A male lion (Panthera leo) patrols his territory
The Masai Mara National Reserve is a landscape of diverse habitats rich in nomadic herds of zebra and gazelle, and with wildebeest numbers estimated to run into millions. It's perfect lion country, in other words, and its 1,500sq km are home to 500 lions in over 20 prides, one of which – the Marsh pride – is the focus of Big Cat Live.
The Marsh pride takes its name from the Musiara Marsh, which forms part of its territory. In the dry season, the marsh attracts animals from the plains who come to feed and drink, while its dense reed-beds provide ideal cover for hunting lions. For the rest of the year the pride congregates along the Bila Shaka Lugga, a seasonal water course to the east of the marsh.
As with all lions, the females of the pride do most of the hunting, while the males sleep, get first pick of the dinner, and defend the pride's territory from invaders. Most of the hunting happens a night, for which lions are well equipped. Their eyes are six times more sensitive to light than ours.
Prides can occasionally number up to 40 animals, but the Marsh pride is usually made up of between four and six lionesses, two pride males and cubs. A male will weigh 189kg on average, and a female 126kg. Lions have a lifespan of about 14 years in the wild.
Males might seem to have it easy, but the good life rarely lasts for long. Itinerant males often form coalitions with the intention of taking over prides. For that reason, ownership of a pride rarely lasts beyond two or three years. In one poignant act, Big Cat Diaries recorded the moment when old Scar, the Marsh pride's long-serving male, was forced to flee from the might of younger, stronger incomers.
Scar was deposed, but he was once the triumphant one. His magnificent mane symbolised his fitness, health and maturity. It may also have helped protect him from injury when he was fighting other males for control of the pride.
Old Scar probably wasn't the only victim of this Masai palace coup. The takeover of a pride is often the prelude to one of the more distressing facets of lion behaviour, when incoming males kill the cubs of the old regime. It's a savage act, but not a pointless one. Females without cubs will quickly come into heat again, giving the new males the opportunity to father offspring and further their own genetic line.
Other predators of the Masai Mara include cheetah and hyena, but lions are the dominant killers. They typically prey on zebra, wildebeest and gazelle, though they will also attack buffalo, hippo and giraffe. Lions are the only big cats to hunt cooperatively, herding prey towards an ambush. They also scavenge for food, and will frequently steal the kills of other predators.
Lions may be the kings of the Masai Mara, but they don't have it all their own way. Hunting can be treacherous and injuries lethal. Only one in five attempts will end in a kill. For the Marsh pride, buffalo are a regular menace. Though they occasionally provide a meal, their size and power is always a danger, a fact dramatically demonstrated when one of the pride's males was killed by a buffalo at the Musiara Marsh.
The Marsh pride has about 50sq km of the Masai Mara to call its own. The rest is carved up into a patchwork of territories between 30 and 120sq km in size which together support one of the highest densities of lions in the world. It's easy to see why. Once a year, an almost endless convoy of fresh meat ambles from one lion territory to the next in search of fresh pastures. The Great Migration of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle – numbering millions of animals – is one of the most spectacular natural phenomenon on earth.
It's a boon for the lions of the Masai Mara, of course, and to the Marsh pride whose triumphs and tragedies will be at the heart of Big Cat Live. Find out more about the Marsh pride lions.
Did you know?
- A lion's roar can be heard up to 8km away – it's the loudest of any big cat.
- With eyes that are six times more sensitive to light than ours, lions are most active at night.
- A lion will only make one kill for every five attempts, so scavenging is an important source of food.
- In a single sitting an adult may consume 30kg of meat (a wildebeest weighs about 200kg).
- It has been estimated that a lion will copulate 3,000 times for every young that reaches one year old.
- Lions and other big cats have few sweat glands but can pant up to 200 times per minute to cool down.
- Individual lions can be identified by a unique pattern of whisker spots.