The African lion is fabled as the King of the African Jungle. On a recent holiday to the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya, I was awed at the sheer respect that the African lion commands. It was one of the most rewarding trips in all my wildlife safari vacations.
It was the morning after our arrival at Olarro Camp located in the Maasai Mara, one of the best animal safari destinations in Africa. We departed camp at around 6:00 a.m. for our much awaited morning game drive. Our Maasai guide, Sammy, and the camp manager, Sean, packed us in their open Land Rover truck. Off we went. We were pleasantly surprised at Sammy’s spotting prowess. Less than a kilometer from camp, he had already seen a lone male cheetah – probably on its early morning hunting stakeout. He wasn't very amused at our unwelcome intrusion – trudged along grudgingly.
The Mating Lions
We were on the look out for the elusive lions in the short savannah brush. We were negotiating a blind corner when – wham – there they were – a pride of three young males in the company of a lone female. The minute I spotted them, I knew we would be too intrusive. One larger male lion with a slightly darkening mane was separated from the other two. He was busy courting.
It appeared as though the two other lions had lost the contest. They were circling around the pair with a lot of bitterness. Our arrival had simply compounded their anger. We had walked onto a mating pair. The dominant male was infuriated by our interruption.
Too many lions were against our arrival. For five minutes, there was absolute silence as each party looked deep and hard into the eyes of the other. Trying to read the intent of either, we stared long and hard. I could feel my thunderous pulse as though my heart had moved into my arms and ears. Our fear was worsened by the fact that we were riding in an open vehicle – the lions would have had no trouble taking us out – one by one.
The African lion has this uncanny behaviour when faced by an intense gridlock. It simply looks aside as if something else more urgent had its attention – always keeping you within its visual sphere. This serves two purposes. One is to disarm you by trying to distract your stare and two, to cleverly provide a leeway to the impasse and hostility created by locking eyes in an imminent confrontation. When faced by a formidable enemy it cannot translate into food, the African lion will never attack – if you have your eyes locked. You cannot be too cautious. "You never know what surprise these humans can spring – a club, machete or worse even – a bloody gun."
The Day Is Saved
A relief to this situation came from the other two young, small maned lions. who noticed their chances of contesting for the lioness had just gone from worse to impossible – there were simply too many of us for their liking. They casually strolled off with their heads high, into the underbrush. It took the older male lion about five minutes to be reassured that we posed no threat to his mating advances. Usually, the most dangerous situations to be caught in are between a mating pair or a lioness with its cubs. The king lion proceeded to mate with the female unperturbed by our presence; like we never existed. "A lion has to do what a lion has to do. If you want to stay and watch, well, that’s your problem."
We decided we needed to give them space. We started to drive off. The dominant king lion must have thanked us for making his competition from the other two go away. Just as we were leaving, we heard excited human voices and we knew they were headed for certain disaster. We revved off towards the noises and found four Maasai women chatting animately as they made a beeline to a river, 100 meters between them and the mating lions.
Maasai Co-exist with the Wildlife
We were about to leave when I noticed their surprised look – like we didn’t understand that lions are part of their life – like we needed not to have bothered them with the obvious. That’s when I realized how much the Maasai have learnt the art of co-existence with the wildlife. I wouldn’t have been amazed if they had walked right passed us, as we watched the lions, as though there was no danger. I imagine them walking in between us with pride, chatting and laughing at this group of tourists huddled silently, scared and almost immobilized by the sheer might of the African lion at a mating contest.
The Million Dollar Gaze of the Lion
This was an experience that I always relive when I look at the photos taken on that safari. It's what an African lion safari does to you. You get to be in the presence of His Highness, the majestic King of the Jungle – in his turf. Nothing beats that glaring look and the thrill that goes with it when your eyes lock into his menacing, unblinking and threatening stare. That’s the African Lion Stare – humbling it is.
African Lion Coming of Age
The African lion matures at the age of four to five years. A fully grown male lion has a very dark mane while the youth grow a mane gradually, which then darkens as they grow. The males are pushed off their families when they become sexually mature by the king of the pride. African lions usually sleep and rest for 16 hours a day, getting up to hunt in the early mornings, late evenings and night. The king lion of the pride commands between five to ten lionesses, including the cubs. This male will aggressively protect its territory against intruding males who contest for the females.
Overthrowing the Lion King
There are a lot of coups in the lion world. The male constantly gets into territorial wars with invading lions. Once in a while a female becomes disenchanted and leaves the pride to seek out younger and more aggressive males. Once a lion has successfully overthrown a dominant male, he sets upon establishing his kingdom immediately by making the females submissive. How they do this is what will surprise you.
Conqueror Male Kills Cubs
One of the most bizarre behaviour of lions is that a conqueror male often kills all young cubs fathered by the defeated former king lion of the pride. The lioness will fight, sometimes to her death, when the male lion goes for her cubs. There are two reasons: one is to establish a lineage of his own and secondly, to make females come to oestrus as quickly as possible. It’s always a rush – to beat other male lions from undermining his authority.
Traveling to the Maasai Mara – Kenya
On arrival in Nairobi, one is picked up by a tour operator for an overnight stay at the city’s many five-star hotels. It’s always advisable to have a night's rest before proceeding to the Mara; if you are to enjoy your game drives. The next morning you drive about 400 kilometers in either a 4 x 4 or a minivan, and you are booked into many of the world class lodges in the Game Reserve. You will be entitled to at least two game drives a day. You will be surprised at the animals you will see right outside the gate to your lodge. That’s Mara for you.
The Wonder that is the Mara
Elephants graze one metre off your game drive tracks, cheetahs will stare at you seated majestically under tree trunks, and occasionally, they'll jump on the hood of your car for that vantage view of prey. A herd of a thousand buffalos will gaze at you all at once – over 2,000 eyeballs. Lions will sprawl for an hour underneath your van for the shade. Wildebeest will gallop past your car as they head for the breathtaking river crossings packed with crocodiles and strong currents. (See previous articles and shots on the great wildebeest migration at: www.eastafricasafari.blogspot.com, www.safarishots.blogspot.com).
Robert Muhoho is a travel consultant and conservationist from Kenya, East Africa.