Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Living with the lions of Mara

Nobody knows the big cats of the Maasai Mara better than the internationally acclaimed wildlife photographers and writers Jonathan Scott, 62, and his wife Angela, 58. They introduced the world to the Marsh lions in BBC’s Big Cat Diary with Notch the black-manned lion who at 11 years “owns” half the Mara.
Then there’s the beautiful Shakira, the cheetah and Zawadi the leopard who at 16 is the oldest known-expectant mum and is still hanging around Leopard Gorge. These big cats are the new generation whose lives have been captured through the lens by the husband and wife team, including the trials and tribulations of their families since the 1970s. Scott jokes that he knows them better than most of his “human” friends and likes many of them better too.
Wildlife photographer
Growing up in England in the 1950s, Scott’s highlight as a child was the once-a-year visit to the London zoo where he recalls “standing in front of the leopard’s cage for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the cat.” Needless to say, it’s a training that’s stood him good, for at 62 with his boyish looks, he still spends hours waiting for the cats for that perfect shot.
Studying zoology at university in Ireland, his professor asked the then young man what he was going to do in life. Scott’s answer was, “something to do with wildlife.” It did not impress the don who remarked that he better find a good job to fund his pastime.
He obviously never took the advice, but instead traveled overland 6,000 miles from London to Africa. “Leopards were my reason for coming to Africa,” he tells the audience at the National Museums of Kenya during a two-day photography workshop conducted by him and Angela, as the brand ambassadors for Canon the camera manufacturers who have relaunched business in Kenya.
Today, Jonathan and Angela Scott are household names having shot to fame with their first wildlife portrayal of the Marsh lions in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, living mostly out of a tent to shoot the best stills they can in what Jonathan explains is the best wildlife park for its light, landscapes and big cat shooting.
Scott started photographing the cats as an “academician” to “identify” them for lions have whisker spots, leopards have spots below the eyes and cheetahs have spots that are as unique as the human finger print. He credits Angela for bringing in the artistry in the photos, which sets their images apart from the rest.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary since the Scotts began “shooting” the Marsh Pride. Tourists flock to the Mara to see the big cats whose stories they have followed on the celluloid screens for close to three decades.
Following the success of the Marsh lions in BBC’s Big Cat Diary, was the book on leopards about Half Tail in 1977, a book that took six years to write because the cats live such “invisible lives” captured by the Scotts with their powerful lenses that gave them an insight of their secretive lives without disturbing the cats.
Many more colour coffee table books followed on the big cats and birds. The pictures and the books that the Scott’s presented were so mesmerising that they sold out in no time followed by reprints. No decent bookshop can afford not to have their signature copies.
BBC’s television series Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Week became super-marketing tools for Kenya. Not to be left behind, Disney Nature followed with African Cats which will premiere on November 27 in Nairobi courtesy of African Wildlife Foundation. The films are narrated by Jonathan.
Today, the Scotts are involved in shooting (photographs) and filming around the world – leopards in Sri Lanka, Emperor penguins in the Antarctica, Buddhist monks in Bhutan which is one of the most remotest countries on earth in the Himalayas where the country’s wealth is measured as the Gross National Happiness versus the Gross National Product.
The latest feather in their cap is the pair being chosen as brand ambassadors for Canon. As fate would have it, Canon was the first camera that Jonathan bought as a novice with “no money left for a lens,” never dreaming that one day he would be an award winning photojournalist, winning the coveted title of the International Photographer of the Year, which was later won by Angie.
Photographers par excellence
Photography is something that Scott learnt on the ground, but his passion and dedication have propelled him to be considered one of the finest today. During the photography workshop at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, Scott remarked that he’s happy being a “fly on the wall” to get that engagingly powerful shot of the cats he’s so intrigued with. The duo have cars specially modified for wildlife shooting with the front doors replaced by an extension that allows them to shoot 360 degrees without the limitations of being stuck inside a car.
Wildlife photography has a special place for Jonathan. As the world hits the seventh billion human on the planet, “our wild places are evaporating fast,” he remarks. In a century, the figure will be double exponentially. Lion numbers in Africa have dwindled by more than 90 per cent in a mere two decades as have other wildlife populations. The Scotts’ pictures are powerfully arresting to want to save the last of the wild.

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