Lions: Pride and joy by Jonathan Scott

Jonathan Scott has been watching lions – and the Marsh Pride in particular – for over 30 years. Here, he shares his love for these magnificent cats and asks if they still have a future.

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Lions by Jonathan Scott article spread

Jonathan Scott has been watching lions – and the Marsh Pride in particular – for over 30 years. Here, he shares his love for these magnificent cats and asks if they still have a future.

 
I always watch White Eye with a mixture of admiration and awe. Angie and I have known her since she was tiny – one of a dozen cubs raised, in typical lion fashion, in the security of a crèche overseen by a tightly knit group of lionesses.
 
Now, at 12 years of age, she is the oldest, most experienced lioness in the pride – a real warrior. She’s still in breeding condition, though her next litter of cubs could well turn out to be her last.
 
White Eye has lost the sight in her right eye. No one is sure how this happened – perhaps it was the result of a fight with rival lionesses from another pride, or an injury sustained while hunting dangerous prey, maybe even a spitting cobra.
 
White Eye’s disability certainly helps to mark her out among the four adult lionesses of the Marsh Pride. That’s extremely useful to anyone who spends a lot of time watching lions.
 
To make sense of their complex lives – lions are the only truly social cat – you have to be able to identify every individual in a pride with confidence.
 
My neighbourhood lions
 
The Marsh Pride is my neighbourhood pride, and has been ever since I came to live in the Mara as a fledgling safari guide in 1977. The pride is often to be found close to its favourite dry-season hunting ground on the fringes of Musiara Marsh, or further west along a lugga (intermittent water course).
 
The nickname of this beautiful place, Bila Shaka, means ‘without fail’ in Swahili, so certain are the local drivers and guides of finding lions here.
 
Bila Shaka is the ancestral home of the Marsh Pride. White Eye was born here in 1998, and it was among the dense thickets of the lugga that she and her siblings and cousins sought refuge when a herd of buffalo attacked the pride in one of the many moments of Big Cat Diary that viewers will never forget.
 
One cub was killed on that fateful day, but 11 survived. They are represented today by the pride’s three eldest females: White Eye, Bibi and Lispy.
 
Safari diaries
  
I am an avid note-taker, filling my journals with details of everything Angie and I see and photograph. Our diaries are an invaluable personal record of the daily lives of the Marsh Pride.
 
We also study the other wildlife of our local area, and many years ago I realised a long-held dream of following a mother leopard and her cubs.
 
Leopards and lions are like chalk and cheese. The former epitomise a classic feline trait – males and females both lead a mostly solitary existence. By contrast, pride-forming lions (and male cheetahs, which sometimes band together in ‘coalitions’) are the non-conformists of the cat family.
 
But what exactly is a pride? My preferred definition is that it is a group of related lionesses accompanied by a coalition of adult males who are unrelated to the females and sire their offspring.
 
Social networking
 
This begs another, more fundamental, question: why are lions social in the first place? To find the answer, we must head south, to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
 
The conservationist George Schaller began the first systematic study of lions here in 1966–9. Since then, the Serengeti Lion Project (SLP) has generated a mountain of data on virtually every aspect of lion behaviour.
 
Much of the project’s success is down to the passion and energy of Craig Packer. He studied olive baboons at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park for his PhD, before turning his attention to lions in the late 1970s, overseeing the SLP for most of the past 30 years.
 
In the early days, he thought he could probably explain the major issues raised by lion behaviour with two or three years of intense fieldwork. Then he discovered how little lions do: they sleep or rest for 80 per cent of the time, day and night.
 
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