By Jimmy Rutherford
06:32 and I awoke with horror realising that I had slept through not one but two alarms. Jetlag and a lack of sleep from travels to Kenya the day before, combined with my own sheer stupidity, had caused me to miss an excellent opportunity. Having heard no trucks pull into the driveway I thought I was in the clear, but despite being out of the door with all my gear within a few minutes, I was already far too late. As most predators are active at dawn and dusk, there is no time to lose and Wilson Sampeke, Ol Jogi Conservancy’s resident Carnivore Monitor, had arrived on time to collect me at 06:30 and gone – and rightfully so.
The afternoon before I had been out with Ol Jogi’s Conservation Manager, Jamie Gaymer, the radio constantly buzzing with updates from Wilson. In addition to its populations of Southern white and Eastern black rhinos, Ol Jogi is home to various iconic predators including cheetah, leopard, spotted and striped hyenas and, of course, lions. Having been given a rough location from Wilson, vultures in the trees directed us to the whereabouts of the resident Scar Pride, but its dominant males were nowhere to be seen. Later, a young family of cheetah, a mum with four tiny cubs, was also sighted and the radio buzzed once more with details of their position. We drove rapidly down the sandy tracks to reach them, and all were in great health, the mother slinking off gracefully with the four youngsters at her tail. Keeping our distance so as not to disturb them too much, we followed them for a short while.
Much of the next day was spent with Jamie but, as dusk approached, I was given a second chance to jump in the truck with Wilson. We set off, following tracks adjacent to a river, where the water flowed quickly over rocks and fallen trees. As the Landcruiser revved its engine, Defassa waterbuck and Jackson’s hartebeest snorted and bolted through the acacia whilst many, many Günther's dik-diks (a type of small antelope with a miniature trunk-like nose) darted into the brush.
It did not take us long to reach the pride that I had seen the night before with Jamie, only this time the large pride males, M5 and M6, were sprawled out on their backs snoozing alongside seven youngsters and three adult females. Individual lions are mainly identified based on the configuration of whisker spots on their muzzle, with each sporting distinctive patterns like a fingerprint. M5, with his dark nose, scars across his face and much of his tail missing, was easy to identify. With flies buzzing endlessly, he tried to swish his tail around, still hoping that it would work as an effective fly swat. It did not.
Once Wilson had taken photographs and detailed what the pride was doing (not very much, as per usual for cats), we let sleeping lions lie and headed off deeper into the bush. The sky was darkening but the remaining rays of sunlight broke through the greying clouds, shining down on herds of Thomson’s gazelles. It made for some dramatic backdrops, like that scene in The Lion King when James Earl Jones and his dulcet tones as Mufasa bellows down to Simba through the clouds.
But here, things are not as Disney as they may appear. Animals – except for rhinos – can move across the permeable boundaries in place throughout this landscape but, on Ol Jogi when I visited, the lion population was rather high (~70). Unfortunately, amongst the hierarchy of predators in this landscape, there are the bullies and the bullied, and the perpetrators are the biggest predators of all: the lions and spotted hyenas. Their victims are the weak: the slim and fragile cheetahs. As a result, cheetahs lead a more nomadic lifestyle, covering great distances to find and catch their prey whilst continuing to avoid their larger cousins. Despite this, the species in Kenya and other areas of East Africa has been greatly affected by habitat loss and fragmentation in addition to the illegal smuggling of wild cheetah cubs to meet the demands of some pet owners.
As for lions, following centuries of persecution, a reduction in prey and, chiefly, habitat loss, the wider African continent has lost many of its prides. Throughout my month-long stay covering the many lion hotspots of Kenya, I saw 40 individual lions in total. Rather successful I’d argue, but it equates to roughly 1.6% of Kenya’s 2,500 lions, or around 0.2% of the entire continent’s population of ~20,000 wild lions (down by more than 40% in just 20 years). It is a sorry situation for an animal that was once found from Southern Africa through Europe to North America.
Further south, near the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, lies the Amboseli Ecosystem. Here I was lucky to witness five lions gorging on a large hippo. Life is tough for these lions, with one of the adult females bearing some rather grisly wounds as a result of their hunting success, including her lower lip and skin being torn from her chin. Her three cubs were small with high numbers of ticks protruding from their ear lobes. But these were the lucky ones that had, so far, kept themselves out of trouble.
Three weeks before my arrival in Kenya, Amboseli had been the site of a complex and age-old conflict. The Ecosystem lost 10 of its lions, which had killed domestic livestock, to separate spearing incidents within less than a week. A disastrous drought had already taken its toll on domestic and wild animals alike, and people were struggling even before these lions targeted their livestock. As worsening droughts increase pressures on pastoralists, resulting in more conflict and habitat continues to be lost to expanding human populations and development, it is difficult to know what the future will look like for these three young cubs.
This is why the work of rangers like Wilson is so important. Many, many dik-diks later, we soon reached a large kopje that was home to an army of olive baboons gathered on a slanted rock face, like a swarm of ants on a dinner plate. Even from afar, it was eery to see them staring down at us as the clouds darkened overhead. Just to the right of them, Wilson pointed to a series of caves arranged in a triangular configuration. He handed me his binoculars. A clan of spotted hyenas lounged, waiting as Wilson explained to me the work that he does when he comes across any carnivores on his patrols. Taking out his phone, he opened an app that collates data for a software platform known as EarthRanger. EarthRanger is a monitoring tool that places details of different events at the landscape level, from security incidents to animal movements, aiding management decisions and interventions. As the rain began to pour, Wilson input the number of individuals, their activity, location, age, and sex and took photographs – using a camera funded by ForRangers – for future identification and reference.
Knowing the locations and movements of individual lion prides is vital to understand where their territories begin and end, their behaviours, and interactions with other species and people. Together with Lion Landscapes, Ol Jogi’s team can use these data points to inform the Kenya Wildlife Service as it implements strategies to minimise conflicts between communities and lions.
For all that they are revered, respected, and popularised, lion populations have been devastated, and are now found only in pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a small population of 650 or so in India. It is a sad predicament for an animal whose range was once comparable to humanity’s but tactics exist to mitigate conflicts and the lion population of Laikipia is testament to that. Thanks to the work of rangers such as Wilson, the pride of Africa has a brighter future. The efforts of donors such as you will remain instrumental in enabling this work to take place, ensuring the lion’s bellowing roar will resonate across these plains for years to come. Thank you.