World Lion Day
Salas pride and the Masai Mara
Its an early morning start, as I stumble for my flashlight and head for the tent door. We have some clients on a balloon ride which means at latest a 5am start! I open the door, and the darkness is broken only by the moonlight and the gentle early call of birds slightly confused if its dawn, not yet as dawn breaks at 6!
I convince myself I see a pair of eyes, but the strength of the torch I am using is not quite illuminating them, the light sloping off what I am sure is a lioness’s back silhouetted with moonlight, seems to taunt me, tussling with my brevity. Finally I brave the path, as time is not on my side and rush to the mess to make coffee and bid farewell to the guests, still questioning was it or was it not a lioness?
Sleepy guests are packed into the car, and head off on the balloon adventure; I will meet them at 7.30 for landing and breakfast amidst the array of wildebeest migration currently littering the Mara plains.
I stride back to the tent still in darkness, where the Carr-Hartley clan are still slumbering, and tuck myself back into the warm sheets for another 15 minutes, enjoying the invigorating sounds of the morning, birds ensuring they get the first morning songs out, the monotone chat of the wildebeest, and intermittent bark of the Zebra. It’s alive out there!
Then like a beat it began, loud roaring all around us, my silence broken, some across the river, some in the river and some more or less where I had glanced at a silhouette less than an hour earlier. The Salas Pride was in full communication, the vibration literally shaking our beds.
“My pride” tucked up within the canvas tent, leapt to their feet and were bursting to go outside and see them, “hear it clearer” they persisted. Slightly hesitant & knowing how very close they really were, we opened the door, and stood just outside the security of the tent.
The Salas pride recently 28 strong, has taken some real ups and downs this season, and in the true meaning of the circle of life, we lost our incredible dominant male “Black Foot” in January, killed by two young males from Tanzania, invading the territory and causing a massive split in the pride.
Lions practice infanticide, and the new comers arrived and promptly killed many of Black Foots cubs!
It caused chaos, and although a few months later we noticed a few females with cubs, we were not 100% sure who the father of these cubs was and at this point there were 3 distinct coalitions of male lions occupying the Salas pride territory!
With the females all starting to mate with the new males but not comprehending the new territorial boundaries we lost well over 10 cubs in a space of a few months.
One loss which took place in our camp, a terrified cub took safety over 20ft up this tree in camp, and perched precariously there for many hours before it came down. At the moment it descended we were not close by and we have not seen it since! Its mother spent days calling for it up and down the sand river……the question was did it survive? And if so where did it go.
A hush in the roaring, and quietly and carefully we take a few strides away from the tent, we know there is a female below us in the riverbed. Right there, only metres from the tent, we find the perfect pug mark, the lionesses had left its pawmark embedded in the sand path to the plunge pool.
Kids so excited, surrounded by activity, try to message on the radio to main camp to share the experience, “lions at our tent below us in the river”. As they messaged, I cast a thought back to the dark brave moments when I raced to the mess at 5am, and remembered the silhouette confirming that likely it was a lioness….not just a figure of my imagination!
It begun again, like a lion celebration, maybe it was…..The roaring was everywhere, and loud with the kids trying to record it on my phone!
We settled down on the plunge pool deck and watched our own private series of the lion king as dawn broke over the Mara/ Serengeti eco system. Wildebeest hesitant on the plains, lions roaring in a chorus around us, the reds and oranges of sunrise highlighting the water in the sand river and a flurry of birdlife. Our resident male buffalos very annoyed with the close presence of the pride, and wary of their possible demise, keeping a slow and agonizingly low profile!
The Salas pride is now very fragmented with some females choosing the invading males from Tanzania and some choosing new males that moved into the vacuum created by Black Foot’s death.
The morning calls were likely to be males calling back and forth to establish their new territories and females trying to establish who their alliance was with.
I try to remind my children this Mara/Serengeti eco system is one of the last real strongholds of lions in East Africa. The Mara alone boasts around 830 lions. BUT lions are threatened, and many say that in 20 years we may not be able to be graced with these invigorating experiences, the vibrating roar we can actually feel, their clear dominance echoing across the bush, and that feeling of their true power aptly named “ King of the beasts”.