Kings of the Jungle

By Denis Sengeny, Harrison Nabaala, Naitereu Soit & Mark Nicholson

We don’t know who came up with the phrase King of the Jungle, but we imagine it must have been someone living in India; the word ‘jungle’ is of Indian origin (jangaala in Sanskrit) and is never used in Africa. Even today, India claims to have the greatest number of lions (2400) but they are seemingly confined to a very small area. The real king of the jungle should, of course, be the tiger unless we include ourselves as the apex predators. In Africa, lions give way to elephant much more often than the other way round, and lions also have a healthy respect for buffalo, even if they remain one of lions’ favorite prey.

The map above is really depressing: it shows the diminishing range of lions over the last century. No one knows how many lions there were in Africa in 1900 but estimates were over 200,000 in 1920, 100,000 in 1950 and fewer than 23,000 today. Two thousand years ago the whole of the Sahara was savannah, full of big game and predators, skeletons of which lie all over the desert. Today, in very small pockets of protected reserves and conservancies, and private or community ranches, lion numbers are stable or even growing, but in most places, numbers are falling owing to illegal killing, land-use change, fencing and the concomitant fall in prey numbers.

All four of us are working at the moment with the Maa Trust in the greater Maasai Mara, which comprises the northern (Kenyan) part of the Serengeti trans-boundary ecosystem. We are next to the Mara Game Reserve which is surrounded by wildlife conservancies, where the locals lease their land to tour operators who run camps and organize game viewing. The Naboisho (“unity” in the local Maa language) conservancy is the second largest (60,000 acres/ 243 sq. km) and one of the more exclusive of the 15 wildlife conservancies in the Maasai Mara ecosystem. The local land owners now have a real incentive to protect their land and wildlife. Unlike in the main reserve, tourists are very few so one can spend a whole day without seeing anyone else. There is also a Volunteer Project on Naboisho where mainly overseas volunteers assist the Mara Predator Conservation Program in monitoring population densities, movement patterns and other ecological variables to provide scientific evidence used to guide policy within the protected areas. Big cats are tracked and photographed to assess long-term trends and movements. Lionesses are the most difficult to identify and whisker patterns are used to distinguish them.

The first three authors are Maasai (meaning the people who speak Maa), a tribe which have had a long and stable coexistence with wildlife and big cats. Arguably, no other traditional group on the continent has had such an intimate relationship with wild animals. They are pastoralists and cattle herders who have a profound reverence for their livestock, particularly cattle, which graze freely among wildlife. The cattle were mainly kept for milk and blood (where the jugular would be pierced and blood collected, a harmless procedure). Slaughtering of cattle was (and is) much rarer and only done for traditional feasts such as marriage, circumcision ceremonies and burials. The arrival of missionaries meant that the use of blood and cow’s urine has become less common.

Lions would occasionally prey on a cow. Womenfolk would ululate in fury and the morans (young, post-circumcision warriors) would rally, grab their spears and set off in hot pursuit. The warriors would hunt down and surround the offending animal. A hunted lion is a truly fearsome opponent; so the moran who dealt the coup de grâce would be hailed as a hero, awarded an armband of ivory and would normally have the pick of the most beautiful maidens. The practice was made illegal a few years ago. In desperation, the Maasai resorted to poisoning livestock carcasses that had been killed by lions. Lions, hyaenas, jackals and vultures all died as a result. There was an international outcry when four of the Marsh Lions (well-known from a television documentary) died as a result.

When the British colonists arrived over a century ago with guns, the fate of lions was sealed in many areas; cattle ranching was incompatible with lions. A few weeks ago, Mark had lunch with coffee-farming friends near Kiambu, outside Nairobi. His hostess showed me a picture of a group including her maternal grandfather, a Major Symes-Thompson, in 1912 after a lion hunt. Six lions are splayed at their feet with their heads popped up on sticks.

Lions were seen as vermin and fair game. Later, trophy hunting took over in the hunting blocks which lay outside the protected areas, but only when professional hunting was stopped in 1976 did numbers really fall as land was fenced and converted to agriculture.

Of 38 species of wild cats globally, seven species are known as ‘big cats’: tigers, lions, snow leopards, leopards/ panthers. jaguars, pumas (otherwise known as cougars or mountain lions) and cheetahs. The latter are not true cats lacking both a floating hyaloid bone and retractable claws. The most powerful are tigers which may belong to one of several sub-species, the largest and most widespread of which was the Caspian Tiger which became extinct around 1970. It was found from Turkey, across central Asia into Iran and Afghanistan.

The heaviest big cat is the tiger: a large male may weigh over 310 kg compared to a lion, which is rarely over 250kg. The most powerful cat for its size is the South and Central American jaguar, which weigh around 100kg. Leopards tend to much smaller at around 60kg.. In 2019, a skeleton of an extinct species of lion was found in Kenya which is estimated to have weighed around 1500kg and has been given the generic name Simbakubwa (“Big Lion” in Swahili).

What makes lions unique is that they are the only big cats to hunt cooperatively. Prides of lions will plan and hunt in groups of between two and over a dozen. It is normally the lionesses that chase down the prey because they are much faster than the heavier males. Male lions will barge in after the kill and have first pick at the feast. They are also vain (can we be anthropomorphic?), lazy and infanticidal, often killing cubs which they do not recognize as their own. Lions will also kill leopards given half a chance, and cheetahs are killed by both lions and leopards. Leopards are cunning loners, increasingly nocturnal and will probably be the species most likely to survive as they adapt well to urban environments. Cheetahs are under most threat. There are believed to be fewer than 7000 worldwide and are the least adaptable. They are timid and totally harmless to humans. In contrast, any professional hunter will tell you that a wounded leopard is the most dangerous animal on earth.

Occasionally, humans are killed or injured by lions. A child was killed last year in this area when she was herding goats. A boy was injured badly when he intervened to stop a lioness attacking a cow. Man-eaters are very rare. The most famous in Africa were the two scrawny man-eating lions of Tsavo who devoured about 135 Indian workers during the building of the Mombasa railway line. In the 1990s six people were eaten in the Luangwa valley in Zambia. The most notorious man-eating big cats in India were the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag and the man-eating lions, all of which were eventually shot by Jim Corbett, the famous hunter-naturalist in the 1930s who eventually died in Kenya. He reckoned than man-eating in leopards started after famines or epidemics, when human corpses were thrown into gullies and scavenging leopards got a taste for human flesh. In contrast he thought tigers got a taste for humans when they killed a person who had accidentally stumbled into a tigress with cubs. In either case, humans are perhaps the easiest prey.

If a lion the size of Simbakubwa appeared, one might have a rethink but most of the time when we come across lions and leopards on foot in the bush, you don’t see them for dust. That is in complete contrast to buffalo, hippo and elephant which we steer well clear of. We don’t want or need an armed guard and we wander on foot all day in the Bush as the Maasai have always done. There is no greater pleasure than to be surrounded by the abundant wildlife in what is one of the finest game areas on earth.