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Lions set to disappear from the Masai Mara within the next 20 years

By Uwe Skrzypczak

Let's call him Simba-born in 2005 near the Olare Orok River in the eastern Masai Mara in Kenya. Back then, the area was inhabited by two large prides of lions, and it was impossible to overlook the large numbers of lions in the region, whether to the south across the "Double Crossing" Talek river ford, or to the north-west towards the Musiara Airstrip. This region has always been known amongst natural history film-makers, wildlife photographers, and nature lovers as quite simply one of the best "lion zones" on the planet (Big Cat Diary is filmed in this region). The region was populated by sufficient numbers of antelope, zebra, warthog, and other prey to feed the lions all year round, and you could find lion cubs and their older siblings in the area at any time of year. The prides even ganged up to hunt and kill buffalo and other large animals.

Major threat to the Serengeti

In a further blow to the wildlife of East Africa, the Tanzanian Government have given the go ahead to a highway that is to be built across the Serengeti. This highway will cut the route that the wildebeest follow and will probably spell the end of the Great Migration.

Read more about the proposed Serengeti Highway 

If Simba's childhood was a normal one, his mother would have brought him to the Double Crossing at the start of his second year and taught him to hunt. He would have got over his first failed attempts and would have been able to hunt larger prey on his own by the time he was about 1½ years old. But he still would not have been quite big enough to bring down his prey and kill it with a deadly bite to the neck or mouth. His mother would have observed his efforts for a while, and would have intervened to finally kill whichever unfortunate beast Simba had attacked. A few months later, by the time Simba was about 2 years old, he would have become a skilled hunter, hunting and killing large animals on his own. At this time he would have begun to mature, and his characteristic mane would have started to grow in earnest.

 At the age of 2½, Simba experienced his first real shock when he was thrown out of the pride-nature's way of avoiding inbreeding. And then, along with his brothers and other young male lions, he began to lead the life of a nomad, constantly being chased off (with some of the young nomads even being killed) by the stronger, dominant males from other prides. At this age, young male lions, with their characteristic "Mohawk" manes, are still a long way from being able to gain respect from older males or the females of another pride. But Simba was lucky enough to have been thrown out of his pride at a favourable time.

Great migration
Every summer, during the dry season in Tanzania, as many as 1.5 million gnus, zebras, and gazelles migrate northwards from the Serengeti National Park to the Masai Mara in Kenya, where there is much more rainfall, and consequently more grass to feed the migrating animals. This period of the so-called "Great Migration" is a time of plenty for the predators of the Serengeti, and they can effortlessly eat their fill until the great herds of ungulates return to the Serengeti in October and November. During this time, the resident prides of lions hunt smaller areas, leaving enough prey to feed the young nomads too.

At the times when the almost ant-like ungulate herds cross the Mara River, they often cross to certain death in the mouths of the waiting predators. But lions, unlike, humans, do not become greedy, and don't develop a taste for eating more than they need to. Lions don't hoard food, and they do not hunt and kill for fun. They only kill what they can eat immediately. At good times, they do of course allow themselves to pick and choose the "best cuts", and often leave large parts of their prey's cadavers to jackals and vultures. Simba would have used this period to refine his hunting technique, and might even by now have been strong enough to win a fight with other, dominant males, and to take over leadership and mating rights within a pride of his own.

Major changes in the Masai Mara

Simba will today still be able to live in abundance in the months when the migrations begin, and will most likely continue to be able to do so in future years-or at least for as long as the Great Migration from the Serengeti continues to take place. But a year has twelve months, and the remaining nine months of the year in the Masai Mara have changed dramatically in recent years.

Uwe Skrzypczak

Uwe Skrzypczak is both known as a photographer and author in Europe, and especially Germany, where he has won some prestigeous wildlife photo awards. He got involved in photography way back in the darkroom days and has made the transition to digital when the first Nikon DSLRs were available. Since then, his interests and passion have moved from architectural to wildlife photography with an emphasis on the east african wildlife habitats and a growing interest in the animal migration patterns within the Serengeti ecosysystem.

Uwe Skrzypczak regularly teaches workshops on wildlife photography in Kenya and East Africa. Read more here.

Click here to see more about the books he has published. 

80% decline in plains game

Since the early 1990s, the numbers of gnu, giraffe, zebra, and warthog resident in the region have declined by almost 80%, and I saw only one single lioness at the Olare Orok River in September 2007. In April and May 2009, the lions of the Musiara Marsh pride left their protected reserves in the Masai Mara to hunt, sometimes killing domesticated animals in nearby settlements. Some of the lions fell victim to poisoned decoys, and others to Masai spears.

Agriculture & wheat
The reason for the decline in the animal population in the region is the increasing use of the land for agriculture. The Masai had previously lived for hundreds of years as nomadic cattle breeders in largely peaceful coexistence with the wild animals of the region. In spite of periodic problems, the Masai never killed large enough numbers of predators to influence the population in the long term, the way that European societies did. And because the Masai don't eat game, they didn't threaten the ungulate populations either. But the powers that be then began to persuade the Masai to settle and to form so-called Group Ranches (a kind of farming cooperative) within the Masai Mara.



World Bank promoted wheat growing - For export
These Group Ranches only marginally affected the animal population in the Masai Mara, up to the point when the World Bank decided it would be a good idea to plant wheat on the fertile land surrounding the Mara region. And, contrary to any useful social or socio-political aims, this wheat was not even intended for consumption by the hungry of Kenya's north, where the population has been dependent on food aid for decades. Western civilizations have ignored the effects of massed agriculture on nature and indigenous animal populations for hundreds of years, and the wheat harvest from the Mara region is nearly all exported, serving almost exclusively to pay back loans to the World Bank. Kenyans do not generally eat wheat products but are nevertheless, along with the indigenous animals, having their natural habitat increasingly constricted by ever larger wheat fields.


Northern Mara to be ploughed?
At the current rate, the entire northern Mara will probably have been ploughed up within the next twenty years-and, at the end of the day, nature reserves don't really interest bankers or land speculators. Greed will most likely not stop at the borders of the Masai Mara (the northern part of the Serengeti natural heritage area), and one thing is certain: if the Masai Mara dies, the entire Serengeti ecosystem in its current form and with its high degree of biodiversity, will die with it.

The current population of over two million gnus can only find sufficient food if it is able to makes its annual 2,000km migration through the region on its search for fresh grass. If the Masai Mara ceases to be a food reservoir for three months of every year, a radical reduction of the gnu population-possibly by as much as 80%-will result. The logical consequence of this decimation would be a corresponding decline in the predator population, as is already happening in other areas of the world.

And the population of the western world will probably look on regretfully, safe in the knowledge that we have once again sacrificed hundreds of millions of years of evolution for the sake of a few quick dollars. That's what we have always done, and we can look at lions and other wild animals in the zoo anyway. But zoo animals-born and raised in captivity-are almost completely degenerated and have only their name and their outward appearance in common with their cousins who still live in the wild. We are unlikely to meet Simba's grandchildren. 

Today, there are still enough lions in the Masai Mara, and Simba is sure to do his best to ensure that it stays that way for as long as possible. But we are very unlikely to meet his great-grandchildren-I don't believe that the negative developments in the Masai Mara can be stopped in time or reversed. Such a development would involve the entire human race re-thinking the reasons for its existence and the value of its relationship with nature and the environment. The current economic crisis underscores the unlikelihood of a human re-think. The gambler's mentality that ruled the global economy before the crisis is back as if nothing had happened, and the developed world is once again playing its games at the expense of the so-called "third world" and the environment.

Nearly everybody seems to work on the same "After us, the deluge" principle as Madame Pompadour. The deluge that followed her was the French Revolution, but nobody knows what form the next deluge will take or just how serious it will be.

Maybe we should all try a little harder to prevent things from going that far.

© Uwe Skrzypczak, Sept. 2009