Jonathan Scott moved to Kenya in the 1970s, going on to present Big Cat Diary and, together with his wife Angie, sharing a lifelong passion and concern for big cats with the world through their books, television and photography. Known fondly as ‘the Big Cat People’, the Scotts have committed their lives to raising awareness of endangered species. We caught up with Jonathan to discuss his love of wildlife, in particular the big cats, and concerns for their future protection.
What drove your childhood interest in wildlife?
I have always loved the countryside and nature. As a child I watched the wildlife TV series On Safari with Armand and Michaela Denis. I was mesmerised by Africa, and the thought of living among wild creatures was my dream. My favourite day of the year was when we visited my Auntie Florence in London. She would take us to the zoo in Regents Park, with the leopard my favourite big cat even then.
I was fortunate to always know my ‘bliss’ – my pathway to happiness. It was to live in the moment and explore wild places. The movie Born Free (1966) had me sitting in the cinema thinking: “That is what I want to do: live in the bush and watch big cats”.
Who has inspired you through your career?
My mother, and the memory of my father, Gilbert Scott, who was an outstanding architect in London and a decorated soldier in the Second World War. My mother always wanted me to follow my dream of doing something with wildlife.
I was also very influenced by the work of the late Sir Peter Scott – the wildlife artist and conservationist – and his father Captain Robert Falcon Scott, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. They were adventurous spirits who loved nature. Sir David Attenborough is also an inspiration. I have been fortunate enough to know him since the early 1980s when he narrated a film on the Marsh Pride of lions, the same animals that Angie and I have followed since I first came to live in the Masai Mara in 1977.
Being married to Angie, who is also an artist and award-winning wildlife photographer, has had a huge influence on my life, both personally and as a photographer.
In what place are you happiest?
Anywhere with a sense of wilderness or a view of the sea, with Angie by my side. Of course, the Masai Mara and Serengeti are very special to both of us. It is quintessential savannah Africa, and we have spent so many happy times there. We were married in the Mara in 1992 and still have a base there. I can think of nothing better than spending the afternoon or early morning in our Land Rover watching the Marsh Pride or a leopard, sitting quietly with a cup of tea and just absorbing the essence of this corner of Eden and its wild inhabitants.
What essentials do you travel with?
Angie! A camera. Swarovski binoculars. In that order.
Your best piece of safari advice?
Don’t rush from place to place trying to see ‘everything’. Always try to spend three nights at any destination.
What advice would you give to young people wishing to follow in your footsteps?
The most important thing is that you believe in yourself and persevere. Determination is a vital ingredient. You need to set off and embrace the uncertainties as you carve out your own pathway. You can have a great relationship, get married and raise children, and also earn a living as a photographer. Just stay diversified, with your fingers in lots of pies, like we have.
What is it that you love about the Mara? What makes it so special?
It is such an easy place to photograph – a photographer’s dream. The open savannah landscape makes it an ideal place for watching big cats, particularly for finding lions and cheetahs. There are also some wonderful areas with acacia thickets and woodland, the perfect hiding place for the more secretive leopards. Elephants and fire have made significant changes to the environment over the past forty years – it is much more open today.
If you had to use three words to sum up the Masai Mara, what would they be?
A predator’s paradise.
Africa’s wildlife is so diverse. Why did you fall in love particularly with big cats?
There is an aura to big cats that has always made them our favourite. They are so beautiful, yet being predators there is always that tension, the sense that they can transform in an instant from a peaceful sleeping cat to a sublime hunter.
Angie has always been fascinated by the social interaction of lions: identifying each member of a pride and following their life story from birth to death. For me it has always been the leopard. They are so enigmatic and mysterious, so clever at concealing themselves. They give nothing away and you have to spend years in their company to truly understand their true nature. It took me six years to write my first book on leopard – that is how difficult it was in the 1970s to find, let alone photograph, a wild leopard. It is estimated that perhaps 50,000 leopards were being slaughtered each year in Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s for the fur trade.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from watching the cats?
We are inspired by spending so much time with nature. It helps to remind us of the gift of life, that death is a natural part of life; something none of us can avoid. Watching an old lion in the twilight of its years, still determined to cling to life, despite its age and the inevitable injuries; this makes us value and respect our own lives.
You have spent a lot of time among the big cats. Have you ever felt in danger?
We are often asked this, but in reality wild animals just want to be left alone and will generally move away from humans, particularly people on foot. The animals in the Mara are so habituated to vehicles now that they tend to ignore people in safari wagons. But if you push an animal and approach too close (particularly if they have young), that can be a recipe for disaster.
I fear more for the animals themselves. It is really important for people to treat animals with respect – particularly cheetahs with cubs. The latest studies in the Mara show that cheetahs raise fewer cubs in high-density tourist areas. Cheetahs are daylight hunters (in the main) so are more likely to be hindered by visitors disturbing a hunt. And when a cheetah has cubs she is constantly under pressure from lions and hyenas (and leopards and jackals at times), so the added stress of tourists wanting to see and get close to young cubs may mean that a cheetah mother feels she should move her cubs to a new den – in the process exposing them to all kinds of danger.
Do you fear for the future of the big cats?
Big cats are under pressure throughout the world due to loss of habitat, loss of natural prey, conflict with livestock holders and, in some cases, the trade in body parts and skins.
Most big cats need large home ranges or territories; as does man. All of the big cats have lost vast areas of their natural habitat to man. Humanity is squeezing our last wild places off the planet. It is estimated there are now barely 7000 cheetahs, with lions said to number around 20,000 to 25,000 individuals and leopards in the low hundreds of thousands.
What more can be done to protect them?
Most people are aware that big cats are diminishing across their range. People will tell you they are concerned, but it is the policy makers and politicians who are hard to influence. Just look at the battle to reverse climate change, and the unwillingness of many countries to adopt more sustainable forms of energy.
In some developed countries our leaders want to access national parks and other protected areas for mining or oil exploration. What hope is there for Africa – where so many people live in poverty and who have far fewer resources to create a decent standard of living for their people –to protect its wildlife heritage (something many developed countries failed to do and lost years ago)?
What politician is going to put the rights of wild animals ahead of people? The international community is going to have to do far more to support conservation in countries that simply cannot afford to do it alone. It is pretty depressing to hear that international companies are still willing to partner with the DRC to prospect for oil in the Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site. What does that tell
You have such an impressive portfolio of work. What’s next?
Our latest book project is on photography. And we have just completed and presented a new 5-part TV series on the Mara’s big cats – Big Cat Tales – which will be shown on Animal Planet in October. In this series we return to follow the lives of the big cats in the Mara, teaming up once again with Jackson Ole Looseyia with the latest innovative production techniques, including rich 4K resolution.
We recently published the pick of our images (85% of which are Angie’s) in a large format book called Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance (HPH), which was designed by our son, David. It won the Gold Award for Photography in the Independent Book Publishers Awards in 2017.
We are thrilled that Sacred Nature is going to be published shortly in China with a Mandarin edition, and we have been invited to visit China to speak about our work. It is very important to us to be a voice for change in helping to encourage China’s attempts to address the many conservation issues that it faces.
You are the only couple to have each won the Overall Award in the prestigious NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Of all the photos you have taken, are there any that stand out as the most memorable to capture?
After 40 years in the field there have been so many memorable moments, some of which we never managed to photograph! Our winning photographs will always be important to us – winning the competition changed our lives. It is a huge accolade and something we are extremely proud of. The most exciting thing for us is always planning “where is the next memorable image”.
Once a photographer, always a photographer! Photography is in our blood and we are always striving to improve, to be more imaginative and creative.
You are patrons and ambassadors for a number of conservation organisations, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia and the Kenya Wildlife Trust’s Mara Predator Project.
We love to keep current with scientistsworking in the field. Historically, a lot of researchwas primarily focused on animal behaviour, but today the priority is very much oncollecting data that can be used by park and reserve managers to help conserve wild places and their inhabitants. If we can protect the habitat the animals willlook after themselves. They just need space, a place of their own.
Our role is toengage people’s attention through our images and books, and through fund-raising events. We are particularly keen on working with the next generation ofconservationists. We have produced many children’s books, both for Collins’ award–winning Big Cat series and, more recently, for Cambridge University Press. We have two new books in their Cambridge Reading Adventures series: Honey and Toto: the Story of a Cheetah Family, and Tigers of Ranthambore.
What is the best way for readers to get involved?
By signing up to CCF and KWT’s Predator Project, and to follow us on social media as we attempt to spread the word through our Sacred Nature Initiative – a series of exhibitions and talks worldwide that we hope to engage in over the next few years.
We have recently been in the South Pacific – our first visit – as guest lecturers on a Paul Gaugin cruise to the Society and Cook Islands. This was followed by a week’s safari to Tonga to photograph humpback whales, and then a trip to see jaguars in the Pantanal in Brazil in September. In October we are on safari in the Mara, then on to China in November and the Antarctic in December and January 2019.
Learn more about Jonathan and Angie on their website here.