Out of Africa

By Renuka Sadanandan

It’s not an ideal everyone will espouse in these material-minded days, but Jonathan Scott has walked the talk. These are words he often tells young people. “If your mother and father say to you don’t be a wildlife person, don’t be a photographer, don’t be an artist- be a lawyer, a doctor, have a proper career- if it’s your dream, if it’s your bliss, if it’s your passion, if it’s the essence of who you are - that is going to be the time, you have to say to your parents, this is my life. With all due respect, I need to live it for myself. If I’m unable to live it, let it be me who decides that.”

Our very own and not so elusive big cat. Pic by Chitral Jayatileke

Of the naysayers, he can vouchsafe there will be many. “There will be plenty of people who say, you’re not good enough. I always say to people I had to take my entrance exam to my school twice, I had to retake my A’Ls to get into university but I made it. I got my degree and it was because I was determined and I was persistent. You don’t have to be the smartest kid in the school.”

Jonathan Scott is the man who made his name with the BBC’s widely watched ‘Big Cat Diary’, but that apart he and his elegant wife Angela are award-winning photographers, authors, artists and film-makers. He chased his dream from London to East Africa and firmly believes all of us have it in us to attempt those unrealized ambitions. He remembers the American who gave him his card - it had his name on it and underneath the words ‘Mr Persistence’ – “because he said persistence is the game of life. If you are persistent in your dream and wanting to realise it, you’ll succeed and if you don’t you would have tried anyway.”

On his second visit to Sri Lanka with Angela last month, the couple shared aspects of their work on Big Cat Diary and their enthusiasm for this country at an American Express Bank event which also saw the launch of the book ‘Reflections of the Wild’ by their friend and fellow wildlife photographer Chitral Jayatilake and the Nature Trails team of John Keells. Significant too is that they are also lending their weight to the John Keells initative- the Leopard Guardian project.

Jonathan and Angela Scott at the launch of the book Reflections of the Wild. Pic by Indika Handuwala

How Jonathan Scott growing up in a Berkshire farm after his architect father’s death when he was a toddler of two developed such a passion ( the word affinity is too mild) for big cats and then chose to make his home in Africa is the stuff of Boys’ Own adventure stories. Tall and lithe, though he does admit to a few creaking bones now that he’s crossed 60, the young Jonathan travelled overland in a Bedford truck on a four-month journey from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, all of 6,000 miles and found his home in the vast African plains.

He disposed of his onward ticket to Australia and for the first 15 years “pretty much lived in a tent”. “I never really felt very English,” he says, only half joking. Angela though, was born in Egypt and grew up in Tanzania; they met while he was working as a naturalist on a safari camp near the Serengeti and she was running a chain of curio shops, and married in the Masai Mara. “The connection between Angie and I is we love the same things….wilderness, wild places, wild animals and people,” he says and their closeness is apparent. They live in Nairobi now, their home with a magnificent view of the Ngong Hills, just five minutes from Karen Blixen’s coffee farm, made famous in the film on the author’s life that starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford - ‘Out of Africa’ .

“I think I feel most alive when I’m in Africa. It’s the closest connection to who I am and somewhere inside me I feel a natural affinity to the savannah. I’m not a rainforest person,” he smiles.

His fascination with big cats (just like half the world) was fuelled, he relates, by watching films like Born Free and reading wildlife magazines. The highlight of his year as a child was going to the zoo and the circus (before the days of open reserves) and the creature he most wanted to see at Regent’s Park Zoo was the leopard, and it was the most difficult for it shunned the light (except in Sri Lanka, he quips). Even in Africa he finds the leopard most elusive. It took him six years to do The Leopard’s Tale, his first book on leopards.

Their work that has taken the Scotts to some of the far reaches of the globe, for many would seem a dream vocation but for them is no indulgence, but rather springs from a deep connection to the natural world, they both share. “I believe part of the essence of being human is a connection to Mother Earth,” Jonathan says, quoting American entomologist E.O. Wilson ‘the father of sociobiology’. “He said ‘Why are we so surprised that if we come to Africa and watch animals at a water hole, we feel so connected. This is what we were meant to be doing; this is who we are’. We used to rely on animals and nature for our sustenance and the big thing was in those days we understood that connection. Now half the world is disconnected.”

He is emphatic that everyone of us can discover that connection given time: “If you took the wildest gangster from America or the most underprivileged child from a slum in India or Nairobi and I could have them for a day and take them on a day’s game drive, and show them my world, all the anger and the fear would go, probably they would be so soothed they would be in tears. We would sit by our campfire and reflect on a different experience that would change that person for life,” he says.After time spent in Sri Lanka in July last year when they not only took in Yala, seeing 17 leopards in five days, and visiting Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Minneriya national park, the Scotts are throwing their weight behind an initiative of the John Keells group, a project envisioned by the late Dr. Ravi Samarasingha, that of confining cattle owned by villagers living close to Block 1 to pens at night avoid the problem of leopards preying on them and coming into conflict with the villagers. “Leopard Guardian is a very special project for us ,” Jonathan explains. “We see it as representing an ideal and that ideal is creating partnerships- partnerships between industry, between business interest and giving a reason for those business interest to become enrolled in conservation.”

But Sri Lanka’s ambitious plans to attract some 2.5 million tourists annually sets off warning bells for him. He’s seen mass tourism in Kenya, both a blessing and a curse. There are choices for this country, he stresses. “You have time to adjust the model, to take into account the current reality. You don’t want to just build capacity but to build the whole culture.” Managing it wisely is key. “If you don’t, the people will say ‘you should have seen Sri Lanka ten years ago’. There will be some other new destination that people will be selling on the back of your downturn,” he warns.

It happened in Kenya. And Botswana which has a different model to Kenya benefited. Less people- and more money, could be the answer, but naturally would be seen as elitist. “Maybe we have to be wise enough to say,’ let’s give ourselves some time because we’ll be protecting the environment and then maybe we adapt that model and at the same time you have educational programmes going on, sensitizing the local people as to the value of it,” he says.

Earlier in his talk he had stressed that the best case scenario was when some of the revenue from parks goes back to the local communities. He talked too of activists like the late Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who started the Green Belt movement –who warned that the next wars will be fought over the environment, they will be fought over land, over water, over natural resources. We need to sit up and take note, of the need to protect them…it’s in our own interests, he says.

The Scotts are involved in many a conservation effort, both in Kenya and around the world and Jonathan feels that this is a responsibility they carry. “I almost feel my whole life has been focused towards what I’m doing now,” he says earnestly.

Big Cat Diary ran for 12 years from 1996 and by tracking various prides for certain periods of time, brought their lives, fraught with struggle and danger to a world audience. Of particular satisfaction to them was that Big Cat Diary brought the African lions, not only into homes throughout the world but also into the homes of ordinary Kenyans. The Marsh Pride whom Jonathan followed for 35 years, was the subject of his very first book and over the years through endless days in the African wilds, he has been intimately involved with the lives of so many prides, so many big cats- Half Tail, Shadow, Bibi, Bella whom viewers have been so engrossed with. How hard is it then not to get emotionally involved with the animals he’s so invested in? He is categorical. “My background was zoology I was brought up on a farm, I’m used to seeing animals live and die. One side of me is very emotional, one side of me is very tough and strong minded. I find it refreshing when we step back and see the beauty of nature from the predators to the prey….I see nature’s way as being a way I can rest in peace with.”

The lessons are countless and inspiring, he says citing the example of how animals don’t give up their lives easily. Take an ageing lion in the bush, maybe a 14-year- old male, “his teeth are worn, he’s sired many cubs but if you see the fire that still burns in his eyes, that says to me be courageous. If you’re having an off day, you’ve still got to go on. I see him hobbling on, on three legs, he’s not giving up his life till the last breath.” Watching wild animals has given him a huge respect for the beauty of life, the gift of life, he says and being a witness to our wild world and bringing that story to people who don’t have that opportunity is what the Scotts have dedicated their life to..

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