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Stories from the Kenyan bush

31st July 2013 - Stevie the blind lion - Elsa's Kopje

elsa's kopjeTook Kara, Dan the Intern and Rosie from marketing on a game drive earlier in the week. Game drives are always exciting when you don't really know your way around a place but today we had a target.... Between Meru HQ and the airstrip were two male lions. The way way the guides spoke you really couldn't miss these cats..... All we had to do was find the airstrip!

On the way there we had to swing by "Rain Kombe", a small rocky outcrop which is due east of camp. The purpose behind this detour was to release a rather fat hyrax which Rosie had trapped in her room. He (the hyrax) had taken to helping himself to the guests biscuits when morning coffee was delivered to the room and had even begun sleeping on the bed to keep cool during the heat of the day..... What a life!

Rosie had trapped him using a storage crate and a hand full of biscuits as bait. When I arrived at her room to investigate the crime scene there the hyrax was, trapped in prison, and yet totally unperturbed and completely unrepentant, casually stuffing his face with the illicit biscuits.

elsa's kopjeOnce the hyrax had been relocated to the rock and left with a supply of biscuits to keep him occupied, we continued with our lion hunt.

Finding HQ was easy enough and when we arrived at the junction we had a choice of going left and into the inner sanctum of buildings and civilization (I use the word loosely as this is, after all, one of the more remote national parks in Kenya!) or turning right and heading to the airstrip. We went right as surely no self respecting lions would be relaxing that close to human habitation? Well, we were wrong! At the airstrip (a huge Tarmac scar cut into the landscape) we were informed by a KWS ranger to go back to the junction and turn in as if we were going to HQ and we would see the cats lying next to the road.

Hmmmmm - I was skeptical but went back to the junction and, as we turned in to HQ, sure enough there they were, just lion there (haha, sorry!) Two adult males and a sub adult, right next to the road and literally surrounded by buildings and human activity. The one male was pretty alert and kept a watchful eye on us, tail flicking and looking a little uncomfortable with the proximity of all the activity going on. The other, slightly larger, male seemed unconcerned and ignored everything. As it was getting dark I began taking photos with the flash and discovered that the larger male did not respond at all (the closer, alert male, would flick his ear every time the flash went off - normal behavior really).

elsa's kopjeAfter a while we left the three cats still in the same place (the sub adult didn't seem too worried by us but was unsure every time there was a noise from the compound surrounding them). When I spoke to our guides later they confirmed that the larger of the two males was, indeed, blind! Intrigued and determined to investigate further I made a plan to go and look for the lions again soon.

The next day the guides reported that the cats had moved but not very far. In the afternoon Kara and I went out to go and investigate further. One of the things that John, one of the guides, had reported seeing in the morning was a big rock python. Randomly, in the afternoon I found fresh python tracks crossing the road - impossible that it was the same snake as the two locations were some 10 kilometers apart, in a straight line!

A short while later we found two female gerenuk feeding on the side of the road but they were chased off before I could take any photos - the reason for their departure was a KWS Landcruiser approaching us at rally speed.... Obviously the 40kph park speed limit doesn't apply to them!

Not even a kilometer down the road we found the lions, sleeping in the road! The two big males had now been joined by four sub adults of different sizes and ages (apparently the guides had seen two females with the pride earlier in the day but they were no where to be seen now)

Whilst watching the lions relaxing we could hear a weird noise very close by and so we went for a short drive to investigate. Literally 100 meters away around the corner we found a massive JCB grader working on the road with the foreman and some "observers" hanging around watching and listening to a radio blaring out music.... Hard to believe that the king of beasts was sleeping so near by!

We went back to the lions to observe the blind male better and were able to drive right up to him. Although his hearing and sense of smell seemed fine he was definitely unresponsive to light. And when we were parked up, less than two meters from him, his brother kept a watchful eye on us!

elsa's kopjeWe turned our attention to the cubs - four of them, all sub adults but definitely from at least two different litters (Kara felt that the smallest of the cubs could have been from a different litter to the other youngsters but perhaps it was just a runt?)

There were quite a few things unusual about this whole situation;

The blind male - although the stories vary greatly one thing that we did establish is that he has been blind for quite a while. One guide told us that he was born blind and that his mother was also blind and that one of the cubs was blind as well..... Something genetic? However it seems incredible to think that a lion, especially a male, would be able to survive to adulthood (these are big boys after all!) with such an enormous disability! Also the fact that he blinks his eyes a lot implies that the disability is fairly recent!

The proximity to humans - I've often seen lions in camp and their disdain for vehicles is well recorded but generally they don't like human generated noise! Both times we've seen these males the brother with vision (who we shall call Paul, after Paul McCartney who Stevie Wonder sang the famous duet "ebony and ivory"- so like I was saying Paul is obviously uncomfortable with the proximity of human presence but appears to actively seek out mankind.... Could this be a survival technique as he will be aware that it is highly unlikely for other male lions to come so close to such active and noisy humans - this could explain how they have clung on to their pride for so long?

elsa's kopjeMales and cubs - I have never seen sub adult lions left behind with the pride males before and yet every time we or the guides have seen Stevie and Paul they have always been with younger lions. Is it possible that the females of this pride are hunting in a coalition (which they always do anyway) but rather than leave the cubs unattended (dangerous so close to humans) or with a "babysitter" (normally a younger adult female) these lionesses would rather leave the cubs with the males?

The next afternoon KWS came to Elsa's Kopje for a visit and a chat about the blind lion! I met with Anthony and Peter who are part of the research division here in Meru. Both seemed very excited about the lion and overjoyed with the photos I was able to provide. What concerned me was their eagerness to dart the male and relocate him to Nairobi Orphanage!!! Nooooooooooo - that would be a death sentence for him! I explained to them that there was absolutely no need for such drastic measures as he was perfectly healthy and in no way a threat or suffering! I suggested maybe, if they really had to find out why, darting him to take blood samples, but I'm a firm believer in not fixing something which isn't actually broken! This lion isn't suffering so why get involved?

I do really hope that they don't interfere and rather just observe him and try and diagnose the cause of his blindness from afar..... The meeting ended with us all agreeing to communicate any findings with each other but we shall see!