Wednesday 21 August 2019

Lion Kings: The magical Kenyan kingdom where lions reign supreme

A remake of The Lion King could reignite our passion for a species in worrying decline, says Sarah Marshall

The Lion King. PA Photo/© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
The Lion King. PA Photo/© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
A safari vehicle watching a lion in Naboisho conservancy. PA Photo/Renato Granieri.
A scene from The Lion King. PA Photo/© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Olerai, the leader of the Mara's Oldikdik pride. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.
Cubs from the Oldikdik pride. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.

Sarah Marshall

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 Beyonce 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.

A safari vehicle watching a lion in Naboisho conservancy. PA Photo/Renato Granieri.
A safari vehicle watching a lion in Naboisho conservancy. PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

It's a bleak picture, but one pocket of success is Kenya's Masai Mara ecosystem. Home to the Marsh pride, who 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. Their 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.

Cubs from the Oldikdik pride. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.
Cubs from the Oldikdik pride. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.

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 their 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.

Olerai, the leader of the Mara's Oldikdik pride. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.
Olerai, the leader of the Mara's Oldikdik pride. PA Photo/Sarah Marshall.

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.

How to get there

The UK's Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers three nights at Kicheche Bush Camp and three nights at Kicheche Valley Camp from £4,459/€4,960pp (two people sharing). The price includes full board, shared game drives, services of a highly qualified guide, laundry, conservancy fees, British Airways economy class flights, Nairobi transfers, bush flights and an overnight stay in Nairobi.

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