Jonathan Scott: The poisoning of members of the Marsh Pride, the world’s best known lions, highlights the need for a lasting solution to human–wildlife conflict in Africa
On Sunday morning (6 December 2015) news broke of the poisoning of members of the Marsh Pride. These are the lions that Angela and I have followed since 1977 and were the stars of our “Big Cat” TV series, that documented the fascinating and often tumultuous life of the pride over a period of more than 12 years.
The Marsh Pride occupies a territory on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, one of Africa’s foremost protected areas. All members of the “big five” (lion, leopard, African elephant, African buffalo, and black rhinoceros) are found on the vast plains of the Mara, plus a wealth of other wildlife.
On Saturday night, the lions had killed cattle belonging to a family living near the reserve. In retaliation, a member of the family sprinkled pesticide onto the carcass, knowing that the lions would return. He was intentionally trying to kill them. How many lions have died as a result is still unclear.
I wish I could say that this was shocking news, but there is nothing shocking any more about what is happening in the Masai Mara. Tens of thousands of cattle encroach in to the Reserve every night when visitors are safely out of sight – but when the likelihood of conflict with predators such as lions and hyenas is at its greatest. This makes no sense.
This sorry state of affairs is testimony to the appalling management of the Reserve east of the river. This is a situation that has existed for at least as long as I have known the Masai Mara. Management failures contributed to the precipitous decline in the Mara’s black rhino population from an estimated 150 to 200 in the 1960s to just 11 by 1983 (it has risen again to between 30 and 40).
The BBC filmed the hugely popular TV series ‘Big Cat Diary’ in Marsh Pride territory from 1996 to 2008. Our base in the Mara was – and still is – a stone cottage at Governor’s Camp. This is a safari camp set in the heart of the reserve, in the vicinity of the glorious Musiara Marsh after which the Marsh Lions were named.
The Marsh is the heart of the Marsh Pride’s dry season territory, while to the east the intermittent watercourse known as Bila Shaka was the traditional breeding site and resting place for the pride. Bila Shaka means ‘without fail’ in Swahili, testimony that the guides could always find lions here. Not now.
Each year Governor’s Camp outfitted a special tented camp for us along the Mara River just upstream from Main Camp. The foundation of the series was that we always knew that we could find lions, leopards and cheetahs in the area on a daily basis. The Marsh Pride were at the heart of the series, and virtually never let us down.
But that all changed when the authorities decided to turn a blind eye to the incursion of cattle into the reserve, forcing the lions to move out or risk death. The Marsh Pride has always been vulnerable since its territory spreads beyond the reserve boundary. This is particularly apparent in the wet season when Musiara Marsh (and Bila Shaka at times) becomes waterlogged and the lions move to higher ground to north and east.
Each year we lose lions to poisoning or spearing by pastoralists. That was always part of life for the lions. But in the last few years the situation has escalated beyond all reason, with the Marsh Pride becoming increasingly fragmented by the influx of cattle and herdsmen. Today it would be impossible to film Big Cat Diary in the same location. What a damning fact that is.
This year the impact of livestock has been all too apparent. Huge herds of cattle would camp during the daytime along the boundary of the reserve waiting for the tourists to head in to camp. Soon the Musiara area looked like a desert and each night you could see dozens of flickering torches as the cattle were driven in to the reserve after dark.
The deep tracks leading into the reserve are testament to this, along with piles of cattle dung scattered deep inside it. And the Musiara area is not alone. Guides from other parts of the Mara have been complaining about this situation for years. But nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.
These incursions are threatening the social cohesion – and very existence – of the Marsh Pride. Earlier in the year a breakaway group of young Marsh Pride females with young cubs were forced to cross the Mara River and set up home in the Kichwa Tembo area. The older females – Bibi (17), Sienna (11) and Charm (11) – and their cubs increasingly avoided Bila Shaka and the Marsh, loitering at the fringes of their traditional territory, forced to encroach on neighbouring prides.
The pride males – Scarface and his three companions – no longer visit the Musiara area, ever since Scarface was shot in 2013. He was treated and recovered but knew better than to stay.
In the past pride males often only managed a tenure of 2 years – sometimes less – before being forced out of their pride by younger or more powerful rivals. It was not uncommon to see groups of five or six young nomadic males roaming the Musiara or Paradise area together. I have counted as many as nine travelling as a group. That was a sign of a healthy lion population with lots of dispersing sub-adults.
Now Marsh Pride males are able to remain as pride males for many more years, due to a decline in the number of young nomadic male lions vying to replace them. The scarcity of these nomadic males suggests that they are not surviving as well as in the past, due to the disturbance that lions are facing on a nightly basis in parts of the Mara from livestock and herdsmen, or from trying to survive in less optimal areas beyond the reserve boundary.
Lions are always going to kill livestock if it comes within range – and of course they will sometimes kill livestock outside the reserve and must bear the consequences when they do. The only way to prevent this happening is if there are sufficient incentives to persuade the herdsmen that lions equate to tourists – and that means a financial return.
And that is the key point. Many Masai do not think of the Masai Mara Reserve as a source of income. They often feel that it is unfair that wildlife is allowed to share their pastures, and sometimes kill their livestock, while they are not allowed to reciprocate by bringing livestock in to the Reserve during dry times.
The Masai have roamed these areas for hundreds of years, long before it was given official protection. Understandably the Masai claim the Mara as their own. The authorities urgently need to address this issue by ensuring that everyone benefits from tourism to the Mara in a truly tangible way.
There will be no safe place for the Marsh Lions until the reserve authorities decide to address all of the issues that have been debated ever since I first came to live in the Mara in 1977. Measures must be taken now to ensure an equitable distribution of revenue from the reserve to the local community, and to increase support for the wildlife conservancies created on private lands around the reserve, where cattle grazing is permitted on a rotational basis.
Within the reserve, there should be a moratorium on any further tourism development, and an embargo on grazing of livestock.
What a miracle it would be if the demise of the Marsh Pride became the catalyst for serious dialogue and change as to how the Masai Mara is managed. The Governor of Narok County, the Honorable Samuel Ole Tunai, pledged to do just that when he called a Masai Mara Stakeholders Meeting in Nairobi in September 2015.
I attended that meeting and was impressed by the number of people who made the effort to come along and by the Governor’s openness to dialogue. Since then a small group of concerned individuals drawn from all walks of life have worked to support the Governor’s initiative.
We can only hope that we are about to witness tangible steps towards securing the future of this iconic landscape and its magnificent wildlife.
Paula Kahumbu writes: This is an edited version of an article written by Jonathan and Angela Scott and published on their blog on 7 December 2015. Jonathan and his wife Angie are award winning authors and internationally renowned wildlife photographers. My sincere thanks to Jonathan and Angela for permission to publish the article here.
Responding to a tip-off from visitors, the Kenya Wildlife Service and local authorities acted swiftly to bring the culprits to court, while the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and other local conservation organisations were prompt to treat the affected lions. But despite this veterinary support three lions have already died. At the time of writing, another four are still sick. The condition of others is not known.
Kenya has never before charged a person with poisoning wildlife, even though it is a frequent crime that has devastating effects on populations of lions, vultures and other predators.
However in this case the new Wildlife Crime Prosecution Unit has moved quickly to charge the suspects of this crime with offences against endangered wildlife species under Section 92 of the 2013 Wildlife Act, which could result in a fine of Ksh 20 million (USD 200,000) and/or life imprisonment.
This is another welcome sign that Kenyan courts are now taking wildlife crimes seriously. As Jonathan eloquently argues, this needs to be backed up by action to address the root causes of wildlife crime, inspired by the vision of a common future for people and wildlife