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Classics Reissued: The Marsh Lions

The Marsh Lions: The Story of an African Pride

by Brian Jackman and Jonathan Scott

Bradt Travel Guides, 2012

A reprint of any great natural history classic is always a welcome thing, and one such reprint, Bradt’s new edition of The Marsh Lions, is surprising as well: the original was connected so closely with a BBC nature special long off the air that a similarly unjust oblivion could easily be expected for the book.

The nature special, 1982’s Big Cat Diary, had a ratings hit with the episode featuring a small group of marsh lions, especially the three males, Scar, Mkubwa, and Brando, who provided most of the noise and provided the most muscle during the pride’s heyday. Brian Jackman and Angie Scott followed those lions around for five years across all of their territory in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, watching them hunting, playing, raising their cubs, and fighting to survive. The film footage that resulted remains every bit as astonishing as it was thirty years ago, and the book that resulted captured equally amazing images that made the book a bestseller at the time.

And not only the pictures – the accompanying text, the real reason to reprint the volume, is uniformly wonderful, some of the most evocative natural history writing of the century, a beautiful love letter to the incredible variety of the Maasai Mara, extending far beyond just the one group of lions:

Towards evening, elephants emerge in the muted light to move solemnly across the expectant plains. The sound of thunder unsettled the grazing game herds, causing the ever-skittish troops of zebra to go scudding across the grass at a mad gallop, keeling this way and that, like yachts in a stiff breeze, their sunlit stripes standing out brilliantly against the darkening sky.

Anyone who’s wandered around the Maasai Mara (and perhaps those ancient individuals who might have wandered around it before it was an official game preserve) will be directly familiar with the bounty Jackman and Scott capture in words and pictures, including the gorgeous shiftings of the weather that form such a vivid backdrop to the place:

When at last the drought finally broke, the first spots of rain as big as Kenya shillings, there rose the glorious smell of earth freshly slaked. Crinum lilies unfurled their pale pink trumpets amongst the tall grasses, and on Topi Plain a pair of crowned cranes faced each other with fluttering wings, rising and falling through the elegant ritual of their courtship dance. Everywhere, new life was returning.

The patterns of that life pulse through the pages of this great book, now splendidly returned to bookstores (and updated, so fans of the pride can catch up on their favorites). Our authors are superb in conveying the plenitude of that world:

The land ached for rain. Beyond the Marsh, becalmed in an infinity of yellow grass, giraffes stared across the plain, as if waiting for the brief erratic November showers that would clear the air and raise new grass from the old year’s dust. To a casual eye it was a serene and shining landscape, as peaceful as an English park. There was no malice in it, no hint of suffering or hostility. Orioles called with clear voices from the dappled shade of forest figs. Hippos chuckled in the river, and bou-bou shrikes chimed their monotonous xylophonic responses from the heat-drugged thickets. The sounds of summer lulled the senses; but the world of the plains animals was a constant paradox.

Bradt Travel Guides deserves a great deal of credit for bringing The Marsh Lions back into print to supplement their more straightforward guide books. Readers who enjoyed it the first time should savor it all over again, and newcomers will enjoy getting to know these remarkable creatures.

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