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TV presenter Jonathan Scott: Belfast gave me my first big adventure

As Big Cat Tales hits TV screens across the UK, presenter and conservationist Jonathan Scott tells Linda Stewart how his student days in Belfast at the start of the Troubles laid the groundwork for a lifetime of adventure in Africa

True love: Jonathan Scott and wife Angie
True love: Jonathan Scott and wife Angie
Some of the prides of lions Jonathan has photographed
Some of the prides of lions Jonathan has photographed

Big Cat Diary presenter Jonathan Scott was inspired as a young graduate by ground-breaking movie Born Free (1966) to move to Africa in search of adventure.

But had he listened to his professor at Queen's University, Belfast, the whole trajectory of his life would have been quite different.

Snap happy: Jonathan in 1989 when he was presenter of Africa Watch
Snap happy: Jonathan in 1989 when he was presenter of Africa Watch

On graduation day in 1972, his professor advised him to abandon his dream of going to Africa and working with animals, adding: "I hope you have a private income."

But 47 years later, with a lifetime in Kenya and numerous books, awards and TV series under his belt, it's safe to say the world famous conservationist and photographer doesn't regret ignoring that advice.

In fact, he credits his time as a student at Queen's for fostering his keen sense of adventure and the confidence to follow his dreams.

Now, as his latest TV wildlife series, Big Cat Tales, hits UK screens this Sunday, Jonathan says he's glad he took up the challenge.

This saw him make the permanent move to Kenya in 1974 and commit his life to raising awareness of endangered big cat species, documenting the lives of lions, leopards and cheetahs in the Maasai Mara nature reserve.

During his first year in Kenya, he worked as a guide and naturalist in and around the reserve, getting to know the big cats and their territories and following the great wildebeest migration. This work would eventually bring the Marsh pride of lions and Half-Tail the leopard to worldwide fame and paved the way for the first series of Big Cat Diary.

It was all a far cry from his origins in London and upbringing in rural Berkshire, the son of a successful architect who had fought in the Second World War.

Jonathan explains: "He died when I was two - he was only 42. He'd been pretty successful and had bought a little smallholding between Cookham and Maidenhead in Berkshire.

"When he died, my mum, who was a Londoner, decided she wanted us to be brought up in the countryside, so she made it into a little farm and ran it single-handedly."

It was an idyllic childhood, he says, brought up in the countryside with his brother and sister and running around the fields.

"I always loved watching natural history programmes on TV and I was inspired by people who were painters and wildlife artists. I used to love to collect dandelions, sticklebacks and frog-spawn - and that love of natural history has never left me," he says.

"I'm glad to see the push now for a GCSE in natural history. Nature and the environment should be on everyone's agenda - it should be part of the curriculum."

Jonathan came to Northern Ireland in 1968 to study zoology at Queen's University.

"I saw it as my first big adventure, going away from school, crossing the Irish Sea and ending up in Ireland," he says.

Keen adventurer: Jonathan as a young man
Keen adventurer: Jonathan as a young man

But the timing meant he found himself in the midst of the civil rights protests at the outset of the Troubles.

"The irony was that when I came in 1968 the Troubles were just beginning. I was this Englishman with very short hair coming to Northern Ireland just at the time when civil rights were moving.

"Bernadette Devlin was everyone's hero at the university - being at the university it was very much about civil rights," he adds.

But despite being an English student coming into that volatile environment, he says he felt amazingly welcome and recalls marching with fellow students to the City Hall.

"They were the best days of my life - I really had such an amazing time," he enthuses.

"I really lucked out - how unbelievably lucky was I?"

As he settled in and transformed into a long-haired student, Jonathan pursued his love of sport, getting involved in basketball and boxing - and, in particular, rugby.

"I was one of the Queen's rugby team and the two toughest games we would have had were against the police and the Royal Marines. You can imagine the paratroopers and the cops loved to give us a bit of a hard time!"

He also recalls an encounter with one of Northern Ireland's most recognisable faces - the late Reverend Ian Paisley, who would go on to become First Minister.

Wildlife photo by Jonathan Scott
Wildlife photo by Jonathan Scott

"Some of his people came down and took over the halls of residence - I don't think I've ever heard such a carrying voice," he says.

Jonathan adds he was drawn to Africa by his search for adventure - and that was something that was fostered in Belfast - "there was plenty of living on the edge in Ireland!"

"The Belfast that I was welcomed to in those days - it was tough, it was hard, but it was friendly.

"It was guys in cloth caps struggling to get employment, standing outside the pub.

"It was a little bit dour in terms of the city, but the people were so friendly.

"I have wonderful memories of Queen's. It gave me the confidence, it gave me a set of skills which wasn't so much academic but was about how to get on in life.

Jonathan Scott in 1987
Jonathan Scott in 1987

"I got a 2.1 in zoology, but more than anything what I came out of Queen's with was to have learned a bit about what skills you needed to get on in life.

"Things like confidence, being prepared to understand acceptable risk as opposed to a cavalier attitude. I wanted to have an adventurous life.

"It's up to you to take the challenge. When I arrived at Queen's I wasn't 100% sure that I was academically well enough qualified to be at the university, but I learned it was about hard work. If you're prepared to put in the work you will get through."

Jonathan still has fond memories of the then professor of parasitology, David Halton, whom he has met again in recent years.

"He was the most extraordinary man. He was an amazing man. The thing I love about him was that he spoke the truth.

"He would tell you your fortune and if you didn't listen it would come true.

"He was an individual," he adds.

"You don't want to be a second rate version of somebody else - have the confidence to follow your dream, work hard and you will get through."

And that's what Jonathan did after he graduated: "I had grown up watching wildlife programmes on TV and seeing other people having adventures.

"I watched Born Free and I thought - that's what I want to do."

After graduation he set off on a journey across Africa with friends, travelling from London to Johannesburg in two Bedford vans by way of the Sahara and the Congo.

But it was Kenya that he fell in love with and returned to.

This is also where he met his wife Angie, who shared his passion for wildlife photography and went on to work with him on the Big Cat series as a photographer, adviser and spotter.

"We got married in the Maasai Mara. What a romantic story - it's a bit unreal!" he says.

Angie has always been fascinated by the social interaction of the lion, identifying each member of the pride and following their life story from birth until death, while Jonathan has said he has always been more drawn to the leopard.

"They are so enigmatic and mysterious, so clever at concealing themselves. They give nothing away and you have to spend years in their company to truly understand their nature.

"It took me six years to write my first book on the leopard - that is how difficult it was in the 1970s to find, let alone photograph, a wild leopard. It is estimated that perhaps 50,000 leopards were being slaughtered each year in Africa in the Sixties and Seventies for the fur trade."

Jonathan has warned that big cats are under pressure throughout the world due to loss of habitat, loss of natural prey and conflict with livestock holders.

"All of the big cats have lost huge areas of their natural habitat to man. Humanity is squeezing our last wild places off the planet."

But he insists he has never lost hope for the future of the big cats.

"The short answer is you cannot give up. You have to do your hardest - everyone is trying to find how to get across the message to politicians that conservation should be taken seriously. We are running out of wild spaces," he says.

"But, as they say, it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Things can change. These cats are struggling and that is why it is so wonderful to be able to celebrate the lions while we can," he adds.
Jonathan admits to being disgusted by the wealthy Western trophy hunters who proudly post their kills on social media.

"It is totally unjustified for people to kill wild animals for pleasure.

"The era of the great white hunter should have died years ago," he insists.

"There is nothing sporting about killing animals with high powered rifles - or worse still with a bow and arrow - to make the hunter feel good about themselves. Trophy hunting is not about people protecting their livestock or livelihood from wild animals."

He concedes there is an argument that allowing people to hunt wildlife on land that is unsuitable for wildlife-based tourism may help to protect wilderness - but points out that it often doesn't work in practice.

"The problem is that in some cases quotas set to limit how many lions or elephants or leopards are shot each year are not adhered to. What should be a sustainable off-take then becomes detrimental to the health of the wild populations.

"And in some cases the bulk of the profit from trophy hunting goes to the professional hunter - not to the local community."

Jonathan brands photographs of people standing with their foot on a dead animal or sitting on it, gun in hand, as "sickening".

"There is nothing brave or clever about going out and shooting an elephant or a lion. Wild animals just want to be left alone - most are scared of the sight of people on foot and run or move away if they can," he says.

"Ninety per cent of the time when someone is injured by a wild animal, it is due to lack of understanding of the animal's behaviour and failure to obey the signs that you are getting too close - and that the animal is becoming nervous and then potentially aggressive due to it feeling threatened and needing to defend itself or its young.

"In the best case scenarios, hunting can help to safeguard wilderness - but only where a minimal and sustainable off-take of trophies is taken each year.

"Sadly, in many cases the system is abused. We need to find alternative sources of income for local communities so that hunting for pleasure is no longer viewed as a valid conservation tool," he says.

Big Cat Tales is on Animal Planet on Sundays at 8pm

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