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

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Cost of Doing Business: Rubies and Water

Around the world there are numerous projects that have already or will impact the environment and wildlife. While Arizona grapples with the possibility of a yet to be built copper mine, across the world in Mozambique a ruby mine operates near to one the largest wild areas in the province, the Niassa Reserve.

Gemfields mining company has become tied to conservation in the reserve even though  they are outside of the protected area. The company has become a sponsor of the Niassa Lion Project and Dr. Collen Begg Director and Founder of the project says it sets a bench mark that a company from within the country is supporting conservation efforts as it demonstrates an interest and concern for the wilderness area that neighbors their operation. While ruby mining in this circumstance appears to be less harmful to wildlife, it’s the illegal gold mining that is said to be the greatest threat to the Eco-system, by poisoning rivers with mercury and destroying wildlife conservation efforts. In a country like Mozambique the answers to solving these problems are not so clear especially when issues like poverty and high unemployment are taken into consideration. Can this type of positive association set an example of how wildlife conservation and big mining companies can co-exist and work together? Perhaps these rubies will one day carry a ‘wildlife friendly’ guarantee similar to that of true ethically sourced conflict free diamonds.

Large projects with the potential to have adverse and destructive consequences for wildlife can be connected to moving massive amounts of earth as in mining or by diverting large amounts or bodies of water. Man-made shipping canals appear to be in a class all their own as they forever alter the landscape and those living on it by flooding vast areas of land with water and impacting surrounding areas with corresponding infrastructure. The Nicaragua canal is one such recent controversial project that if built will be “three times as long and almost twice as deep” as the Panama canal and would require the removal of more than 4.5bn cubic meters of earth which is “enough to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building.”

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Nicaragua-canal a $50 billion dollar project – A shipping route to connect the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. It will be able to handle supertankers that are too big for the Panama canal transforming the area into a hub for global trade.  Image – The Guardian

By sheer size alone the impact and damage caused by this mega-project is perhaps greater than that of a mine as it would literally change the lives of people and wildlife across an entire continent. The canal would cut through forests and jungles threatening endangered species causing major disturbances to aquatic life which will be affected by dredging, noise and pollution of increased traffic on the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Victor Campos, director of the Humboldt Centre, a leading Nicaraguan environmental think tank, told The Guardian that “If the canal is built, then the Mesoamerican biological corridor is finished.”

A study by researchers at Panthera, Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) and Michigan State University, warns that by cutting through a critical ‘biological corridor’ it would be a disaster for jaguars and other large mammals. They said that in the middle part of the country it is vital to have another stepping stone for jaguars to travel from north to south.  It was determined that the entire northeastern section of Nicaragua, an area considered to be the country’s wildlife stronghold, would experience the largest impact from the canal. The study concluded that an artificial lake used to fill the canal would flood most of the remaining habitat for the three endangered species including the jaguar creating a huge barrier essentially cutting off mammal populations in southern Central America from those in the north preventing vital gene flow. Loss of connectivity for these species would ultimately be disastrous for their long term survival.

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A rushed Environmental and Social Impact Assessment was done but failed to include a comprehensive biodiversity study looking at threats to wildlife.

There have been suggestions for mitigating the impact of the canal to help animals including putting small islands between the canal’s artificial lake to allow them to move and, ensuring the remaining forests in the area are strongly protected. The canal is set to be one of the largest infrastructure projects on the planet and what is at stake is the Nicaraguan wildlife corridor and extinction of endangered species.

Could the canal actually help wildlife? There are some that seem to think that it may actually help slow down the already underway environmental degradation, such as deforestation and loss of wetlands, taking place in the country. If the canal is properly managed and money from the project is used to help pay for protecting nature reserves and re-forestation it would help to alleviate some environmental damage and ensure the corridor is not lost. However Roberto Salom, the Mesoamerican coordinator for Panthera’s jaguar program, said that they would need a lot more support to guarantee that, and there has been very little interest from the government or the canal company.

The Nicaraguan government is hoping they will be able to finally eradicate poverty, create jobs and a create a source of income for the country with the canal. As of May this year it has been reported that the green light has been given to begin construction, but nothing has been done due to financial issues leading to speculation that the canal may not be built at all.

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Jaguars and the wildlife corridors they use to move through Central America is threatened by the canal. Image – Wikimedia Commons

The benefit, quicker travel time, that canals provide to the shipping industry is not obvious to the general consumer, nor is the amount of goods that are transported and arrive via ships. Time is money and when shipping companies save money the savings get passed on to the consumer who ideally benefit by cheaper goods. Like mines, man-made canals are not likely going anywhere so perhaps there should be stricter protocols put into place so that wildlife like jaguars are ensured a future and companies are required to consider both wildlife and the environment in their development plans. The other option is that nothing is done and losing wildlife along with entire ecosystems like the one in Nicaragua, is considered the price paid for doing business as usual.

The final part of the Cost of Doing Business takes a look at the impact of a product that is literally in almost everything and, one we would have a hard time living without.

The Lions of London

The Tower of London is known for its rich and rather dark history having been a royal palace, prison, fortress, place for executions and at one time a zoo housing a menagerie of animals including leopards, a polar bear, elephant, monkeys, zebra, ostrich and lions, most of which were given as ‘gifts’ from foreign countries to the monarchy. In 1937 two very well-preserved lion skulls were excavated from the Towers moat and later confirmed, through genetic testing, to be the now extinct pure Barbary lions. Interestingly the skulls were carbon dated back to between “1420 and 1480 for one, and between 1280 and 1385 for the other, making it the oldest lion found in the UK since the extinction of wild cave lions during the last ice age.” Lions being symbols of nobility and strength of the monarchy did not prevent them from mistreatment, and the skulls revealed evidence that they suffered from nutritional and physical stress which would have been in addition to the stress caused from their initial capture, transport to the zoo and a life in captivity.

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The Royal Menagerie zoo lasted more than 600 years: An illustratation of how the zoo within the Tower looked in 1816Daily Mail online

Visitors were allowed to view the animals and apparently during the 18th century the price of admission was “three half-pence, or the supply of a cat or dog to be fed to the lions.”  The collection of animals continued to grow and expand in species until it was realized that the Tower was no place to keep them. Suffice it to say the attitude towards captive animals, and animals in general was not very good, but as people’s views of animals in captivity started to change most of them, except for those in the private collection of Keeper Alfred Cops which were later re-homed in 1835 after a series of accidents, were sent to the Zoological Society of London in Regent Park in 1831 and early 1832 to establish the London Zoo. The Tower’s zoo was officially closed in 1835.

By current standards the conditions these animals were kept in must have been appalling or close to what we see in some of the modern worlds worst zoos. Thankfully the only remaining animals on the Tower grounds today are those made of galvanized wire.

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Tower of London: The 3 Lions  sculpture is located on the site of the original Lion Tower

To celebrate the history of the Royal Menagerie, contemporary animal sculptor, and a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (UK) and a signature member of the Society of Animal Artists (USA), Kendra Haste was commissioned to create life-size replicas of the wild creatures that were once held at the Tower.

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“Royal Beasts” exhibit include lions, baboons, a polar bear and elephant – Image – Kendra Haste

These amazing and incredible life-like sculptures were created by using layers of galvanized wire, twisted and even painted to produce the results which give a sense of “a living, breathing subject in a static 3-D form.” The result can be seen in these photos, in person one can easily imagine them coming to life a haunting tribute to those creatures, victims of wildlife trafficking, who were imprisoned and perished at the Tower.

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Image – Kendra Haste

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Image – Kendra Haste

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Image – Kendra Haste

Currently on display until 2021, this incredible exhibit is a must see if you live, or will be in London, so be sure to check it out if you have the chance.

Paper Wildlife

For your caturday viewing pleasure – a miniature world of paper wildlife with an important message.

From the National Geographic Short Film Showcase: “Paper predators and prey spring to life in this visually stunning short from directors Dávid Ringeisen & László Ruska. An ordinary desk and typical office supplies are the backdrop for this micro-universe that carries the macromessage of wildlife conservation. While humans are left out of the piece, their impact is still present in a discarded cigarette butt that sparks an imaginary forest fire and an overflowing wastebasket that pollutes a fantastical rolling-chair river. This piece is part of the filmmakers’ MOME thesis project, the animation department at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, Hungary and was created for WWF Hungary.”

Click here or on image to view video

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Image: National Geographic. Short Film Showcase: Step Into a Miniature World of Animated Paper Wildlife

Heart of A Lion – A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America

On June 11, 2011 a mountain lion was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut, for most his death would go unnoticed, a cat that was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, another causality of urbanization. For scientists his death would eventually reveal an incredible and ultimately tragic journey, while giving hope to the idea that mountain lions could one day reclaim their former territory in the Eastern U.S. where they have been considered officially extinct for decades. For wildlife journalist and author William Stolzenburg this young male mountain lion would become the extraordinary and unlikely hero of his book Heart of A Lion.

Heart of a Lion A Lone Cat's Walk Across America, William Stolzenburg, Mountain Lions, Pumas, Eastern Cougar, Book Review, Heart of a Lion, big cats of north america, American Lion, save pumas, Mountain Lions journey to find love,The mountain lion, who has been nicknamed Walker, was discovered to have journeyed almost 2,000 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills all the way to Connecticut, not that far from New York City. Through DNA analysis, physical evidence left behind, eyewitness accounts and camera traps, biologists were able to trace his origin back to the Black Hills. His journey, which is the longest documented of any mountain lion, would come to an end in a place where his species had not been seen in almost a century.

Heart of A Lion pieces together Walkers short but extraordinary life as he made his way across dangerous and challenging territory complete with urban sprawl, busy roads, and, people who would want him dead simply for existing. The reason for his journey can be found coded in his DNA, the deep biological need to seek out and establish his own territory and, to find a mate. This search would take him east across six U.S. states, and at one point north into Canada and my home province of Ontario. What he couldn’t have known is that he would never encounter a female. With no established mountain lion populations in the east and the fact that females do not undertake long distance journey’s, instead sticking close to their home range (there has been one documented exception), Walker’s search would sadly prove futile.

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“The first photographic evidence of a cougar in Wisconsin that would eventually travel all the way to Connecticut. This photo was taken by an automatic camera in a cornfield in Dunn county, Wis. on December 22, 2009.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

The saying To walk a mile in someone’s shoes, comes to mind when reading Heart of A Lion and I don’t think it makes a difference that in this case the someone happens to be a mountain lion, especially if his story helps readers identify with and feel empathy for him and the plight of his species.  Despite traversing his way through highly populated areas he would rarely come into contact with humans, revealing himself only to a lucky few, a testament to the elusive nature of his species. He did not bring harm to nor was he a threat to humans, and he was most definitely not the blood-thirsty killer that mountain lions are so often wrongly labeled as. Walker’s story sends us a message and it’s one that we have heard before – that co-existing with these cats is possible and in some places we are already doing that.

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“A cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota prowls forest land in Clark County, Wis., Automatic trail camera snapped this early-morning shot on January 18, 2010. In June 2011, the same cougar was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut, DNA tests showed. The cougar’s  journey from South Dakota to Connecticut blew previous cougar travel records out of the water.” Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via LiveScience

Heart of A Lion doesn’t rely on portraying these cats as the stereotypical ‘beast’ to tell an intriguing story. Instead, it shows us a side of these animals that rarely makes headlines, the side that research and science is discovering is the norm rather than the exception – mountain lions are shy cats who avoid humans when given the space and opportunity to do so.

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Walker’s journey came to an abrupt end on Wilbur Cross Parkway, Milford in June, 2011. (Courtesy Connecticut State Police)

In addition to the main story the book also explores the history of the mountain lion, including how they were treated as vermin, right up to present day and the pressures they face from current day hunting policies. The book is guaranteed to stir up emotions, which may be a good thing especially if gets people thinking and pushes us towards changing outdated attitudes towards North America’s lion. It’s OK to celebrate Walker’s journey and mourn his passing, I know I did.

Whether you already love mountain lions or you are just starting to learn about them, the book is an important read and a new way of looking at these amazing animals, one that I hope becomes a trend. Heart of a Lion can be purchased at various online retailers including Amazon and is part of my Recommended Reading List.

An interesting note is the story of a GPS collard female mountain lion named Sandy who was being studied by biologists in British Columbia. Sandy had made a never before documented journey for a female walking 450 miles from BC to Montana before her life was taken by a trophy hunter in December of 2015. Just how far she would have gone and where she would have ended up, will never be known.

Future Cats

Reconstructing what prehistoric big cats looked like, and to some extent how they lived, often relies on fossils finds that researchers and scientists use to piece together the past, but what if we wanted a glimpse into the distant future of big cats instead?

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From the past –  CGI recreates the famous Sabertooth cat confronted by the first humans. Image – Nat Geo WILD/National Geographic Channels

Future Cat by Nat Geo WILD has given us that glimpse by taking a different approach, using cutting-edge special effects, and creating new worlds with ‘evolved’ big cats to go along with them. The show examines how today’s Lions, Tigers, Jaguars and Leopards would live in drastically changed environments complete with ice, desserts, floods and shifting continents that could possibly have African, Asian and North America cats fighting for survival.

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CGI: The four big cats, Lions, Tigers, Jaguars, Leopards perched high above on a mountain. Image – Nat Geo Wild/National Geographic Channel

Although the show is pure fantasy with the help of CGI and imagination it manages to address some real questions of how big cats will adapt to a future earth with extreme climate changes.

Future Cat also touches on the present and how the perfect predator has inspired researchers in the lab to create a ‘robotic cat’ like the one at MIT which mimics the running of the cheetah.

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CGI: A futuristic robot cat stands in the rubble of Fukushima waiting to begin a search and rescue mission – Image Nat Geo Wild/National Geographic Channels

Big cats have been around for millions of years, they are highly adaptable and have survived some of the earth’s most extreme challenges. Researchers acknowledge that there is really nothing quit like them and that they will never be able to be completely replicated. Once big cats are gone, they are gone for good.

What does the future hold for the big cats? At present that is something only humans can answer, their future remains in our hands. Big cats have survived almost everything nature has thrown at them up until this point, however the greatest threat they face is still from us.

Future Cat has aired on Nat Geo WILD, however you can watch the show in it’s entirety here on dailymotion

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A future cat watches as comets streak through the night sky. What does Mother Nature have in store? Image – Nat Geo WILD/National Geographic Channels

Gorongosa Reborn

The National Geographic Live Lecture season will be soon be wrapping up in Toronto and so far the series has been great. Gorongosa Reborn: A Cameraman’s Journal with Emmy Award-winning natural history cinematographer Bob Poole, has been the one lecture I have been looking forward to most since the series line up was announced last year.

The lecture centers around Bob’s recent six-part PBS/Nat Geo International series ‘Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise’, in which he has documented the come back of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

Gorongosa has been referred to as one of Africa’s most treasured national parks that in its heyday was home to thousands of animals including some 6,000 elephants and about 500 Lions. Scores of people, including international celebrities, once flocked to the park to view its prolific wildlife up until civil war broke out in 1977. By the time the war ended, in 1992, the wildlife in the park had been all but wiped out, and what hadn’t been destroyed by the war trophy hunters managed to finish off. After the dust had settled in the mid-90’s, the park was surveyed again – they counted a mere 100 elephants. Almost all of the large grazers as well as the predators were gone from the landscape.

Thankfully things were set to turn around for the better, and the rehabilitation of the park officially began when the Gorongosa Restoration Project created a 20 year public-private partnership with the Government of Mozambique to jointly manage the park. Then in 2007 lions were photographed for the first time since 1960 at the ‘Lion House’, wildlife was very slowly and cautiously beginning to return.

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Originally built as a tourist camp on a floodplain, the ‘Lion House’ was abandoned due to flooding in the rainy season and later taken over by Lions who were often seen lounging on the roof– Photo by Whitney Leonard/Gorongosa.org

Bob Poole had already spent two years living and filming in Gorongosa and was eager to take on the PBS project, he tells Mother Nature Network that the experience fulfilled a life-long dream for him “I was able to combine my passion for animal conservation with my love of documentary filmmaking.” He goes on to say that Gorongosa is a prime example of what can be done and that is possible to reverse the damage humans have caused, that with effort, “nature can be saved.” A rather positive and hopeful message at a time when we are bombarded almost daily with much of the opposite.

Bob’s love of the park and enthusiasm for his work is infectious, his story telling and passion translates in person and on-screen for an informative and at times very entertaining presentation. It is guaranteed to leave you wanting more, if not determined to visit the park for yourself one day.

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Bob Poole films sunrise over the floodplain. Photo credit Gina Poole – Gorongosa.org

Gorongosa Reborn: A Cameraman’s Journal is for anyone who loves wildlife, Africa, conservation and the idea that people can come together to fix what was once broken if we choose. Among other things you can expect to hear about elephants who haven’t forgotten the war; species reintroduction and breeding programs; and of course the come back of the parks great predator – lions.

Having been very fortunate to visit Gorongosa the presentation brought back great memories, especially the excitement of being in the park knowing the history and seeing what was being done. In particular, it is was wonderful to hear a mention of one very special lioness called Tripod, who at 15 years old is still going strong.

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View of Tripods back leg where she lost part to a snare. Image © Tori Dileo

She lost part of one of her legs to snaring and managed not only to survive but to hunt, raise cubs and remain a vital and successful part of her pride. In a way her strength and resilience is very symbolic of Gorongosa and the parks potential for the future.

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Tripod resting and waiting for one of the males off to the side. – Image © Tori Dileo

While Gorongosa is a story of hope and transformation the park and its wildlife face threats from poaching and snaring; illegal mining and logging; human settlements inside the park; and, the potential of conflict caused by political instability. However even with these challenges, the good news is the park is currently open for business and by supporting tourism there you are helping the park, its restoration, local communities and wildlife. I hope to be able to go back again one day and would recommend it for anyone who is looking for a truly magical and unique place in Africa to visit.

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Meeting Bob Poole after the lecture at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

If the story of Gorongosa intrigues you be sure to check the National Geographic Events page to see when Gorongosa Reborn is coming to your city. For those in the U.S. you can catch the full episodes of Bob’s series ‘Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise’ online at PBS.