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Kings of jungle in fight to stop crowns slipping

A remake of The Lion King will reignite our passion for a species in worrying decline, says Sarah Marshall

At risk: Olerai, the leader of the Mara’s Oldikdik pride in Kenya
At risk: Olerai, the leader of the Mara’s Oldikdik pride in Kenya

By Sarah Marshall

Overrun by his offspring, Olerai grunts, growls and grinds his chiselled jaw, but is far too weary to summon a roar, as excitable lion cubs tug at his tail.

A source of daily drama in Kenya's Masai Mara, pride politics are fascinatingly complex. Love, loyalty, betrayal and deception frequently shape nail-biting plot lines, which resonate with all the poignancy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

When Disney's The Lion King animation hit cinemas 25 years ago, audiences quickly identified with young lion Simba and his quest to reclaim the Pride Lands from his scheming uncle Scar. Featuring the voices of Beyonce and Donald Glover, a new live-action version is set to be a box office hit, fuelling our love of Africa's lions again.

In reality, however, the future of the lion species is dangling precariously from a precipice.

In two decades, Africa's lion population declined by an alarming 42% and the king of the jungle is now classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

It's a bleak picture, but one pocket of success is Kenya's Masai Mara ecosystem. Home to the Marsh pride, it's thought to have one of the highest lion densities in Africa.

I find myself tripping over muscular golden cats when I visit Olare Motorogi Conservancy, where I've joined Kelvin Kamango, a research assistant at the Mara Predator Conservation Programme (MPCP), on an early morning game drive.

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An initiative supported by the Kenya Wildlife Trust, MPCP conducts a lion count twice a year. Their data shows numbers in the Mara ecosystem rose from 418 in 2014 to 464 in 2017.

It's an idyllic scene and I half expect a gospel choir to appear singing Lion King classic the Circle Of Life. But happy endings are only guaranteed in Disney scripts. For now, Simbas roar all over Africa, but their grip on the jungle is slipping. They are no longer the undisputed kings.

The Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers three nights at Kicheche Bush Camp, Kenya, and three nights at Kicheche Valley Camp from £4,459 per person (two sharing)

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