Kate on Conservation

Big Cat Tales: An unmissable television return of the Maasai Mara’s big cats

Two of The Warriors lions with giraffes in the background.

The Marsh Pride of the Maasai Mara in Kenya have captured the world’s imagination time and time again. They’ve captivated us through our screens since the 1990s (with the release of Big Cat Diary), and kept us hanging on with their heart-breaking scenes in the recent series, Dynasties, (which showed the tragic loss of life that comes hand-in-hand with the human-wildlife conflict via the indiscriminate nature of poisoning).

I’m incredibly excited to learn that starting tomorrow evening (Sunday 10 March) at 8pm, a brand new five-part series will follow this legendary pride once again; cue Big Cat Tales.

A Marsh Pride lioness at sunset. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

The Marsh Pride were certainly partially responsible for my great love and interest in African wildlife, and following their story through the commentary of hosts on Big Cat Week and in subsequent book releases from the likes of Jonathan Scott and Brian Jackman – or indeed Jonathan and his wife Angela Scott – has grown my understanding of lion society and the intricate eco-system of the Maasai Mara in an unparalleled way.

Which is why I’m delighted to hear that Big Cat Tales, which launches in the UK on Animal Planet and runs for five consecutive Sundays in March and April, will see Jonathan and Angela Scott once again showcasing the Maasai Mara – their favourite safari destination and second home.

The Big Cat People Angela and Jonathan Scott

What’s more, this new series was filmed in 2017; meaning that – for the likes of Marsh Pride enthusiasts, such as myself – it makes for a perfect follow-on from the Dynasties special, which covered the highs and lows of the lions up to end of 2016).

The Big Cat People

Jonathan and Angie Scott, nicknamed the Big Cat People, will be joined by Big Cat Live’s Jackson Ole Looseyia for the brand new series, to follow the lives of the lions, leopards and cheetahs of the Masai Mara National Reserve.

The crew filming lioness and cubs. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

Jonathan, Angie and Jackson’s extensive knowledge of these big cats and their lineage is sure to bring the intimate lives of these animals to the screen in a deeply personal way, as they weave through stories of motherhood, survival and the challenges of life on the African savannah.

I caught up with Jonathan and Angela ahead of tomorrow’s release, to hear about the new series and the individuals who will star in it.

“The Mara is the best place in the world to see Africa’s big cats: the lions, leopards and cheetahs that every visitor on safari hopes to see. Each is different, not just in how they look; but in the way they behave,” the pair explained.

Lionesses and cub drinking. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

Lions are the largest and most powerful, dominating and bullying their smaller cousins, even killing them at times as competitors for food and space.”

Leopards are the least specialised of the three, the quintessential adaptable feline making them the most widespread and numerous of the world’s big cats. They are denizens of the shadows, hunting day or night, scavenging from a fresh or rotting carcass and able to live close to man undetected.”

Two of the 5 Cheetah Boys after a kill. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

“The cheetah is the supreme specialist, the Usain Bolt of the animal world, the speed king or queen that can sprint at 60 to 70 mph (100 to 110 kph) over short distances. These graceful creatures are also the most endangered big cat with barely 7,000 remaining in Africa plus a handful of Asiatic cheetahsless than 100 — clinging on in Iran.

The Marsh Pride over the years

Despite a love of all of Africa’s big cat species, it is clearly the lion that captivates Jonathan and Angela. The only social feline among 38 species of wild cats, the beloved Marsh Pride have revealed the intricacies and complexities of lion family life to their pair over the past 42 years.

“Angie and I have been following a group of lions named the Marsh Pride in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve since I first came to live there in 1977,” Jonathan explains.

“We know some of these lions more intimately than our friends. We recognise them as individuals: unique characters, many of whom we have watched from birth until death. We despair at times when a lioness loses her cubs or is badly injured or dies, in the same way that our hearts are filled with joy when we share quiet moments with a mother lioness and her newly emerged cubs.”

So what is it about lions that makes them such icons of the modern day?

One of The Warriors lions on a mound at sunset. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

“Their size and power,” The Big Cat People offer. “The males standing tall, lustrous manes billowing in the wind, marks them out as the most iconic animal on Earth. We stand in awe in their presence, quieted by the intensity of their piercing golden eyes.”

But it’s not just the majestic males that have captured the pair’s hearts. The core of each pride is founded on a group of female relatives, and this powerful alliance of adult females owns the pride’s territory and defends it tooth and claw against neighbouring females.


Charm the lioness with her cubs. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

This sisterhood is a volatile democracy, and there have been a number of memorable characters among the Marsh Pride lionesses.

Jonathan recounts: “Notch in the 1970s a nervous and irascible individual; placid Young Girl in the 1980s, Kali and The Old One in the 1990s – one a warrior the other stoic; White-Eye and Red in the 2000s – one a braveheart the other a hapless mother; Bibi and the Three Graces in the 2010s – one good natured the other three intrepid and resilient.”

Bibi was one of our favourites and longest lived among the members of the Marsh Pride,” he goes on to add.

“Her mother was Kali, a legendary lioness who reared numerous offspring during her 15 years. By that age older lionesses develop a grey and grizzled appearance with ragged ears, ink black noses and scarred and threadbare coats. Kali looked every inch a ‘grey coat’. ” he remembers.

Bibi was fathered by one of the two pride males of that era: Brown Mane and Scruffy (viewers of Big Cat Week are likely to remember this formidable pair).

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride
Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

Sadly, Bibi died in December 2015 at the age of 17, after being poisoned in a revenge attack after the pride were found to have killed livestock.

The tragic death was a direct result of cattle being brought inside the Reserve illegally at night. When the pride attacked they were driven off the carcass, which was then laced with a toxic pesticide before they returned to feed once more – a cheap and easy way to administer poison.

“Ironically, Bibi was one of the survivors among 11 cubs born to the Marsh Pride in 1998 that were attacked by a rampaging herd of buffalo along the Bila Shaka lugga – an intermittent watercourse chocked with croton and acacia bushes that acted as the favourite birthplace for many of the pride’s cubs,” Jonathan explains.

“Her legacy lives on through her daughter Kabibi who was born in 2012 and fathered by one of the 4 Musketeers with the infamous Scarface being the likely father. Kabibi is now a core member of the Marsh Pride.”

The characters of Big Cat Tales

The new series on Animal Planet begins with The Marsh Pride welcoming new cubs, and examines the challenges that come with having extra young mouths to feed.

The Marsh Pride lions Notch and her young cubs

Mother lioness Notch must protect her newborns from an encroaching buffalo herd and face the challenge of introducing them to the pride’s older cubs. The new additions change the dynamics of the Marsh Pride and certainly leave them with their work cut out.

Notch the lioness and her two cubs. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

The daily trials for the group are not limited to the new births however; the arrival of six male lions puts the entire Marsh Pride at risk and when the team returns after several months away, the Marsh Pride are found to be missing!

The Warriors lions walking. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

Cheetahs Malaika and a coalition of 5 males

Malaika the cheetah also faces the harsh struggle of providing for her young in the Mara; leading her to a dramatic wildebeest pursuit and even sees her battling with a large male impala.

Malaika the cheetah looking at two giraffes.Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

The arrival of a rare coalition of 5 male cheetahs presents an exciting time for the team – especially as Jackson witnesses them hunting cooperatively.

The 5 Cheetah Boys playing. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

LeopardBahati and Fig

Jonathan seeks to reconnect with Bahati the leopard, and his first sighting reveals she has three rarely seen cubs of her own!

Bahati the leopard with her two cubs. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

Fighting to protect her three cubs from predators such as baboons and lions, while contending with the likes of a huge crocodile and the need to hunt, Bahati shows her strength and agility as a mother.

Fig the leopard also emerges as a new character with yet another fascinating tale to show.

Fig the leopard and her cub. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

Reflections

“We never make the mistake of thinking of these charismatic predators as our friends,” Jonathan makes a point of acknowledging.

“Over the forty years we have watched the Marsh Pride, patterns have emerged driven by the changing seasons, the expansion and contraction of the pride’s territory and the emigration of bands of young females forced to seek a territory of their own.”

“Change is part of life and Angie and I have witnessed powerful coalitions of adult males disrupt the established order by driving out the incumbent pride males, killing any small cubs and breeding afresh with the lionesses.”

“The tenure of these male coalitions can be as short as six month or as long as seven or eight years.”

He explains that to be a lion ‘is to know your place’, to understand what you can and cannot do, and to fight your corner with all the power and menace you can muster, while holding back from engaging in serious fights over trivial matters – but that doesn’t mean that unresolved grudges can’t suddenly unravel.

Cloudy Eye the lioness and a Mpole the lion fighting while he tries to mate with her.

“Understanding the finer details of these relationships is what has fascinated Angie and myself, keeping us coming back to witness life in the pride year after year.”

“But we never try to approach them on foot, observing them only from our safari vehicle which acts as the perfect mobile hide to mask our presence. Most animals fear people; they just want to be left in peace.”

The Future of the Mara’s big cats

The Maasai Mara’s big cats are at the heart of the country’s – and Narok county’s – lucrative tourist industry.

The Reserve is meant to be a safe haven for wildlife, but with increasing pressures of competition over land and social changes have lead to increased risk of human-wildlife conflict over livestock; this remains an ever-growing challenge.

“One of the greatest challenges facing the Marsh Pride, is that their territory spills over onto private land owned by Maasai pastoralists,” says Jonathan.

Kenya, Narok County, Maasai Mara, Masailand. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

“For as long as the lions and the Maasai avoided contact by operating at different times of the day an uneasy truce was observed. The lions hunted at night and rested up out of sight in daytime, while the Maasai herded their livestock in the daytime and then secured them in stockades at night,”

Conflict has grown unavoidable, however, as competition for grazing between livestock and wild herbivores has increased. This added competition has led to the Maasai changing their herding practices, instead bringing tens of thousands of cattle illegally into the Reserve at nighttime.

“Under these circumstances, lions kill cattle and herdsmen respond with spears and poison,” Jonathan adds. “Will the time soon come when the roar of wild lions no longer echoes across the savannas and bush-velds of Africa, reminding us for a moment of our connection to the natural world that feeds our bodies and nurtures our souls?”

Every effort must be made to ensure that this is not the case.

Askari the Lion with cub. Photo credit: Animal Planet. Image strictly copyright, used with permission

I’m assured that steps are already in place to address the human-wildlife conflict. These include:

  • Maasai embracing a system of wildlife warriors or wildlife guardians to help sensitise and mitigate conflict from within their own communities.
  • The construction of predator-proof stockades utilising plastic poles and wire fencing with reinforced metal doors in place of thornbush, which also helps to conserve precious woodlands.
  • The introduction of solar-powered flashing lights to deter predators from attacking livestock at night.

As a result, in the last few years the Marsh Pride has been able to reclaim the heartland of their territory, Musiara Marsh and the Bila Shaka lugga, as prime denning sites and ambush areas –  as the frequent illegal incursions by livestock have stemmed.

“Visitors are once again guaranteed the sight of members of the world’s most famous lion pride,” Jonathan concludes. “Long may it last.”

Don’t forget to tune in to Big Cat Tales on Animal Planet at 8pm on Sunday 10 March.

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Learn more The Big Cat People

Learn more about big cats

Learn more about the Maasai

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