Glimpse of Mohawk’s life from those who knew him well

Mohawk walks infront of a car inside the Nairobi National Park.

You might have seen a lion walking on the tarmac ahead of tour vans. Many on the Internet have claimed that to be Nairobi, and it is. The road in question is actually inside the Nairobi National Park, and usually, the lion in that picture is Mohawk. This was the king of the jungle killed last week by rangers in Isinya.

They remain the most graphic of the past one week. The shooting of the lion near Isinya in Kajiado County left the country reeling in shock. Millions around the world watched as the excruciating pain became too much to bear for the lion.

Even for the King of the Jungle, the resulting trauma from the bullets shot from a high caliber rifle was beyond his vaunted stamina. Following his killing, hundreds of Kenyans took to social media to “eulogise” and vent their anger over what they felt was unjustified killing. As of last Friday, more than 2,000 people had signed up for the Instagram hashtag #justiceforMohawk.

Yes, this was no ordinary lion. This was Mohawk — aptly named due to a tuft of hair on top of his head similar to the hairstyle adopted by the hip-hop generation. He was born in the park 13 years ago. It was partly due to the peculiar looks that he was popular with tourists.

Mohawk was said to have left the confines of the park the previous day after what wildlife authorities described as territorial fights. Tired of the perennial confrontations with rivals, Mohawk was running away and according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), was trying to establish a new territory, a territory where his roar will never be heard again.

According to KWS spokesperson Paul Gathitu, Mohawk’s troubles started much earlier. Last year, Mohawk lost a great friend in the name of Kip (named after former KWS director Julius Kipngetich). Kip, who died of natural causes, was his comrade in arms who would run to his side in times of trouble. With Kip gone, Mohawk was fully exposed and could hardly win subsequent battles.

“The real test for him came in January this year when a more energetic male called Dick battled Mohawk for the control of the Kingfisher pride. Mohawk lost the battle and was kicked out. He tried to pass through Alex and Cheru’s (two other lions) territory where he also lost out. Having been dethroned, he had no option but to get away from it all. He had no intention of confronting humans,” said Gathitu.

Those who followed him since his early days describe him as a lion that was always at ease with human presence and would be spotted many times near the park headquarters and around the ivory burning site. His movements, however, were also unpredictable. He would disappear for months only to resurface in a weakened state, but would soon bounce back to vitality.

His main adversaries, we have learnt, were two of his half-brothers, Cheru (short for Cheruiyot after a former senior warden at the park) and Alex. Cheru was the lion that was seen loitering on Mombasa Road recently where he attacked a man who was later hospitalised. In one instance, Mohawk was chased away by the two and had to seek shelter near some rangers stationed in the park. “The two attackers were distracted by a wildebeest carcass and forgot about Mohawk,” said a member of the Friends of Nairobi National Park who keenly follows the lions.

With the fights intensifying, Mohawk opted for the less combative option – run away. While KWS has been receiving the flak all week for killing the lion, crowds that milled around the scene are not without blame. They bear a heavier responsibility that led to the eventual death of Mohawk.

Those who study wild animal behaviour know that they get annoyed when in unfamiliar territory. They particularly feel vulnerable when confronted by the more intelligent, two legged creature – man.

Mob action got Mohawk irritated and chased after a motorcycle rider, injuring him. “The injury to Evans Murigi (the motorcycle rider) and the possible further injuries to other people prompted the KWS team to bring down the lion as the very last resort,” read the KWS statement.

So why did the vets not tranquillize it, many asked? It all depends on how the science of tranquilising works on different species. I once watched from a helicopter as KWS vets pursued a troublesome male rhino in Nairobi Park in a bid to dehorn it.

The chase lasted several hours as the irritated beast outran a team on the ground before the airborne vet managed to dart him. That action made the rhino even more dangerous – all this in a more controlled environment, unlike the open plains where Mohawk was.

A fellow journalist who has covered similar episodes says: “Tranquillizers on a 150kg lion do not put the lion to sleep immediately. It sometimes takes more than 10 minutes for the lion to become unconscious and by that time it is usually very angry and ferocious. They are not the Mufasa (of Lion King fame) people picture. They are dangerous carnivores that can kill you in seconds. The vets have tranquillizer guns but the rangers carry loaded guns. As much as KWS are supposed to care for the wildlife, if the animals become a threat to humans, the rangers have to act,” he says.

Mohawk's final resting place

According to KWS spokesperson Paul Gathitu, animals that die within the confines of the park are left there to rot and "get back to the soil." Of course, tusks and horns are removed in case of elephants and rhinos so that they do not propagate illegal trade.

But Mohawk was already a well known character who deserved a more decent treatment. "We dug a hole and interred the carcass after removing some tissue for DNA analysis," says Gathitu.

He was buried near the Kingfisher picnic site, the heart of his former kingdom. "It may be possible to construct a kind of a monument in the near future where his admirers can always visits," he says.

For now, Mohawk is survived by a younger lion who is almost a replica of his father, more like the case of Mufasa and Simba of the Lion King Fame.

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