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Lion Lineages of Nairobi National Park

Morana and her cubs from the Kingfisher group facing Nairobi city. Copyright Olga Ercolano

Trish, as she is popularly known has been visiting the park for more than three decades and got interested in lions when she met Jim Cavanaugh, a local, who had been keeping tags on them for years. But when 13 lions got speared in 2010 by irate Maasai pastorals living on the edge of the park, he never returned to the park.

Trish then began to follow the lions out of personal interest, giving names to the ones that were becoming familiar and starting her lion diary where she jots all her observations and publishes updates in the monthly FoNNaP newsletter. It’s got a whole load of members hooked on to the cats such that many know them by name and record observations that are an invaluable resource for wildlife managers and scientists. Meanwhile Trish’s day time job until she retired recently was a legal executive in a law firm in Nairobi’s CBD.

What we know about the Nairobi’s lions is from these citizen scientists.

The Three Groups

Today there are three groups in the park and until very recently only one pride. “A pride has a dominate male and females,” states Trish.

The Kingfisher Group

The only pride until this Sunday (2 Aug) was the Kingfisher group with 15-year-old Sam as the head.

The late Sam roaring in the forest. Copyright Gareth Jones

Weak due to his advancing years, he was found on Saturday afternoon by a tour driver, seriously injured by another lion. Despite the Kenya Wildlife Service vets moving in fast to treat him, he died of septic shock on Sunday morning.

The outpour of grief from his fans on FoNNaP’s whatsapp group has been overwhelming. Michael Mbithi of Lisa Ranch adjoining the park wrote, ‘RIP Sam. Go be with your brothers, Simbeo and Cheru. Your cousins Mohawk, Sandy, Akil, Kimondo, Matope. Your father Ujanja, your uncles Mzee, Mandevu and Adimu. Your grandfathers Red and Guapo. You were one in a long line of kings.’

Sam was the only one left of the four original males that included Cheru, Simbeo and the famous Mohawk.

Cheru who died at the beginning of this year will be remembered for in 2014, we followed him for three kilometres as he walked from Kingfisher area to near the main gate of NNP and then jumped into the bushes just as the gates were being locked at dusk.

Cheru and Lady Leoni. Copyright Gareth Jones

The Middle Group

Also known as the Mokoyiet group because of the river that runs through the park. It has two males, both loners, and five females, with Solo and Nala having five cubs between them

The Athi Basin Group

It holds the kingpin, Mpakasi the male born in 2011. He is the only male unrelated to any female in the park which means his genes are of utmost importance to keep the gene pool healthy. This group was the largest with 19 lions. Today he is the sole survivor after Athi his mother and her two daughters were speared near Sholinke outside the park in March 2018.

Mpakasi by Faraz Chaudhri (copyright)

Power Dynamics

The Kingfisher group that was headed by Cheru, Sam and Simbeo and Mohawk ( Mohawk was a litter brother born at the same time to a different mother) knew that Mzee from the Athi group was vulnerable after the death of his adult sons Akil and Sandy. Mzee was left two very young adults, Mpakasi and Jasiri. Cheru, Sam and Simbeo teamed up with Mpakasi and chased out Mzee at the end of 2012. Mzee fled to the Kapiti plains to the east of the park.

But then Mpakasi and Jasiri in turn fled at the same time and appeared near the Kingfisher area where Jasiri stayed for about eight months and then left the park never to return. Mpakasi has stayed on and is seen around Langata forest. He is so to speak, the last ‘man’ standing to mate with the park’s females to inject a new gene pool.

Meanwhile, Mohawk the legendary black-manned lion would sometimes team up with the trio in the Athi basin until that fateful day on 30 March 2016 when he went outside the park as he did often towards Magadi and return after a few weeks.

It is believed that Mohawk lost his way while returning to the park because of the new fences put up. A crowd surrounded and harassed him. Eventually a KWS ranger shot him instead of darting him and returning him to the park. It’s the same scene played out in July this year when a young cheetah wandered out of Tsavo East National Park, possibly fleeing the recent fires in the park. He turned up in an urban area near Voi and was harassed by the people. The frightened cat tried to hide but was shot by a KWS ranger.

At this point the lions of NNP are on the borderline of inbreeding. ..but there is some hope. A male from Amboseli named Osupuka has turned up on the Kapiti plains. Although he has not made any attempt to come into the park, it shows how far lions can move. “This is why the corridor through the Naretenoi Conservancy bordering the park is important to secure. It could allow for a new lion into the park, or a female to go out and mate and return with new genes,” comments Trish.

Female Power

Kemboi from the Middle group is another important male, only that nobody knows where he is at the moment, not having been seen for over two months now. He is the next best choice to mate with the Kingfisher females.

The problem is that when Kemboi tried to join the Kingfisher group of four females and cubs, they chased him away. “It shows that you can’t translocate a male anywhere because he can be killed by other males or chased away by females,” states Trish from personal observations. “This may not be totally correct elsewhere but l feel that as NNP is so small, an introduced male would be killed.”

Future

“Their whole existence (like the rest of the wildlife) is being threatened everywhere,” states the lion lady. “The game corridors out of the park into the Kitengela and Kapiti plains have been virtually closed off and the result is the human/wildlife conflict will only get worse as the time goes on.

Majestic lion roaring in Nairobi National Park – spot the female. Copyright Gareth Jones

“The Wildlife Founation (TWF), FoNNaP and other community members are currently doing a study on the open land that still exists across the Kitengela plains and trying to negotiate with KWS to secure the land for a corridor. Fencing the park as KWS has suggested will kill the park.

“Unless something is done urgently to keep a corridor clear to the Swara-Kapiti plains and the plains themselves made into a conservancy, the park is in jeopardy, as is the genetic diversity of the lions including that of all other species that migrate in and out of the park like the zebra and wildebeest.”

A single outbreak of a disease could wipe out the lot.

Sobering Thought

According to KWS figures there are roughly 2,000 today in Kenya and could become extinct within the next 20 years unless urgent action is taken.

In 1900, the lion population in Africa was about one million.  Fifty years later, it was 500,000. In 1975, it went down to 200,000 lions. In 1990 it slid to 100,000. Today’s estimates are 23,000.

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