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.