The Legend of Notch, King of the Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara is famous for the wildebeest migration but one lion and his sons notoriously dominated the landscape for a decade.
Written by Joe Wahome
02 June 2021

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If ever, in living memory, there was a lion coalition that ruled over its domain with genuine fear-mongering force it must have been the Notch coalition in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Forget about the Mapogo coalition in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the Notch coalition was the stuff of folklore.

Kenya Map

This incredible coalition was unlike any that had ever been seen before. The strangest thing was that it was made up of a father and his five sons. This was unheard of in the lion kingdom. The young lions might have killed their father, but it goes to show how feared Notch was and how good he was at managing family dynamics.

 

Who was Notch?

Notch or Kali (Swahili for fierce) was born in late 1999 or 2000 and formed a coalition with another young lion called Light Male. By 2004, the two were confident enough to challenge the Marsh Pride lions that were made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries TV show – they dislodged Simba and Blondie from their perch and made the pride their own.

The legendary and battle-scarred Notch photographed in late 2011 in the Maasai Mara. Source| Sushil Chauhan.

As is the custom in the lion kingdom, they killed the cubs and went on to sire their own with the lionesses. In mid-2005, other lions were encroaching on the Marsh Pride’s territory and Notch’s partner, Light Male, was killed by three invading lions. Many predicted that this would be the end of Notch but against all odds, he held onto his territory by staying close to the lionesses and keeping a low profile.

The Maasai Mara is famous for the migration but other story-lines like Notch’s make it one of the best wildlife destinations in the world. Source: Jonathan Kaelo.

The pride had eight cubs when Notch was finally dislodged in 2007. Once again it was predicted that Notch wouldn’t survive long as a nomad, but then he did something unthinkable. When he was chased away from the Marsh Pride he joined his sons, five sub-adult male cubs, who’d barely escaped with their lives when their father was dislodged. They were now nomads in the wild.

 

Reign of Terror

Notch took care of his sons – Notch II, Mighty Long, Ron, Caesar and Grimace – for more than a year until they were fully grown. Notch was probably nine years old when their reign of terror began in the Mara in 2008.

Jonathan Kaelo, a safari and photography guide with over 10 years’ experience in the Maasai Mara and founder of Meikan Safaris, remembers the coalition’s rise and dominance.

“My guiding career began almost at the same time when Notch and his sons built one of the biggest and fiercest coalitions ever seen in the Mara. Notch was a brilliant and beautiful black-maned lion and it took guts and skill to build this complicated union with his sons. The six lions dominated the Mara, over 1,000 square kilometres, for years and sired dozens of cubs in almost all of the prides here.

“During that period, any guest that came to the Mara and did not see Notch and his sons left disappointed. They were celebrities and I remember the six lions roaring simultaneously and some of my guests would even try and hide under the seats of the safari vehicle,” says Kaelo.

Photography guide, Jonathan Kaelo, at work. Source: Jonathan Kaelo.

Within a few years they’d established absolute dominance in the Mara by killing and intimidating lions that stood in their way. They ruled over several prides including Paradise, Mugoro, Serena, Rekero, Rekero Breakaway, Rongai, Olkiombo, Maji ya Fisi and the Lookout Prides.

Immortalized in the Disney Film African Cats that was released in 2010, Notch and his sons’ prowess at hunting was well illustrated. Fang, a fierce and mean-looking lion with one of his canines hanging out of his mouth, had his territory invaded by Notch and Notch II. Fang was no match for the two and he ran away. The pride’s lionesses, however, put up a spirited fight. The two Notch boys couldn’t overpower them and left.

The pride was saved. Fang returned, but Notch came back after a while with Caesar, Ron and Grimace in tow. Some of the most powerful moments in the film are when Notch meets his sons and are walking toward’s Fang’s territory as the sun sets. You could almost feel the power, the malice and murderous intent of the Notch coalition and as Samuel L. Jackson narrated ‘together they are the most powerful force in the land’. Fang fled once more, never to be seen again and several months later several Notch cubs were born.

Niels Mogensen, a Senior Program Scientist with the Mara Predator Conservation Program, described the Notch coalition as “a powerful force who were all astonishing males and detrimental to other lion populations.”

Although Notch was an old lion and in an unusual relationship with his five sons, he stood toe-to-toe with them. He was the alpha male and made the boys know that until his age caught up with him. “There are other large coalitions in the Mara and some of them are controlling many prides but none were as notorious as the Notch coalition,” says Niels.

A single male lion is a formidable opponent but when you have five more big and strong male lions, who are expert buffalo and hippopotamus killers, then it’s a recipe for chaos. It’s not known how many lions they killed during their almost decade long reign but it’s believed to be in the dozens.

 

Beginning of the End

Their reign was not all rosy. Due to the incredibly huge territory that they controlled, it seemed they had spread themselves thin with Mighty Long vanishing in the Mara Triangle in 2010, probably killed by other male lions.

By now, Notch was on his last legs. He was more than 14 years old when he died in 2013. He had split from his boys in the last few years of his life, but was always near them for food and security. Jonathan Kaelo was one of the last few people to see Notch alive. “His state had deteriorated and he was emaciated, we could see that he just had a few days to live. His sons had done a brilliant job of keeping him alive over the years. He still had his huge, black mane and although weak he was as defiant and proud as ever.”

The sons of Notch, Notch II and Grimace shot by National Geographic Nature Photographer of the year 2016, Varun Aditya.

A few months after Notch’s death, Grimace also died deep into enemy territory and although the coalition was now cut in half they were still formidable. Although their territory had shrunk from their heydays, Ron, Caesar and Notch II were still intimidating and menacing to other lion coalitions.

Sometime in 2016 Ron was killed by the Sand River Males who were slowly becoming a formidable coalition. Caesar died in 2017 after he developed a limp on his hind legs. Notch II was the only one remaining and he left his territory quietly without putting up much of a fight.

 

Twist in the Tale

The son of Notch became a nomad in his former territory and disappeared. Rumours were rife in the Mara that he was dead. Notch II reappeared months later and to the surprise of lion lovers across the world he was with Spearboy, his dashingly handsome and fierce son.

“History was repeating itself. Notch II, being his father’s son, had realized that he had to team up with his up-and-coming son to increase his chances of survival as he was over 14 years old just like his father had done over a decade ago,” recalls Jonathan Kaelo.

The father-and-son duo formed the Lookout Pride and stayed together for more than a year until Notch II disappeared last year and is presumed dead at the age of 15. Spearboy became a nomad in the Mara after his father’s demise. Notch II’s longevity even eclipsed his father and it’s hoped that the new generation of lions will be equally as brilliant as these legends.

Notch II and Grimace bonding in the beautiful Savannah light at the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Source: Varun Aditya.

Notch’s Legacy

“The coalition never really stayed with a pride but roamed the Mara constantly looking for females to mate with and in the process killed many cubs, including many of their own. As they produced quite a lot of offspring in the Mara with different prides many lions today probably have and share the Notch genes, but the question is whether it has caused any inbreeding or not. We just don’t know,” concludes Niels Mogensen.

With the demise of the Notch coalition, the sons of the sons of Notch still hold sway in the Mara with Caesar II, Ron II, Blue Eyes and Dongo forming the Rekero coalition. They are formidable, ruthless and have been known to kill their own cubs. Notch’s grandsons control four huge prides.

Notch and his sons were the most famous lions in the world due to their unusual dominance and this led to intense scrutiny, which increased the number of visitors to the Mara and the dwindling number of African lions got the spotlight they deserved.

Will there ever be another pride of lions as dominant as the Notch coalition? I doubt it, but the legacy of that deadly lion gang lives on, courtesy of several generations of offspring they sired across the Mara in a decade of absolute domination and carnage.

 

The Great Migration, one of the seven natural wonders of the world occurs around July to October in Kenya and Tanzania. A trip to the Maasai Mara is best combined with a coastal getaway to the culturally rich Lamu in Kenya or Zanzibar in Tanzania and we can help customise an exciting trip for you.

Find out more about the Mara Predator Conservation Programme and the noble work that they do in the Maasai Mara and make a difference. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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