Read part 1 here!
Together with his wife, Angela Scott, Jonathan Scott is one of the most renowned names in wildlife photography and conservation in the world. In this last part of the interview, he talks about living in Africa for the past five decades, the changes he has witnessed in Masai Mara, the Big Cat Diary, the Mara Predator Conservation Programme, and if there are any conservation measures that India and Africa can borrow from each other – with our Media & Outreach Manager, Sourabha Rao.
3. You have been living in Africa since the 1970s. How has Maasai Mara changed over the decades? How has the pandemic affected it?
I think the most notable things are on two levels – a huge increase in the number of tourists or visitors, which in some ways is a good thing, because visitors pay park entrance or reserve entrance fees. And that means that it helps conserve the area because that revenue goes to the local county, who administer the reserve on behalf of the local people. Some of the revenue goes back into development projects, and it helps to fund the economy of the local county.
But we haven't until now had a management plan, which has some coherent structure, some ideas to how we manage tourism in a sustainable fashion. So there are too many camps, lodges, too many people. One of the things which actually I've always admired in India, and which we haven't done with the Mara is in India, you don't have any council lodges inside the protected areas. So you are in control of the flow of visitors. Whereas in the Mara, some of the camps and lodges are outside the reserve, and the people come through the gate each day to visit. But for those people inside the reserve, well, they're just out and about all over the place. So there is a huge push for a positive change now. And one of the best things that's happening right now is that the national government, along with the county government, have applied for a second time to have the Masai Mara designated as a World Heritage Site. Now the Serengeti already got that, but that status comes with various provisos from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, they don't just give that away. It's not an accolade like top tourist destination, which we often are – safari destination number one Masai Mara – regardless of the management. So like an accolade, you have to actually reach various standards and criteria, one of which is you've got to have a properly formulated management programme. And you have to be shown that you are trying to manage the reserve within the limits of environmentally sustainable practice. So it's great now that the county and the government have committed to that process. It means that rather than people from the sidelines saying too many people, too many vehicles, lack of discipline, lack of environmentally friendly practices, now the government has opened the door to acknowledging that they want to try to meet the stipulations for a properly managed and sustainably run reserve. And so we see this as something we want to support wholesale. Because rather than just throwing rocks from the sidelines, and complaining and saying how terrible it is, let's actually encourage change.
In terms of changes in the environment, one of the biggest changes we've seen is the opening up of the habitat. Due to climate change, we're getting more unpredictable weather. Our river, the Mara River, rises to the north of the reserve outside the boundary, in Kenya's largest indigenous forest called the Mau Forest, which was about 4,000 square kilometres of indigenous forests. But a lot of it has settlements – some politically motivated – basically which shouldn't really have happened because it's a forest reserve. Charcoal burning, cutting down of trees and the hydroelectric projects are adversely impacting the river, too. There is talk about wanting to put a dam on the Kenya side and a dam on the Tanzania side to regulate the water. Because in the dry season, at times, you could drive across it, it is virtually drying up. Now there's also huge concerns about pollution of the river. There is a small number of gold mines around, so there is toxicity going into the river – fish disappearing, dying, water levels down and the migration thus impacted, too. The Migration, July through to November, comes into the Mara and surrounding areas. It's partly driven by the fact that the Mara River is the only permanent river in the ecosystem. So they need that. So if the river becomes really depleted, the wildebeest population definitely will decline dramatically.
In the reserve and surrounding area, we've got about 3,000 elephants in 6,000 square kilometres, and there is impact on the trees and on the bush – the elephants are keeping it more open. And a lot of the riverine forest and the woodland areas are being impacted. And previously when we had less elephants and more grass, then you would get dry season fires, which again, burn back the Acacia woodlands. The elephants strip out all the little seedlings before they ever turn the area back into woodlands. So there are big changes there.
So a drier, more unpredictable climate; a diminished supply of water in the river; and an increase in the elephant population causing less thickets and less safe hiding places for creatures like lions, to tuck their babies away safely into den sites, and less thickets and trees for leopards. And even cheetahs, which are more associated with mixed woodlands and some open habitats, need a certain degree of cover when their cubs are small. So this is a problem.
But a benefit that has occurred in the time I've been here is the evolution of what are called ‘wildlife conservancies’ that surround the reserve. There are privately owned stretches of land, which used to be group-owned by the Maasai – areas outside the reserve. In the 80s, though, there was a decision by the government to adjudicate land administration, and subdivision of communal land into 150-acre parcels of land. So in that kind of semi-arid landscape, even though we get good rains in the rainy season, it's unpredictable, so what is your economic activity going to be? Because the old, nomadic cattle can't work to sustain oneself financially. So what has happened instead, is people have been encouraged to create wildlife conservancies of maybe five to 700 members of those 150-acre or 100-acre or 50-acre plots, and to create a lease agreement with tour operators, but on a environmentally sustainable plan. So these wildlife conservancies are a union between landowners leasing their land to tourism partners, giving them the right to a sustainable number of camps and lodges. And they pay through the revenue accruing from tourism, a lease fee per month to the landowner. Now, this actually meant now we've got 10-15 of these wildlife conservancies around the reserve, which means there's no fences between the reserve and these conservancies, but there's less cars less people in a more enjoyable tourism operation, and most importantly, it's more sustainable, and it has doubled at least the size of the wilderness area available to the wild animals.
But due to the pandemic, the whole support of revenue for the reserve is based on tourism crashed because international tourism is almost dead on the ground in Kenya. It has made us realise that you cannot rely on tourism long-term or as a viable, 100% infallible model for conservation. We're going to have to come up with some other contingencies. And what are those going to be? Well, at the moment, maybe some German aid or USAID, or European Union funding, Conservation International, African parks, governments, international governments and NGOs, putting millions of dollars. The Kenya government is also setting aside some money to support the wildlife conservancy and the tourism industry. But for how long can you do that? But it has pointed out the fact the international community has got to accept its responsibility for the world's global heritage sites – these phenomenal places like the Mara-Serengeti, is the last great place on Earth that you can see the scenes you see on television. There's no other like it. And if we let that slip through our fingers, what are we going to say to our kids? We're already embarrassed by how badly we've let down children and our grandchildren, what are they going to inherit from us? As Jane Goodall says, we've stolen their heritage.
4. Let’s talk about Big Cat Diary. What do you think has made the show a phenomenon even today?
Animals are emotional creatures too. I think the trick is to deliver the sense of wonder and love and the intimate stories of these animals without turning them into surrogate human beings. And so, the most common thing that you would hear people saying about the series is the passion. They love the fact that we knew and know these animals as individuals, which of course is the key to understanding a bunch of lions. You want to know the individual differences, you want to be able to work out what the politics within the pride is. Why is this one a bit grumpy with that one yesterday, and the day before or a year ago they were great friends. That's the thrill of it. The BBC then tried every other kind of animal diary you can imagine – we did Elephant Diaries, Big Bear Diary, Chimpanzee Diary and so on. But none of them aired for 10-12 years because they couldn't sustain themselves, unlike Big Cat Diary where we could show different types of big cats of Africa. There's a variety beyond individual species.
If you look at traditional television and soap operas you know the things that are most watched on say British television, or even in India, are usually everyday lives of people. I think the big thing with soap operas is you need more than one strong character. Ideally, you need three, you need a good guy, a bad guy, and then probably you need a pair of young lovers or something like that. But with Big Cat Diary, we had leopards, lions and cheetahs. You've got beauty, power, a predator. And of course, in man's heart deep inside us is still the thrill of the chase, or of the sporting contest, because it takes us back to the way we used to live as hunter-gatherers – competing, fighting, doing whatever it was to get our food. So, having three characters was key to it.
The programme format, of course, was that we were filming live, in the moment, even though the shows weren't shown live. They were filmed live. So, when you're going to take that it's a big risk because what if nothing happens with cats. Believe me, you'll spend a lot of time sitting, watching, waiting for lions, and they will do nothing in the daytime, that's their way of operating. So when the lions are doing nothing, we could then say let's go and check what Simon, my co-presenter, is doing with the cheetahs, or the leopards or whoever you can watch. It was the most extraordinary series to work on. And I can tell you, the proof of it is the amount of fan mail we used to get. This is 1996, that's about 25 years ago when there was no social media or modern communication technologies that we have today. There's an archivable, endless fascination with big cats. And, it goes unsaid that the strength of the programme, obviously, was the cats themselves. Having somebody in vision, who could turn around to you and say, “Oh, my god! What's going to happen to these little cubs!” meant investing emotion the audience is going to feel.
5. What is the vision for the Mara Predator Conservation Programme (MPCP)?
Mara has been the focus of so much of our work. It's an area we know better than anywhere else. For us, it's an area which is hugely important in terms of ensuring that it's conserved into the future. And so, something like the Mara Predator Conservation Programme ticks all the right boxes. Firstly, it bases its studies on science. Getting information on numbers and distribution, particularly looking at the variation in numbers and distribution inside and outside of the reserve. And then looking at conflict between predators and livestock – looking at which animals were involved, whether it was particular age categories, was it young animals dispersing from their pride if they were lions, being squeezed out to community land. It's helping us with basic ecological monitoring. Now we've got an idea of the checks and balances and of course, once you have a baseline, in the years to come, you can say if there's been a decline or recovery, and we can associate it with the correct reasons or measures. So, science gives us basic information on the area.
Very importantly, the MPCP and Kenya Wildlife Trust are very much invested, and this has been a change from when I first came to Africa, in making research behaviour-management orientated. To study questions which have management applications. What we need to know is how we can conserve this environment, what the trends, checks and balances are, particularly in our situation. What the impact of tourism on the landscape on the environment, physically, and also on the animal populations is? A recent paper was showing that in areas of high tourist density, mother cheetahs raised less cubs. And you imagine vehicles following one another with small cubs, going too close to where she's hidden her cubs when she wants to hide them and keep them secret. So, cheetahs hunt during the daytime, too, and visitors in large numbers wanting photographs of cheetahs in action will impact their hunting process. So, these are important areas and aspects that we like to study – the ecological monitoring, management-orientated research projects, monitoring the impact of tourism. And I think also, what benefits, the local community who are living with the wildlife, but aren't driving around in a car saying, isn't that a beautiful, or isn't this wonderful, but who are living in a homestead where they may be feel at night a predator comes in, it's a different story of human-wildlife interaction. So making sure that local communities are getting their fair share of revenue, and that they are part of all the discussions that take place on the future of these areas.
6. Do you think there are any conservation measures that India and Africa can borrow from each other?
I think that the big contrast in general, in the big picture, between African protected areas and Indian protected areas, is how small the Indian protected areas are. So, you are immediately at a disadvantage because literally you've got islands of forest reserves of wildlife, surrounded by a sea of people, even to a greater extent than in Africa. And obviously there are areas where that's as true in Africa as it is in India, but you don't have, for instance, somewhere like the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, which is 50,000, square kilometres. But I think you've got a number of things that are working for India, such as not having camps and lodges inside protected areas. I think, in any future developments, this would be the ideal. You do not want to have camps and lodges within a protected area, you want them on the outside. I think of wildlife ‘corridors’, too, which has become a buzzword in conservation and of course in India, where you've got such small protected areas in some cases that, to sustain viable breeding populations, whether it's tigers, leopards or even lions, could be difficult. If you've got 50 tigers, and there is no chance of any new blood, new genetic material making its way to the through a corridor, which would be the idea to create a highway of some sort to allow for some movement of new genetic material into those small populations, long-term conservation could be a challenge. But the biggest problem is logistics, too. We've already said that these small protected areas are surrounded by seas of people. How do you carve out these corridors? Is the government going to move people? Are they going to be able to create a highway? These are questions that need to be answered with the combined efforts of all the experts and people involved.