The Big Cat Man: An Autobiography

I am really excited to start off my recommended summer reading with The Big Cat Man: An Autobiography by Jonathan Scott who you may know as one of the presenters of BBC’s popular TV series Big Cat Diary, the long time running nature show that followed the lives of Africa’s big cats in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

I have always had an inherent love for the big cats and Africa, as a child I wanted nothing more than to see in person all that I had read about or had seen on TV. While I was still dreaming of Africa (I wouldn’t take my first trip through Kenya and Tanzania until the late 90’s) Jonathan Scott had already been on a path that would change his life forever, a path that would bind his heart and soul permanently to a continent that had called to him since childhood.

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Big Cat Diary aired from 1996 to 2008 leaving a lasting impression on wildlife lovers from all over the world. It gave the viewer an intimate look into the lives and social structure of lions, leopards and cheetahs like never seen before creating an emotional connection between the average person at home and Africa’s most iconic and beautiful animals. Whether or not you have seen the TV series, if you love the big cats and have ever wondered what life was like behind the lens for a wildlife photographer, you will most definitely enjoy reading The Big Cat Man.

Jonathan provides a fascinating and candid look at his life including his childhood, travels, his time in Africa, his accomplishments as a wildlife artist and photographer, TV show presenter and, as an advocate for the animals he spent years filming and photographing. He talks about the success and the challenges, both personal and professional, encountered along the way as well as the one event that would change everything for the better – meeting his wife and partner, Angela Scott, who equally shared his passion for Africa and its wildlife.

The Big Cat Man is full of interesting and inspirational accounts about his experiences with wildlife, including the time spent with the feline characters from Big Cat Diary and wild dogs. In addition there are stories of formidable sea lions, that weigh twice as much and are longer than a male lion, from Jonathan and Angela’s trip to Antarctica.  Accompanying the writing are many wonderful photographs as well as superb wildlife illustrations that appear like little treasures throughout the book.

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Jonathan Scott with Kike the Cheetah – Image © BBC Big Cat Live

The book also touches on some of the harsh realities facing wildlife, as much has changed since Jonathan took his first his overland journey through Africa many years ago. Lion and cheetah numbers have dropped to the point where their future is questionable (there are estimated between 15,000-20,000 Lions and about 7,000 cheetahs left in all of Africa), and poaching, poisoning, illegal wildlife trade, hunting, animal agriculture, the growing human population, corruption and even development threaten wildlife. All odds seem stacked against the animals and the environment, yet Jonathan says that despite this “you cannot give up hope”. The key is to act now while we still can.

There is a lot to take away from this book including the message that the journey is just as important as where we ultimately end up and, the risks we take in order to pursue our dreams and what we love, are worth it.

The Big Cat Man: An Autobiography is part of my Recommended Reading List and can be purchased at online retailers like Amazon.

For more on Jonathan and Angela Scott, be sure to visit: Big cat people. They can also be followed on Instagram @thebigcatpeople or Facebook @JonathanAngelaScott

Leopards in High Places

Many of the big cats are known for climbing trees to escape the heat, flies, to watch for prey or to escape other predators. It is not uncommon to see them taking to heights and, in Africa leopards are commonly seen hanging out in tall trees. Although lions have been known to do the same in certain places they are not exactly designed for tree climbing and come across a little more awkward compared to the fluid and graceful leopard who is naturally at home in the heights where they will stash kills, eat and happily sleep.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Salt Pan female hangs out and catches a breeze in a large tree – South Luangwa NP. Zambia

During my trip to Africa last year I was fortunate to have many wonderful leopard sightings both on the ground and up high, in fact over a few days all I had to do was look up to see these dappled beauties looking down at me. Of course, that’s when they weren’t busy enjoying a siesta or post-meal nap.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Kataba the one-eyed legend – Puku Ridge South Luangwa NP, Zambia

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Kataba sleeping with a full belly – Puku Ridge South Luangwa NP, Zambia

While leopards are able to climb some very tall trees you might be surprised to know that at least one had made it all the way to the top of Africa’s highest mountain to take in a view that perhaps no other has. In 1926 on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, a frozen leopard carcass was found along the volcanoes crater rim by Pastor Richard Reusch, a Missionary for the Lutheran Church. The Pastor was supposedly the first to discover the leopard which would later inspire, and be immortalized in, Hemingway’s book The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The Pastor made sure to get proof of his find and cut off an ear as souvenir on a subsequent climb the following year, afterwards the leopards remains were reported to have mysteriously disappeared. No reason was given as to why the leopard would have been that high, approximately 18,500 feet (or 5638.8 meters), close to the western summit at a place that would be christened Leopard point, but Pastor Reusch had hypothesized that the cat had been chasing a goat since he also found the remains of one not far from where the leopard lay. Since there were no remains and no radiocarbon dating, the leopards age along with length of time it remained locked in the once famous snows of Kilimanjaro will also remain a mystery.

Interestingly, there is a reference that notes the first report of a leopard carcass on Kilimanjaro was in 1889 by a German Geologist and Geographer named Hans Meyer who had seen one not far from where Reusch would later spot his. Among some of the theories included the possibility that the leopard could have come from the Kilimanjaro Mountain  Forest Reserve and took a wrong turn, or that the leopard was pursued up to high elevations by local hunters as Meyer had seen a hunting camp nearby. Officially though, nothing has ever been confirmed and to this day there has been no explanation for either Meyer’s or Reusch’s leopard.

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Kilimanjaro stands 5,895 meters high, the leopard was found at about 5638.8 meters – Image – John Reader/Science Photo Library via Earth Touch News

It does seems that leopards had an affinity for the mountains and in 1997 another leopard carcass was discovered on Africa’s second highest mountain, near Tyndall Glacier, Mount Kenya. In this case there were remains, although very decomposed, which turned out to be enough for radiocarbon dating placing the animal at about 900 years old.

There are opportunities to see wildlife during the early stages of a Kilimanjaro climb at lower elevations, but those still hoping to spot a leopard on higher slopes shouldn’t hold their breath. The high altitudes that are reached during climbs are not ones that most wild animals can survive at and if there are any, most will do their best to steer clear of humans.

If you are set on a chance to glimpse a leopard in high places it is probably best to keep your eyes on the trees and maybe, you will be lucky enough to have one of these beautiful cats reveal themselves and all their spotted splendor.

Never Forget a Face

Lions in East Africa may soon be some of the most recognized Lions around with the recent implementation of Lion Facial Recognition technology.

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Each Lion has distinct identifying features

Lion Guardians a conservation organization working to find and implement long-term solutions for people and lions to coexist across Kenya and Tanzania, recently launched the Lion Identification Network of Collaborators (LINC). The database of Lion profiles were built with the first facial-recognition software specifically designed to analyze the faces of big cats and distinguish them from one another.

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LINC software scans facial features for patterns that can match an image to an individual.

Traditional GPS collars tend to be more expensive and pose major challenges like having to replace the batteries every couple of years which can only be done while the animal is sedated. LINC will allow easier monitoring of the Lions locations and activity which will assist both conservation organizations and other wildlife researchers. It will also be less stressful for the animals as they won’t have to be captured and collard.

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LINC will aid in a better understanding of Lion population dynamics caused by human expansion.

Unlike Leopards, Cheetahs or Tigers who all have distinct identifying spots or stripes used to identify them, adult Lions lack these recognizable coat markings making facial recognition a viable method for tracking them and help to ensure researchers never forget a face.

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Facial recognition technology has already been used with other wildlife including helping to track India’s Bengal Tigers.

Lion Guardians launched the project in June of this year and the hopes is to have approximately 1,000 Lions added to the database within the next few months. The more images they have added to LINC the better the software will be and it will become easier to identify individual cats. Conservationists will keep track of the Lions course of travel from one area to another using the information to better understand where they find mates, water and prey.

The Father Of Lions

Today is the 25th anniversary of the death of George Adamson, also know as Baba ya Simba, the Father of Lions. George along with his wife Joy provided my introduction to African Lions when I was a child and reading Joy’s books, starting with Born Free, would change my life forever. The moment I read about Elsa the Lioness I wanted to visit Africa to see Lions, a dream that I have had a privilege of living a few times over the years.

The passion for these big cats has never ceased, although it is now channeled into bringing awareness to the fact that Lions are on the verge of extinction, and that we must act fast to save them. Times have changed much since George’s day and I wonder how he would feel to see his beloved cats so close to the edge.

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George Adamson and Elsa

On 20 August 1989 George Adamson was murdered in Kenya, East Africa, by Somalian bandits when he went to the rescue of his assistant and a young European tourist in the Kora National Park.”

For a lovely tribute to George please visit Ace Bourke’s Blog. Ace Bourke along with his friend John Rendall had purchased a lion cub who they called Christian in the late 60’s at Harrods in London, a year later they brought Christian to Kenya where George Adamson rehabilitated the young Lion back to the wild.

World Lion Day

World Lion Day is a day meant to bring awareness to and help educate others on the plight of this iconic species. I thought who better to discuss Lions with than my friend Rob Janisch, awesome safari guide, lodge manager, camp owner and Lion aficionado. I first met Rob and his amazing wife Jos, while visiting Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where they had been tasked with setting up the first private camp in the park, Explore Gorongosa.

For me picking Rob’s brain was a perfect way to share the perspective of someone who has grown up with Lions pretty much in their backyard and clearly has an understanding, the experience and a passion for this magnificent species. Or, in Rob’s words “...get me talking about lions and I just can’t shut up.”

I hope readers enjoy this informative perspective and that it inspires all to get involved by sharing, educating, supporting and fighting for Lions, today and everyday.

What are your earliest memories of wildlife growing up in Africa and what made you choose to work as a guide in the tourism industry?

RJGrowing up in Africa meant a lot of holiday and weekend trips into ‘the bush’ – something that nurtured a lifelong passion and interest in all things natural.”

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Rob and Jos’s little cub Lula Blue

“Family outings  during my wonder years meant that I got to experience some great and truly wild places in the company of my siblings and parents, which probably made it a bit more special. The first time I can recall being ‘moved’ by a lion was during one such trip where we came across a pride of lions lazing all over a dead giraffe – cubs, big males, beautiful females, the whole lot. I’m not sure if it was the sight of all those velvet clawed beasts, or the hideous smell of the dead and rotting half-giraffe underneath them… but it certainly was a sighting that stuck in my memory. Since having a young daughter of my own a few years back, I have tried to expose her to all things wild and wonderful too – her first safari was at age 3 months, and her first lion encounter was at 41/2 months in Gorongosa National Park. I studied along very different lines from what I am currently doing in the guiding and safari industry in Africa, but there was always something drawing me back into the bush and now I have to say I have the bug – I am hooked and I blame it all on my parents dragging me along on all those bush holidays all those years ago! “

What was your most memorable sightings of Lions and where it was?

RJ ” There have been many – more than I can even remember sadly.  But one of the most memorable, would have to be a series of events that took place in Gorongosa,  a place with significant emotional attachment to me, and since lions there were at one time practically extinct it was great to have an experience that could only be described as ‘wow’. It was a particularly lazy start to the safari with little much happening, however, once the sun had dropped off a bit, we came across some signs of lion activity and soon tracked down a personal favorite lioness of mine – a brave soul I used to call Tripod for she had lost one of her hind legs in a snare some time before.  She was a beautiful lioness, and her disability seemed to make her all the more appealing.”

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My Hero! Tripod in the park, close up of her leg.               Image -Tori Dileo

” We watched her for a bit before realizing that she was interested in something not far away – turned out there was a young, newly matured and independent male in the area who was one of the new kids on the block.  It was almost as if he had come to check up on the old dear, who we had not seen for some time and who we all, perhaps like the young male lion, feared dead.  We spent some glorious moments enjoying them, the tenderness and care they showed for each other was quite special.  However just before nightfall, something stirred him (perhaps a roar from afar?) and he upped and said his farewells, leaving Tripod lying sphinx-like in front of us.  By the time we had extricated ourselves to follow the male, he had managed to bump into a small herd of elephants. The elephants did not care much for this young upstart and chased him off, tail between the legs, before turning their attention on us.  We fled in different directions, eventually catching up with the lion again as he started a purposeful and ritual display of territorial marking and roaring – no doubt communicating with whoever or whatever had drawn his interests away from the female in the first place.  He strode down the track in front of us – the new king, so very proud of his loud voice and growing Mohawk mane. “

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Lioness and Elephants! That deserves a drink! Young male – Image Tori Dileo

“Quite some time after dark we eventually left him and headed for our camp where we enjoyed a dinner under the stars around the campfire.  Around dessert time though, we were rudely disturbed by the now-very-close roaring of a lion and we swiftly moved towards the vehicle to catch (under spotlight) the same male striding right through the camp we were in, heading towards the distant roars of his companion.  Lovely Ms. Tripod, the pair of lions under the setting sun (with customary Gin and Tonics on our part of course), his sad departure, the elephant chasers, the regal roaring and the final dinner disturbances back in camp all added up to a truly unforgettable experience.”

What was it like to work in and be part of Gorongosa’s NP restoration project and see some of the first Lions come back to the park after years of civil war?

RJ “This was something quite special for sure. Here was a park that was once referred to as the ‘Serengeti of the South’ – a place that had thousands of animals and that was on the bucket list of A-list celebrities like astronauts and Hollywood stars. Then in the space of 16 violent years it was reduced to a vast empty stretch of floodplain and forest; most of its animals slaughtered for meat, skins, tusks and medicinal purposes. Many animals were made locally extinct – rhino, cheetah, jackal, leopard, tsessebe to mention a few.”

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Image – Rob Janisch

“Others, like the huge herds of buffalo, zebra and wildebeest were reduced to a few handfuls of animals hiding in the thicker forested areas. Lions too were hit hard – mostly presumably for sport or maybe because people did not enjoy the combined threat of human enemy and feline predator to deal with whilst on patrol in the bush during the war years. In 1995, once the first census was carried out after the war years, 6 lions were counted and assumed active in the park, this from a population of a few hundred in the 1970’s. When we first started in the park some 12 years later, this number had increased to around 40-50 animals, and I distinctly remember the sense of excitement when we encountered adult lions who we were not familiar with – ‘new’ arrivals, not offspring of the original lions, but migrants coming in from surrounding areas where they were perhaps now feeling the pinch of increasing human population and hunting pressure. Slowly these new entries mixed and matched with some of the ‘old timers’ and more and more today we are hearing of litters of lion cubs being born in the park. There is a dedicated research team for the lions of Gorongosa now, with collars and other modern tracking equipment aiding in the ongoing restoration of the park and its wild inhabitants, especially keystone species such as the lion.”

In your opinion why are people so fascinated with Lions and why do so many of us feel compelled to be close to them?

RJ ” I think it stems from back in the days of the caveman… Seriously, our human anatomy and physiology has changed little since the last Ice Age when, after glaciers melted and receded, large area of plains and savannah were created resulting in big herds of herbivores spreading into these more open spaces, and as such the pursuing carnivores got bigger and more powerful.  At this stage, the predecessors of modern lions rose to prominence in these areas and of course came into contact with prehistoric man who at this point, being something of a carnivore himself, was now also enjoying the benefits of the bigger herds of prey and wider open spaces for his hunting exploits.  Man now encountered beast (lion) as a competitor for the same prey – and vice versa.  This competitive nature (fear/fascination/fancy) was thus hard-wired into our psyches at that stage and without any other major cranial or cerebral changes in man since, we have this primal nature stuck deep in the most primitive areas of our brains.”

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Image  Rob Janisch “Our greatest fears in life (heights, lions, etc) are also very often our greatest attractants “

“Anyone who doubts this just has to see their involuntary physiological response when they hear a lion roaring at close range to be reminded. A modern-day anthropology lesson on this exact subject can be made with the Hadzabe – an ancient tribe still eking out an existence in northern Tanzania with traditional methods of hunting and gathering.  These folks make a regular habit of pinching meat from antelope and the like killed by lions in their area.   Walking up to a pride of lions on a dead zebra, chasing them off, and walking away with a leg of zebra with nothing but a bow and arrow for protection is pretty thrilling.  It also shows that the competitive conflict over resources between man and lion is not a recent one given the age of these ancient tribes and their customs.  Although not the only indigenous tribe to practise this art (I have personally witnessed it in Botswana with the river bushmen too), it certainly is a feat of extreme bravery (stupidity?) and pretty awesome to witness all in all.”

What are your top locations/parks for seeing Lion?

RJ  “Nothing (did I say nothing) beats the central areas of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for absolute density and volume of lions. As a traveler to Africa wanting to experience the raw beauty and magnificence of these creatures, a drive around the Serengeti’s Moru Kopjes area and onwards to the Barafu area to the east of that is simply out of this world. Obviously the better-known and well visited Masai Mara, Kruger Park and Okavango Delta are well-known for great lion viewing, as are the harder-to-get-to, but just as worthwhile Ruaha, Katavi and Kafue areas. Then the desert lions of the Kgalagadi in Botswana are some of the more beautiful (not to mention big) lions around with their distinctive black manes and dark hairy elbows.”

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Image – Rob Janisch

“I guess my favorite place to watch lions is certainly on foot in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River. Here in the dry season, one is able to spend quality time viewing all manner of lions, mostly doing what lions do (i.e. killing buffalo) in some of the most spectacular settings in Africa. My final two places are not so much known for large densities of lion but for their relative ‘unknown-ness’ and both have really interesting lion stories. Firstly, Niassa Reserve in the north of Mozambique is a vast wilderness area with no fences, roads or developments of any major scale – lions here are as they have been since who-knows-when, wild and somewhat nervous of humans. Then Liuwa Plains in western Zambia is an emerging wildlife destination with a very interesting lion story. Google it, or better yet – come see it for yourselves!”

Lion numbers in Africa have and continue to decline drastically, it is estimated there are less than 25,000 left on the continent. From your perspective what are some of the key factors contributing to the decline?

RJ “There unfortunately is only one key factor leading to these sad but true statistics: too many people putting too much pressure on lions and lion habitats. Lion habitats and ranges have shrunk drastically as a result of increased human developments in these areas (agriculture, commercial/urban, hunting, etc) and of course the increased livestock densities needed to sustain all these humans. Many people believe that there are other factors like disease and genetic deficiencies to blame, but I don’t buy that for a second. As with so many of the Big Issues out there facing the word at the moment – the cause seems to be the same: too many people living out of sync and out of harmony with the rest of our ecological system. This leads to reduced habitats and movements of key species such as lions, and we get the massive drop-off in population numbers we see today. The only solution is better lion habitat preservation and reduced human impacts on these areas and their four-legged and furry inhabitants.”

What effect would losing Lions have on tourism and  eco-systems?

RJ ” In terms of the multi-billion dollar safari tourism industry in Africa, losing this iconic flagship species would pretty much have as much of an impact as Bono losing his voice in the middle of a U2 concert… it would bring the curtains down on this incredible show in a way that the near-extinct rhino just simply cannot compete with.  No 2 species scream African tourism dollar more than the lion and the elephant – both now on the critical list and dropping fast. Ecologically – one could argue the exact same point: in terms of big mammals of the African ecosystem, lions and elephants are 2 of the most important.  Losing the apex predator (lion) would set off an ecological domino effect the consequences of which we are really not able to fathom at this stage... a bit like predicting what the world would be like without electricity, or ice-cream, or worse: chocolate.”

Why is it important for local communities to be directly involved in and benefit from Lion conservation?

RJ ” Mainly for the reason I mentioned above why lions are so under threat… the people living in and around the lion habitats (local rural communities mostly) are the same ones who are growing in population and pushing further and further into the lions home ranges, driving cattle, goats, crops and other developments right into the heart of these wilderness areas. A lot of these areas are the same areas used for safari tourism, a major economic driver for the people and communities of these regions. If these folks are not able to see the benefits of lions to them and their livelihoods, or more correctly: if they are not able to see how much they stand to lose if the lions all disappear, than we are facing a long uphill battle. “

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Image – Rob Janisch

 How can Lions, and other big cats, benefit from Ethical/responsible tourism?

RJ “Doing tourism ‘right’  is one way of trying to spread the message both ways down the communication channel – local communities, and potential international donors. There is a great program initiated through a number of responsible tourism operations in Africa that falls under the umbrella term ‘Lion Guardians’ and it is aimed at educating and informing local communities about the benefits of lions to them and their futures. The program aims to help educate people how to live WITH lions in rural areas adjoining wilderness and also aims to provide compensation for stock loss to lions, and other innovative strategies to improve the sustainable nature of the complex relationship between local communities, high-value tourism operations, and of course the resident lions themselves.”

How will World Lion Day be marked in your country?

RJ “I know that there are a number of activities revolving around lions this weekend in Zimbabwe – my home country.  Mostly these relate to schools and kids who – without sounding clichéd or cheesy – are the ones who most need to be celebrating such a day and getting a better understanding for this awesome and extremely important species as well as their role in the bigger picture of which we are just minor players really. I am personally going to be celebrating World Lion Day in my favorite Mana Pools National Park here in Zimbabwe, hopefully getting the chance to share it with some furry feline friends!”

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Image – Rob Janisch

I really feel that the future, and indeed the present, scenario for lions is a microcosmic story of the world in general. We live in a world gone mad. We have done so since man first decided he was top of the triangle, rather than somewhere dotted along the spider web of life.” – RJ

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Rob and family

Rob works as a private guide in his beloved Africa and would love to host anyone interested in seeing and learning more about lions on a once-in-a-lifetime African safari – for more see

Throwback Thursday – My First Leopard

I have been fortunate to visit Kenya a few times over the years and have been thinking of going back again. All this thinking brought back memories of all the amazing wildlife I have been privileged to see there, especially the Big Cats. Lions, Serval…and the elusive Leopard. It was on my second trip to Kenya that I was blessed with seeing this beautiful cat for the first time.

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My first Leopard – Masai Mara

She was a well known female who had been raising her one male cub, who was quit large and gorgeous himself. We were lucky enough to spot her out and about, while her cub stayed safely among the bushes.

Masi Mara - Kenya - Supu's cub 1Curious but lacking the confidence of his mom, he stayed safely inside his den of trees watching us until she returned. Once the female disappeared behind the canopy of green we left, Leopards to their solitude and me with an amazing memory…one of the many reasons Why I Love Kenya.