Jonathan and Angela Scott discuss the ever-increasing importance of tourism in supporting the future of Kenya’s iconic Masai Mara
riends of Kenya have been shocked by the recent poisoning of eight lions from the Marsh Pride, prompting us to redouble our efforts to support the extraordinary Masai Mara. Without tourism to help pay for sanctuaries such as this, they will always be vulnerable. Tourism is a mainstay of Kenya’s economy, earning millions of dollars each year for the country and providing employment for thousands. Equally we must not allow this to cloud our vision as to the major issues that the killing of Bibi, Sienna and Alan highlights.
We have received amazing support from friends who have been enthralled by the lives of the charismatic stars of the hugely popular TV series Big Cat Diary that ran from 1996 to 2008. They, like us, found themselves caught up in the day-to-day joys and heartbreak of what it takes to survive in the wilds of Africa. Getting to know these predators as individuals — creatures such as Half-Tail the leopard, Kike the cheetah and White-Eye and Bibi among the Marsh Pride — is what kept our audience on the edge of their seat. We were able to reveal the complex personalities of each one. Who could forget Honey the cheetah and her cub Toto that drew 7 million viewers in the UK alone during series three of Big Cat Week?
That is perhaps why we all feel responsible in some way for the death of Bibi and her companions. Did we do enough to try to influence change for the better in the Masai Mara? Did we speak out when we knew that there were vital issues that needed to be raised with the authorities? Only we can know the answers, but I have no doubt that many of us could have done more. This situation has been brewing for years. But people have naturally been concerned about repercussions — whether a film licence would be revoked, a work permit rescinded, a research project shut down. I would like to feel that this would not have been the case. But who knows?
Now we have to honour the lives of those big cats by putting things right. The only way to do that is by ensuring that we speak our truth. We must ask those questions and confront the complex issues that make up the political environment surrounding the Mara. We must do that on behalf of all Kenyans. This is a national issue as well as a local one. It is far too wonderful a place for us to allow it to descend even further into turmoil. What is needed is for stakeholders from the Maasai community, the tourism industry, the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies, the Narok County government and the relevant ministries in national government to sit down and come up with targets and timelines for change.
Discussions with the Governor of Narok, Samuel Ole Tunai, and his team over this past year, in the wake of the Masai Mara Stakeholders Meeting of September 2014, identified a number of key recommendations: the appointment of an independent board of trustees to oversee the well-being of the Masai Mara and who would in turn appoint a highly professional management company to implement a plan that embraces the whole reserve — with the Mara Conservancy as the model.
Two of the most challenging issues are the need for a ban on the development of any more camps or lodges within the reserve — with no further additions to existing ones. However, the most critical issue is the encroachment by tens of thousands of cattle at night. If the Masai Mara is ever to be considered a truly national reserve and to be elevated to being one of the world’s premier tourism destinations in the way that the governor has pledged, then rationalising these two issues must be the priority.
The 2015 InvestNarok Summit that drew investors from all corners of the globe featured meat processing, contract farming, potato processing, medical supplies and educational facilities. Diversifying the country’s economic landscape is to be applauded. But the Masai Mara is already a global brand, courtesy of its famed big cats and wildebeest migration. If nurtured, it will yield substantial dividends in perpetuity. Ensuring that happens would be a fitting obituary to the Marsh Pride lions who died.
And what of the Masai Mara now? I had almost forgotten how stunningly beautiful it is in the wake of the rains. As I flew to our base at Governors’ Camp recently I was mesmerised by a greenness so vivid that it dazzled the eye, drawing herds of elephant back to Musiara Marsh where the Marsh Pride once roamed. It was as if the dry times had never existed, washed away in the storms that transformed drought to deluge, bare earth to a lush carpet of grass.
The wonder of the Mara is its resilience. When I drove out to the Marsh this morning before sunrise, glorying in the sight of herds of buffalo and waterbuck, I passed a party of toffee-brown impala ewes, jealously guarded by a magnificent ram with spiral horns. During the night I had listened for the familiar sound of lions calling close to our cottage and thought that perhaps I could hear their faint, throaty roars from afar. If I did, there was no answer from the Marsh or Bila Shaka, just the whooping and giggling of members of the local hyena clan going about their nocturnal business.
Now, as the sun greeted a new day around Lake Nakuru, I remembered happy times spent with the Marsh Pride who favour this area as a resting place during the heat of the day, the big males among the Four Musketeers — Scarface, Sekio, Hunter and Morani — lying prostrate, their stomachs heaving. The lionesses — Bibi, Charm and Sienna — would sprawl legs akimbo, huge tawny forepaws flung casually across a relative’s flank, a dozen cubs snuggled close with a bellyful of milk.
But on this morning, not a single lion was to be seen, just the honking of Egyptian geese protesting the intrusion of others into their territory. Vultures spiralled overhead searching for carcasses to feast on, while a fish eagle added its haunting cry to welcome the dawn.
The BBC film crew that has been following the Marsh Pride this past year for a series called Dynasties had good news for me: nature has no time to grieve. The survivors of the poisoning incident that had cost the life of Bibi, Alan and Sienna were feasting on a buffalo they had killed during the night. The last survivor of the Three Graces, Charm, and the two sub-adult males Red and Tatu (sons of Sienna and Charm) had ensured that there was food for all. The fact that Red and Tatu were still with their female relatives was a reflection of the disruption that the cattle incursions had inflicted on the Marsh Pride.
Normally young males are forced out of their natal pride by the increasing intolerance of lionesses with a new generation of cubs to nurture, and by hostility from the big pride males. This helps to prevent inbreeding. But when Scarface was shot in 2013 (he recovered after treatment) he and the other Musketeers wisely started avoiding Musiara Marsh and Bila Shaka, focusing instead on the lionesses of the Ridge and Paradise Prides, even venturing across the river in search of breeding opportunities with the Serena Prides. But with no males to protect them, the Marsh Pride females continued to tolerate the presence of Red and Tatu. During the recent protracted dry season, we watched as two young nomadic males staked a claim to the Marsh, but having mated with Bibi they moved on, searching for better territory with younger females worth fighting for: Bibi hadn’t raised cubs successfully for a few years; she was too old.
The Buddhists talk of impermanence — nothing stays the same forever. New life is already stirring in Marsh Pride territory. The five young females (Sienna and Charm’s daughters) who were the first cubs sired by Scarface and the Musketeers, split from the pride last year to carve out a territory of their own. Now they find themselves as the beneficiaries of their older relatives’ demise. Bila Shaka — the pride’s ancestral breeding ground — has become a dangerous place for lions caught in the middle of a cattle highway that sees thousands of livestock march into the reserve each evening as the tourists sip sundowners around the campfire. But if recent events force the authorities to address the issue of cattle encroachment, then perhaps the young lionesses will be able to reclaim their natural birthplace and continue a lineage dating back to long before I first set eyes on the Marsh Pride in January of 1977. And they have.
Read more of Jonathan and Angela Scott’s blog at jonathanangelascott.com