If we delve far back enough, we are all from Africa. And the first visit to the continent is the first return to it, return home. Thus ‘returning home’ in the 1970s was Jonathan Scott, of the ‘Big Cat People’ fame. What was an overland trip turned out to be a life-long tryst with this ancient land. Today, together with his wife, Angela Scott, Jonathan is one of the most renowned names in wildlife photography and conservation in the world. Here, he talks about his life as an artist and conservationist, with our Media & Outreach Manager, Sourabha Rao.
From an early age, Jonathan grew up with a passion and love for wildlife, eventually going on to realise the dream that many wildlife lovers dream. He, born and grown up in England, has been living in Africa for over four decades. His dedication to African wildlife has inspired many English TV programmes, books and conservation efforts. He and his co-presenters, in the show, Big Cat Diary, opened up to the world the fascinating world of Maasai Mara's wildlife, especially the individual big cats whose lives they have closely observed for years. It is a delight to talk to Jonathan. His simplicity, despite his accomplishments, is as inspiring as his immense knowledge of wildlife. At the age of 71, the child-like wonder he nurtures for the natural world is infectious. Here, Jonathan recollects his childhood experiences, his journey to Africa, and drawing from his vast experience, talks about ecotourism, the effects of climate change on the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, and the way ahead if we are to conserve our natural heritage for future generations. Over to ‘The Big Cat Man’!
1. You visited Africa for the first time in 1974. It’s one thing to be overwhelmed with love for a beautiful country or a place that you visit for the first time. But you decided to live there ever since. What is it about Africa that made you build a life there?
I have been fascinated by the natural world ever since I was a little boy. My mother had noticed this in me. My father was a successful architect up in London, and had owned a farm in the countryside. He passed away when I was only two years old, and my mum moved us – myself (I was the youngest), my sister and my brother – to the farm which she ran herself. As a youngster, I could always draw. So my first inclination was natural history and drawing and love of nature. I watched all of the television programmes, I subscribed to the BBC Wildlife magazine. I collected little cards which came inside tea packets. I drove my family crazy; they had to keep drinking much more tea than they wanted. My greatest love was being outdoors, and I was fascinated by everything that moved in nature. I went to university and studied zoology. For a wildlife lover, England was never going to be enough. I was enthralled by a TV show of a couple – Armand and Michaela Dennis. This couple went out in their Land Rover all over Africa. And they worked with their own film crews recording those adventures. And also, in the 60s came ‘Born Free’, the story of Elsa, the lioness, and I just knew that I had to go to Africa.
When I left University, because I had friends in America, I went to America for a year. And I sort of thought about doing a PhD. But the kind of opportunities then in research were very much laboratory research. People were only just beginning to leave the laboratory. Most wildlife studies were done on baboons and other animals in captivity. It was only when Jane Goodall in the early 60s, George Schaller, who went and studied gorillas in the 50s and then lions in Serengeti in the 60s, they were just beginning to start to go and look at animals in the wild. But it wasn't yet available to me at that point. So I thought I didn't want to do a PhD. It was funny because my university professor, when I got a good upper second class degree, asked me, “Well, what next? What about a PhD?” When I said no, he asked me what I wanted to do. I said “I want to do something with wild animals; I want to go to Africa.” He just looked at me with that look of a father, a parental look of concern or worry. And he said, “And by any chance, do you have a private income? Have you got a rich father?” My answer was no, and his advice was, “We'd all love to go and study nature, to live with nature. But it's a pastime, not a career option. You've got to think about a career.”
But I was determined. I took an overland trip from London to Johannesburg, which took four months, 6,000 miles in old army trucks. I had 500 Pounds and set out for months on the road. Because I had always been interested in drawing and I had bought a camera because I wanted to be a photographer.
When I came to Africa, the end of the trip in South Africa. in apartheid South Africa, which was just ghastly; I couldn't wait to leave. But I ended up staying with a black South African who was a priest, a friend of my brother and his wife. I stayed at this religious community which was the only place where black South Africans and white people were living and sleeping under the same roof. After a while, I went to Botswana and I started to get some wildlife work. But when I was in South Africa for three months, figuring out what I was going to do, I was drawing. So I was using my photography, basically, to do drawings. And then I would print the drawings and sell them as limited editions. And after two years in Botswana, a friend and I bought a minibus. And we drove for six weeks back to East Africa, where he came from, from Kenya.
When I saw Masai Mara, I thought that this is what I've seen on television, because that's where most of the wildlife photography was done. Because it's so open and easy. There are big cats everywhere. It's the best place in the world to film wildlife. I suddenly thought, this is it. There were three options for somebody like me wanting to make a living – tourist industry, I could be a safari guy; I could be a wildlife photographer or a wildlife artist; or I could be an academic, do a PhD for a few years in the field, then I'd end up back in university. But in the end, I did a bit of all of it. Then I bumped into a friend from university who knew somebody who had started a camp in the Mara, on the Mara River, and they said, “We can't pay you, but if you want to go down and help, do your drawings and get some experience, you can help keep an eye on the camp.” And I said, “I don't mind not being paid. But I want to be able to drive people on safari. I want to learn how to be a guide. So I can get out there and live my dream.” I always took notes and read diaries, and of course my zoology background helped. I then concentrated on what you could see in the Mara every day – lions. And I named this one group of lions, which I watched every day and got to know them as individuals – the marsh lions. And we've been following them since 1977. And my tryst with African wildlife has continued.
2. You have seen the Mara like no one else. How has it changed over the years, ever since you first saw it?
I think the most notable things are on two levels – a huge increase in the number of tourists or visitors, which in some ways is a good thing, because visitors pay park entrance or reserve entrance fees. And that means that it helps conserve the area because that revenue goes to the local county that administers the reserve on behalf of the local people, some of the revenue goes back into development projects, and it helps to fund the economy of the local county. But there has been an oversupply, we need to figure out ideas on how to manage this in a sustainable fashion. So too many camps, lodges, too many people and one of the things which actually I've always admired In India, and which we haven't done with the Mara is, in India, you don't have any camps and/or lodges inside the protected areas. So now you are in control of the flow of visitors, which is great. Whereas in the Mara, yes, some of the camps and lodges are outside the reserve, and people come through the gate each day to visit. But for those people inside the reserve, well, they're just out and about all over the place. And one of the best things that's happening right now is that the national government, along with the county government, have applied for a second time to have the Masai Mara designated as a World Heritage Site. But that status comes with various provisos from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, they don't just give that away. It's not an accolade like top tourist destinations, which we often are. So like an accolade, you have to actually reach various standards and criteria. And you have to be shown that you are trying to manage the reserve within the limits of environmentally sustainable practice. Now, the government has opened the door to acknowledging that they want to try to meet the stipulations for a properly managed and sustainably run reserve.
But in terms of changes in the environment, one of the biggest changes we've seen is the opening up of the habitat. One, climate change, we're getting more unpredictable weather whether our river, the Mara River, rises to the north of the reserve outside the boundary, in Kenya's largest indigenous forest of about 4,000 square kilometres of indigenous forests. But human settlements have come in – some politically motivated – basically which shouldn't really have happened because it's a forest reserve. Charcoal burning, cutting down of trees and hydroelectric projects. There is talk about wanting to put a dam on the Kenya side and a dam on the Tanzania side to regulate the water. Because in the dry season, the river is dry. At times, you could drive across it as it is virtually drying up. Now, there's huge concerns about pollution of the river. A small number of gold mines are around now, so toxicity is going into the river, and the fish disappearing, dying. Water level is down during the Great Migration. The migration, July through to November, comes into the Mara from the Serengeti and surrounding areas. It's partly driven by the fact that the Mara is the only permanent river in the ecosystem. So the animals need that. If the river becomes really depleted, the wildebeest population definitely will decline dramatically.
And in the reserve and surrounding area, we've got about 3,000 elephants in 6,000 square kilometres, and the impact on the trees and on the bush, they're keeping it more open. And a lot of the riverine forest and the woodland areas being impacted. And previously, when we had less elephants and more grass, then you would get dry season fires, which again, burn back the Acacia woodlands. Now in the woodlands, which were impacted by fire, the elephant population is increasing and they strip out all the little seedlings before they ever turn the area back into woodlands. So big changes there. Increase in the elephant population means less thickets and safe hiding places for creatures like lions – to tuck their babies away safely into den sites, less tickets and trees for leopards. And even cheetahs, which are more associated with mixed woodlands and some open habitats, do need a certain degree of cover when they're cubs are small. So this is a problem.
But on the other hand, a benefit that has occurred in the time I've been here is the evolution of what are called wildlife conservancies surrounding the reserve. There are areas outside the reserve that are commonly owned by groups of tribal families. But in that kind of semi-arid landscape, even though we get good rains, the rains are unpredictable. What are you going to do with your land? Build a house, put a fence around it? What is your economic activity going to be? Because owning cattle, nomadic cattle, doesn’t work well. So what has happened instead is people have been encouraged to create wildlife conservancies of maybe five to 700 members of those 150-acre or 100 and 50-acre plots, to create a lease agreement with tour operators, but on a much more sustainable plan. So these wildlife conservancies are a union between landowners leasing their land, to tourism partners, giving them the right to a sustainable number of camps and lodges. And they pay through the revenue accruing from tourism, a lease fee per month to the landowner. So this actually means that now we've got several of these wildlife conservancies around the reserve, there are no fences between the reserve and these conservancies, and, there are less cars and less people in a more enjoyable tourism operation, and it's more sustainable. And it has at least doubled the size of the wilderness area available to the wild animals.
But here comes the crunch. That model, the whole support of revenue for the reserve is based on tourism. Well, it's crashed now. International tourism is dead on the ground in Kenya right now. And it has made us realise that you cannot rely on tourism, long-term, or as a viable, 100% infallible model for conservation. You're going to have to come up with some other contingencies. And what are those going to be? Well, at the moment, maybe some German aid or USAID or European Union funding, Conservation International, African governments, international governments and NGOs, putting millions of dollars. The Kenya government is also setting aside some money to support the conservancies and the tourism industry. But it has pointed out the fact the international community has got to accept its responsibility for the world's heritage sites. These phenomenal places like the Mara-Serengeti, is the last great place on earth that you can see the scenes you see on television, there's no place like it. And if we let that slip through our fingers, God help us. We're already embarrassed by how badly we've let down children and our grandchildren, what are they going to inherit from us? As Jane Goodall says, we've stolen their heritage. We need to think about what we are going to say to our kids.
Read part 2 here!