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 pride of females – a success by any lion’s standards. Throughout 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.
A Life With Lions 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 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.
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 like 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 with their yellow eyes blazing, their mouths bloody, and their bodies lacerated with wounds is to witness how important it is to win the right to breed.
The Dawn of a Legend
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 straight away 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 was in the twilight of their tenure. Males are considered beyond their prime by nine or ten 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. Clawed, incapacitated by age and injury, could barely hobble. The Musketeers caught up with him near Bila Shaka and beat him mercilessly. He survived the next few days, then, half-starved and desperate, broke into a Maasai homestead and attacked a cow. But with his teeth worn to stumps and the strength ebbing from his emaciated body, he was unable to strangle his victim. Alerted to the fracas, the pastoralists speared the old male and left his remains to the hyenas and vultures. It’s a hard truth that most lions die a violent death.
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