Jonathan and Angela Scott have collaborated for more than a decade to make Big Cat Diary one of the world’s most popular TV series about African wildlife. With 30 books to their name, they recently added two more: Jonathan’s revealing and touchingly honest autobiography, The Big Cat Man, and Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance, the couple’s biggest and possibly greatest collection of wildlife photographs.
Sacred Nature is an evocative title. How sacred is nature in today’s world?
Angela Scott: It’s as sacred as it ever was, in fact even more so.
Jonathan Scott: It’s just that we don’t always realise that.
AS: I feel the discontent that is happening in the world today is because people have become disconnected from the force of nature. If you think about it, the people that you know, when times are difficult, they go for a walk in the woods, they seek out a green space. Wherever you are in the world, everyone has a park, everybody has a tree, everybody has some flowers they can put on the kitchen table. It calms you, it calms the spirit, it allows one to think, to breathe, and I defy anybody to say that it doesn’t. Most people are disconnected; they live in concrete buildings with air conditioning and heating, and no contact with nature.
JS: Other life has been shut out. Whether you live in a city or not, nature is sacred because it provides you with your water, your air, your food, even if ultimately it comes out of a tin or your freezer. We were all connected, but unfortunately man has become so much more in control of the destiny of the whole planet that there’s a load of living stuff out there which we don’t even know about that is disappearing. When they talk about the Sixth Great Extinction, we have entered it. In the last 50 years the world has lost half of its plants, animals, reptiles, fishes. Half! Not half of all species, but half the total number of animals. It’s unbelievable.
One thing that struck me about Sacred Nature was the amount of black and white images. In your previous books colour has been the dominant choice.
JS: Yes, definitely. That’s Angie, you’re the master. That’s where you started.
AS: I grew up on black and white because my father gave me a camera when I was very young. I saved up to buy myself a little darkroom which I had under the stairs in my parents’ house.
This was when you were growing up in Dar es Salaam?
AS: Yes. In those days it was all black and white. Developing for me was about black and white and I was never trained. It was just a hobby. It was something that I loved to do and that’s what I loved to study. I think I see a lot in black and white. When you’re doing a book, especially with wildlife, everybody expects colour, so we were never allowed to put black and white in. I’ve always done black and white but there never was a place for them in the type of books we were writing. With this book there was no compromise. This was the book I wanted.
What period does the book cover?
JS: I think it’s a lifetime in terms of the Mara-Serengeti. We saw this as a project that was defining us, our personal philosophy, our life’s work and where we are. This is very important: this book reflects where Angie and I are today, which is we’ve gone from being photographers and following our obsession of photographing wild animals, following their stories, to actually saying, ‘You know what? Step up.’ Now, anybody in our position who’s taking pictures has got to have something to offer conservation. You owe it to these incredible creatures and these incredible landscapes to make sure you are actually contributing to their future.
Jonathan, next year will mark your fortieth year since you first arrived in Kenya…
JS: That’s right. And our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary!
And Angie, you’re African so have you both seen an awful lot of change in terms of development and conservation?
JS: We are good friends with Dr Richard Leakey, who is a legend of anthropology and conservation in Kenya. He’s now back as the chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service. He very kindly wrote the foreword to my autobiography, The Big Cat Man, and points out the kind of conflicts and issues that we’re now dealing with. To put it in a nutshell: how do we try to present wildlife to people as being great works of art that need to be conserved, as something important to people in Africa who are earning less than a dollar a day, whose primary considerations are clean water, health, a job, security? Sixty per cent of Kenyans are earning less than two dollars a day, so how do you convince them that wildlife should be important?
The way you do it is to monetise it. So, places like the Maasai Mara, which gets 300,000 visitors a year, are generating revenue to protect the area. The problem is that there’s conflict because the Maasai are a traditional, pastoral cattle-raising culture, who view cows as part of their heritage. Why should the Maasai want to put up with the wildlife to no benefit to themselves? The wildlife sometimes bring disease, sometimes brings lions to kill their livestock, what’s in it for them? Well, they are trying to not fence this land, to create conservancies instead, to work with tour operators, to create a model to produce revenue which benefits them and the tourist industry. The problem is where are all the cows going to go?
They’re now going into the reserve?
JS: Unfortunately, a lot of them are, yes. In December 2015, eight of the Marsh Pride lions that Angie and I have watched since I first went there in 1977 – and which were stars of Big Cat Diary – were poisoned, three of them died. You know what? Were we shocked? No. Were we surprised? No. It’s been a disaster waiting to happen, but it actually focused people’s attention, and through social media millions of people got engaged and that prompted the government to sit up and say, we have to do something about this. So the area where we work in at the moment is cattle free, but when they started bringing 100,000 cows down into the reserve it was a disaster. For the moment, in our area, that has stopped and the Marsh pride are doing well again, but what we have learnt is that nowhere unfortunately is sacred. The international community needs to help - Africa cannot do it on its own.
AS: A lot of people when they go on safari, they just go there wanting to take their pictures, but they’re incredibly ignorant about what the issues are there. They just want to whizz in, they charge around the Mara, ticking them off, I must get that picture, without sometimes even knowing if they’re taking a picture of a cheetah or a leopard. So there is this terrible disconnect and then they’re gone.
JS: Ticked off. Out of sight, out of mind.
AS: They are educated people who, perhaps if they thought about it, could really make a difference to something that is so precious. If we lose it, it would be an absolute tragedy.
JS: I don’t think that there would be anything worse than if our book became almost an obituary to this magnificent place that we’ve spent all these years enjoying and encouraging people to visit.
Jonathan & Angela Scott’s lecture, Sacred Nature, will be presented at the Ondaatje Theatre, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), on Wednesday 30 November, 7.15pm-9.30pm. Doors open 6.30pm. Further information/booking: www.foc-uk.com; T: 020 3667 7017; E: firstname.lastname@example.org
• SACRED NATURE: Life’s Eternal Dance, by Jonathan and Angela Scott is published by HPH Publishing, £39 (hardback)
• THE BIG CAT MAN, by Jonathan Scott is published by Bradt; £20 (hardback)
Jonathan and Angela Scott are the only couple to have won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition as individuals. Angela was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and from the age of four lived in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, spending family holidays in the Serengeti National Park which stimulated her lifelong love affair with photography. Jonathan first set eyes on the Mara-Serengeti while travelling overland through Africa in 1974. He has lived permanently in the Maasai Mara since 1977, dedicating his life to documenting the lives of its wild inhabitants. Jonathan and Angela married in 1992 and from 1996 to 2008 they worked on the hugely popular BBC TV series Big Cat Diary. The Scotts are Canon Ambassadors and patrons for numerous conservation organizations, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, the Galapagos Conservation Trust, the Bishop Simeon Trust and the Mara Cheetah Project run by the Kenyan Wildlife Trust. www.jonathanandangelascott.com