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Jonathan Scott – Special Interview Part 2: The Big Cats and the Marsh Pride poisoning

In my last blog post, I explored the lives of ‘The Big Cat People’, Jonathan and Angela Scott, most famed for their work on BBC’s Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Week. Inevitably, our conversation became not just about the amazing photographs and stories that comprised their latest book offerings, but also the animals that inspired the work.

Like me, Jonathan Scott was first inspired to follow a dream of seeing animals in the wild by the 1966 film, Born Free, featuring actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

“What really stands out from those teenage years is the memory of sitting in a cinema watching Born Free, the true story of George and Joy Adamson‘s triumph in returning the wild-born lioness Elsa to the wilderness of Meru National Park in Kenya,” he explains. “Its stirring effect was reinforced by a talk that a fresh-faced teacher gave to the sixth form one evening, illustrated with colour slides of his travels around the world on a gap year. I sat there aching to do something like that – to be free of studying and to live.”

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 And live he certainly has. Jonathan clarifies that he wanted a ‘life of adventure’ combined with a ‘window on to wilderness’. That meant Africa.

“Preferably careering around in the bush looking for big cats, just as I had seen Armand and Michaela Dennis doing in On Safari on the telly.”

Having graduated with a degree in Zoology from Queens University in Belfast, and spent a year exploring the North American landscape, he signed up for a fourteen-week overland journey from London to Johannesburg in 1974.

“Six-thousand miles later and having sold my onward boat ticket from Cape Town to Sydney in Australia, I spent an idyllic few weeks living on a luxury houseboat – the Sitatunga – stationed in the Okavango Delta, a wildlife wonderland known as the jewel of the Kalahari.”

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From that point on, Jonathan fell in love with Africa and became a well-established author, photographer (winning the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 1987) and filmmaker.

I have grown to love writing natural history narratives about animal characters Angie and I have followed over the years,” he says, “such as the Marsh Pride of lions, the leopards Chui and Half-Tail, along with the cheetahs Kike and Honey and Honey’s adorable cub Toto of Big Cat fame.”

Marsh Pride

It is the Marsh Pride that we inevitably end up discussing the most.

The now infamous (thanks largely to Jonathan Scott’s work) Marsh Pride of lions were the subject of his first book, The Marsh Lions, co-authored with Brian Jackman in 1982.

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Scott credits Jackman with teaching him to appreciate the importance of the narrative flow, rather than simply producing a scientific journal: “He questioned whether I was writing for my chums at the Serengeti Research Centre at the expense of the general public, my primary audience. Learning to integrate the science with the narrative was something that took time for me to embrace.”

The pride, who live near the Musiara Marsh (which inspired their collective name) in the Maasai Mara National Reserve were the subject of several books, including those centered around the BBC Big Cat Diary series; which Scott authored on his own, with photographs by his wife Angie. They also starred in the BBC television series.

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Jonathan spent many years tapping into the lives of these cats, and their relationship with the Maasai Mara National Reserve – a protected area of more than 1,500 cubic km. He fondly refers to the Maasai Mara as the heartbeat of Africa, and observes that the lives of the Maasai people (often seen in their traditional red robes, adjourned with beads and carrying traditional weapons) are instinctively linked with the animals and the survival of the Maasai Mara as a whole.

This couldn’t have felt more relevant, when, at the end of 2015, the Marsh pride was back in the public’s consciousness after a mass poisoning.

“The poisoned lioness was 17,” Jonathan explained to an audience at the Royal Geographical Society, almost exactly one year on from the poisoning, “and a surviving cat from Big Cat Diaries in 1998 – one of Bebe’s pride.” 

Jonathan Scott getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

I asked him in our interview whether the poisoning had ignited an urgency in him to tell these stories and share the amazing photographs that he and Angela took in the book Sacred Nature.

“People asked if we were shocked and surprised by the poisoning. We weren’t,” he explained.

“It is a fact of life for lions living among pastoralists or in the case of the Marsh Pride on the edge of a protected area – half inside the reserve and half outside – among the Maasai.”

His words made me think back to my study of Craig Packer’s book and the plight of lions following CITES last year.

“It was a tragedy, but rather like with the case of Cecil the male lion killed illegally by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe, the killing of [the] high profile [Marsh] lions caused a storm on social media and in the local and international press.”

“That created a far louder ‘voice’ on behalf of lions than we could have on our own. And that caused the Ministry of Tourism – and the Narok County Government responsible for the Maasai Mara – to take the situation seriously, particularly when people realised they couldn’t just wait for the storm to blow itself out.”

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

The poisoning forced the authorities to ensure that cattle did not come in to Marsh Pride territory at night when the lions are most active and incidents with cattle most likely.

“The Marsh Pride are now able to roam their traditional territory without fear of conflict with livestock owners. But this is not a problem that is just going to disappear. Kenya is home to large numbers of pastoralists with large herds of cattle worth a lot of money in terms of cash and a fortune in terms of cultural status.”

Scott explains that due to global warming, Africa – particularly East Africa – is more prone to patterns of wild rainfall.

“Prolonged droughts and failed rainy seasons are more common. When I first came to live in Kenya 40 years ago the onset of the rains was very predictable – the short rains began in mid-October through to December and the long rains started towards the end of March and continued in to June. Droughts and dry times mean that large herds of cattle are driven in to protected areas and on to private land illegally causing enormous problems for the government, the wildlife and local communities.” 

“There just isn’t enough pasture for all those domestic animals.”

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Despite opening this blog post with the early inspirations and aspirations of Jonathan Scott; his dream to have an adventurous life in Africa, I feel it is only fitting to close with the following statement from him:

“One thing I do know is that at 67 I had reached that time in life when I was eager to give back, to transition from following my personal dream of living with wild creatures to trying to find a fulfilling role as a conservationist and spokesperson for Africa’s wild places, in particular the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.”

“I wanted to acknowledge [with Sacred Nature and The Big Cat Man books] in a tangible way, the gift that Angie and I had been given by being able to spend so many years living and working in the Mara-Serengeti; to try to ensure that this last great wild place might survive the pressures that are currently threatening its very future.”

What next?

So, what can we expect from Jonathan and Angela Scott next? The pair have two new children’s books due out this year with Cambridge University Press – one on a Tiger Safari in India and the other on Toto the Cheetah.

Scott also tells me that they intend to take the message of Sacred Nature worldwide with a series of Exhibitions in key cities – London, Paris, LA, Sydney, Delhi, etc. That and a new TV series that they are currently filming in the Maasai Mara.

The Scott's inspired one of my own childhood projects — about African Big Cats. News of their upcoming children's book is very exciting!

The Scott’s inspired one of my own childhood projects — about African Big Cats. News of their upcoming children’s book is very exciting!

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Jonathan and Angela Scott – The Big Cat People: Special Interview Part 1

In the days before we saw life through the eyes of animal robots, we saw life through the eyes of the people who knew them best – and Jonathan Scott was instrumental in that. I was 8 years old when I first tuned in to BBC’s Big Cat Diary, where Simon King and Saba Douglas-Hamilton completed the trio of big cat filmmakers that would change the way we saw lions, cheetahs and leopards forever.

man-with-cubs“I had a unique story unfolding right before my eyes,” Scott acknowledges. From his days of sleeping in his car while following African Wild dogs – which, by his own admission, allowed him to become ‘part of the pack’ –  to becoming famous as ‘the man that a cheetah crapped on’ (who can forget that famous Big Cat Week scene with Kike the cheetah?); it certainly seems he has had a life that many of us can only dream of.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Jonathan Scott is still bringing us ever closer to the formidable big cats of Africa, with a little (or maybe I should say ‘a lot’) of help from his partner in work, as well as in life; Angela Scott – or as he affectionately refers to her in our conversation, ‘Angie’.

At the end of 2016, the pair released an impressive combination of work; Jonathan Scott’s autobiography ‘The Big Cat Man and a coffee table book ‘Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance, which is predominately Angela’s photography.

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Angela Scott photographing cheetahs for Big Cat Diary

I spoke to Jonathan in a special interview to find out why he felt it was time to tell his story and what made him want to tell it publicly.

 “It is one thing to write an autobiography, quite another to figure out why,” Scott explains.

The Big Cat Man

“I think in some ways it was wanting to review my life to make better sense of it – I have lived life at such a frenetic pace that I sometimes feel that I need to slow down and take stock and think about the big questions that flash across one’s mind from time to time, reminding us that life is not a dream, that it is real, and that we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to what we are doing with this precious gift of being alive and the amazing opportunity that offers us – both for adventures and for personal growth.”

“Isn’t it an indulgence;” he added, “to think that your memoir is of interest to others – the written equivalent of imagining that anyone might really like to see your holiday photos.”

I actually purchased a copy of the book after listening to Jonathan talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London; guiding the audience through anecdotes of his extraordinary life, in preparation for some of the incredible tales and awe-inspiring photographs that feature in the book. Archives of life that I’ve spent the last month of so poring over as I read page by page before settling in for the night.

It dawned on me that it must be quite a daunting task, to give away the intimate details of human life to complete strangers.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

“I never [gave] a thought to who will eventually read it,” he states, “I needed and wanted this book to centre on me and my growth as a human being – not just about what it is like to live in Africa and spend time following big cats.”

 “I have always led two lives – like everyone to varying degrees – the life lived ‘out there’ in front of my eyes, one’s sense of self; and the inner world that for me was a bit of a muddle given the mental health issues I was grappling with. I really felt I was going to die – like my Dad.”

Quite early in the book, you learn the sad revelation that Scott was just two years old when his father died of an inoperable brain tumour.

“I was convinced that something was wrong that some awful disease was working its way into my system. It took me until I was 40 to lay that to rest.”  

“Marrying Angie and having a family gave me something much more important to worry about than my own wellbeing. Writing my story was a way of coming to terms with who I am – or who I think I am. And [a way of] being honest about my life and letting people see that we all have problems and issues and frailties – and that when you consider the lives of other people you need to see beyond the superficial. Particularly with people in the public eye.”

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“We are all just human – being famous doesn’t mean life is any less complex or angst ridden. I wanted people, particularly younger people who might want to follow the kind of life I have lived, to believe that following your dream is possible. It might be a very bumpy road but in following it you can find the most unimaginable joy and meaning.”

Hearing Jonathan’s words, I feel like, particularly in the current climate, the need to feel like there’s a sense of purpose to be found; a life outside your current existence is a very important rhetoric for young people to hear. 

“The autobiography I wanted to write was a more fulsome account of my life than my celebrity as a wildlife author and presenter of Big Cat Diary merited,” Jonathan explains, as he tells me how finding the right publisher proved to be an ‘elusive creature’.

“People knew me as ‘the bloke the cheetah crapped on’ from my encounter with Kike the car climbing cheetah of Big Cat Week 2003; surely my potential audience wanted to hear stories of daring do among large possibly dangerous wild creatures rather than of growing up on a farm in Berkshire along with revelations of whatever skeletons in the cupboard I might reveal.”  

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My own collection of Scott’s early books

Like many people, it was Big Cat Diary that first switched me on to the work of Jonathan Scott, and I subsequently began buying the BBC books that accompanied the programmes – originally co-authored with Brian Jackman, then later, Angela Scott – and whilst I came to expect more tales of the big cats we’d got to know on the television, the authors certainly fascinated me too. Skeletons in the cupboard and all.

The Big Cat People

The first thing I learned about the combined force of Jonathan and Angela Scott is that they are the only couple to have won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award individually – a testament to their individual skills and vision. Jonathan won the prestigious award in 1987 and Angela won in 2002.

Jonathan Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

Jonathan Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

The second thing I learnt about them, is that they go by the collective name: The Big Cat People. “Social media is a huge opportunity to have a shop window, but you do have to grow your brand,” Jonathan addressed the audience at ‘The Big Cat People’ talk at the Royal Geographical Society.

The Big Cat People feels a like brand that has been a long time in development. Prior to these book releases, the Scotts have worked on 29 other publications together!

Angela Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

Angela Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

I asked what makes them such a good team in telling these stories and sharing their world with people who may never get to see these places or animals for themselves. “Angie always says that the key to a great relationship –  both business and personal – is to make it a “Competition of Generosity”, Jonathan gushes.

“If you are always thinking of your partner’s best interests and prioritising them then – as long as you are both doing it – you will be successful. Angie is great organiser: very structured in her way of thinking, whereas I just tend to wing it and believe that things will always work out fine. So it is a great combo.”

“And we both love each other’s work; we think of it as ours. The problem sometimes – and I am always quick to remind people of this – is that because I am on TV I often get the lion’s share of the attention. But when it comes to our photography, Angie is the talent not me. She has a wonderful eye as you can see in Sacred Nature. Eighty per cent of the images are Angie’s.”

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I can very clearly see their intention in releasing both books together, as a combination of work for anyone interested in their lives and career. As Jonathan puts it, they are ‘very inclusive’ – the personal text of the autobiography with their pen and ink drawings and photographs, and then the splendor of viewing some of their best images in a big folio book.

“The books complement each other. We knew that the autobiography was not the right format to show off our photography to best advantage. Words predominate in the autobiography and images predominate in Sacred Nature. That was our intention.”

Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance

Sacred Nature comprises 10 chapters, each preceded by a short essay setting the theme and tone of the photographs to follow. As well as being Angela’s ‘mission’, Sacred Nature really is family ‘labour of love’, as their son David is responsible for creating the design concept.

“Our son is incredibly creative. He drew together all the elements that we wanted for Sacred Nature: the right images – both colour and black and white; the tone of the text, and he chose the quotes from great poets and sages to mirror the message of: ‘look, listen and absorb the mood created by the images and the words’.”

“He conjured up a little bit of the magic inherent in the wonder of savanna Africa and the incredible place we call The Last Place On Earth – the Mara-Serengeti – home of the great migration, all the big cats that have been our obsession all the years,  and so much more besides.

A leaflet teasing the design concept of 'Sacred Nature' and the book's review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

A leaflet teasing the design concept of ‘Sacred Nature’ and the book’s review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

Keith Wilson writes of the book in Geographical Magazine‘s November 2016 issue: “This may be Jonathan and Angela Scott’s 30th book, but it is without doubt their magnum opus.”

So, what is it that makes the book stand out so much? (Jonathan tells me that one journalist said of Sacred Nature: “It is a coffee table book on steroids.”).

It’s clear from his answer that he agrees with Wilson’s interpretation, which reads: “The Scott’s have been firmly established at the top of their field for decades, during which time the public has grown accustomed to witnessing their spectacular work in print and on screen (through BBC TV‘s hugely popular Big Cat Diary), but this book differs in many ways to any of their previous efforts. Sacred Nature is primarily Angela’s vision.” 

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Angie is a very spiritual person,” Jonathan tells me. “Compassionate; someone who reaches out to others in need. She grew up in Africa, spent her holidays on safari in places like the Serengeti as a child living in Tanzania.”

“She draws strength from connecting to wilderness – she loves trees and seeing plants growing in her veggie garden. And she is very artistic; she loves to draw and was always very artistic and her great passion was photography and the ocean. She is quiet, and shy and retiring – so photography gave her a voice, a way to express herself.”

“The genesis of Sacred Nature was partly to do with our age. I am 68 this year and Angie will be 64. We have had a long and successful career as authors, wildlife photographers and working in television. This was the time when we wanted to review and assess where we were in our lives and careers and plan the next step.”

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Some of the incredible photography featured in the book, giving and intimate view of Africa’s wildlife

He also cites concerns about the natural world, loss of wild habitat and diversity, and the surge of the human population across the planet.

“They all played a part in focusing our attention on the reality that most of the world is shut off from nature. Most of the world lives in cities. And the places that still harbour most of the wild animals on earth are mainly the most impoverished parts of the planet – such as Africa.”

The irony of these places, he says, is that local communities are too busy just trying to get by in ensuring they have the basics in life (and many don’t; ‘living on a few dollars a day’), dealing with far more pressing day-to-day priorities to be able either enjoy the natural environment or to see any reason to treasure it. 

“Most people living in East Africa will never see a wild lion or elephant. And those living in rural areas adjacent to wilderness naturally have a very different view of an elephant a lion or a buffalo to the one enjoyed by visitors on safari. Those same charismatic wild animals that visitors so want to see up close and romanticise are often a threat to life and livelihoods for local communities who bear the brunt of living with wildlife. Elephants and buffalos destroy crops at times and predators sometimes kill livestock.”

“We hope to take the message of Sacred Nature: that we need to re-engage with wilderness and to value it as the source of life, as the provider of our fresh water, our food and the air we breathe, and use it to remind people that the world will be a poorer place without other forms of life to share it with and marvel at.

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Purchase these incredible books here.

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My top 5 ways to fend off ‘Blue Monday’…

Apparently today is the most depressing day of the year. Cold January Mondays, can be a miserable time as it is, without the thought that statistics are against us, as well as the rainy British weather.

I figured it would be a good time to escape the January blues and indulge in the beauty of nature, and some of the incredible conservation heroes working hard to secure a future for some of our planet’s rarest wildlife.

Here are a few of my top suggestions for getting through the day.

1. Try out Gorilla Safari VR

A free app for your phone or mobile device, Gorilla Safari VR was developed by vEcotourism.org and released by the Born Free Foundation over Christmas.

If you’ve not tried it yet, the app — available on Android and iOS — begins at Born Free Foundation’s headquarters in Surrey and takes users on an immersive adventure (either using a VR headset or as a 360-degree video experience on your device), to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Meet Eastern Lowland Gorilla patriarch, Chimanuka (star of BBC’s Gorilla Family & Me), and explore his native habitat with Ian Redmond OBE as your guide.

Gorilla Safari VR

I wrote an entire post on this app last month, so feel free to take a look back over that for a full introduction, or visit vEcotours website at: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/announcing-gorilla-safari-vr/

2. Watch A Lion’s Tale

The realm of Natural History film making is in a fantastic position at present. We finished 2016 on the high of the amazing Planet Earth II, with its ground-breaking footage and camera techniques; we’ve had a host of great wildlife shows presented by Gordon Buchanan, and currently you can catch the fascinating BBC series ‘Spy in the Wild‘ narrated by David Tenant. Spy in the Wild uses some impressive robotic animals fitted with hidden ‘spy cameras’ to film a very intimate and unusual look into the lives of a range of animals, from alligators and elephants to African wild dogs. 

But there are many other amazing Natural History films available that you won’t find from switching on your television. Independent filmmakers are posting some incredible results online, including ‘A Lion’s Tale‘ by Tania Esteban.

This film looks at the legacy of actress turned conservationist Virginia McKenna, who famously played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film ‘Born Free‘. Fifty years on, A Lion’s Tale attempts to look at what that legacy means among today’s wildlife conflicts, returning to Kenya (where Elsa the lioness was once released to roam free) to visit the Born Free team and the Kenya wildlife service rangers to explore their work on the frontline of conflict and education.

A Lion’s Tale saw its public release online this last weekend, catch it here:

For more info about the film: treproductions.co.uk/

Official webpage: taniaesteban.wixsite.com/alionstale

3. Explore ‘Speaking of Nature’ case studies 

Another impressive independent film project to have received its launch onto the World Wide Web is that of film maker Craig Redmond. His project ‘Speaking of Nature‘ was released on the 5th of January and has gradually been doing the rounds on social media.

I discovered it this weekend and spent an entire morning working my way through the six stories that comprise this project.

Each story focusses on a different conservationist; Badger Cull – Dominic Dyer, Badger Trust;  Primate Pet Trade – Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA; Hunting and Trapping of Migrating Birds – Fiona Burrows; Committee Against Bird Slaughter; Wildlife Crime – Mark Jones, Born Free Foundation; Industrial Fishing – Wietse van der Werf, The Black Fish; Gardeners of the Forest – Ian Redmond, Ape Alliance

There is a written introduction to each conservationist, exploring their role and the plight of each animal they work with (or rather, for the protection of) and video footage of two-part interviews with each chosen person.

Grab a cup of tea, nestle in and prepare to be inspired.

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For the full stories, visit: https://craigredmond.exposure.co/speaking-of-nature

4. Discover GreenWorldTV

Something to get excited about for 2017 — a brand new television channel dedicated entirely to wildlife and environmental news!
Although GreenWorldTV hasn’t quite ‘landed’ yet, it’s coming. And I for one, can’t wait.
GreenWorldTV will launch in 2017 as the UK’s very first conservation, animal rescue and investigative wildlife online TV Channel and intends to bring a selection of educational and truthful wildlife TV shows, films and shorts to the world. Stay tuned – the channel will launch at http://www.greenworldtv.com
Check out this trailer for an idea of things to come, and give yourself something to look forward to:

 

You can sign up to Green World TV YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfsRp0AAJQII4EIfZeVoeRw

5. Have flick through National Geographic Kids Magazine

Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here, because – as some of you will know – I recently started working for National Geographic KiDs magazine. Their February issue (on sale now), is the first issue I contributed to.
It’s a great little uplifting read – lots of fun for children, but also, I’ve found, it’s a nice easy read on an early morning commute.
Simple language, great photography; some fun and unusual facts about big cats and a really interesting feature on polar bears (do you know how big a polar bear’s paw is?).
Plus, it’s bright and colourful and easily digestible. Definitely the kind of thing that cheers me up in January!

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Visit www.ngkids.co.uk or pick up a copy in your local newsagents.

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Taking the lions’ share: Cecil the lion’s legacy

CITES 2016 has drawn to a close. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora held its 17th meeting in Johannesburg over the last month, and the conference — heralded as the most critical meeting in its 43-year history — delivered some surprising results.

Good news for pangolins (the most trafficked wildlife species, owing to their scales being used in traditional Asian medicine), who were uplisted to receive Appendix 1 protection, i.e. a total ban on international trade except for non-commercial import, such as scientific research.

A mixed result for elephants, as although they were not uplisted to Appendix 1, further talks to open the case for legalising the sale of ivory were quickly closed down, with parties unanimously voting to prevent a decision making mechanism for future trade.
cites-bannerI have previously written about the debate surrounding rhino horn, and, happily, CITES parties rejected Swaziland’s request to trade in white rhino horn, which to me was supported simply to allow rhino farmers to profit from long collected stockpiles of horns.

But in this Born Free Foundation’s Year of the Lion, I was particularly tuned in to the plight of lions. In the lead up to CITES, there were calls for the 182 Member Countries to uplist lions to Appendix 1, which would effectively ban all commercial international trade in lions and parts and products derived from them, and place far greater restrictions on the trophy hunting industry.

Instead of Appendix 1, however, a compromise agreement was reached banning only the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions. Therefore, those coming from captive-bred lions can still be legally sold — which means the export of trophies from lion hunting, or canned hunting, remains legal.

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I must admit, I’m shocked at this decision, not just because of the all PR that the shocking practice of trophy hunting received via Cecil’s story, but because the population numbers of lions speak for themselves.

In 1900, there were as many as 1 million lions across Africa; today there are thought to be less than 20,000 wild lions across the whole continent. There are fewer than 2,000 wild lions left in Kenya, only 2,800 in South Africa, and numbers have declined 66% in 15 years in Tanzania.

When reasoning that both elephants and rhinos are wildly recognised as under threat, and their population numbers are at 40,000 [wild elephants] and 25,000 [wild rhinos] across Africa, it seems crazy to think that lion numbers are at 20,000 individuals, and yet hunters are still invited to kill thousands every year and vast tracts are reserved for hunting.

Kate shamwari lion photo

The species is under so much pressure that — in a silver lining to the CITES outcome — Botswana announced it would voluntarily treat its lions as though the Appendix 1 vote had been approved; making trade in all lion parts illegal within the country. The Environment Minister of Botswana, The Honourable Tsekedi Khama, released a statement during CITES, before the plight of the lions was formally discussed saying:

Botswana currently hosts a fair number of lions and we have made a conscious decision that we will not entertain holding any captive carnivores in the country. And the decision was made because it just becomes a habit, an easy area of trade. The more we don’t manage and protect our wildlife, the more they are subject to abuse. My concern is that if we don’t uplist lions to Appendix 1 we run a very real risk of lions eventually being hunted and traded as body parts by unscrupulous people around the world, into extinction.”

The thing that struck a chord with me the most from his statement is the idea that Botswana will not have any captive carnivores within their country. I recently read an interview with Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in Geographical Magazine in which he suggested that wild lions, as we might traditionally think of them; roaming free within protected areas, stalking their prey, etc. could be entirely replaced with lions that exist within fenced areas where every aspect of their lives is intensively managed.

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Within the same interview, Travers seemed to have forecast the outcome of CITES 2016; in explaining that the conference does not concern itself with conservation threats, such as habitat fragmentation, conflict resolution or loss of prey base — it can only apply itself to the impacts of international trade. “There isn’t enough evidence that international trade is the threat”, Travers is quoted as saying, “As we see lion populations decline, so we’re seeing trade in lion parts and derivatives, both legal and illegal, going up significantly from both wild and captive-bred lions.”

After CITES

Looking ahead, I’m interested in knowing what we can do to help protect and preserve lions in the wild, as they should be, between now and the next CITES meeting in 2019. I interviewed lion expert Brent Stapelkamp, who spent nearly a decade working on the Hwange Lion Research Project with the University of Oxford’s WildCRU and whose study subjects included the now infamous Cecil the lion.

Brent saw Cecil the lion’s killing as a chance to talk about conservation efforts to tackle the many threats that lions face, and with a small team of equally passionate individuals, re-visited a concept born 15 years ago, by chimpanzee expert Dr NishidaWorld Heritage Species.

The concept is for UNESCO to create World Heritage Species in the way that it establishes World Heritage Sites for areas of historical significance and/or outstanding natural beauty. “Basically, it’s a global recognition that lions have been too much part of our evolutionary and cultural history to lose,” he explained, “and for that recognition to be used to protect them and generate the massive international funding needed to save their landscapes.”

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It would mean “hands off, this animal belongs to the world and is too precious for a select few to hunt or appreciate,” Brent added. “A long lasting sense that at least somethings are sacred.”

The advantage to investing in an apex predator like a lion is that they are an umbrella species and their survival will mean the survival of their prey and habitats too.

The Cecil legacy

I asked Brent what he thought it was about Cecil, who he had tracked for years, that captured the world’s attention when he was hunted. Cecil had been radio-tracked and studied by Oxford University’s team since 2008 as part of a long-term wild lion research project. But he was lured away from the protection of Hwange National Park, shot by a bow and arrow and reportedly died 40 hours later.

“Cecil’s demise was not a unique event and indeed I saw maybe a dozen such hunts during my decade. I think what made it “blow up” was that those that work around here, be they safari guides, lodge owners or researcher, just said enough is enough. Not again! This hunt was the straw that broke the donkeys back and a lot of people worked very hard to make sure the story saw the light of day. The world just needed to hear it and the rest was, I believe, a natural manifestation around the global attachment to lions.”

The sentiment of this was recently echoed by Mark Jones, Associate Director of Wildlife Policy at Born Free Foundation, who is quoted as saying: “until very recently, everybody seemed to think that there were loads of lions in Africa. What the Cecil incident did was bring to people’s consciousness the reality that these animals are actually being shot by rich Westerners paying lots of money”.

Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion

Several countries have been inspired to take significant action since Cecil’s death. France announced a ban on lion trophy imports in November 2015, and in April 2016, The Netherlands announced a ban on the import of hunting trophies from around 200 species, including lions. In January 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added lions to the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for American lion trophy hunters to ship their trophies home.

But even Cecil’s story is not without its conflict amongst conservationists. Stapelkamp explained in our conversation that it was common practice to name their study subjects at Oxford. “It was based on the fact that it was easy to speak about Cecil or Jericho than MAGM1 or GUVbM2; their database identities. Guides and members of the public wouldn’t know what you were on about. We enjoyed naming them too. Some had a lot to do with each personality of the story behind them.”

The concept of naming animals has always divided opinion. Renowned ecologist and lion expert, Craig Packer finds the whole idea of naming lions bizarre. “Normally lions are called things like MH3T or lion LGB,” he said in a recent Guardian article.

“The Cecil story tells me that we, as a species, can only show empathy with individual organisms.”

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

But nonetheless, Cecil’s story has helped Packer to lobby the US and EU for control of trophy imports, and he has asked the EU to take into account the corruption in Tanzania and consider banning all trophies from there.

The canned hunting dilemma

“The hunting industry is scared to death they’ll lose the lion.” This sentence, said by Craig Packer at the 2004 CITES conference — where he argued against animal welfare groups that trophy hunting has an indisputable impact on population numbers of wild lions — pretty much sums up the conflict that prevents lions from gaining Appendix 1 CITES protection.

“While your arguments may be flawed, I agree that trophy hunters should be kept on a tight leash.” He reportedly added, back at that 2004 meeting.

Packer, who has since been banned from entering Tanzania for speaking out against corruption in the trophy hunting industry, first went there to study baboons with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. Since then, he has dedicated his life to study lions.

His book, Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns, reflects on studies of lions carried out to see whether the trophy hunting industry harms the local populations with its continuous removal of adult males: causing frequent takeovers and infanticide (killing of other males’ cubs) by replacement males, who in turn live only until the next hunting season, and are then shot and replaced themselves.

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He champions regulating hunting using a minimum age (a male should be at least 6 years old before it is hunted) instead of quotas. “In the long term, there is no conflict between business and conservation,” he writes in his book. “Lions are like a crop. Look after them properly, and you can harvest more of them, making lots more money. Just be patient and let the lions grow up.”

To me personally, the exploitation of lions in this way leaves the door open to the same amount of animal welfare issues, as selling off rhino horn stocks and farming rhinos. But Packer believes hunting could provide the best incentive for conserving vast tracks of land.

This is something that Born Free’s Mark Jones has drawn attention to, citing in Geographical Magazine that we don’t understand animal populations well enough to understand what the value of an individual is to its population — regardless of its breeding age — as breeding isn’t the only thing that social animals, like elephants and lions, bring to their population.

He also argues against giving value to trophy hunting outfitters, as he believes that land management will inevitably then prioritise providing trophies over benefiting wider biodiversity — which is essentially what the entire ‘canned hunting’ industry is (i.e. shooting lions in the ‘can’; enclosed areas of unregulated conditions).

canned-hunting

Packer, at a recent event I attended at the Royal Geographical Society in London, also confessed to having seen photos of lion farms where conditions are ‘far below the reasonable minimum standard’.  “Whatever you think of someone who pays to shoot a lion,” he said, “the conditions those lions are kept in have no regulation and should have a minimum standard.”

Even though Packer doesn’t agree that trophy hunting has to necessarily impact the population of wild lions, he does suggest that the hunting industry greatly exaggerates its ‘positive’ impact on wildlife conservation, stating that ‘hunters lie’.

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 “A lot of clients head off into the bush believing that their $50,000 will save the world — when in fact virtually none of that money goes to conservation and the true costs of conservation are far higher.”

According to Mark Jones, the actual data suggests that only around 3% of the money generated by trophy hunting  actually ends up at the community level for development. During one area of Craig Packer’s research, he surveyed 26 villages from Mount Kilimanjaro to the shores of Lake Victoria, and found almost no benefits to local communities from either ecotourism or trophy hunting.

Other threats to the African lion

Canned hunting isn’t the only threat that lions face. Habitat loss has caused the numbers of traditional ‘lion prey’ — herbivores such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo — to drop by as much as 52% in East Africa, and 85% in West Central Africa.

As prey becomes harder to find, some lions have instead turned to preying on livestock, which can have a major impact on small-scale African farmers. To these people, cattle can represent a life’s savings — creating a direct human-lion conflict, which often leads on to retaliatory killing.

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Packer has encountered lions poisoned with rat poison as intolerance grows. The people poisoning the lions live in fear, or hatred, as the predators have eaten their husbands, wives or children.

As a result, he favours the South African system of conservation, with wildlife effectively kept behind fences and strict regulation. Indeed he ‘unwild’ wild that Will Travers predicted may be the future for the African Lion. “It may feel controlled and over-managed, but it works”, Packer says “and people do not get killed.”

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Solutions

After viewing the issue from all angles, it seems that over the next few years, there will be tough times ahead for Africa’s most iconic predator. “I do think that academia sometimes gets lost within itself and the production of papers, etc. can distract from conservation work,” Stapelkamp contemplates, “that has to be guarded against”.

He has set up a new initiative, The Soft Foot Alliance trust with wife Laurie to help mitigate conflict between man and lion, hyena, elephant, baboon and honey-badger. The aim is to improve local people’s everyday lives with conservation outcomes cleverly designed into each action.

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The positive is that even scientists who remain at odds in their approach ultimately reach a very similar solution. Brent and the World Heritage Species initiative position themselves as neither an organisation, nor an NGO (non-governmental organisation, i.e. non-profit, or charity), but a grass roots, ‘citizen campaign’ and believes that NGOs, such as the Born Free Foundation and research scientists, like Packer can successfully work together under a common goal, like the WHS movement.

“Unless we find a common direction we speak different languages and aim for different targets, and to be quite frank, we can’t afford to waste time anymore.”

Even Packer, who has expressed that ‘animal groups tend to seem religious’, concedes “There are two sides to every argument and both sides are right on certain points.”

“The wider solution is for the world to recognise that the great African wildlife reserves are true world heritage sites and that their protection should be paid out of global funds. They are world treasures yet UNESCO gives no money – there’s no revenue at all. A lot of people have been duped into thinking that just by being a tourist or a hunter, it is enough. It’s not.”

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If you want to sign the petition that calls on the United Nations to establish a World Heritage Species program, you can do so HERE. Keep up-to-date with WHS by following them on Facebook.

Learn more about CITES 2016

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Want to hear more on Cecil’s story?

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Lions in the balance: A response from Sir David Attenborough

I am intrinsically drawn to places of nature and natural beauty, and as I sit in this very British park, barely three minutes walk from Buckingham Palace, the contrast between the book I am reading and the place in which I am reading it is not lost on me.

I am reading a fantastically insightful and honest book by the Director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Craig Packer, called Lions In The Balance — Man-eaters, Manes and Men with Guns. There’s a good story behind why. It was personally recommended to me by none other than Sir David Attenborough.

lions in the balance book

Last month, I did something bold (by my standards, certainly not by Craig Packer’s…), I called out my biggest idol and inspiration for promoting lion cub cuddling; despite its devastating links to the trophy hunting industry (see one of my previous posts, Bred for the bullet, for further explanation of what this industry, also known as the ‘canned hunting‘ industry, actually means).

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Naturally, the posts received a bit of a backlash. Given that I’ve written over 90 posts on this site over five years, and prior to my criticism of the Radio Times cover for Sir David’s 90th birthday, I had only received 20-odd comments, the four responses that made it onto this post are a significant portion of my audience feedback. Most of the responses were angry at me, and one even suggested that my article was “at best a publicity stunt for my blog. At worst, an insult to an honourable man who has dedicated his whole life to animals and has achieved far more in that vein than I ever will”.

Ouch. I did my best to respond diplomatically and calmly; explaining my position and my own shortcomings and former of ignorance to this issue, myself having petted lion cubs in South Africa at a place that I’ve since discovered has previously been linked with the canned hunting industry (however, Daniel’s Cheetah Breeding Centre now staunchly educates against trophy hunting, following the campaign work of an American tourist). But I quietly knew that behind the scenes, I had already voiced my concerns, privately, to Sir David, explaining about the post I had written, why I had written it and asking what his thoughts are on the current situation with lions and the canned hunting industry.

A bold move, from my perspective at least.

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A week later, I had received a handwritten reply — not directly responding to the issue, but suggesting a higher authority on lions, ‘their place within society, ecosystems, and the trophy hunting industry’. One that I would assume he agrees with.

So far, Packer’s book has been a whirlwind of diary-style entries, detailing the experience of being held at gun point in Nairobi whilst on his honeymoon; studying lion and lioness’ reactions to varying mane lengths (long vs. short) and colours (blond vs. black); and near-death experiences at the hands of malaria tablets.

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I’m looking forward to reading more of this book and seeing how his studies and experiences compare to those described by Paul Tully of Captured in Africa in his recent interview for this blog; and to perhaps further explore the darker side to the cub-cuddling issue, which Sir Attenborough himself may have inadvertently promoted.

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David and the lion’s den

Sounds like a twist on a biblical story, doesn’t it? Well, there are a couple of things of epic proportions in this latest update.

Just a day after posting my recent interview with Captured in Africa about their work rescuing and relocating lions that have either fallen into the trophy hunting trade that saw Cecil the lion killed and beheaded (see my blog post Bred for the bullet for further explanation), or that have been kept captive as pets; I joined the biggest ever march against trophy hunting — taking to the streets of London alongside Born Free actress Virginia McKenna and representatives from the charities: Lion Aid, IFAW, Save Me Trust, Four Paws, One Protest and of course Born Free Foundation.

virginia mckenna march I donned my best lion themed attire, to listen to stirring speeches from campaigner Dominic Dyer, Green World TV’s Anneka Svenska and Game of Thrones actor and staunch lion advocate James Cosmo and Virginia herself (among others), as a huge crowd of hundreds of men, women, children (and dogs) of all ages called out to ‘save our lions!’ and ‘Stop trophy hunting!’.

kate on conservation protest

Given that I know full well the perils that lions go through during a life cycle in the trophy hunting industry (from petting farms as a cubs, to get them accustomed to human interaction and build a state of trust; to overcrowded pens as adolescences, where their teeth and claws are often forcibly removed; and finally a fenced off enclosure as an adult, where they have no escape from being shot with a gun or bow and arrow depending on the request of the hunter): I can’t believe that any mainstream media outlet can champion cub petting in any form, particularly in the name of conservation.

But this week, RadioTimes seem to have done just that.

imageI refuse to share a picture of myself and the magazine alone, without this weekend’s march banner, as I feel so strongly that anything that can be seen to advocate cub-cuddling is a part of the problem.

Another part of the Goliath-sized dilemma is that I am such a huge fan of Sir David Attenborough.

IMG_8429I expect, from the magazine’s standfirst stating that: “As a birthday celebration we paired him up with two playful cubs, for our exclusive photo shoot at his home” that these must be captive zoo lions, as the photo shoot is said to take place in his home, rather than at a sanctuary of any sorts.

I know that Sir David’s early work centred around zoos, with his first television series, Zoo Quest, discussed here (NOTE: a more recent blog post, which clarifies my updated stance on zoos can also be viewed here, for anyone who’s interested), but this really isn’t about zoos, or where conservationists stand on the age-old debate of do they help with awareness and conservation, or don’t they this is about encouraging photographs with lion cubs.

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

Please take a moment to view the image above, which details the role that cub petting tourist attractions and cub-raising volunteer programmes play in the much darker trophy hunting industry, which sees adult lions hunted for cash and their heads flown to the hunters’ home turf, to be mounted on the wall.

This is a great opportunity to add that if you haven’t seen the incredibly powerful documentary, Blood Lions, please, please check it out, to fully understand this issue.image

I would still like to know more about the lion cubs used for the RadioTimes cover: who/where do they belong to? Why were they used for this photo shoot? And why did Sir David chose to go along with it? In the meantime, I shall just returned to all the other, much-loved David Attenborough-based literature I have to hand, including the last RT issue that featured him on the cover: which only gets about as dark as the 3D glasses he is wearing! image

I’ll also be adding my name to this petition, started by Paul TullyRADIO TIMES – EXPLAIN & REMOVE YOUR COVER FEATURING DAVID ATTENBOROUGH HOLDING A CAPTIVE LION CUB and praying that Sir David uses this opportunity to open the world’s eyes to the industry surrounding commercial lion cub petting.

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Rescuing lions — an exclusive interview with Captured in Africa

One of the things I love most about blogging is having the opportunity to talk to experts and professionals in conservation about the incredible and inspiring work they are doing.

I recently wrote a post titled Bred for the bullet, which delved into the dark and only recently publicly highlighted industry of trophy hunting, or ‘canned lion hunting’.

Cecil the Lion

The now infamous Cecil the lion

As a brief catch-up, canned hunting refers to lions born and raised in captivity for the sole purpose of being shot for large sums of money. Prices for these canned hunts start at about $17,500 and go as high as $50,000, and the lions involved are always killed within an enclosed area, or whilst sedated, meaning the kill is guaranteed – the lions literally have no escape (see ‘canned’).

Over the last couple of years, I have joined campaigns and demonstrations against this awful practice, attending the premiere of the Born Free Foundation film Blood Lions and marching through the streets of London to deliver a petition to South Africa House as part of the Global March for Lions.

One of the regular faces (and speakers) at these such demos is lion campaigner and conservation champion Paul Tully, pictured below. Paul kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about canned hunting and what organisations, including Captured In Africa Foundation (founded by Drew Abrahamsson and for whom he now works), are doing to help rescue and relocate lions that fall into this brutal industry.

Paul Tully

Paul Tully gives a rallying speech at the Global March for Lions, Trafalgar Square, London

How and why did the foundation start?

Captured In Africa Foundation was established by my colleague Drew Abrahamson to support rescue / relocation work, but to also support our various conservation partners in the field.

Over the years, Drew has become a key individual in the fight for Africa’s lions and big cats. Having carried out and facilitated many rescues and relocations of both wild & captive lions, Drew has somewhat become one of the go-to professionals when dealing with issues affecting big cats — whether it’s a wild lion or leopard requiring intervention (to possibly be relocated, for example), or a captive bred lion in need of a safe home (many are horribly bred for the tourist petting industry, so situations often call to get them out of where they are and to a far safer environment of an ethical sanctuary).

The foundation also uses it’s position of working with leading conservationists and non-profits on the ground and include our various contacts and efforts within the tourism industry, to ensure that funds, equipment and even advice is channelled responsibly and to the people who need it most. I can’t tell you the amount of times people ask us where best to travel to that doesn’t allow hunting, or people searching for an ethical volunteer project for example. So the foundation is a fantastic well-rounded organisation to help the public.

“It’s a passion to help wildlife, not a job”

 

What is your role at Captured in Africa?

My main role is at Captured In Africa is as Sales and Marketing Manager for the safari side of the company (we have a big emphasis on responsible tourism and conservation), my role has now also taken on our foundation, which I was happy to take on and help free of charge really — it’s a passion to help wildlife, not a job. Selling safaris is also a passion, I love it because I get to do two amazing things in one with Captured In Africa. What we do at Captured In Africa and what we do at the foundation is one, there’s no separating them as they both channel into each other to ultimately benefit the wildlife we help and support.

 

What has been the most interesting or insightful project that you have been a part of?

I’ve been in the background helping where I could help on previous relocations, but the most interesting project for me personally was our latest relocation of a rescued circus lion from Spain; Natacha. Mainly because it was the first project to fall under the Captured In Africa Foundation umbrella — although Drew has been carrying out such rescues and relocations for some time now, to see everything come together, the public support and enthusiasm to help this one lion, it makes you think: imagine what our foundation could do for all lions and Big Cats?!

© Drew Abrahamson / www.capturedinafrica.com

© Drew Abrahamson / http://www.capturedinafrica.com

How many rescues or relocations have the team carried out? Have these all been Big Cats?

Big Cats is the focus of the foundation, it’s the same as our safaris, where we advocate and raise awareness of Big Cat issues. Big Cats are where our hearts are, and rightfully so. Species such as elephants and rhinos are in the spotlight due to poaching and the ivory / horn trade, however, Big Cats have almost gone unnoticed for quite a while.

I think that’s why Cecil the lion was such a large widespread issue… lions were suddenly in the spotlight and most of the world didn’t even realise that lions were in such decline and under such threats as land loss, poaching, conflict with humans and hunting. 20,000 lions left in the whole of Africa, someone has to do something about that — the Captured In Africa Foundation hope to do just that.

Drew: There have been 15 rescues to date. Not all have made it & some are in the beginning stages as well as in the near future. They have all been Lions.

“I couldn’t just sit back and see others battling to save wildlife do it alone, they need support.”

 

 Why is there a need for these relocations?

Drew: The need comes from either a volunteer realising the lion they have cared for is in danger, so they want to ‘rescue’ it and make sure it goes to a safe home, or the lions being confiscated by authorities. In the case of wild lions relocations, it’s out of necessity as the current reserve would have reached their carrying capacity. So instead of culling, they would rather find a safe home.

There are also many private ownership issues [Big Cats kept as pets] that are often not even spoken of in South Africa, yet we know they happen. Last year, for example, an image was circulated of a tiger cub at a home just outside Johannesburg — it received a lot of attention, which resulted in no action, sadly. But it’s still legal to own such animals. CIA Foundation will only intervene when the cat has been confiscated and sometimes locally with regards to trying to negotiate the with owners to hand the Big Cats over to a sanctuary.

Drew Abrahamson speaking at event

Drew Abrahamson talks about the main issues affecting big cats. © Drew Abrahamson / http://www.capturedinafrica.com

 What organisations do you work with to carry out the rescues?

Drew: The local relocations have been self-driven, however, the foundation has a close working relationship with various sanctuaries in SA. As far as international goes, we work closely with Four Paws International and Born Free Foundation on different cats issues, but not necessarily rescues. In Spain we also work with CJ and Luis at Chelui4Lions on the confiscation cases.

 

And back to Paul, What does doing this work mean to you?

Being mainly based in England, I’m not always physically there to support these rescues and relocations, but it’s often not about that. I recently wrote online that you don’t need to be in Africa to help African wildlife (or anything for that matter), you can help where your skills fit best… you just need that feeling of wanting to right the wrongs in this world.

If I can play a part by backing up my colleague Drew, marketing a rescue, facilitating communications between parties, organising fundraising campaigns, anything… to play any kind of role means a great deal to me… I couldn’t just sit back and see others battling to save wildlife do it alone, they need support. So I’m proud to be able to do that.

Captured In Africa Foundation will have a positive impact on big cat conservation for sure, it takes a lot of time and effort, but when you have great support, we can all achieve so much good for Africa’s wildlife.

For more information about Captured in Africa and their latest news, check out their blog here.