Scarface: the legacy of a lion
As the sun sets on the reign of the most famous lion ever to walk the Maasai Mara, we look back at the life of a legend – and the winds of change blowing through this iconic grassland.
Update June 2021 from Jonathan and Angela Scott:
Scarface died of old age and starvation at 1:00pm on the 11 June and his body buried. “He died in peace without any disturbance from vehicles and hyenas. We were the only vehicle on the scene and by his side, hoping to give him any kind of comfort,” said Saitoti Silantoi, research assistant with the Mara Predator Conservation Programme, of whom we are proud Ambassadors.
The passing of a legend had been predicted long before this moment. Yet Scarface defied the odds, relying on his ability to stay close to the lionesses and cubs in whichever pride he was allied to at the time, meeting up on occasion with his three male relatives: Morani, Sikio and Hunter who together with Scarface were known as the four Musketeers. Of these, Morani was spotted within the Reserve in the Ashnil area where Scarface died.
The interest shown by guides and visitors in Maasai Mara in following and contributing to the never-ending flow of information on these big cats is hugely important. It raises awareness of their life stories on a global scale and has the potential to help ensure they still have somewhere to call home. The poisoning of members of the Marsh Pride in December 2015 is a case in point. It focused attention on the issue of poisoning of predators and helped to implement change due to the coverage it attracted from the world’s media, something the Mara Predator Conservation Programme is actively engaged in through its outreach work with the local community.
Similarly the illegal killing of Cecil the lion in July 2015 by a Minneapolis-area dentist, Dr. Walter Palmer, who allegedly paid $50,000 for the chance to kill the 12-year old lion on a bow hunting expedition to Zimbabwe, caused an outcry and raised huge sums of money for lion conservation. Cecil was a well-known lion resident in Hwange National Park who was allegedly lured out of the park with a bait before being killed from a hide. The recent decision by the South African Government to ban the breeding of lions in captivity for canned hunting, or for tourists to pet, is to be welcomed.
The Warrior Spirit that we so admire in lions has been refined over millennia by nature’s creativity. The power and strength of these magnificent creatures makes us stand in silent awe. We immortalize them and feel inspired by their tenacity and determination to live every moment as if it were their last. We salute them for being themselves and honor them in life and in death, when it comes to visit, as it inevitably must. Fewer than 10% of male lions reach old age, many suffer terrible injuries along the way yet somehow survive. Nature has its own rules. Let us respect and abide by those without fear or favour.
The robust tenacity of wild lions has been honed through competition to ensure only the fittest survive and breed. Interfering in natural processes is likely to disrupt that process. Why? Because treating a lion injured in a bruising battle with other males might enable it to recover and retain its territory rather than it being ousted thereby denying or delaying other lions - younger, fitter and/or more numerous - their chance to become pride males and breed.
Characters like Cecil and Scarface help remind us of the plight of lions who have lost 90% of their historical range. That is why places like East Africa’s great Mara-Serengeti ecosystem (25,000 sq km) with its 3,000 lions are so important. With perhaps just 20,000 lions roaming wild we must do all we can to ensure their survival. Saving the last lions is about protecting wild habitat. That is the greatest gift we can bestow on the legend of Scarface.
The still night air echoed with a faint murmur, a sound resembling a hint of thunder that rolled across the savannah, building to a crescendo as the lion drew closer.
Scarface turned his head to the wind, his right eye staring blindly into the darkness, his magnificent mane of chocolate-brown hair encircling his muscular neck. His flanks heaved with each grunting roar, his barrel chest forcing air from deep within his body to produce an explosion of sound. He stopped, listening intently. Five kilometres away in the Musiara Marsh, he could hear the faint sounds of his pride-mates, as each added their voice to the wind.
This encounter near the Marsh in 2013, as the night closed around us, was just one of many memorable encounters Angie and I have enjoyed with this iconic lion. Scarface, now in his 13th year, is a legend of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
He has been a pride male for eight years, six of them with the same prides of females – a success by any lion’s standards. Over the course of his dramatic reign, he has embodied what it is to be a male lion in these grasslands, with a life punctuated by bloody battles, infanticide and violent conflict with pastoralists. He has also witnessed – as we have – an era of great change in the savannah of his birth.
The Marsh Pride
We have been following the tumultuous lives of the Marsh Pride since 1977. From the veranda of our stone cottage at Governor’s Camp, we look out over an expanse of Marsh Pride territory that extends from the Musiara Marsh at the northern edge of the reserve all the way south to Rhino Ridge – a distance of 7km.
Back in the ’70s, the pride comprised three males, four females and half a dozen cubs, plus a satellite group of four younger female relatives trying to stake out a home of their own. It was their descendants that would later rise to fame in the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.
The Marsh Pride is a boundary pride living both in and around the Mara Reserve, occupying approximately 40km2. Its range is fluid, expanding and contracting according to the seasonal availability of prey and competition from neighbouring prides.
A territory is owned by the pride females and is passed down a matriline of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts and cousins. Each pride has a core area where the females give birth and which they fight most fiercely to defend. For the Marsh Pride, that place was the Musiara Marsh in the dry season and Bila Shaka – an intermittent, tree-lined watercourse – year-round.
Male lions, infanticide and the Marsh Pride
Every two to three years, nomadic males would oust the Marsh Pride males and kill any young cubs, bringing the lionesses back into season to breed with the newcomers. Infanticide is common in lion society – as it is in that of most big cats – but the approximate two-year interval between takeovers allowed for at least one generation of cubs to reach sub-adulthood and disperse or, in the case of young females, to try to remain within their natal pride.
To prevent inbreeding, every male is forced from the pride at around 2.5 years of age to wander as a nomad. To have any chance of winning a territory, unrelated single males must forge an alliance.
When you are a nomad in a high-density lion area like the Mara, you are always in someone’s territory, forced to watch and wait. You remain invisible during the day and move like a shadow at night, warring with hyena clans over kills. Then, one day, your alliance makes its move, driving out an older, ailing or smaller coalition.
Sometimes the pride males turn and run, sometimes they stand and fight, and the ensuing battles are brutal. Rivals face off, while others circle behind to bite into spine and legs. To see lions like this, their yellow eyes blazing, their mouths bloody, their bodies lacerated with wounds, is to witness how important it is to win the right to breed.
Scarface takes over the Marsh Pride
It was 2011 when Scarface, along with three other young males, invaded the Marsh Pride territory. They were nomads, full of swagger and aggression and pumped with testosterone. They were almost impossible to tell apart, except for Scarface, who stood out straightaway due to his disfiguring wound.
At four years of age, they bore scruffy, blonde-and-ginger manes that would, in time, darken and spread. We named them the Four Musketeers – Scarface, Morani, Sikio and Hunter.
The Musketeers’ defining moment came in October of that year, when they confronted two Marsh Pride males known as Clawed and Romeo. The duo had already lost the third member of their coalition and were in the twilight of their tenure. Males are considered beyond their prime by 9 or 10 years of age – Clawed was almost 14 and Romeo only a year or so younger.
Hopelessly outnumbered, Romeo ran for his life towards Rhino Ridge. He was later spotted near Little Governor’s Camp, brawling with hyenas over scraps of food, and was never seen again.
Scarface gets shot
Over the next two years, the Musketeers brought stability to the Marsh Pride. Then, in 2013, Scarface’s destiny took a different turn when he was shot during a conflict over livestock. The bullet passed clean through his abdomen and he recovered following veterinary treatment, but the episode left the Musketeers extremely wary of the pastoralists disrupting their territory. So wary, in fact, that they abandoned the Marsh Pride altogether.
The foursome headed deeper into the reserve, to an area known as Paradise Plain. They spent time in the Mara Triangle to the west of the river, killing buffalo and hippo by night as they consolidated their claim to this new land. The water was no barrier to their ambition and they eventually patrolled a tract of some 100km2.
It was perhaps due to his blind right eye that Scarface was more proactive in altercations with his companions, often suffering injuries to that side of his face. But he was a tolerant lion, allowing the numerous cubs he and the Musketeers sired to play with him, burying themselves in his mane as he kept watch on the lionesses.
Initially, he patrolled with his fellow Musketeers, but as he became less mobile, he would often rest alone in the heart of the territory, or close to the females. When we last saw him in October 2019, the years had taken their toll. His tobacco-brown teeth were worn and broken, his nose black as coal, lips slack, chin patterned with spittle.
We knew it was only a matter of time before younger males caught up with him. But when? With long grass blanketing the reserve and the COVID-19 pandemic forcing camps and lodges to close, there have been no sightings.
Changes in the lion behaviour
During their reign in the Mara, Scarface and the Musketeers controlled the Marsh, Paradise, Serena and Rekero Prides, and more latterly, the Ol Keju Rongai Pride. The lions now spend about 70% of their time in the Rekero and Paradise territories while continuing to monitor the Ol Keju lionesses.
Their domination repeated the pattern we had witnessed from another coalition of six males, known as Notch and his Boys, after their own ousting from the Marsh Pride by Clawed, Romeo and their companion in 2007. Notch’s coalition went on to claim the same prides of females that the Musketeers would, with Notch 13 years of age when he died.
That large groups of males – such as the Four Musketeers, Notch and his Boys, and, more recently, the Six Warriors, who claimed the Marsh Pride territory in 2017 – survive for so long as pride males is not just down to strength in numbers. Conversely, their apparent success is a sign that something is amiss with the Mara lion population.
It tells us that young males ousted from their natal pride are not being recruited into new prides as adults as often as in the past. These nomadic males roam widely until about four years of age and view cattle – whose presence has dramatically increased inside the reserve – as easy targets.
Scientists with the Mara Predator Conservation Programme have discovered that some of these young males are being killed by pastoralists. With their rivals removed from the arena, pride males hold their position for longer – but can end up breeding with their female offspring, with obvious repercussions for genetic health.
To counter this, the scientists believe that groups of young lionesses are leaving their natal prides to seek territories of their own – something they otherwise do only when there are too many adult females and not enough resources. This – and the fact that some of these young females are also being lost to pastoralists – would explain why we are now seeing smaller groups of adult lionesses in many Mara prides.
Changes in the landscape
Large coalitions may sire many cubs, but they often fail to invest sufficient time with the females to protect their offspring from encroaching males. Instead, they move between prides – mating and moving on again.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the pride males we observed were generally vigilant when there were small cubs in the vicinity, staying close to the females and patrolling their territory. The threat posed by intruders was ever present, and we would regularly encounter nomad groups up to nine members strong, particularly when the wildebeest poured in from the Serengeti. Today, nomads are far less apparent.
Indeed, change is afoot in the Mara, and it’s not just the social dynamics of lion prides. Physically, the Marsh Pride territory has changed dramatically, due to climate change, livestock, fires, vehicles… and elephants. With poaching at a minimum, there are 3,000 elephants in the Mara ecosystem.
These giants rip up acacia seedlings as they criss-cross the savannah, and have turned the once virtually impenetrable forest bordering the Musiara Marsh into a graveyard of fallen trees. The thickets that the lionesses prized as den sites are now fragmented and punctured by daylight, rendering them far less secure for raising cubs. Bila Shaka, likewise, is no longer the wooded landmark it once was.
Gone are the days, as in 2003, when the Marsh Pride reached 29 members – an all-time high. The pride has splintered into groups of two or three females trying to raise cubs in different parts of the territory, moving between Bila Shaka and Musiara Marsh and generally avoiding each other.
And while lion prides have shrunk, the number of visitors had been buoyant prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has halted international travel in its tracks. Tourism is a mainstay of Kenya’s economy and vital to funding the conservation of areas like the Mara. But the explosion in camps and lodges means up to 100 vehicles now jostle at river crossings, impeding the safe passage of wildebeest and zebras, while dozens crowd around predator sightings.
Conflict with pastoralists
Yet the most striking change we have witnessed in the Mara is the illegal encroachment of tens of thousands of cattle into the reserve at night, and sometimes during the day. Every year, we lose lions to retaliatory killings by Maasai herdsmen, who have walked these lands for generations in relative harmony with wildlife and understandably think of the Mara as their own.
Lions that take cows outside the reserve must suffer the consequences. But during the past decade, the situation has escalated beyond reason, with the lions increasingly compromised in the very place they are meant to be protected.
Events came to a head in December 2015, when eight members of the Marsh Pride were poisoned after a cow was killed inside the reserve. Three died, including the iconic lioness Bibi, of Big Cat Diary fame.
Things have since improved, but as conservationist Richard Leakey says, “If we are serious about preserving wildlife, part of the action must be the total exclusion of domestic animals from protected areas.” The only way to prevent further tragic events is to enforce the rules and provide incentives that persuade the herdsmen that lions equate to tourists, and thus a financial return.
The future of lions in the Masaai Mara
Fortunately, this is already happening. The Mara’s 14 wildlife conservancies – the first of which was established in 1992 – provide valuable buffer zones around parts of the reserve. Big cats feel safe in these areas thanks to the relationship forged between Maasai landowners and tourism partners, and leopard and cheetah sightings are particularly good. The current slump in visitor revenue has prompted the government to allocate almost US$10 million for the 160 wildlife conservancies across Kenya, highlighting the importance of the conservancy movement.
Organisations such as Kenya Wildlife Trust’s Mara Predator Conservation Programme also work with communities to encourage the installation of predator-proof enclosures and solar lights that flicker at night, keeping hungry mouths at bay. And, significantly, a campaign has been launched at local and national level to have the Mara designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – a process to be completed by 2022.
A coherent management plan for the whole reserve, with a moratorium on the construction of camps and lodges and stricter control of tour vehicles are the desired outcomes. This has long been the norm in the Mara Triangle, which is administered by the Mara Conservancy. It has just been announced that a collaboration agreement has been signed for the main reserve. Work has begun on infrastructure and roads, facilitating the purchase of five ranger patrol vehicles, collaboration on security and provision of radios.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new reality that we hope will make protecting the natural world the priority for every country. The Mara is the jewel at the heart of Kenya’s tourism industry. If nurtured, there is no reason why it should not prosper, and why its magnificent grasslands should not echo with the roars of iconic creatures such as Scarface for decades to come. As we always say, if we had only one day left, we would spend it right here in the Maasai Mara.
Main image: Scarface silhouetted. © Jonathan and Angela Scott