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. In the most recent feline film phenomenon, safari meets soap-opera in 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.

Visitors to the Mara are no longer content with just seeing lions: they want their guides to track down their favourite TV cats, differentiating between the members of the Marsh pride and Notch and his sons, who all have their own online gossip forums and fan clubs. Such extreme anthropomorphism has conservation benefits – the Mara’s big cats are recognized as important characters worthy of protection, not persecution, and the Mara guides themselves form attachments to particular cats, which builds tolerance for predators.

The intense fascination with the minutiae of the lives of a few individuals has clear benefits for the future survival of big cats in Kenya, especially in the most touristed areas. The risk is that it may divert attention away from the wider conservation story of Africa’s lions, leopards and cheetahs that never have their own television show.

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