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Marsh Pride: A struggle to survive for famous Masai Mara lions

Marsh Pride hunting buffalo in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. [Simon Blakeney]

In 1977, Jonathan Scott, the affable wildlife photographer, made an overland trip to Kenya while on a mission to discover Africa’s charm. The trip had earlier taken him first to South Africa where he could not stand the apartheid system.  

Another two-year sojourn in Botswana left him wanting to explore the continent some more. Kenya, and in particular Maasai Mara, became his new home. in fact, his love for the wild was cemented further in 1992 when he got married to Angela atop the Siria-Oloololo escarpment.

Scott teamed up with Kenyan-born Simon King, and Jackson Looseyia in filming the Big Cat Diaries, a BBC production that aired between 1996-2008. The programme became one of the most-watched wildlife documentaries due to the way it ‘humanised’ the Maasai Mara predators, complete with relatable names. 

Among the animals that featured prominently on the show were the Marsh Lions, a pride that lived on the edge of the reserve and whose hunting and family bonding antics became fodder for viewers. For online geeks, the lions had their own Facebook page.

Now, a new, 90-minute documentary, Lions: The Rise and Fall of the Marsh Pride, has been produced to highlight the plight of the lions in a rapidly changing landscape where wildlife fiercely compete for the same resources and space with humans.

“The BBC had a big archival footage of the lions, but the story of the people living with lions was not being told,” says Pamela Gordon, a freelance director who worked with the broadcaster on the documentary. “You have tourists coming to see the cats but they rarely know what is going on with the lions. They need to know the truth so that local people can also benefit from their activities.” 

The release of the new documentary comes against the backdrop of the poisoning of eight members of the pride in December 2015.

On the fateful Sunday, news broke that lions had killed cattle encroaching the reserve at night. A cattle carcass was then laced with the highly toxic pesticide, Furadan. Three of the lions died including Sienna (aged 10), Bibi (aged 17) and a young male named Alan.

Wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott. [Peter Muiruri, Standard]

At the heart of the documentary is graphic and harrowing imagery that draws on a potent mix of stakeholders’ and witnesses’ voices to narrate the story. 

With the poisoning and subsequent deaths of the lions, a piece of Scott’s heart was ripped apart. It had to for a person who has followed the fates and fortunes of these lions for more than 40 years. The Scotts’ base at Governor’s Camp gave them a front row seat on Musiara Marsh, the piece of Eden that gave the lions their name. 

To the east is the intermittent watercourse known as the Bila Shaka Lugga that has always been the pride’s traditional breeding site and resting place.

“Bila Shaka means ‘without fail’ in Swahili,” says Scott. “It is testimony to the fact that you could always find lions here. That is no longer the case.” And that worries him.

Lions have lost 95 per cent of their historical range, and since Disney’s Lion King was aired in 1994, Africa’s lion population has halved due to habitat loss, bushmeat trade and conflict with man. Today there are just 20,000 lions remaining in Africa whose 1.2 billion human population is due to double by 2050. Kenya has fewer than 3,000 lions and 300-400 in Masai Mara.

“People ask me if we were shocked by the poisoning,” says Scott. “No. Tens of thousands of cattle were being herded in to the reserve every night when visitors were safely out of sight. The likelihood of conflict with predators was also at its greatest. Night incursions make no sense, not least when its iconic lions are the bedrock of Kenya’s tourism industry.”

Traditionally, says Scott, the Maasai were active during daytime, returning to their homes with their livestock before nightfall when predators such a lions, hyenas and leopards are most active.

With cows out at night, something had to give. The lions found easy prey, as Scott stated in a recent interview, “if we want to protect the lions, we can’t bring cows to their dining table.”

Apart from poisoning, the lions were also speared as they came close to human settlements. Many stars of the Big Cat Diary have faced this fate over the years, including the imposing male, Scruffy, and the lionesses Lispy, White Eye, and Red, decimating a pride that numbered 29 in 2004 to just 11.

Marsh Pride lions in their territory in the Maasai Mara Reserve, 2015. [BBC]

“These too, are moving out of the marsh to Mara North Wildlife Conservancy,” says Scott. “Who knows when or if they will return.”

Michael Kaelo, who has lived among the animals in the Mara all his life, says humans bear a heavy responsibility and will determine whether wildlife survives for posterity or be confined to the annals of history. 

“People always assume these animals will always be there for us,” says Kaelo who is the community and public relations manager at Mara Predator Conservation Programme and who also contributed to the documentary. “Sharing space between man and animals leads to conflicts. But they can  be mitigated if authorities are quick in honoring compensation promises for livestock loss.”

To a Maasai herdsman, when a lion kills a cow it is as if someone has hacked into their bank account with few chances of compensation. A number of initiatives in the Mara are helping to address the problem by encouraging the erection of predator-proof bomas constructed from recycled plastic poles, wire fencing, and metal doorways.

The installation of solar-charged flickering lights is another highly effective innovation to deter predators at night. Still, such measures, conservationists believe, will be of no help if livestock is grazed within the game reserve at night. “Tuck in the cows at night when lions are roaming free,” advises Scott.

But as communally owned land has been subdivided into individually owned plots of 100-150 acres, the Maasai have become more sedentary, constructing permanent dwellings and fences.

Some though, have opted to lease their land to tourism partners for a monthly fee, creating wildlife conservancies where cattle grazing is permitted on a rotational basis and predators thrive.

“Masai Mara is a priceless heritage that must be nurtured. What a miracle it would be if the demise of the Marsh Pride became the catalyst for serious dialogue and change with a strictly enforced embargo on grazing of livestock within the Reserve and a moratorium on any further tourism development,” says Scott.