11 June 2014 by David Ward
Big Cat Man and Wexas Honorary President Jonathan Scott speaks out on his love affair with Kenya and why, despite recent troubles, you should still consider visiting.
All images courtesy of Jonathan and Angie Scott ©
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 (if you're 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 weren't looking for a good investment. We wanted a beautiful place for our children to call home, and quality of life. 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.
These same Marsh Lions were destined to become the stars of Big Cat Diary, the hugely popular TV series I co-presented for the BBC and Animal Planet from 1996 through to the final series in 2008, known as Big Cat Live. 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 Kenyans 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. The joys of safari are one reason why so many visitors fall in love with Kenya and long to return.
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, Northern Ireland, I set off overland for Johannesburg in an old Bedford Truck. That 10,000 km trek through Africa changed my life. 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 his skills. I could always draw and was a keen photographer. Prior to leaving for Kenya a publisher in South Africa commissioned my first set of 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 kilometres north of the Masai Mara 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 camping 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', what 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. It's never smart to walk through 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 Kenyan Citizens; our grandson Michael was born in the wonderful Aga Khan 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 loved a memorable stay over Easter at the Serena Hotel in Mombasa on the Kenya coast. He is ten months old.
Will I continue to spend 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. To live in the moment.
And it's a precarious moment for our precious wildlife. If we abandon tourism we abandon conservation. When people ask us how they can help, we say 'by taking a safari', something that I feel fortunate to have adopted as a way of life. But now wildlife-based tourism is not a choice, it's a necessity that pays the bills. Is the international community prepared to bear the cost if we lose that revenue? Lets see. Right now our hearts go out to our fellow Kenyans most affected by hard times - those who shoulder the greatest burden in facing up to terrorism.
A smile and a wave is a language we all understand and when it comes to visitors, Kenyans offer 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 world's wildlife, be it elephants or rhinos, pandas or lions, we need collective action, or we will fail. 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?