Closest to the cats

In focus

Closest to the cats

Nothing excites him like wildlife does. So much so that he’s made Africa his home. This London-born Zoology graduate followed his heart and made Kenya his home to realise his dream of a life that celebrated wildlife.

He’s not only an award-winning photographer, but a skilful illustrator, accomplished writer, and a proficient television presenter, too. His shows, such as Wild Kingdom in the US, and Big Cat Diary on the BBC in the UK and 15 other countries globally, have been enormously popular. That’s Jonathan Scott, who was recently in Delhi with his wife Angie, also an award-winning wildlife photographer who shares his passion for wildlife, to promote his recently-published autobiography, The Big Cat Man. Excerpts from an interview:

When did you realise your love for wildlife, especially the big cats?
I studied for a degree in Zoology at Queen’s University in Belfast. And I have to tell you, those four years were the most happiest and most productive of my life. At the end of the four years, I remember my professor asking me what next? Was I going to do my PhD? Was I going to be an academic? I simply said to him, ‘What I would really love to do is something with wild animals’. Well, I was so passionate about wildlife that I determined that that was going to be my dream, the dream I wanted to follow, the dream that brought me to Africa.

Did your degree in Zoology help you understand animals better?
Of course, yes. A degree in Zoology gave me a wonderful grounding in animal
behaviour, evolution, looking at the small things, and the big picture too. But, more than anything, it gave me the confidence to believe that I was capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with anybody else. It allowed me to develop the discipline to study, find my feet, be on my own, and be productive. It gave me the confidence to be able to make notes, and understand the behaviour of the animals I was
following — the big cats, the lions, the leopards, the cheetahs...

Of all the places in the world, why did you choose Africa? What attracted you to Africa in particular?
We, Angela and I, travel the world in search of great images. We love the African continent more than any other because here you can breathe deep, and feel the freedom, which is difficult to feel anywhere else in the world. The smells and sounds of Africa are unique. It is an extraordinary area where animals still run free. We are in Maasai Mara, our favourite place in the world. The Maasai are wonderful people. They embrace you, and you feel it’s a privilege.

Your dream shot?
I think, as a photographer, one is always dying for the lions to bring out their cubs. They are so playful when they are little, and you get that lovely interaction
between the mother and the little ones.

Any interesting anecdotes around your tryst with the big cats?
When I made Africa my home, it was impossible to spot a leopard. In the late 60s and early 70s, around 50,000 leopards were killed for their skin. My joy knew no bounds when I spotted a shy mother (leopard) with her two cubs in 1978. I closely followed them. I even named the female cub Chui, which is leopard in Swahili. When Chui was six years old, she gave birth to two cubs, and I followed them closely for almost six months. The best part was, she slowly started trusting me. So much so that, in the evenings, when the rest of the photographers had left for the day, she would come out and lie close to my vehicle. She felt comfortable with the way I respected her privacy. That has been the most joyful experience of my life. My book, The Leopard’s Tale, is all about this.

Your experience of documenting the life of cheetah Kike and her cubs...
Magnificent. Cheetah is a very visible animal. It is not built like a boxer or a wrestler. It is delicate and graceful, more like a ballet dancer. It manages to find a way to live among the leopards and the lions. It is a wonderful running machine, the perfect athlete on earth. Its temperament is peaceful. Its policy is — you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. No wonder, it was the favourite pet of many Mughal
emperors, for whom owing a cheetah was a status symbol. Sadly, there are only about 7,000 left in Africa, and only 50 Asiatic cheetahs in Iran.

The rigours of documenting the lives of animals...
Very challenging, as animals can’t speak. You have to follow their every movement and understand it. It involves a lot of patience, dedication, persistence and hard work. Timing is also very important. For instance, we get up before dawn, drive to where we saw the big cats the previous day. We carry everything we need in our vehicle, like food and hot water.

Sometimes, we sleep in our vehicle so that we do not miss any action.

Fortunately for us, the Kenyan government supports us as it recognises the fact that we promote Kenya through our books and TV series.

Don’t you get attached to your subjects when you start following them closely?
Of course, yes. Your heart bleeds for them. Especially when you see the mother lion trying to save her cubs from buffaloes. Animals are our brothers and sisters. We must be compassionate towards them.

The Buddhist way of life — one that respects all of life’s creatures — is an inspiration to us both.

You and Angela have written and illustrated over 30 books, including titles in Collin’s award-winning children’s education series, ‘Big Cat’. What is ‘The Big Cat Man’ all about?
Well, I have lived my life at such a frenetic pace that I felt I needed to slow down and take stock of it; reminding myself that life is not a dream but is real, and that we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to what we are doing with this precious gift of being alive. So, The Big Cat Man is all about my lifelong love affair with the natural world. It also raises questions about the future of wildlife in a world that’s overwhelmingly greedy.

Do your children also share your passion for wildlife?
Yes, both my son David, and daughter Alia, have their hearts in Africa, though work has taken them away from it. In fact, David, who is a creative designer, has designed some of my books. My grandson is not lagging behind. He
already mimics the sounds made by hippos and lions. My dream is to bring him to India to show him a tiger.

Your mission in life...
To remind people of the wonders of nature; to tell them to think of nature as sacred. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, comes from nature. So, isn’t it our responsibility to respect nature? It’s high time people realised the healing power of nature.

Do you still continue to document the lives of the Marsh Pride of lions?
Yes, our next new TV series, The Big Cats, will be based on that. It’s a story that began in 1977, almost 40 years ago...

Your advice to aspiring wildlife photographers...
If wildlife photography is your dream, your passion, follow it. If you are lucky, you may end up doing something like I have, which is to spend time in this incredible land, which is the Serengeti.

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