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Why Africa's big cats are now under threat

Having lived up close with lions and tigers in Kenya's Masai Mara for 40 years, Jonathan Scott, a former student at Queen's University, Belfast, and his wife Angela are acutely aware of their challenges. Sarah Marshall reports

Raising awareness: Jonathan and Angela Scott and Jackson Ole Looseyia
Raising awareness: Jonathan and Angela Scott and Jackson Ole Looseyia
Askari the Lion with her cub

Both conservationists and photographers, Jonathan and Angela Scott have spent their lives campaigning and raising awareness for the struggles facing Africa's big cat populations.

Since arriving in Kenya's Masai Mara in 1977, the remarkable couple have documented the lives of the Marsh Pride lions through television programmes, books and images.

Currently screening on Animal Planet, their latest series, Big Cat Tales, catches up with the Mara's famous predators, and looks at the challenges posed by changing climate, an increasing human population and the illegal exotic pet trade.

By all accounts, cheetahs, lions and leopards are under threat. These are a few of the reasons why...

Climate change

Jonathan Scott: "A change in climate is affecting the whole of Africa and the rest of the world. We've seen drier conditions and more unpredictable weather patterns. The landscape in the northern Mara, where Big Cat Tales was filmed, has become much more of an open landscape, which isn't good for the lions, leopards and cheetahs, because they need cover for their cubs - especially during their first few months.

"One of the most significant changes is the drop in the volume of the Mara River. There is now a worrying uptake of water for agriculture, from higher up the river, and there's talk about a dam being put in. The Mara is the major artery in the (Masai Mara) Reserve and hugely important in the dry season, when wildebeest and zebra come up. It used to regularly flood its banks, which would have been about 18ft high; now there are many times in the year you can drive across."

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Uncontrolled tourism

Angela Scott: "Increased tourism combined with a lack of habitat means some cars are getting too close to predators. As a result, the animals are feeling threatened and often moving their cubs to less safe places."

Jonathan Scott: "A recent study by the Mara Predator Conservation Programme showed that in high-density tourism areas, cheetahs raised less cubs.

"We really believe the tourism industry needs to take control of the situation and better brief their visitors. Guides are under a lot of pressure from guests to deliver close-up pictures of big cats, but they need to brief their clients.

"If these animals have cubs, let's be quiet and not jump around in the vehicle. If they move with cubs, don't block them - and don't prevent cheetahs hunting in daytime by getting too close."

The exotic pet trade

Jonathan Scott: "There are probably no more than 7,000 cheetahs left in Africa. Sadly, many are taken and trafficked out of the Horn of Africa through to Yemen, and then to the Middle East, where they're sold for around US$10,000. An alarming 70% do not survive."

Angela Scott: "I believe one of the solutions is education - if you engage children really early to be more connected to wildlife, wild places and nature, then they will naturally take the right course."

Jonathan Scott: "We need to remind people that we owe it to nature to understand it. Forget history and geography, if people don't understand how the world works from a natural history point then they really don't understand where we come from."

Big Cat Tales is on Animal Planet on Sundays

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