I just spent 9 days in the vast Northern Rangelands of Kenya — first at the Lewa Conservancy, then at neighboring community-owned conservancies like Namunkay, West Gate and Sara. These are mostly, though not exclusively, the pastoral lands of the Samburu people.
My top task was to join a scientific expedition led by the Conservancy of an amazing sky island ecosystem. The lions we encountered made the trip even more special. First, though, a bit about the land itself.
From the air or a mountain top, the region — the size of West Virginia — shimmers in the heat, absolutely still and timeless: a vast acacia thorn savanna.
But up close, walking through the bush, or sleeping by the river bed, the noise of francolins, bats, frogs, elephants, and (above all) lions, is a constant and ever-present reminder that this land throbs with life.
We were fortunate even in this short trip to have many encounters with cats: Leopards roaming Sara Conservancy at dusk, and a cheetah incredulously hunting a Grant’s Gazelle just outside the main office of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. (The cheetah succeeded in catching the gazelle.)
But our best encounter with cats would happen in a part of the Northern Rangelands that had never hosted a scientific expedition until now — the Matthews Mountains.
The Matthews Mountains: An Isolated Sky Island
If you fly north of Lewa and cross into Samburu Game Reserve, a giant table-top like massif dominates the landscape — these are the Matthews.
Sheer cliffs and a thick cloud forest keep the top shrouded in mist. The Matthews are the main watershed for the area. They give shelter in the dry season to cattle and wildlife, and rain from the cloud forests helps keep the dry land below habitable.
We think the Matthews have been isolated, like a sky island, for over 1 million years, from a time when the landscape was far more green and forested. Today it is a forest island, harboring cycads (ancient species of plants from the age of the dinosaurs), monkeys and forest buffalo isolated from Mount Kenya by 200 miles of savanna.
The Nature Conservancy launched a full-scale expedition into the Matthews, putting a dozen scientists and scouts up at 2 camps in the mountains for 2 weeks. Most of the scientists were Kenyan from the university or museum system, and they were joined by 3 tribal elders, experts in cultural sites and ethnobotany.
We made a small trail up to a high plateau, deep in the cycad forest, and placed a small string of our infra-red track cameras along a game trail in the hopes of catching a forest antelope or giant ground hog on video. But when we arrived at the same spot to camp for 2 nights and explore the area, we had an extraordinary encounter.
Puncture Marks Made by…?
I was in the first group to reach the cameras, and we noticed almost immediately one of the cameras laying shattered on the trail. It had deep punctures in its hardened casing, and was crushed and broken.
My first thought was that someone had fired a shot gun at it. But as we examined it we realized the puncture marks were made by teeth. The guessing began immediately — hyena, forest hog, civet cat, honey badger, maybe even a leopard. All common forest animals in the Matthews.
Amazingly, the chip inside had survived the assault and we crowded around my laptop as I downloaded the images. There in the stealth of night was a big, glowing, male lion. Right there! Exactly where our flimsy tents now were.
He had done this to our camera. How he had managed to see it is still a mystery — the camera films in infrared, and makes NO sound. It is inert. Perhaps he smelled it — a thought that did not actually help the situation.
For me, this was a first. Seeing a lion in the forest is a pretty rare thing. Historic records show that lions were found in many heavily forested countries; but seeing this guy — after the hundreds of lions I have seen lazing on a wide-open savanna, this massive and powerful lion slipping between the trees in the Matthews Mountains — entirely changed my attitude toward the species.
It was a simple demonstration of the resilience and power of nature. An acknowledgment of all that we don’t know — putting us right back on the rung we belong.
But the surprise didn’t end there. Later that night as I showed the photos in sequence to our armed scouts, something felt odd — the lion’s gait was all wrong, something was out of sync. Then I looked at the time code…and there they were, in plain sight — TWO LIONS!!
The first one goes by at 00:12:47 (that’s 12 minutes and 47 seconds past midnight). The next is the same (00:12:47). Then, there is a jump. The last two are a full 20 seconds later — a second lion. Almost identical to the first but for the subtle difference in the cut of the mane and a small mark on the back near the spine.
Here’s what we were seeing: Two brothers working their territory, this forest, the peaks of the Matthews, hunting buffalo, forest antelope, bush buck, and who knows what.
Needless to say, my late-night discovery went over better in the pale light of morning than sitting there by the fire at midnight, the prowling hour for the brothers.
(Image: Shot of the male lion from the infrared tracking camera. Image credit: Sanjayan/TNC.)