow­er­ful dy­nasty, the Plan­ta­genets of the bush.

For starters, they have the best hunt­ing ground in the conservanc­y.

Prowl­ing a rocky gully where an­i­mals like to drink, a li­on­ess sneaks be­hind a cro­ton bush and waits for her mo­ment to strike. Later that af­ter­noon, when I re­turn on a game drive, the pride is feast­ing on a fresh wilde­beest carcass – pre­sum­ably se­cured by their lead­ing lady’s pa­tience and skill.

A com­pli­cated fam­ily tree with fruit­ful boughs and tan­gled branches, the Mara’s net­work of char­ac­ters is a stand-alone study. MPCP has cre­ated a pho­to­book to help sa­fari guides iden­tify key fe­line play­ers, a tool used by the ex­cel­lent team at Kicheche Bush Camp, who have fol­lowed many of the res­i­dent an­i­mals through var­i­ous stages of their lives.

There have been births, deaths, brawls and nail-bit­ing show­downs. Males have bat­tled for supremacy and im­pas­sioned moth­ers have fought to pro­tect their young un­til the bit­ter end. It’s a soap opera set amidst spir­ited plains and fore­bod­ing skies, with episodes un­furl­ing a mat­ter of min­utes away from camp.

Guests stay­ing with Kicheche have an op­por­tu­nity to visit MPCP’s HQ on the OMC bor­der, where com­put­ers whirling with data and graphs il­lus­trate the re­search team’s find­ings to date. The suc­cess of li­ons in the Mara’s con­ser­van­cies is largely due to healthy habi­tat and co-op­er­a­tion from sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

Se­nior Pro­gramme Sci­en­tist Niels Mo­gensen shows me a new type of boma (en­clo­sure), which MPCP is en­cour­ag­ing pas­toral­ists to use for cor­ralling their live­stock. Made from re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles, the sturdy poles of­fer a far bet­ter line of de­fence than tra­di­tional en­clo­sures made from branches and thorns.

Poi­son­ings are a com­mon form of re­tal­i­a­tion for slaugh­tered sheep and cat­tle, so prov­ing li­ons are a valu­able re­source, rather than a threat, is key to safe­guard­ing the fu­ture of the species. Changes in at­ti­tude are best il­lus­trated by a

se­ries of sketches from lo­cal school chil­dren. In 2013, their artis­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tions of wildlife show­case li­ons and chee­tahs get­ting speared; five years later, sa­fari ve­hi­cles dom­i­nate the frame.

Along with ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness, the con­crete real­ity of cash flow has been the li­ons’ saving grace. Pro­vid­ing im­proved health­care, clean wa­ter pro­vi­sion and liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties for women, sev­eral projects have been im­ple­mented by the Maa Trust, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ceiv­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port from Kicheche and other camps in the conservanc­y. A new vis­i­tor cen­tre will be open soon, but for now, it’s pos­si­ble to visit its workspace and hand­i­craft shop neigh­bour­ing MPCP.

The em­ploy­ment of Maasai in the sa­fari in­dus­try has also helped com­mu­ni­ties forge a con­nec­tion be­tween wildlife preser­va­tion and fi­nan­cial re­ward, and many have adapted their life­styles ac­cord­ingly. Kicheche guide John­son, who works at Valley Camp in neigh­bour­ing conservanc­y Naboisho, ad­mits he now has less cat­tle – a re­sponse to the in­creas­ing pres­sure grazing puts on wild habi­tats.

Like the rest of us, he’s also grown ex­tremely fond of li­ons. Sat along­side a shal­low stream, we spend an hour qui­etly watch­ing li­on­ess Si­maloi and her suck­ling brood of cubs – with no-one else around. De­tached from the main Ene­sikiria pride, the skilled hunter and mother has cho­sen to live alone.

It’s an idyl­lic scene, and I half ex­pect a gospel choir to ap­pear, singing Lion King clas­sic the Cir­cle Of Life. But happy end­ings are only guar­an­teed in Dis­ney scripts and the fu­ture of Si­maloi’s male cubs is un­cer­tain. When old enough, they’ll be pushed out to find their own prides – a task made harder by a booming hu­man pop­u­la­tion, blocked wildlife cor­ri­dors and shrink­ing space.

The Maasai Mara is home to some of the con­ti­nent’s old­est li­ons, but Niels sug­gests their un­chal­lenged hege­mony could pose big­ger prob­lems fur­ther down the line; without new blood to main­tain a healthy gene pool, prides all over Africa are at risk.

En­dowed with near leg­endary sta­tus, many of these old timers are now celebri­ties – and the truth is, it’s hard to let them go.

MPCP will con­tinue to con­duct their cen­sus, but count­ing preda­tors has be­come much more than a num­bers game; fleshed out with his­tory and her­itage, a sleep­ing lion is no longer a lazy two-di­men­sional cat.

For now, Sim­bas roar all over Africa, but their grip on the jun­gle is slip­ping. They are no longer the undis­puted kings.

A scene from the new film ver­sion of The Lion King

Cubs from the Oldikdik pride

A sa­fari ve­hi­cle watch­ing a lion in Naboisho conservanc­y

Olerai, the leader of the Mara’s Oldikdik pride

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