At 69, Jonathan Scott lets fame sit lightly on his shoulders. The same shoulders where Kike, the cheetah, defecated on. On September 2003, he was filming the first season of Big Cat Week — a sequel to BBC’s immensely popular ’90s show, Big Cat Diary — in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. As the internationally renowned wildlife photographer and filmmaker sat in his open jeep’s 4×4 roof, Kike jumped atop the vehicle, strained her hind legs and let it flow. The video went viral, and has 4,95,078 hits on YouTube.
In his recently-released autobiography, The Big Cat Man, Scott fondly reminisces similar (mis)adventures in Maasai Mara, which is now his home, over the last two decades. His tryst with the African wilderness came in 1971. In his early 20s, Scott decided to travel overland from London to Johannesburg, compelled by a newspaper advertisement asking for people to participate in the journey by a truck for £475. His travels took him across a wide slice of the continent — across the Sahara, through west Africa, Zaire (now Congo), and through east Africa down to South Africa.
His childhood is the earliest testimony to his love for the outdoors. His parents were “city people”, from London. “My father was an architect to the Duke of Westminster. But his dream was to live in the countryside. He bought a 30×40-acre smallholding near Cookham, Berkshire, where he wanted to retire. But he died when I was two years old,” he says. After his father’s death, his mother sold off their home in central London, and moved to the farm. From that young an age, Scott’s immediate environment involved pigs, chickens, rabbits, foxes, horses, dogs, even frogspawn — a microcosm of the animal life that fired Scott’s imagination. His father’s death played a part too. “Because my dad died when I was young, I always saw there’s a ceiling to the amount of time we have on earth,” he says.
Not that he didn’t have to suffer the plagues of practicality. After getting his zoology degree from Queen’s University, Scott had neither a job or an income. He decided to take up wildlife art and photography to fund his way through his African dream and landed up in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. There, he stayed with naturalist Tim Liversedge on a houseboat. This was when his pen and ink drawings of wildlife began to gain visibility for the first time. How, though, does he relate his sketching skills to the drama — often shockingly contrived, as he writes in his book — of television? Especially since Scott has close to two decades of TV work behind him. “High octane shows are popular, with presenters putting themselves in situations that not only risk injury to the participants but may to the animal they are filming. All these might make for dramatic footage, but it is irresponsible and gives TV and wildlife a bad name,” he says.
Scott’s work has also seen him share a close relationship with the Maasai people — a community whose role in the entire narrative of wildlife conservation in Africa has been crucial. “The Maasais saw cattle as given to them by God. Their relationship with wildlife was different. They lived alongside it, not away from it,” he says.
Scott loves India, too. A bit predictably, he says he’s taken in by all the colours. And he is all too aware of the man-animal conflict, especially with the cat that’s close to his heart: the leopard. Maybe take a lesson or two from the Maasai, he says. “Initially, the Maasai’s reaction to lions attacking their cattle would be to poison or spear them,” he says. But soon, they realised that they could improve their boundaries by fencing them better or using brighter lights. Such relatively less confrontational ways can ensure that we live alongside wildlife, not without it.
The depth of Scott’s work can often make one forget the question: how conscious has he felt of his identity as the White man in Africa? “I’ve been aware of how Europeans have been part of the problem in a big way. Having consumed their own natural heritage, the West cannot lecture the rest about protecting their environment,” he says.
Scott has also been privy to the less breathtaking aspects of Africa — AIDS, the Hutu massacre and apartheid. Is he a bit of an escapist, choosing to not look at the uglier things around him? “I’m a romantic at heart. I have lived a life which is a bit like escaping from ugly realities, not because I like people less but because I like the mystery of wild animals more!” he says.