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For other destinations and types of holiday, visit Kuoni
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Things to do in Kenya

Spotting big cats in the Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara is fantasy land, yet it’s real – it’s the Lion King on steroids….

By Jonathan and Angela Scott
Big cat writers, photographers and filmmakers

Lion in the Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara is savannah Africa, it’s those classic open plains dotted with acacia trees that allow you to spot big cats from miles away.  Then, of course, there’s nothing more dramatic than the Great Migration, when 1.2 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras flood the Mara. If you’re a photographer, it’s like Noah’s Ark, you couldn’t find a better area with such a variety and abundance of wildlife in a more stunning setting. That’s why so many photographs of quintessential Africa are taken here. The Maasai Mara is fantasy land, yet it’s real – it’s the Lion King on steroids.

Angie and I have been following the lives of the Maasai Mara lions, leopards and cheetahs for over 40 years now from our base at Governors’ Camp. This is where we filmed the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries and the new series for Animal Planet, Big Cat Tales. We’ve got the Marsh Pride, who must be the most famous lions on earth, right on our doorstep. When we’re in our little stone-and-thatch cottage at night, listening to the lions roaring, it’s magical. Just outside our house, we’ve had a lioness hiding her cubs under a thorn bush and an old lion, who was pushed out of the pride, taking refuge.

Governors’ is also a slice of Kenyan history. It was the first tented camp in the Maasai Mara and since it’s been around for so long, its guides are the very best. They have exceptional knowledge of the area’s big cats, so we always use them as spotters when we’re out filming. The camp lies right next to the Mara River, so you can sit at the bar with a cold Tusker beer watching the crocodiles on the bank, while the resident warthog snuffles around and elephants wander past. At night, a guard will escort you from your tent to dinner and you’ll pass hippos grazing on the lawn.

I’m in my 70s now, I’ve travelled all over the world and can say that there’s no greater adventure than a safari. When I first came to the Mara in 1977, my passion was leopards but in that first year, I only saw two because poaching across Africa was rife. It took me six years to complete my first book on them. Now, if you come to the Maasai Mara on a three-day safari, it would be most unlikely that you wouldn’t see a leopard. You’ll definitely see lions and I’d say there’s about a fifty percent chance of seeing a cheetah. However, if you’re with an experienced guide, they’ll be able to listen out for sightings on the bush telegraph.

One of my favourite big cat experiences in the Maasai Mara was following Half-Tail the leopard and her cub, who were the stars of Big Cat Diaries in 1996. Normally, leopards do virtually nothing in the daytime if they don’t have a cub, but we spent 45 days filming and saw her every time. Half-Tail was just so unusually trusting and tolerant of vehicles, she was incredible. Of course, another memorable moment that was captured on film during the 2003 Big Cat Week was Kike the cheetah, who jumped onto my roof and peed and pooped through the hatch. I still get people on the street to this day laughing and asking me: “Are you the one the cheetah crapped on?”

My advice for spotting big cats in the Maasai Mara is to remember that a safari is a privilege. Try to keep the noise level down and be respectful, you’re intruding on real lives and the animals are not there simply to entertain us. Listen to what your driver tells you and don’t push the limit just because you’ve got to get that perfect shot. Crucially, there are only 20,000 lions left in Africa and they’ve lost 90 percent of their historical range, so we also need people to contribute towards projects like the Mara Conservation Programme so they have safe spaces to breed.

If I only had one day left in my life, then I would spend it with Angie in the Maasai Mara. It’s a feast for the eyes and a haven for big cats. In terms of lions, there’s no other animal on earth that’s as embedded in our psyche, they’re iconic. At one point in time, lions were the most widespread large mammal on earth after humans and could be found everywhere from America to Europe, Africa and the Far East – they’re a part of our mythology. If I came on safari and didn’t see an elephant, I could live with that, but if I didn’t see a lion, I’d have to come back.


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Alfred & Jonathan and Angela Scott

Jonathan and Angela Scott are award-winning wildlife photographers, TV presenters, authors and conservationists. The couple live in Nairobi and have a permanent base at Governors’ Camp in the Maasai Mara, where they’ve been documenting the lives of the area’s lions, leopards and cheetahs for over 40 years. Jonathan and Angela famously filmed the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries in the Maasai Mara for 12 years and have continued this legacy with Big Cat Tales on Animal Planet.
Jonathan and Angela Scott, big cat writers, photographers and filmmakers

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