Publsihed Saturday Magazine, Nation newspaper 24 June 2017
Above picture: Valentine in Soysambu Conservancy 2017 copyright Kat Combes
“Three lionesses turned up one day from Nakuru National Park,” tells Kat Combes of Soysambu Conservancy that straddles Lake Elmenteita. It was in July 2014.
The trio were three years old looking for their own space. Two sisters settled in but the third returned to the park separated by a wire fence.
Since then Valentine and Flir have been having the time of their lives hunting down the best beef cattle in the country and lots of zebra.
Sitting by the freshwater inlet into the alkaline Lake Elmenteita, hundreds of great white pelicans flock to drink and bathe. The isles and shores of Lake Elmenteita are the only place in East Africa where they nest.
The rim of the lake meantime is a deep pink of lesser flamingos that haven’t been seen in such numbers in the last three years outlined against Delamere’s nose – the hill with a crater.
With Valentine and Flir having taken up residence at Soysambu and causing concern for the management because of their taste for prime beef, it was decided to fix satellite collars on the cats – not just because of their eating habits – but also to learn about their lifestyle.
Historically, lions roamed Africa. And parts of Asia and Europe.
Today, the world’s second largest cat is on 20 per cent of its former range. A century ago, Africa had 200,000 wild lions but today’s estimates are between 30,000 and 20,000 – with most having disappeared in the last two decades.
Valentine and Flir
Both cats wear very expensive leather necklaces with a satellite pendant – Valentine’s was fitted on Valentine’s day in 2016. She’s the diva while Flir is named for the night-scope vision glasses that enable the lion team to see them in the dark.
“They have such different personalities,” continues Combes producing the cats’ file with their pictures and all manner of data.
“Valentine is very beautiful and she’s the poser. She loves to be photographed. Flir has a narrow face and is the worker.
“I’ve seen Valentine call her sister out of the shade to pull a carcass of a zebra so that the vultures couldn’t get to it while she just sat and watched.”
Early in 2015 the two sisters each had a litter of three cubs – two females and a male – bringing the lion population to eight. But the mystery was the father.
The satellite collars on Google Earth showed the two sisters go inside the park where the male was.
In June 2016, a young lion began frequenting the conservancy hitting the cattle bomas. He was darted and named Friday for the day he was collared. He came with a pride that was taken to Tsavo National Park, 400 kilometers south-east.
Valentine continued to go inside the park but Kenya Wildlife Service had by now fixed the fence and Valentine was trapped inside.
“She was pacing the fence line wanting to get back to her cubs. She was starving to death because she wasn’t hunting. This went on for nearly three weeks until KWS was convinced to let her back on to the conservancy.
Valentine was pregnant and 101 days later delivered her new set of cubs in 2016 but lost them to predators – suspected to be hyenas.
Both sisters then returned to the park to mate with a male called Phillipe – and in February 2017 delivered a new litter.
But the dry season nearly cost Valentine her cubs. In March 2017, Valentine’s collar shows her making two frantic trips to rescue her cubs as a bush fire nearly raged her den. She safely deposited them to Flir’s den two kilometres away.
Both sisters are now in a signal-free area because the batteries on the collars last two years.
“We have to re-collar them,” tells Combes. “In the last few days we’ve seen the sisters and are waiting for them to bring the cubs out.”
Meanwhile the first cubs on the conservancy are growing up fine. The file shows their profiles, each with a unique whisker pattern, spots, noses and more.
Between them, they bring down a zebra or two a day but to keep them away from the prized cattle, special mobile bomas are being built on the conservancy. The latest models can be moved with the cattle. The lions cannot jump into them because they are higher and screened so that predator and prey cannot see each other.
Two and a half hour drive or 150km from Nairobi on the escarpment road. Entry is by pre-booking.
With the three lakes – Elmenteita, Bogoria and Nakuru – Soysambu is included as part of the Kenya Lakes System World Heritage Site.
It exciting on the conservancy – a new troop of Colobus monkeys from Kipipiri in the Aberdares will be moved to Soysambu because Kipipiri forest is being converted to farm land.
The Rothschild giraffes are doing really well – from 9 to 154 – contributing to 10 per cent of the global population.
Or camp. On Saturday nights enjoy pizza night sizzling hot from the mouth of a lion – clay-designed pizza oven.