Originally, it was The Marsh Lions, by Brian Jackman and Jonathan Scott, first published in 1982, that captured the public imagination with its tales of the characters in the Kichwa Tembo, Miti Mbili and Marsh prides living in the Musiara and Mara North areas. Given names like Notch, Scar and Shadow, the anthropomorphism provided a hook for readers into the lives of big cats that a traditional natural history account might have struggled to achieve. The makers of Disney’s 1994 film The Lion King, who visited Kenya on safari during their research phase, seem to have had the same idea, keeping their movie grounded – as far as the cartoon world allows – in the lives of real animals, and making The Lion King into one of the biggest-grossing animations of all time.
Presenting real lion behaviour, while treating the cats as the subjects of a reality TV show – and later as celebrities – was the concept behind the BBC’s Big Cat Diary, which started airing, more or less live, during the migration season of 1996. Feeding, and then indulging, a huge audience appetite, Big Cat Diary – later Big Cat Live – followed the fortunes of the Mara’s lions, leopards and cheetahs and ran until 2008, becoming one of the network’s most popular shows, regularly viewed by ten percent of the UK population. Safari met soap-opera in another feline film phenomenon in 2011, Disney’s African Cats, a much hyped cinema release that blends remarkable documentary footage with a part-fictional storyline – the equivalent of The Hills or The Only Way is Essex, but with real manes.
The intense fascination with the minutiae of the lives of a few individual lions has clear conservation benefits for the future survival of big cats in Kenya, especially in the most touristed areas. Because of their international fame, the Mara’s big cats are recognized as important (and adorable) characters worthy of protection, not persecution. The risk is, however, that it may divert attention away from the wider conservation story of Africa’s lions, leopards and cheetahs that will never have their own television show.