THE BIG CAT PEOPLE
JONATHAN & ANGELA SCOTT
On my first safari in Kenya, I was treated to an overnight stay at the Root/Leakey Camp in the Maasai Mara. Simple canvas tents occupied a quiet, shady spot on the Mara River, the only remnant of a safari partnership that dissolved as Alan and Joan Root became awardwinning filmmakers, and Richard Leakey followed in the footsteps of his legendary parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, to search for human origins. Another name has grown since that night on the river.
During Sundowners Alan Root encouraged the resident naturalist to show me his drawings. There were beautiful pen and ink sketches of lions and cheetahs. Jonathan Scott received no salary for his work at the camp, only room and board. But it was his first step towards a career with big cats.
“When I first arrived in the Mara, the leopard population was at an all time low,” Scott wrote in his autobiography, ; “trade in spotted cat skins had taken a terrible toll with upwards of 50,000 killed across Africa each year in the 1960’s and 70’s.” After Kenya’s hunting ban in 1977, leopard began to recover, but they have lost 75% of their historical range.
So Jonathan Scott began to follow The Marsh Lions, which led to a book of the same name (co-authored with Brian Jackman, 1982), and a TV series co-hosted with Simon King. The lions favored the Musiara Marsh not far from Governor’s Camp. The lives of individual cats were documented over the years. Scott’s narration on camera was enhanced by his background in
zoology. But nothing prepared him for the loss of beloved characters such as the lioness Bibi, who local herdsmen poisoned in retaliation for cows killed. There was a cascade of deaths from a single poisoned carcass - lions, hyenas, vultures.
Huge herds of cattle would camp during the daytime along the boundary of the reserve waiting for the tourists to head in for the night. These incursions into their territory scattered the pride, including males such as Scarface, who was shot in the abdomen. “He was treated and recovered but knew better than to stay in that area.” Today Scarface still roars, and descendants of the original Marsh pride now feature on a Facebook page monitored by Governor’s Camp, the base camp for Scott’s latest series, . “Thankfully,” says Scott, “the number of cattle encroaching into the reserve has declined markedly due to action by the authorities.”
In 1992 Jonathan Scott welcomed a female to his own pride. At the age of eight she had her first camera and her own darkroom at her family’s home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. While Jonathan thought of photography as a way to collect images for his pen and ink drawings, or recording animal behavior, Angela Bellamy understood the magic of light and artistic mood. She speaks softly, and it was her voice over the phone, inquiring about one of his books, that first captured Jonathan. “I thought, ‘what a gorgeous voice’. When I met her she was gorgeous, too.” He and Angela married in 1992 in a ceremony atop the Siria Escarpment overlooking Marsh Lion territory.
Now they spend several months a year in the Mara, shooting from separate vehicles that act as mobile hides. Vehicles mask human presence. Cats and other wildlife react to people on foot. Jonathan prefers a Land Cruiser and Angie a customized Land Rover, with a grooved camera mount along very wide open windows, a small fridge, and yoga mat for those long, slow hours when lions are sleeping. Her own sleep stops around 4:30am. Stars are still in the night sky as lions speak.
“At first light I’ll go outside for a cup of tea and we listen together. We work out which cat we’re going to find, take our cars and go. We spend hours getting close but not intruding, and we’re out
THEY EACH WON THE PRESTIGIOUS WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR COMPETITION AS INDIVIDUALS, THE ONLY COUPLE IN THE WORLD TO DO SO.
until the stars begin to return.” They each won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition as individuals, the only couple in the world to do so. Now they are Canon Ambassadors, showcasing the role photography plays in wildlife conservation. “There is a need for photographs that speak to people on the wonder and beauty of the natural world – such as Angie’s serene image of a family of elephants drinking,” Jonathan wrote.
The Scotts advise amateur shutterbugs not to get caught up in the equipment. “Our advice is to start small, as you can always upsize later. Master the basics before investing in expensive professional equipment. Anyone planning a safari should consider Canon’s PowerShot SX70 HS for its powerful 65x optical zoom.” That happens to be the camera I use most; it fits in my pocket, but can still capture distinct leopard spots from afar.
Margot Raggett, featured in a recent Portfolio profile, said, “Jonathan and in particular Angela Scott, have been my mentors in both photography and conservation since I first met them in 2010. Not only are they both amazing photographers, their sensitivity to all wildlife and the entire ecosystem most influenced me. Without their support and encouragement, the R series would not have become the force that it has.” The Scotts wrote the foreword to , and one of Angela’s photos captures the majesty of these big cats.