Individual and Group Identification of Lions in the Nairobi National Park Project by Michael Mbithi and David Mascall

Project commenced on: 31st May 2011 to the 30th June 2011.

The individual and group identification of lions inNairobiNational Park was geared at; finding out the number of individual lions in the park, their social structures, their basic ranges and to set up an identification database.

  This database will be available for use by anyone, scientist or layman to identify different lions and hopefully by commenting on their sightings, social interactions, conditions, locations and behavior; via identified websites, fan pages, social media and blogs, create a way to continually assess the parks lions, create public awareness and participation in lion conservation and attract local and international tourist interest by making the various lions household names.

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We have coined the outcome ‘Lion Conservation by Fame’ which entails:

  • Making the species as a whole, its constituent individuals and environment conspicuous to society.
  • Highlighting the animals as identifiable personalities and not just random wildlife variables.
  • Educating on the animals and their plight in a creative and captivating manner.
  • Creating forums for and empowering public participation in conservation.

This will be owned by the Nairobi National Park, Kenya Wildlife Service as a whole (who have sanctioned and support the project), Friends of Nairobi National Park, the Kenyan public and all those with interest in the global fraternity.

In essence this lion identification research is only the initial step in a larger and continuous, all-inclusive and interactive project. The framework of which will be drawn up by immediate park stakeholders.

 Identification is being done by the use of whisker patterns (which are as individually unique as human fingerprints) which according to; George Schaller, Craig Parker, Judith Rudnai, Jim Cavanaugh and other lion authorities is the internationally accepted, foolproof way to identify lions. Permanent scars, tears on the ears and unique features such as cut or broken tails and mane size and color among others are also being used.

 Initial Objectives

  • To identify all individual lions including cubs over 6 months of age in theNairobiNational Park.
  • To identify all lion social groupings and plot the constituent members in their group context.
  • To identify the basic ranges of these groups and those of solitary individuals if present.
  • To undertake a current, accurate inventory of the park lions.

Project Goals

  • Database development for theNairobiNational Parklions.
  • Launching the database into the public domain.
  • Introducing and promoting the concept: Conservation by Fame.


  • An up to date NNP lion database which will be open for continued contribution.
  • An online standardized basis for continued monitoring and participation in the conservation of lions in the park by all from scientific projects up to and including casual visitors.
  • To serve as a current inventory of the park’s lions.
  • To create a bloodline/genetic map in the long run.

We are done with the project and have positively identified 38 different lions, 5 of whom are cubs below 4 months.

We have been keeping a log of these lions’ movements not just by sightings but also by use of pugmark identification for nocturnal activities and in dense and remote parts of the park.

Lion sighting and identification relies on experience, timing, weather, vegetation and luck, normally. We however experienced a different variable.

The park has 9 adult males; 1 aged 3.5-4 years, 7 between the ages of 5 – 8 years and the patriarch who is about 12 years old. There exists 2 coalitions of 3 males each and 3 solitary males – one of whom is Ujonjo (11). The males do not appear to have fixed prides and have very sketchy overlapping ranges. This has created upheavals in the hierarchy with the result being males clashing with each other and their going after cubs in an effort to induce females into estrous. This infanticide and inconsistency has probably been responsible for the lionesses and their cubs splitting into small groups and moving about a lot to avoid the males.

Despite the fact that related lionesses are keeping to their traditional pride home ranges they are scattered and unpredictable in their movements.

We were in the park from 6:15am to 7pm, Monday to Friday, conducting this research for a period of 5 weeks.


According to many lion researchers, inKenya, the biggest threat to lion conservation lies outside protected areas, because of increasing cases of poisoning and spearing by communities due to livestock loss through carnivore depredation.

TheNairobiNational Parkpopulation has not been spared either with massive losses in 1996-1998 and 2005-2006 where the numbers were cut down from 32 to 12 lions and 35 to 6 lions respectively. Unfortunately lions were not only lost during this tumultuous episodes of mass killings but also, a very large percentage of all lions that have quietly left the park over the years as young males or females seeking new territories further a field have ended up dead too.

An inventory of the lions in the park is not enough as – unless the park is completely fenced, KWS alone cannot conserve the NNP lions. We need to create public responsibility among neighbors of the park, dispersal area ranches like the Athi-Kapiti and Kaputei ranches and among social groups and conservation bodies.

One way of doing this is by increasing public/social focus on these big cats. Turn them from being random wildlife variables to identifiable individuals with personalities and life stories. This not only pegs social accountability on anyone interacting with them but it improves their value in tourist terms whether in the park or not.

A database of the park lions will serve scientific interests as well, some of which are in the long term; identification of bloodlines and social and behavioral trends among the cats.

This underscores the importance of a continuous database with wide participation and public ownership.

A comprehensive long-term database is important in the management of the lion’s gene pool which is at the moment in peril all overAfrica.

The IUCN suggests that large lion populations of 50 to 100 prides are necessary to conserve genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding.

In today’s crowded world the only feasible way of attaining that is by conserving small well protected populations of lions, following their bloodlines and employing verified practical strategies of genetic interchange when need be to bring in genetic variability.

A database will help identify any lions that make it into the park from other populations. This has not been observed to have happened between 1992 and 2006 and is unlikely to have happened in the intervening period though the Kilimanjaro area and Shompole populations are once again on the increase due to conservation efforts.

Whenever the rainy season is prolonged the park lions have to follow the plains game that leaves the park for long periods in favor of the cattle conditioned pastures in Kitengela and the Athi-Kapiti and Kaputei plains. They go into settled and ranch land and although there is hostility in most of these human areas, there are lion friendly areas especially in ranches were conservationists can still monitor the lions, identify individuals and groups, find out which or whether there are lions missing and keep tabs on them until the lions return to the park – with the help of the public we hope to recruit with the overall project (Lion Conservation by Fame).


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