Naming a Mara lion is not as easy as it might seem. As well as an honour, it feels like a big responsibility, and there are criteria to be met. Niels Mogensen, head researcher at Mara Predator Conservation Project is being strict - on his watch there will be no more Anglicised names, only authentic Masai or Swahili, and no generics either - each name must reflect the individual characteristics of that lion… I’m going to need some help!
I’m out on the plains of Mara North Conservancy with Niels and Roisin Allen, manager of Alex Walker’s Serian camps here in Kenya. Serian has a long and active history of supporting lion conservation, and both the guides and management keep Niels updated on the whereabouts, wellbeing and soap opera-like antics of these charismatic cats. The guides in particular also see the lions from the day they are born, and know them better than anyone, so often help with giving them appropriate names.
In front of us is a beautiful young lioness, in the peak of health and heavily pregnant. So far, Nils tells me, she doesn’t have a name, only being known by her code CHEcF1 - not an elegant name for such a gorgeous animal!
Names are largely based on physical characteristics, personality traits and particular incidents involving individual lions. Roisin and I look for any distinguishing blemishes and marks on CHEcF1 but she seems perfect. I wonder what the Swahili word for perfect is, and if it’s an acceptable name, but judging by Niels’s lack of enthusiasm, apparently not! Neils points out that she has one small notch out of her right ear….back to the drawing board…
Mara Lion Project Data on lion CHEcF1 - courtesy Niels Mogensen
Nearby, tucked away in a thicket, is our lioness’s sister. She’s already a mum, with three cubs born just yesterday, and is known Kali - the fierce, feisty and aggressive one. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this could describe all lions, but Niels explains that she’s had a rough ride. Last year she had three male cubs that were too young to leave their mother. But two fully grown males from another pride ousted the dominant male, their father. They then went on a killing spree of all the cubs in the pride because they were not their own offspring. Kali was clever and hid her cubs away while she mated with the new males, to keep them distracted from her little ones. Eventually, though, she had to make the difficult decision to drive them away for their own good. Thanks to her strength and cunning two of the three survived, and she now has a new litter, safe under the protection of their father.
CHEcF1 seems to have had a less traumatic time, and she emanates a sense of relaxation and peace, which is absent in Kali. So, after trying out a few more options, Roisin and I decide on the name Naserian, which not only means peaceful one, but reflects that Serian camp had a hand in naming her - perfect!
Naserian - the peaceful one ...she really is one laid-back lion!
Niels seems happy with our choice and notes it in his database. One of Kali’s sons from last year also needs a name so we settle on on Imara, which means strong one. He must have been particularly strong to survive infanticide and abandonment at such a young age. But, even with names, how can Neils actually tell lions apart when they all look so similar?
It turns out the secret is in the whiskers: every lion has a distinct pattern of whisker spots, as unique as a human fingerprint. Other ways of telling them apart are scars on the face and body, markings in the fur and notches ripped from the ears in fights. Nils has every detail of every lion on file.
From the moment they are born each lion has a unique pattern of whisker spots.
To build this database Niels takes a lot of photographs and studies the features of each lion. Sometimes, when he sees one of my close up shots, he will ask for a copy to keep his records updated as the lions mature. He also needs to know how the lions are distributed around the Mara, and how they fare when in contact with Masai landowners, and their cattle who are often led to graze the same habitat.
So, as well as a naming exercise, today is the first day of an intensive monitoring period for MPCP. Over the next three months Niels and five other researchers will painstakingly cover over 2000 square kilometres of the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Conservancies that border it. GPS and a handy phone app will allow them to record whether there are lions present at every grid point, or signs of human activity such as cattle grazing, and what state the habitat is in as a result.
The results from previous years are worrying. Instead of freely wandering the plains as kings of the Mara, lions are being effectively confined to a small core area of the conservancy, due largely to the encroachment of cattle grazing. Their habitat is shrinking and this, along with the resulting conflicts with cattle and humans, is the major reason for the dramatic decline in lion numbers in recent years. Neils hopes the results of his research will persuade the government and local landowners to increase protected areas for lions.
Map of Maai Mara. The darker the colour the more likely one is to observe cattle grazing. Mara North Conservancy is ringed in red. Lions are increasingly confined to a small central cattle-free area.
There is always a sense of urgency around Niels, and now I understand why: he tells me that, if the current rate of decline of lions isn’t reversed, there will be no lions left in the wild in Kenya within twenty - yes just 20 - years.
Naming Naserian, Kali and their cubs represents hope for this magnificent species, and MPCP alongside the reserves, conservancies and camps, will continue to protect them as best they can. After all, the Maasai Mara without lions would be unthinkable.