Big cat man speaks out on his love affair with Kenya
Many people think that I live in England, the land of my birth. But I don’t. I am proud to call Kenya my home. I have lived here for nearly 40 years and married my sweetheart Angela in 1992 in a beautiful ceremony on the Siria Escarpment overlooking the Masai Mara’s animal speckled plains (thinking of a Honeymoon location – this is it!).
A year later we bought a house of our own on the outskirts of Nairobi. People told us we were mad buying property in Kenya – that we would never see a return on our investment. We wanted a beautiful place for our children to call home, quality of life: we weren’t looking for a good investment. In the end we got both in abundance.
The Masai Mara is our second home. For part of each year we base ourselves in a small stone cottage at Governor’s Camp in Marsh Pride territory – lions I have watched since 1977. We know the Marsh Lions better than we do many of our human friends. At night we lie in bed and listen to their thunderous roars echoing across the plains from Musiara Marsh at the heart of their territory. This is a never ending story and what keeps us wanting to set out early each morning. The joys of safari are one reason why so many visitors fall in love with Kenya and long to return.
These same Marsh Lions were destined to become the stars of the hugely popular TV series Big Cat Diary that I co-presented for the BBC and Animal Planet from 1996 through to the final series known as Big Cat Live that aired in 2008. Big Cat was watched by tens of millions of viewers around the world with hundreds of video clips on YouTube. I am proud of the fact that many Kenyan’s have been able to share in this story – to see their big cats on TV. The majority will never be able to marvel at the sight of wild lions, leopards and cheetahs in the way that visitors from overseas are so fortunate to do.
So how did I get to live my dream? As a child growing up on a farm in Berkshire I was obsessed with wildlife and Africa. So in 1974 after taking a degree in Zoology at Queens University in Belfast in Northern Ireland I set off overland for Johannesburg in an old Bedford Truck. That 10,000 km trek through Africa changed my life. I got malaria and amoebic dysentery along the way but who cares – take your Malarone prophylactic and sleep under a mosquito net and you should be fine. After four months on the road I not only lost my heart to Africa but glimpsed the place that I most wanted to return to: the Mara-Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania – an animal paradise without equal. After two years working with wildlife in Botswana I headed back to Kenya, more certain than ever that this was where I wanted to make my home.
A plan was beginning to emerge. My father was an architect and a talented artist who died when I was two years old. The gift he left me was in being an artist. I could always draw and was a keen photographer. Prior to leaving for Kenya a publisher in South Africa commissioned my first set of my pen and ink drawings of wildlife. Meanwhile a friend had introduced me to Jock Anderson of East African Wildlife Safaris who was looking for someone to help keep an eye on his camp situated a few kilometers north of the Reserve. For the next five years Mara River Camp became my home. I couldn’t have cared less that there was no pay. I was living in the Garden of Eden with a canvas roof over my head.
That was 1977. Nearly 40 years later with 26 books to my name – many of them co-authored with my wife Angie who is also an award-winning wildlife photographer – and as co-presenter of TV shows such as Big Cat Diary, Elephant Diaries, Dawn to Dusk, The Secret Leopards and The Truth About Lions what have I learned from following my dream? Firstly, to live with acceptable risk. I spent four years (1968-72) at University in Belfast during the ‘Troubles’ with people telling me I must be crazy to stay there as a ‘Brit’ with riots and bombs exploding on a regular basis. The truth was that I had the time of my life. I simply refused to buy in to the fear factor. The same could be said about living in Africa. I have never been attacked or had my home broken in to. I still walk the main streets of Nairobi and feel as safe as I do when on foot in London or San Francisco. Yes of course you need to be sensible. Its never smart to walk in to neighbourhoods you know nothing about wherever you are in the world (always ask your guide and hotel receptionist for advice first).
My wife and daughter are Kenya citizens; our grandson Michael was born in the wonderful Aga Kahn Hospital in Nairobi last June and has already made two safaris to the Mara along with trips to Ol Pejeta in Laikipia and to Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks. And he has loved a memorable stay over Easter at the Serena Hotel in Mombasa on the Kenya coast. His 10 months old. Will I still be spending time with the Marsh Lions and enjoying the miracle of the great migration? You better believe it – starting next month.
Yes, security is an issue everywhere these days and of course it is only right for Governments to warn their citizens of risks to their safety. It’s then up to each individual to evaluate that risk – just as our daughter Alia and partner did before taking our Grandson on safari or to the coast. We can never be certain that life will treat us kindly or that bad things might not happen. That is why it’s so important not to become prisoners of our fears.
And our precious wildlife? The bottom line is this. If we abandon tourism we abandon conservation. When people ask us ‘how can we help’ we say ‘by taking a safari’, something that I feel fortunate to have adopted as a way of life. Wildlife based tourism is not a choice it’s a necessity; it pays the bills. Is the International Community prepared to bare the cost if we lose that revenue? Lets see. Right now our hearts go out to our fellow Kenyan’s most affected by hard times – those who shoulder the greatest burden in living side by side with wild animals and in facing up to terrorism.
A smile and a wave is a language we all understand and when it comes to its visitors Kenyan’s offers them a hearty welcome in tandem with an unforgettable safari experience – regardless of where in the world you come from. We need you all. And that is the point? We are all connected – we need to set aside our differences and pull together. If we are serious about saving the worlds wildlife be it elephants or rhinos, pandas or lions we won’t do it without collective action. It’s time for people to think about their first safari – or their next one – and to remind us why they ‘Love Kenya’. I know why I do. How about you?
Jonathan Scott is a man of many titles, Zoologist, wildlife photographer, author, safari guide, conservationist and TV presenter of the BBC’s Big Cat Diaryand Big Cat Live. He has lived in Kenya for nearly 40 years and splits his time between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara when he is not hosting wildlife photography tours around the world and acting as a key spokesperson on wildlife conservation.
Images courtesy of Angela Scott
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