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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.