Book Review: “The Big Cat Man” by Jonathan Scott

Jonathan Scott lives a life that most of us can only dream of, spending much of his time in one of the most amazing wildlife areas in the world, Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Naturalist, writer, artist, wildlife photographer and world-famous TV presenter, he has turned the dreams of his youth into a reality, and the story of his life, told in his autobiography “The Big Cat Man” (Bradt, 2016) makes for a truly absorbing read. I suppose many young wildlife enthusiasts will read it looking for an answer to the question “how did he achieve it?”, and certainly that, plus the thrill of following Scott’s adventures and encounters with wildlife are more than enough reasons to read it. Complete with a stunning collection of photographs and Scott’s beautiful line drawings, the book guarantees an engrossing experience.

But for those who have read his earlier books and followed his TV programs over the years, deeper expectations emerge. What perspective has Scott gained after witnessing the changes that have taken place in his beloved Africa since he arrived there? What kind of transformations has he himself undergone during a lifetime observing and learning from Nature at her rawest? Scott does address these matters, and the answers may not be simple but they are fulfilling. While the book is a true page-turner, there are major themes in it that you see better after finishing. One of them is how achieving one’s dreams not only implies a struggle against the obstacles of the world outside, but also a fight against the darker forces of our own minds -an insight you don´t often find in autobiographies. He also makes it clear how sharing his life with his beloved wife Angie helped him find and develop his true self. The general impression that transpires is that only deep commitment brings about fulfillment, something that Scott experienced early in his life, when he renounced the chance of an academic career in South Africa that conflicted with his abhorrence of the apartheid system. Then, as often happens in life, giving up something left an open door for something better to come.

“The Big Cat Man” is a story about Africa as much as it is about Scott’s life. As the narration progresses, you can feel how Africa lured this young British farm boy through the early documentaries he saw on TV, which built his romantic view of the adventure-filled savannahs. Then, during Scott’s first exploration of the continent, Africa showed him her teeth, but also enough of her charm to keep him firmly hooked. And with the years, he not only came to enjoy her gifts to the full, but he also became what Africa had needed of him all along: a champion, a tireless defender of her nature and a chronicler that told the amazing tales of the wild, and especially of the big cats, for millions of people to read and watch all around the world.

Like so many people, I first came to Kenya attracted largely by the stories Scott told in his books (“Kingdom of Lions”, “A Leopard’s Tale”) and films (especially “Big Cat Diary”), and I was not disappointed in the least, but also I have seen change over the years, and not always for the better. Scott is the best promoter of Kenya’s natural wonders, but he doesn’t turn a blind eye to the problems that beset them. In the last chapters of the book he addresses these problems and gives hints to their possible solutions, but always with a sober touch of realism. He has seen too much of what greed and corruption can do to wildlife to believe in easy ways out of Nature’s current predicaments, which are after all, our own.

The life of Jonathan Scott is largely about his experiences with Africa’s big cats, but there is only so much of them that can be told between two covers. So, for those who aren’t familiar with his previous books, “The Big Cat Man” is a good introduction which should be followed by reading such classics as “A Leopard’s Tale”. But there is one final consideration that comes to mind when talking about the autobiography of a person who remains active and in full shape: why write an autobiography at all? Why expose one’s intimacies to the world? Scott himself reflects about this in a delightful essay in his blog, which I recommend you to read:
( http://www.jonathanangelascott.com/main/wordpress/2016/08/other-peoples-lives-who-cares-why-write-an-autobiography/ ). Inspiring others comes up as one of the best motivations, and it is well summarized in a phrase that he quotes from Roderick High-Brown: “It is a rare book that changes a life, a poor one that adds nothing to it”. I am sure that time and the readers will put “The Big Cat Man” firmly in the first category.

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Posted on 31/10/2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. what is not clear to me is if Mr. Jonathan Scott supports Mr. Craig Packer´s opinion that hunting male lions over 6 years old has no effect on long term lion conservation and then they could be shot in hunting concessions regardless of cuotas! (see “Lions in the balance” by Mr. Packer). Based on a paper by their own team that after 6 years old males have sired enough and anyway will be displaced by other males, they are disposable trophies, heads ready to hang on hunters walls. They, as Mr. Scott explains, teach hunters how to estimate lions age as per color of his nose before shooting them…honestly yesterday I watched a BBC Documentary (amazing as ever) where Mr. Scott appeared with Mr. Packer as if backing up, and explaining these ideas, even though at the end he expresses uncertainties about whether hunting could help lion conservation…they don´t say that Packer opposed the Kenyan proposal for banning hunting and commerce of lions in CITES conventions, and that later on Mr. Packer himself regretted his own position admitting he was a bit naive with hunters position and was used by them…and that was more that 4 years ago!

  2. Good point, Pedro! But as far as I know Jonathan Scott’s current position is clearly against trophy hunting. As recently as this morning he stated in his Facebook page: “Anyone who kills for pleasure is on the wrong side of the fence from where we are standing”.

  3. Dear Pedro – I think that both Craig and I used to subscribe to the idea that if professionally managed trophy hunting really was playing a significant role in preserving lion habitat and helping local communities living with wildlife to reach their development goals then it was something we could not easily abandon as an ideal. For that to happen, scientifically sound quotas needed to be established that would allow the lion population to thrive rather than decline due to overhunting. Sadly as you will have read in Craig’s excellent book Lions In The Balance the majority of trophy hunting organisations in Tanzania were not following this protocol – and that is when Craig abandoned his support of trophy hunting as a conservation tool. Even when reluctantly supporting such ideas I was always very uneasy – and personally loath the idea of trophy hunting – killing for pleasure is not acceptable. Angie was never able to subscribe to the idea in any way. Warm regards – Jonathan and Angie

  4. Pedro Bigeriego

    Thank you very much Jonathan. I read the book carefully and was amazed to learn that most of land with lion presence in Tanzania is under hunters organizations management, mainly in the Selous and Maswa GR. Also the corruption involved in the allocation of these hunting blocks that reached high government officials. But in my humble opinion dealing with most of hunters is tricky and they ended up using publicly the word of the world´s leading lion expert (Mr. Packer) for their own benefit, against other important initiatives. Anyway I do believe both Mr. Packer and you want the long time conservation of lions. I have no doubt about this. As he states he looks for conserving the population not the individual, no matter how hard this is for plain people. I do very much respect your work and have most of your books…even those when you started in Africa drawing inmensely beautiful and detailed animals. I wish you all the best and hope to keep enjoying your and your wife´s amazing films and photographs for many years to come. Pedro.

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