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‘If I had only one day to live, I would spend it in the Mara’

By Peter Muiruri | May 5th 2016
Jonathan Scott. He says if he had a one day left in his life, he would spend it in the Mara. (PHOTO: PETER MUIRURI/ STANDARD)

The rugged looks of the lanky photographer are quite familiar to wildlife enthusiasts all over the world. For decades, Jonathan Scott and his wife Angela, brought Kenya’s wildlife to international fame through the widely watched BBC’s Big Cat Diaries, documentaries surrounding a group of big cats in Masai Mara.

The couple’s personal acquaintance with the Marsh Pride of lions and Half-Tail the leopard enthralled millions around the globe besides writing numerous books and doing paintings on Africa’s wildlife.

I met Scott, the naturalist, artist and photographer last Saturday during the big ivory burn at the Nairobi National Park. Pinning him down for an interview was hard. Like the battery of journalists at the scene, he could not afford to miss a click that might turn out to be yet another award-winning image.

“I will be with you in a little while,” he kept telling me every time we bumped into each other. The “little while” would end after six in the evening, long after the dignitaries had left. In the backdrop of the raging inferno, Scott and I leaned on a fire engine for a chat. Scott was born in London and raised on a farm in Berkshire. He hardly knew his father who died when he was only two. In 1972, he completed a degree in Zoology at Belfast University, before taking a trip to the unknown two years later.

Arrival in Africa

Though famous as an adventurous wildlife photographer, 67-year-old Scott knew little about taking pictures when he made the overland trip from London to Johannesburg in 1974. He arrived in apartheid South Africa, he said, and what he saw made him sick.

“That was not the Africa I was looking for. I could not stand the atrocities I saw there. I had to look elsewhere to satisfy my zoological curiosity,” he said. From South Africa, Scott travelled North to Botswana for another two-year sojourn. Still, the South African country didn’t seem to have what Scott had in mind as a home in the wild.

He ventured further North to East Africa. “I fell in love with Kenya the moment I set foot here in 1977. The wide open savannahs were what I needed to expand my knowledge about wildlife. Masai Mara was my kind of Africa while the mysterious leopard was my ultimate creature,” he said.

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For four decades, the Scott family has followed their passion that has seen them traverse the entire Mara ecosystem, documenting the lives of the big cats and are currently based at Governors Camp. These are the same plains where Scott married Angela in 1992. His wife, daughter and grandson are Kenyan citizens and he hopes to become one himself.

Sadly, the Scotts are also living with the fact that the wildlife that saw them leave their families behind in England is slowly vanishing.

At least three members of the Marsh Pride died towards the end of last year after feeding on a poisoned cow carcass. Some local herdsmen were arrested on suspicion of using pesticide to poison the carcass inside the world-renowned conservation area. “Such killings should not be happening in a world-class animal reserve. If we cannot protect a small ecosystem such as the Mara, what chance do we have of the other vast areas where wildlife thrives?” asked Scott.

The problem

“What do you make of the big fire behind you?” I asked him. “Impunity, corruption! These are the big elephants in the room nobody wants to tackle fully,” he said. “Without going full throttle in fighting corruption, elephants are not out of the woods yet.”

The vices, he said, have led to poverty and made communities living with wildlife loath the idea of conservation. According to him, when such communities lack food, clean water and security, any talk about wildlife being a beneficial resource will be hot air. “I met a man in the Mara years ago who was hopeful that proceeds from tourism in the area would uplift his lifestyle. Years later, he told me to take a good look at him and see if anything had changed in his life. Unfortunately, he had fared badly. We must satisfy the communities living with wildlife for them to see the need to conserve,” he said.

According to him, Kenyans should use the newfound power of social media to speak out on corrupt practices that threaten the survival of the species that gave Kenya international recognition. Kenyans, he said, must exercise their rights and demand more of their leaders.

“People are frightened to speak. They know where the solutions lie but are not in a position to formulate policy. We are hopeful that President Kenyatta has the political will to stop the menace,” he said.
Ever the optimist, Scott believes that we have the ability to protect our wildlife for future generations.

Parting shot?

“If I had one day left in my life, I would spend it in the Mara.”

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