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Jaguar journey: following the jungle cats’ paw prints to save the species

The jaguar; a most elusive, yet powerful big cat. Stealthy and strong, it hunts like a true warrior, yet lives almost like a phantom; ghost-like in the rainforests of South America.

Compared to the prolific press that Africa’s big cats — the lion, leopard and cheetah — are granted, the jaguar is rarely seen gracing the covers of magazines, receiving week-long coverage on prime time BBC broadcast slots, or taking centre stage in its own feature-length docufilm.

Despite being the world’s third largest cat, possessing such iconic features as its beautiful rosette-covered coat and bone-crushing jaws (the largest of any big cat), the magnificent jaguar and its vulnerability to the continued threat of deforestation remains a largely unsung story.

But for the last 30 years, one man has made it his mission to save these big cats. Dr Alan Rabinowitz, Chief Scientist at Panthera and the man who established the world’s first jaguar reserve, is himself somewhat of an overlooked entity here in the UK…

 

Discovering the jaguar

Some time in my teens, when I would rush home from high school to try and catch as many wildlife documentaries on National Geographic Channel as possible before the 6 o’clock news and the firmly established family TV time that followed; I fell in love with jaguars.

The Nat Geo documentary that first piqued my interest in the big cat was titled ‘In Search of the Jaguar’. The film followed the story of Dr Rabinowitz — and showcased his quest to a secure 5,000 mile pathway for the jaguar to move from Mexico to Argentina.

The protected pathway would be an invaluable conservation effort to allow the big cats to move freely and diversify their genes.

In search of the jaguar - jaguar journey

Shockingly, estimates at the time (around 2006) suggested that one and a half billion acres of jaguar habitat had been taken by man, leaving the surviving population isolated in small pockets. Back then, it had also recently been discovered that all jaguars shared the same DNA — so a method of sewing together these pockets was necessary to allow movement for more diverse breeding.

Known as the ‘Jaguar Corridor’, the pathway — spanning 18 countries — is intoxicatingly referred to as a ‘necklace’ in the documentary, and each potential new territory sourced by Rabinowitz is referred to as a ‘gem in that necklace’.

The imagery of the emerald forests of Brazil, the burning amber flashes of the elusive jaguar slinking in and out of view and this elaborate necklace of geographical gems has always made it stick in my mind.

That and the fact that Rabinowitz was himself fighting against the odds of a serious illness during this film; yet choosing his quest to save the jaguar over slowing down to save himself.

 

Intermission

As the formidable jungle cat slips in and out of view in its rainforest habitat in real life; so my interest in jaguars has slipped in and out of my consciousness over recent times.

In the years that followed my initial discovery of wildlife warrior Rabinowitz, I would read countless stories and memoirs about people who had entwined their lives with African big cats. I would come to understand the complex social structures of lion prides and marvel at the cuteness of baby cheetahs on BBC’s Big Cat Diaries; I’d even end up travelling to South Africa to see how these big cats find ways to share a continent, and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lone leopard on the horizon. But the Latin American jaguar; this most mystic and spiritual of cats would remain a quiet, secretive, yet powerfully present interest of mine.

Towards the end of last year, exactly 10 years after first viewing ‘In Search of the Jaguar’ I took a chance on following the big cat myself. Perhaps not in quite the same way as Dr Rabinowitz and his team, but through my own journey.

Historically, these animals are interwoven in ancient civilisation as mystic creatures of great spirituality; prowlers of ancient imaginations, paid testament to through elaborate carvings and etched onto the walls of temples: their spirituality and strength make them an iconic feline.

jaguar temple statue

It is perhaps this very spirituality and strength then, that guided me at the end of last year.

Picking up a copy of National Geographic Kids magazine’s September issue, I took in the beautiful jaguar image staring back at me from the cover and flicked through the copy, taking note of facts about jaguars snatching up prey, such as caiman and capybaras, by uniquely using the winding tributaries of the Amazon basin to their advantage.

Poring over information about their skull crunching canines and their skilful swimming abilities rarely seen in big cats, I used the article as my main preparation for chasing down a job at this most esteemed of natural history media brands. I referenced the article several times in my job interview for the publication; and after a securing a second meeting, I was offered a job at the company.

Within my first few weeks, I was tasked with researching jaguar facts for a promotional ‘jungle survival guide’, which would be released with National Geographic publications across the globe, in many different languages. My first real project with the company, and it featured jaguars!

National geographic lego expedition jungle guide

If signs come in threes, the next one definitely felt like one worth seeing — or rather, listening to. When one of my new colleagues recommended listening to a podcast called RadioLab, as it featured and in-depth look at trophy hunting for rhino horn, it didn’t take long for me to look around and find an episode about zoos.

I was curious to see the journalists’ handling of the issues surrounding captivity, and shocked at the coincidence that, quite unexpectedly, the final segment in the broadcast featured one Dr Alan Rabinowitz (a name I had first heard through Nat Geo many years ago); tracing his life’s work back to being a child, and encountering a lone jaguar in the Big Cat House at the Bronx Zoo

The powerful RadioLab story (which can be listened to by clicking on the player link above) focusses on why Rabinowitz connected so much with the jaguar (owing to a severe stutter throughout his childhood, which left him feeling voiceless — a symptom he could recognise in the pitiful yowling of the Bronx Zoo’s jaguar).

The severity of Rabinowitz’ stutter was barely touched upon in that earlier Nat Geo documentary, so hearing about the extremity of the speech disorder and the impact it had on the course of Alan’s life gave a whole new dimension to the story; and a whole new perspective on his connection to the jaguar.

The coincidence of re-discovering a human-wildlife story that had fascinated me so much as a teenager, and learning of such a significant side of the story — the influence of communicating with animals on learning to overcome a stutter — certainly reignited my interest in finding out what has happened to the jaguar population now, and how Rabinowitz’ all-important ‘Jaguar Corridor’ has made a difference.

 

Jaguar journey

In Search of the Jaguar ends with a tantalising concept: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an overwhelming challenge? For this wildlife warrior, that chapter has yet to be written…”

Just over a decade on, it’s safe to say that that next chapter is an exciting one! Dr Rabinowitz is now Chief Scientist of Panthera; founded in 2006 as the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species (including tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, pumas and leopards) and their ecosystems.

The Panthera Team take on the formidable forests of the jaguar’s range – on foot! Photo by: Veronica Domit Photography

Along with Dr Howard Quigley, Head of Panthera’s Jaguar Program, Alan is currently undertaking a three-year quest to journey by foot(!) through the 10 counties that make up the spine of his now well-established 18-country ‘Jaguar Corridor’, sharing his experience along the way of the progress being made—  and of course the jaguars he encounters!

On their journey deep into the jaguar’s range, together with Panthera’s scientists and partners, they hope to continue to shine a light on the developments in the jaguar’s population and range, as well as the challenges in places where jaguars are most at risk — so that they can continue to develop and implement global strategies to best protect the cat.

I’ve signed up to ‘join the journey’ and receive regular updates about the team’s progress and was delighted to read about the efforts to explore the powerful cultural connections that locals have to Latin America’s iconic big cat.

‘The Journey of the Jaguar is showing that humans and jaguars are coexisting’ one of their most recent email newsletters reads.

This sounds like an incredible achievement when there is often so much conflict between local populations and predators (such as in the case of last year’s poisoning of multiple lions from the Maasai Mara’s Marsh pride).

I contacted Dr Rabinowitz to find out more about his experience and how the local people are able to live alongside the big cat, when so often predators are seen as a threat.

“My best experience has been to see the enthusiasm of local people and local governments to the idea of an integrated jaguar corridor,” Alan explains.

“Also to see local people feel strongly about wanting to bring jaguar culture back into the lives of their children and the schools.”

Alan Rabinowitz - jaguar journey

Dr Rabinowitz on his epic ‘Journey of the Jaguar’. Photo by Veronica Domit Photography

Hearing of the desire to educate local children about the beauty and importance of jaguars as part of their learning in the classroom is immediately something that resonates with me.

“I realise more than ever that the future rests in the hands of the young,” Alan continues. “My hopes are that this journey creates a permanent platform and a permanent movement for saving the jaguar, saving jaguar culture, and making sure that the world’s third largest cat does not go down the road of the tiger, lion and leopard.”

And for a man who has faced (and overcome) so many challenges in his life, what has been the hardest part of the jaguar journey so far?

“The worst experiences, as always, are to see dead animals.” he tells me. “Jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, and other animal parts. And learn of the fear some people still have about jaguars.”

 

Join the journey…

You can follow the footsteps of Dr Rabinowitz and the Panthera team at: journeyofthejaguar.org and see regular updates and images on Twitter and Instagram.

The expedition is also being used to spread the word about The Stuttering Foundation, which is of course is an organisation close to Alan, and one whom he is promoting along the route by wearing the foundation’s patch.

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Jane Goodall – Special interview: Roots & Shoots 2017

I hate hearing that ‘We’ve borrowed the Earth from our children’; I hate it because it’s a lie. We’ve not ‘borrowed’, we have been stealing, and we’ve made so many mistakes and it’s not the young peoples’ job to put it right. We have to work with them to fix it… we’re holding your hand so that together we can make it better.” 

Dr Jane Goodall’s words from March’s Roots & Shoots Awards ceremony rang in my head as I entered the regal surroundings of Windsor Castle; where Roots & Shoots Annual Summit was taking place for a fourth consecutive year.

Jane Goodall Windsor Castle

Roots & Shoots is a youth-driven initiative to assist young people in setting up and working together on self-chosen projects centred around people, animals and the environment. Its success speaks for itself, with at least 100,000 active groups of all ages initiating projects all over the world!

Knowing the difference in ages between the recipients of the Roots & Shoots Awards (largely projects created by primary and secondary schools) and the global delegates at the Annual Summit (most around university age), I wondered how much Jane’s sentiment or optimism would change around those more aware of the momentous tasks that lie ahead. The truthful answer? It didn’t change a bit!

Meeting the global delegates at Roots & Shoots Annual summit

Meeting the global delegates at Roots & Shoots Annual Summit, photo courtesy of BESUREIS

Before watching presentations by delegates from 22 different countries (of the 100 that Roots & Shoots programmes are now present in – a milestone met three weeks ago!), I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr Jane and find out more. Easing into the afternoon of the fifth and final day of the summit – which Jane admits is one of the busiest weeks of her calendar – we sit in an impressive lounge room in George’s Hall over tea and take all things Roots & Shoots and the future…

What is the inspiration behind Roots & Shoots?

Dr Jane Goodall: I was learning all about the problems facing the planet and as I was travelling around raising awareness about the chimps and the problems in Africa I was meeting so many young people who were either depressed, or angry, or just apathetic. And when I talked to them, they more or less said the same thing: ‘we feel this way because you’ve compromised our future and there’s nothing we can do about it’. And of course we have compromised their future, but I think there’s something we can do.

So it all began with 12 secondary school students in Dar es Salaam from nine schools in 1991 – and they wanted me to fix all the problems that were around, but I said: “No I can’t, I’m not Tanzanian, but go and get your friends who feel the same [and] we’ll have a meeting” and from that the programme was born, with its main message: ‘every individual matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference every day.’

Do you still find that those who are secondary school-age [often considered ‘the golden age’ before you lose teenagers to apathy and distraction] are still involved now?

Oh, that’s my key target audience, because you get them just before they go away – ok some go to university, but a lot won’t – so it’s your last chance to actually catch them while they’re in one place.

Jane Goodall and Kate on Conservation

Sharing positivity with Jane Goodall over educating and empowering future generations

How would you encourage children to think of their impact on the environment?

Tell them to join Roots & Shoots! Seriously! And then, it depends how old the child is, but for older children — then you start asking questions… I’m going to eat a certain kind of food; “ok, did it harm the environment when it was made? Did it involve cruelty to animals, like in intensive farms? Is it cheap because there was child slave labour?” What do you wear is the same thing: “How was it made? Where did it come from?” And then think about the effect that all these little choices have.

I know so many parents who say: “of course I recycle, my children make me!”. Some kids will literally read every ingredient on a label to see what’s in it — and if it has something in it that’s bad, like palm oil, they won’t let their parents buy it. And if you put millions of those kinds of ethical choices together, you move towards a better world.

 

How do the projects differ across the globe?

Well, in some places they live near the ocean – so they tend to do projects like, they’re especially worried about plastic bags, or maybe they want to help turtles guard their nesting sites and watch while the little ones go back into the ocean when the eggs hatch. Sometimes they’re groups living in the Amazonia jungle, and then they’ll do something perhaps to help whatever kind of endangered primate lives there. Everywhere they’re doing tree planting, everywhere they’re collecting garbage, trying to clean up the world.

It really just depends – like in Asia there’s a lot of concern about the palm oil plantations, but that’s spilled across, because we need to find out which products have palm oil in them, so that we can avoid them, and in order for that to happen you have to persuade the government to enforce labelling. So there’s huge projects in America and Australia to get the government to insist that products have labels saying what’s in them.

Chowbent primary school roots and shoots

Roots & Shoots projects in action at Chowbent Primary School


Are there any specific aims or goals for Roots & Shoots for the year ahead? 

Just going on growing, and also working on global campaigns so that the kids can feel really involved with each other. Recycling cell phones or planting trees can be a global campaign… where they can network on social media.

What is your favourite part of working on the Roots & Shoots programme?

The enthusiasm and energy of young people once they know the problems and you empower them to take action. They’re just imaginative and filled with energy – and so excited about what they do.


Listen to an extract of my interview with Dr Jane Goodall here and learn how recycling old mobile phones can reduce the need to mine for coltan, which can have devastating effects on gorilla habitats, and the children forced to mine for coltan.

Interview conducted on behalf of National Geographic Kids Magazine – keep an eye out for the rest of the interview in future issues of the magazine.

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Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Awards on World Wildlife Day

Yesterday was World Wildlife Day, an important day in the calendar for promoting campaigns and causes concerning wildlife across the globe.

I had the absolute pleasure (and honour!) of attending the Jane Goodall institute‘s Roots & Shoots Awards 2017. Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots is a youth service program for young people of all ages to foster respect and compassion for all living things; to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs and to inspire individuals to take action to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment.

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I have huge respect for Dr Jane Goodall, one of Lewis Leakey and National Geographic‘s ‘primates‘ (she studied chimpanzees, while Dr Dian Fossey studied gorillas and Dr Brute Galdikas studied orang-utans), and it was amazing to see the way that she is still inspiring and encouraging children today.

I arrived at the Barbican, where the Roots & Shoots Awards were held this year (thanks to sponsors Love Nature) to a room full of school displays by the Roots & Shoots winners, absolutely bubbling with energy! Children of all ages showed off their skills as gardeners, greenhouse-builders, photographers and documentary makers.

Humberstone Junior Academy Roots and Shoots

Humberstone Junior Academy explained their focus on wildlife, including how they had adopted a pangolin with Born Free Foundation

I took a good couple of hours to speak to all the children about their schools’ initiatives and the eco-friendly activities they have devised. Below are a few examples of the amazing work I saw — but there were certainly many more, equally impressive displays and models (I just didn’t have enough space on my phone to photograph them all!)img_5853Humberstone Junior Academy Roots and Shoots masksChowbent primary school roots and shoots

Sir Jonathan North Community College Roots and Shoots

After viewing the room of beautiful exhibits, it was time for lunch in the Barbican Centre‘s greenhouse conservatory, before moving on to the auditorium for the much anticipated award ceremony and the handing out of prizes! Winners received a trophy, a cuddly Jane Goodall ‘Mr H’ monkey, a book and a free subscription to National Geographic Kids Magazine.

Roots and shoots award presentation

Roots and shoots award presentation humberstone junior academy

Congratulations to all the schools who won these prestigious awards. It was a real treat to see such happiness and celebration! Additionally, I got to present two very talented winners the award for ‘Outstanding Photograph‘ on behalf of National Geographic Kids:

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

Rachel from the University of Salford (pictured above) won with this fantastic photograph of three Barbary macaques.

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

The second winner was Claudia from James Allen’s Girls’ School, who won with the beautiful photograph below.

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

Her award was collected by her teacher, who said she was very proud of Claudia’s work. Claudia will have the chance to be an National Geographic Kids reporter for the day!

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

The day concluded with a heartfelt speech delivered by Dr Jane Goodall herself, encompassing the message behind Roots & Shoots of inclusion, tolerance and love and respect for the planet and one another. She praised the teachers who guide and encourage their students in programmes like Roots & Shoots and the people like her mother, who never crushed curiosity or stopped her from making mistakes and learning all the life lessons she need to become a scientist.

Jane Goodall Roots and Shoot address

“I hate hearing that ‘we’ve not inherited the Earth from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children’; I hate it because it’s a lie. We’ve not ‘borrowed’, we have been stealing, and we’ve made so many mistakes and it’s not the young peoples’ job to put it right. We have to work with them to fix it. We have been stealing, and now we’re holding your hand so that together we can make it better.”

Listen to more of Jane’s speech by clicking here.

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Reflecting on a gentle nature

Lately, I have found myself in a reflective state of mind. Reflecting on my work, my goals, the small successes of the campaigns I’ve joined (Sea World agreeing to end the breeding of its captive whales); the near misses (the slow progress of the UK government in deciding whether to close the domestic trade in ivory); and the complete misses (never getting to see Tilikum free of his Sea World enclosure, CITES not delivering lions with Appendix I protection, etc.).

I suppose it can weigh heavy.

In need of a little pick-me-up, my thoughts went to the beginning —in fact, before the beginning —to the chain of events which began the ripple that would eventually flow into the creation of this sea of words; articles; posts.

It begins with the memory of murdered photographer Julie Ward, whose book, ‘A Gentle Nature’, I won in a raffle many years ago.

Below is a vlog I made a few years back, explaining who Julie Ward is and a little bit about her tragic story.

 

This is the book mentioned, which captured my interest in the Born Free Foundation and wildlife photography and was one of the inspiring factors which made me travel to South Africa to volunteer.

gentle nature

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I had chosen to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve because it is home to two Born Free Foundation sanctuaries for rescued big cats, and one of these rescue centres was opened in Julie Ward’s memory.

Shamwari friends with Kate

Celebrating a job well done with my fellow Shamwari volunteers at the Born Free Foundation”s Julie Ward Education Centre.

Since that vlog was filmed, a further development arose in the Julie Ward murder case, where new DNA evidence brought detectives a step closer to finding her killers.

The following video shows a news report from BBC News in the East of England. I must apologise for the quality of the video and give pre-warning that to get the most from the video, it will require viewers to turn the volume to full. It was recorded on simple digital camera by my ever-supportive parents, and emailed to me during my year in Australia, so that I could watch it online from overseas.

 

Back in 2013 I even designed my own mini Go Go Gorilla to send out to Born Free‘s Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari.

The basic elements of my design were my Shamwari work t’shirt from my time as a volunteer there, the Born Free Foundation logo, and an image of Julie ward herself. Such were the reaches of their influence.

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It’s wonderful to reflect on my own locality, and how where I grew up ultimately had an influence on ‘how’ I grew up. There are so many wonderful figures who have inspired my path into gentle nature and compassion conservation.

Those that I’ve followed throughout my life are: the late Joy Adamson (writer of the Born Free autobiographical tale of Elsa the lioness, and its sequels) and George Adamson (Joy’s husband, who had a lifetime of incredible conservation work in his own right, rehabilitating captive lions, such as Boy and Christian back into the wild) and the late Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who founded the Born Free Foundation with their son Will Travers, and whom played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the Born Free movie).

I would also, like many people, have to cite David Attenborough in my list of conservation heroes whose footprints I would love to walk in. I am so grateful that, in blogging, I have found a way to honour those idols and to continue to grow in the shared goals; in all their triumphs, near misses, and total knock-outs.

 

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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.