In 1977, affable wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott traveled overland to Kenya while on a mission to discover the allure of Africa. The trip had previously taken him to South Africa, where he could not stand the apartheid system.
Another two years in Botswana left him wanting to explore the continent a bit more. Kenya and especially the Masai Mara became his new home. In fact, his love for wildlife was further cemented in 1992 when he married Angela at the summit of Mount Siria-Oloololo.
Scott collaborated with Kenyan Simon King and Jackson Looseyia on the film Big Cat Diaries, a BBC production that aired between 1996 and 2008. The program has become one of the most watched wildlife documentaries because it “humanizes” the predators of the Masai Mara, complete with relatable names.
Animal highlights on the show included the Swamp Lions, a pride that lives on the edge of the reserve and whose hunting and family bond antics become audience fodder. For online geeks, the lions had their own Facebook page.
Now a new, 90-minute documentary, Lions: The Rise and Fall of a Swamp Pridedesigned to highlight the plight of lions in a rapidly changing landscape where wildlife is fiercely competing for the same resources and space as humans.
Pamela Gordon, an independent director who worked with the broadcaster on the documentary, says: “The BBC had great archive footage of lions, but the story of the people living with lions was not being told.” “There are tourists who come to see the cats, but they rarely know what happens to the lions. They should know the truth so that the local people can also benefit from their activities.”
The release of the new documentary follows the December 2015 poisoning of eight members of the pride group.
On the fateful Sunday night, news spread that lions had entered the reserve and killed cattle. The cattle carcass was then covered with Furadan, a highly toxic pesticide. Three of the lions died, including Sienna (10 years old), Bibi (17 years old) and a young boy named Alan.
At the heart of the documentary is graphic and gruesome imagery that uses a powerful mix of stakeholder and eyewitness voices to tell the story.
With the poisoning of the lions and their subsequent deaths, a piece of Scott’s heart was torn apart. It was necessary for a man who has followed the fortunes and fortunes of these lions for over 40 years. The Scotts’ base at Governor’s Camp gave them a front-row seat to Musiara Swamp, the piece of Eden that gave the lions their name.
To the east is an intervening watercourse known as Bila Shaka Lugga, which has always been a traditional breeding and resting place for prides.
“Bila Shaka means ‘without destruction’ in Swahili,” says Scott. “It’s proof that you can always find lions here. Not anymore.”
Lions have lost 95 percent of their historical range, and after Disney The Lion King Released in 1994, Africa’s lion population has halved due to habitat loss, the bushmeat trade and human conflict. Today, there are only 20,000 lions left in Africa, and their population of 1.2 billion people is expected to double by 2050. There are fewer than 3,000 lions in Kenya and 300-400 in the Masai Mara.
“People ask me if we were shocked by the poisoning,” says Scott. “No. Tens of thousands of cattle were driven into the reserve each night when visitors were safely out of sight. The chance of collisions with predators was also at its highest. Nocturnal raids make no sense, at least when its iconic lions are the backbone of Kenya’s tourism industry.
Traditionally, Scott says, the Maasai were active during the day, returning home with their cattle before nightfall, when predators such as lions, hyenas and leopards were most active.
Something had to give with the cows out at night. As Scott said in a recent interview, lions have found easy prey: “If we want to protect lions, we can’t bring cows to their dinner table.”
Apart from being poisoned, lions have also been speared as they approach human settlements. Many stars of Big Cat Diary have suffered this fate over the years, including the adorable male Scruffy and Lispy, White Eye and Red lioness, reducing the pride from 29 in 2004 to just 11.
“They’re also moving from the swamp to the Mara North Wildlife Refuge,” 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 have a huge responsibility and will determine whether wildlife will survive for generations or fade into the annals of history.
“People always think these animals are always going to be with us,” says Kaelo, community and public relations manager for the Mara Predator Conservation Program and a contributor to the documentary. “The sharing of space between humans and animals causes conflicts. But they can be eased if the authorities fulfill their promises of compensation for the loss of livestock.
According to a Maasai herdsman, when a lion kills a cow, it’s like someone hacked their bank account and there’s little chance of compensation. A number of initiatives in the Mara are helping to address the problem by encouraging the establishment of predator-proof buildings. bomas built from recycled plastic poles, wire fences and metal gates.
Installing solar powered flashing lights is a highly effective innovation to deter predators at night. Still, according to conservationists, such measures will be of no use if the animals graze in the reserve at night. “Drop the cows at night when the lions roam free,” advises Scott.
But as communally owned land was divided into privately owned plots of 100-150 hectares, the Maasai became more sedentary, building permanent settlements and fences.
Some have decided to lease their land to tourism partners for a monthly fee, creating wildlife sanctuaries where cattle are allowed to graze in rotation and predators thrive.
“The Maasai Mara is an invaluable heritage that must be nurtured. “What a miracle it would be if the disappearance of the Marsh Pride became a catalyst for serious dialogue and change, with a strict embargo on cattle grazing within the Reserve and a moratorium on further tourism development,” says Scott.