Kenya’s Most Famous Lions & Lionesses: World Lion Day
World Lion Day is an important date on the calendar within conservation and wildlife protection circles. Founded by the largest accredited sanctuary for big cats (Big Cat Rescue), it raises awareness on the plight faced by these majestic creatures. Additionally, it encourages people to celebrate and learn more about lions. As one of Kenya’s national symbols, representing bravery and strength as well as the most popular of the 'Big Five', we explore some of the stories behind Kenya’s best-known lions!
First on the list is Scarface, one of the oldest males in the Maasai Mara before his death on 11th June 2021. Scarface was quite literally known for his scarred face. A marking which he got after injuring his right eye in a fight over the Marsh Pride territory. The life of Scar, along with his brothers Sikio, Hunter, and Morani and other lionesses of their pride featured in Big Cat Diaries, a BBC production that became one of the world's most-watched wildlife documentaries.
Scarface | Image by Susan Portnoy
He was for years a highlight of guests’ visits to the Maasai Mara with many calling him the most famous lion in the world and Scottish wildlife photographer, George Logan (behind the Born Free Foundation book Pride Before the Fall) even describing him as the “rockstar of the Mara”. Scar died of natural causes at the age of 14 in the territory he was born and mourned by several conservationists.
Scarface | Image by Susan Portnoy
Most who know 'Elsa the Lion' know her from the heartwarming film, Born Free (1966). Based on the true story of George and Joy Adamson, the film follows the couple as they raise orphaned Elsa and eventually release her back into the wild. In the film, the story goes that George Adamson had to kill a rogue lion that was attacking nearby villagers in self defence. He killed the lion’s mate in the process- leaving behind 3 helpless cubs, one of whom was later named ‘Elsa’ and her siblings ‘Big One’ and ‘Lustica’.
The instance starting off the story itself can be taken as a cry to the dire effects of human settlement expansion and its direct contribution to human-wildlife conflict. This is an issue being tackled by several organisations today as they try to preserve dwindling lion populations. Even so, Elsa’s story triggered a pivotal positive shift in people’s perception of lions in the 60s and 70s, driving more people to expand their outlook on lions, not just as powerful and ferocious, but intelligent and unique creatures.
Joy Adamson with Elsa the Lioness
The training provided to Elsa by her caregivers, allowed her to successfully integrate back into the Kenyan wilderness as an adult lioness, a radical concept at the time. The process came with several challenges and trials perhaps not truly shown in the film or overly idealised but eventually Elsa was set free, now able to hunt, live independently, and thrive in the vast wilderness. She later returned to the Adamsons with 3 cubs in tow, who they named; Little Elsa, Gopa and Jespah. The couple also decided to limit their interaction with the cubs in a bid to allow them to be fully wild.
Elsa died of tick disease at 5 years old and and was buried in Meru National Park. Years later when Joy Adamson passed, she was buried in a grave right next to Elsa in a poetic cementing of the bond the two shared. This legacy continues through the Born Free Foundation — an animal welfare charity which has a strong focus on protecting the lions of Meru National Park. The story also additionally lives on in the first camp the Adamsons built into the Mughwango Hill, now known as Elsa’s Kopje, an elegant and history-rich lodge.
Kamunyak the lioness shot to fame in 2002 when she adopted a baby oryx, a very uncommon thing in a predator-prey relationship. Its given name, Kamunyak means ‘the blessed one’ in Samburu where the lioness lived - inside Samburu National Reserve. Kamunyak shared the same territory with about 7 lions and her union with her new 'baby' was short-lived as one of the lions killed the oryx calf. It is said Kamunyak adopted 5 other oryxes with wildlife experts at the time attributing this behaviour to the lionesses’ lack to have her own cubs.
Kamunyak and one of her adopted baby oryx | Image by Kenya Geographic
She would often be seen chasing away predators from the oryxes and would most times not go hunting while she protected them. Kamunyak once allowed one of the oryx’s mother to feed the young one before chasing it away. No one knows where Kamunyak is to date as she was last seen in February 2004. Her story has been made into a film “The Heart of a Lioness’ by Saba Douglas-Hamilton and featured among the top 25 of Discovery Channel’s best shows for many years.
Fun Fact: Kamunyak made 3 adoptions on notable days: Christmas Day, Valentine’s Day and Good Friday.
Just as popular as Scarface was on the Mara Plains, so was Notch. Identifiable by his unique, large dark mane, this lion led a coalition not often seen in the wilderness of the Mara. Unlike Scarface’s group which was comprised of his brothers, Notch’s group was made up of his five sons; Notch II, Mighty Long, Ron, Caesar and Grimace. While it’s often the norm for sons to challenge their father, this was not the case. The group collaboratively dominated the Mara, holding domain over thousands of square kilometres and siring several cubs across different prides.
Like Scarface, Notch lived a long life and was about 14 years old when he died in 2013. The group had fragmented as his sunset years drew close but the remaining members ensured his access to food and security, and therefore keeping him alive. Even as his condition deteriorated he remained as majestic as ever, a true king of the Mara.
The story of the group further rose to fame and was immortalised in the Disney Film 'African Cats' (2010) which was shot in Kenya's Rekero Camp. The nature film, narrated by narrated by Samuel L Jackson, tells the story of lion cub Mara, cheetah Sita and her five cheetah cubs, and leader of the lion pride, Fang, as they face the challenges that life on the Maasai Mara brings. Notch and his sons’ complex relationship and prowess at hunting was well illustrated offering an artful reminder of the fascinating and unique social hierarchies lions hold among themselves.
Wrapping up our list is a childhood favourite for many, Mufasa. Now while we can’t really say for sure that the beloved ‘Lion King’ star and father to Simba was a Kenyan lion, it can be assumed so from the origins of Pride Rock. When the film development started in 1988, Disney sent a team of animators to East Africa to absorb the sights, sounds, colours, moods, plains, craters, jungles and sunsets of the region. With its unique rock formations and rugged landscape, Hell’s Gate National Park in Naivasha (which was also the production team’s first stop) is a strong contender for the inspiration behind Pride Rock.
As showcased through big cats like Scarface and Notch, The Lion King also reflects the unique dynamics lions build amongst themselves. This is seen through Mufasa and Simba’s warming father-son relationship and even Simba’s romance with Nala. The film draws from human experiences and lessons about family, love and responsibility to pass onto young kids and adults alike (we’ll be rewatching soon). Through this, it further feeds into the important message around perceiving lions and wildlife as a whole and as beings that should be respected, protected and valued.
With that, we’d like to wish everyone a Happy World Lions Day and commend the individuals and organisations working tirelessly to preserve this great species through art, literature, film, documentaries and scientific research.