This is an article that I wrote for Kenya Birding Magazine in 2010
In Love With Lions
Lions have long played a part in history and mythology. In ancient Egypt the town of Leontopolis was named after a cult of lion worshippers. The Romans used them in their gladiatorial arenas. The Greek goddess Cybele was recorded as being pulled by 2 lions in her chariot. In medieval Europe physicians believed that lion fat and blood could cure various ailments. Richard the Lionheart and the English crusaders adopted the lion as their coat of arms in the crusades. In modern day society the lion has become a symbol of bravery and respect. The English Football team still have the 3 lions as their badge, the Cameroon Football team also have a lion’s head as their badge. The National animal of Kenya is a lion and a lion’s head features as a watermark on Kenyan Shilling notes. The symbol for Kenya’s very own Pilsner lager is a lion and the phrase “Imara kama Simba” Steady as a lion has become iconic.
My fascination and admiration for lions started in 1998 when I was just 19. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to work in a safari camp in Botswana for a few weeks, this occurred after a chance meeting through a South African friend of mine whilst in Johannesburg. The lion prides around Savuti in Botswana were huge and renowned for hunting and killing elephants. During my stay at this camp i had lions sitting outside my tent and making their haunting sounds almost every night, my days when not working were spent out with the guides looking for the prides.
During my time in Botswana i literally fell in love with these adorable, yet impressive social cats. At this time i was developing an interest in photography – I used an old completely manual slr camera but became hooked on capturing the character and behaviour of these big cats.
After my first taste of Africa I spent many hours watching documentaries and reading all about lions. As time went on i became more knowledgeable about these cats and also improved my photographic skills. In 2003 i travelled throughout Africa on an overland truck, i visited 23 countries in total and saw lions in Yankari National Park (Nigeria), Serengeti and Ngorongora (Tanzania), Chobe (Botswana), Hwange (Zimbabwe), Etosha (Namibia) and Kruger in South Africa. But it was my Kenya experience which got me hooked. I went on a week’s safari to Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Samburu and then another week in Amboseli, Tsavo West and Tsavo East – i saw lions in all of the places that i visited. My guide who is now my business partner and close friend taught me more about lion behaviour and loads of interesting facts, but he also shared my enthusiasm for big cats and helped me get some great photographs.
I also went to India and Gujurat to see the Asiatic lions – unfortunately the reserve itself was a disappointment, bad management and poor infrastructure made the trip very hard and how can you compare the lions there to lions in Masai Mara?. I had however fulfilled a dream of seeing the Asiatic lions.
The Asiatic lions future is threatened by habitat destruction and human encroachment. It is something that needs to be highlighted and understood. Snow Leopards and the more famous symbol of Indian conservation the tiger are not the only big cats in India that need help.
One day i intend to go back – i have since met people who have told me things have improved and that there are massive opportunities to help conserve and highlight this very rare cat.
On this first trip whilst in Masai Mara i was in my element, a beautiful reserve literally full of lions. We watched many different prides with cubs, but the highlight was watching lions eating a giraffe – we returned to the same kill site every morning for 3 days to observe them demolish this huge kill.
After this i felt that i had found my place, Masai Mara – the kingdom of lions. I travelled back to Kenya several times since. I am now living in Nairobi and am writing this on my 15th trip.
I am now a much more accomplished photographer – i have had images published in BBC Wildlife, Photography magazines and various American publications. I also regularly sell images from my website all over the world. I have since up-graded all of my equipment to Nikon digital SLR’s. Digital photography is truly remarkable for wildlife photography it enables you to capture unique behaviour at a fast rate without having to worry about running out of film. Some people say that it has made photography easier but i disagree, you still have to have an eye for composition and you still have to understand and be able to anticipate an animal’s behaviour. Lions mating in the perfect golden morning light with the perfect background may only happen the once in these conditions and you still have to be ready to capture the males spectacular dismount and both parties comical distasteful expressions.
The above statement about photography becoming easier can also be interpreted in another way. With the advancement of digital cameras and the fact that so many people now own one it is very hard to make a breakthrough in the wildlife photography industry, i have a portfolio of over a thousand lion images from portrait shots to behaviour shots, but it is still very hard to get a photograph of a lion published as many agencies and magazines already have those shots. So that is where the challenge lays with me. I continually have to spend more time looking for unique behaviour and different shots.
It is estimated that there are 400-500 lions within Masai Mara. Many Mara prides were formed generations ago and have occupied the same territory for many decades. The base of lion society is the resident pride formed by lionesses – female offspring swell the numbers and provide continuity. The male lions tend to be transient and their tenures as the dominant pride males short lived. Male lions only achieve dominance after fierce and often long and bloody battles to overthrow existing Pride males. After taking over a pride male lions often kill all of the cubs – remnants of the old males genes, as soon as the cubs are gone the females quickly come in to “oestrus” again and are ready to mate with the new males. When male lion cubs reach 2 – 4 years old they are chased away by the dominant males or male and leave the pride, they then stay alone or join up with other males of a similar age and stay with them until they are strong enough to take over their own pride.
The size of the pride are often dependent on available food, and as food is usually abundant in Masai Mara the pride numbers can sometimes reach as many as 40.
Lionesses leave the pride to give birth to their cubs and hide them away for their first few weeks. During this time she will care for them alone feeding them her milk and hunting to ensure she stays strong enough to care for them. It is at this time that the cubs are at their most vulnerable. After approximately 8 weeks the female will carry the cubs in her mouth back to meet the rest of the pride, it is then that you really appreciate the gentle nature of these cats. Lions are social cats and the females in the pride will help to care for each other’s cubs and often share milk feeding duties. Female lionesses can give birth to up to 9 cubs although the average is 2 – 4. Just last week in Masai Mara we had a magic Mara moment as we watched 3 lionesses walking through the long grass with 11 cubs between them. Clients seeing this for the first time couldn’t help but be amazed and overawed by the sight.
Lions have always been a major feature of the Mara and it is one of the few places in Africa where you can be relatively sure of seeing lions in good numbers and not just observing them in their typical sleepy safari pose. Lions usually sleep or rest for up to 18 hours a day and are generally more active at night. This is the main challenge when photographing these cats.
Sometimes you are lucky and witness a pride being social and greeting each other, young cubs playing or older cubs practicing stalking and hunting techniques. If you are really lucky you may get lions on a kill where you can witness the struggle of the weak against the stronger pride members or sometimes if you are really, really lucky you can witness a hunt and kill and the amazing technique and silent communication that takes place between the hunting lionesses.
Yes photographing lions can be a challenge. You may sit watching sleeping lions for 2 hours and only be rewarded with 10 minutes of “action”. That action could be a few minutes of sitting up or maybe a yawn, but you have to be able to capture that lion’s character. Lions have very expressive faces and they can look very different with a slight twitch of the ears or a small grimace and recording this is the challenge. Lions will always be my favourite animals, to many people they are lazy boring cats but to me they are misunderstood and the reward of seeing the whole pride interacting and playing or feeding is what photography is all about.
I spent from 2004 to 2009 photographing one pride of lions in Mara, they form the basis of my portfolio, over the years i got to understand and recognise each individual within the group – they numbered on average 9, 3 females, 1 male, 1 older male cub and 4 cubs. They were known as the Sopa Area pride but within the company i used for safaris they were known as Paul’s Pride because i photographed them for many years. Unfortunately last year the whole pride was killed, allegedly through a poisoned Masai cow carcass, this was during times of drought and the Masai were bringing their cattle further and further in to the reserve to graze. When i heard the news about my pride i was devastated and it really was like losing someone close, and in a way it was a 5 year photography project that would never see the end – i had intended to write a book on this pride and had collected hundreds of individual images over the 5 years. Now though i realise that i must continue with the story and highlight what happened and begin to get to know the new pride that has taken their territory, and although a devastating and sad event it highlights the continued struggle that lions face. They are a group of lions that i will not forget and from the cheeky young male who was always bold and came up to the vehicles who i watched grow up from a few months old to 3 years before he died, to the lioness who survived a badly injured hind paw to continue to give birth to many litters and lead the hunts like she had always done.
Through my photography i try to show wildlife as it is i never digitally remove anything from my photographs and i try to concentrate on showing character, interaction and behaviour. I want my photographs to educate people and give people a reason to come and see it for themselves like the images and documentaries did for me. The future of photography is unclear as is the future of the Mara lions but one thing is for certain, whilst the Mara is still there as it is for everyone to see and whilst digital cameras are getting better and cheaper there is a hope that photography can be used to highlight environmental issues and can be a source of inspiration for many people.
Masai Mara to me is 1800 sq km of Kenyan wealth. It really is the 7th wonder of the world. It should be treated as priceless. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Mara every year from all over the world. It has featured in many books and tv documentaries – one of the many being the Big Cat Diary – a BBC program that brought the cats of Mara to life and brought them in to so many people’s living rooms all over the world. But for the Mara to continue to educate and delight and for the lions to continue to thrive and attract visitors we must highlight the struggles. Lion numbers are decreasing not just in the Mara but worldwide. Last years migration was disappointing due to the drought causing the river levels to drop, partly caused by trees being cut down in the Mau Forest.
The Mara is one of the most beautiful and amazing wildlife reserves in the world, it is one of the few places where wildlife has remained relatively untouched and still resembles something of the thriving numerous herds of the early 60’s. Please let’s look after it keep it this way.
Writing an article on lions for a magazine that focuses mainly on birds may seem a little out of place, but lions are part of a very complicated and varied eco-system, just consider for a moment the impact on vultures if lion numbers dropped severely. Also don’t forget that the lions are top of the bill, the big attraction on getting foreign visitors. If the lions continue to attract visitors then many conservation projects throughout Kenya will benefit, they will benefit from increased awareness and exposure and although they may never experience the number of visitors that Mara does or the adoration that lions get, money and donations will find their way through to smaller projects through organizations like Nature Kenya.
International awareness is important but the future of Masai Mara and all of Kenya’s wildlife is dependent on continued dedication by park rangers, anti poaching patrols, conservationists and guides. But perhaps more importantly it is reliant on continued education and community projects involving local people so that there is a continued harmonious relationship between people and wildlife. It is this education that is so vital in insuring that the next generation and future generations can experience the magic of Mara.