Jonathan Scott: Big Cats and Big Books

My granddaughters in the UK wanted to travel all the way to Kenya, not because their granddad is here, but because they were watching the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries. That long-running series on lions, leopards and cheetahs in the Masai Mara made Jonathan Scott’s name – and made his face better known in the UK than in his home country, Kenya.

He himself tells the story of how one day the ticket collector at Marylebone Underground Station in London asked him how the leopard called Half-Tail was doing, years after she had been killed in a wire snare. Another time he was recognised by a group of young shaven-headed Liverpool supporters on their way to a match with Chelsea. ‘Look!’ one of them shouted, ‘It’s the bloke from Big Cat Diaries – the one the cheetah crapped on.’

Yes, Jonathan Scott was indeed crapped on through the hatch of his vehicle by Kike, the cheetah, as he was filming in the Mara for the Big Cat Diaries. The episode was shown on TV, and the audience must have loved it.

I am getting these stories from a very welcome Christmas present: Jonathan Scott’s recently published autobiography, The Big Cat Man.

It is a very enthusiastic account of his travels filming and presenting wildlife programmes, not only in Africa but also in America, Asia and Antarctica. It is superbly illustrated, because he is a very good photographer – as is his wife, Angie, whose photographs are included, along with many of Jonathan’s exquisite drawings.

The book is also a frank and moving account of Jonathan’s inner journey. He calls his first chapter, In Search of Africa; he could have made the subtitle for the book, In Search of Myself. Like his various TV programmes, the autobiography should stir interest in wildlife and wildlife photography. It should also bring reassurance to readers who suffer, as he has done, from serious bouts of self-doubt and depression.

The Big Cat Man has made me reach for my yellowed copy of Bernhard Grzimek’s, Serengeti Shall Not Die, first published in 1973 – because I too, like Jonathan, was stimulated to travel in East Africa’s game reserves by this classic of conservationist writing.

‘There is nowhere on Earth quite like this,’ says Jonathan, ‘nowhere with such a broad sweep of landscape filled with so many animals.’ He relished the chance to record the start of the great wildebeest migration north into Kenya, and also to film a pack of wild dogs – the ‘painted wolves’ of Africa.

But Jonathan’s main base and first love was the Mara. It was there that he found a sense of completeness in his work: a mix of science and art. ‘I had the best of both worlds,’ he says. ‘I was living in the bush, watching wild animals, studying their behaviour, and writing, photographing and drawing what I saw.’

And it was in the Mara that Jonathan got to know its big cats – better than anyone has ever done, I think. In the Foreword to the book, Richard Leakey talks about Jonathan’s deep passion for the lions, leopards and cheetahs of the Mara.

Leakey suggests that the enormous audiences that have enjoyed the Big Cat Diary can partly explain why the Mara remains the most popular game viewing destination in Kenya, not only for tourists from the West but also increasingly from south-east Asia.

Leakey goes on to comment how sad it is that, like so many wildlife documentaries made in Kenya, the BBC’s Big Cat Diary can’t be shown here at prime times because Kenyan media houses can’t afford the licence fee. So he is not surprised that the popular demand to conserve the Mara’s wildlife seems to be mainly a foreign concern.

Jonathan shares Leakey’s commitment to conservation. He pulls no punches when he writes about the risk that those responsible for the management of the Mara will kill the goose that lays their golden eggs. He talks about the irresponsible proliferation of camps and lodges around the Reserve – and the cattle grazing inside it.

Does Jonathan ever wonder if he himself is exacerbating the problem of the Mara? Each year about 300,000 tourists visit it. By helping to make it so popular he is helping to destroy the wilderness that he loves. But, no, if properly managed tourism, of course, can ensure that wild places like the Mara will not die.

This autobiography can be an inspiration. It has certainly had one surprising effect on me. I never thought I would want to travel to Antarctica. But the graphic way Jonathan Scott writes about it – comparing it to the Serengeti in its openness, its sculptured grandeur, and its abundant wildlife – I want to see it for myself.

Jonathan talks a lot about the books that have stimulated his own safaris and his thinking. I reckon this book, too, will inspire many.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation