Pulling away from Kings Cross Station, head lolling against the window of the rickety train, I couldn’t have felt more content. Once in a while you have an experience that will stay with you forever, and for me; a day spent in the big smoke, celebrating big cats was everything I could have asked for and more.
More than just a source of information (though it certainly taught me a lot!), the day was a brilliant coming together of so many things that have brought me to the very place (and person) I am today; like the universe has been quietly watching and listening and chose this very day to drop it’s hints that I’m on the right track.
This was the first ever Big Cat Festival, hosted by Bradt’s travel guides at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and it will hopefully be the first of many…
1. Remembering Christian the lion
Alongside the beautiful, black-maned Cecil, Christian the lion is perhaps the internet’s most famous lion. The re-released footage of him reuniting with former owners John Rendall and Ace Bourke (with a great big lion hug) has been viewed collectively more than 35 million times on YouTube!
The beginning of my personal journey into conservation writing started with two brilliant films of my childhood, which would help foster a lifelong love of animals. The first was Disney’s animated classic, The Lion King, and the second was the 1966 live action depiction of Joy Adamson‘s bestselling book Born Free.
The film Born Free, featuring Virginia McKenna in the role of Joy and her real life husband, Bill Travers, playing Joy’s husband George Adamson would start a movement — eventually resulting in the founding of Born Free Foundation, but first helping to establish George Adamson’s pride.
After successfully releasing Elsa the lioness into the wild, George was tasked with releasing ‘Boy’ — a male lion used in the filming of Born Free — into his Kora reserve in Kenya. Christian, ‘the Harrods lion’, would be flown from London to Kenya to join Boy after a chance encounter between his owners in their aptly named furniture shop ‘Sophisticat’ in Kings Road, Chelsea, and Born Free actors Virginia and Bill; visiting the shop to buy a pine writing desk.
One of Christian’s former owner’s, John Rendall, kicked off the programme of speakers, joined by Christian’s official photographer Derek Cattani. Sharing some incredible photographs of Christian — in both his Chelsea flat and later in Kora with George — gave the audience a chance to delve deeper into the story.
I recently re-watched the documentary ‘The Lion Who Thought He Was People‘, featuring that clip of them reuniting, so getting this further perspective and hearing Derek Cattani’s voice on the experience for the first time was a real treat — and a great introduction to the book that the pair have co-authored, due for release in October. I also spotted George Adamson’s former assistant; Tony Fitzjohn in the audience of this talk, which was an added bonus.
2. BBC Big Cats — behind the scenes
This one is kind of a double-whammy. Along with 5.3 million other viewers, I loved BBC1’s Big Cats series. Learning about lesser known species of small cat — such as Fishing Cats, Margays and Sand Cat’s — and enjoying the amazing standard of wildlife filmmaking that the BBC has become synonymous with — made my frosty Thursday evenings more bearable this past January. So I was delighted to see that Series Producer and Director Gavin Boyland was billed to discuss the series.
Gavin unravelled the series from a filmmaking perspective; showing us how two separate camera buggies were used to film running cheetahs, with the help of a Newton arm and a Phantom Flex camera — which slows down action by 40%. While I’m not very familiar with filmmaking, gaining a simple understanding explained with on-screen examples was a great introduction to behind the scenes of the series.
I was fortunate enough to be attending the event with Tania Esteban, who has worked as Digital Researcher for a number of top BBC series, such as Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, and — you guessed it — Big Cats; for whom she completed work experience as her first job at the BBC. I interviewed Tania on her career earlier in the year, and learnt so many fascinating things about her involvement with the Iberian Lynx segment of the series, so it was pretty special to share this experience with her.
A brilliant take-home from this talk was that accompanying social media can sometimes be seen wider than the series itself.
I was surprised to hear that in a programme titled ‘Big Cats’, it was the small cats that stole the show — and social media played it’s part in elevating the small cats’ stories. Gavin explained that the below clip showing ‘the world’s deadliest cat’ (with a kill rate of 60%) has been viewed more 58 million times!
3. Cheetahs and HRH Princess Michael of Kent
HRH Princess Michael of Kent‘s fascinating connection with cheetahs is something I knew very little of before Bradt’s Big Cat Festival. But following the event, her book ‘A Cheetah’s Tale‘ is now top of my wishlist.
Discussing her first trip to Africa to visit her father’s farm, Princess Michael’s stories of camping on safari, eating a snake her father had accidentally run over and inadvertently smuggling a puppy across the border were utterly charming and completely captivating tales.
Giving a short history of how cheetah’s were used for hunting purposes by members of high society in India in the 1800s, Her Royal Highness explained that cheetahs have a high kill rate, at 50% (though still not as high as number 4’s African Black Footed Cat!)..
A great takeaway from this talk was hearing about her projects to raise baby cheetahs and re-release them back into the wild. I was also intrigued to hear about her collaborations with Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund. Laurie uses Anatolian Shepherd Dogs to help conserve wild cheetah numbers — achieved by using the dogs to guard livestock, which in turn reduces the number of cheetahs killed by people for taking down their valuable cattle.
Watch the above video for full highlights.
4. The Big Cat People — Living with The Marsh Pride lions
Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know I’m a huge fan of The Big Cat People, Jonathan and Angela Scott. In fact, during my high school days I was so inspired by BBC’s Big Cat Diaries, I began my own handwritten and personally illustrated Big Cat project — which ended up being 200 pages long! Some 15 years later, stories of the Marsh Pride still have the ability to inspire awe and wonder.
With Jonathan at the helm, weaving through stories of this magnificent pride and their neighbours; the Ridge Pride (which today contains relatives of the Marsh Pride) — it was fascinating to hear of developments in recent times. How the original Marsh Pride contained 15 to 30 lions, but how today’s prides are smaller. How they get active around 5pm; how they mate around 1,500 times for every cub that’s born. How, like dogs, they have very few sweat glands. And how lion’s are not lazy — they’re just being lions.
All the while, Angie’s photography shines like a beacon above him, in an unusually darkened room (after the pair insist on a complete blackout, to allow the photography on display to really speak). Dramatic photographs of leopards (the big cat that Jonathan originally went to Africa to pursue), cubs, lion prides, a heavily scarred male, chipped teeth protruding out from a scarred lip and aged mane filled the screen. It’s beautiful and powerful, and so utterly distant from the reality of my chair in a dark room in London’s South Kensington.
A somewhat shocking revelation from this talk was that females have been observed eating the remains of their own cubs following episodes of infanticide — where males who have newly taken over a pride kill the existing cubs to bring the females to heat sooner. As Jonathan quotes; “If lions could speak, we probably wouldn’t understand them.”
Perhaps a more recognisable instinct, however, was his explanation of how females with new litters often attack males; even the father of their cubs — a distrust born of the fact the male has likely killed one of her previous litters at the start of his reign.
Before wrapping up, Jonathan announced a new series from himself and Angie, created by an Australian production company. How exciting! Although little more could be said on that for now, a thought-provoking parting message was that there is a counter argument against the kind of wondrous wildlife photography we’d just been treated to: that it makes people think there are more animals and wild spaces than there actually are.
I feel like that statement may be worth an entire discussion all of it’s own, but a quickly offered antidote was that it inspires people to care about the big, charismatic mammals; “and if you take care of big, charismatic mammals, you take care of everything else.”
5. The haul: Big Cat stalls and Bradt’s goody bags
The brilliant thing about the stalls at Big Cat Festival was that there was only a handful — so you really had the time to find your way around them. A host of brilliant books were on sale from Bradt — many of which had been discussed throughout the day; as well as information on Nambian-based charities Cheetah Conservation Fund and Africat; travel information from Exodus Travel, Travel Africa magazine and Kenya Airways — who even had a Born Free Elsa plush on their stand (see below) — and Swarovski Opik showcased some high quality binoculars.
It was inventible that I would leave with at least one new book, given I’m an avid collector of wildlife and natural history books, but I wasn’t expecting to get quite the bargain I ended up with! I took advantage of a half price offer on the stunning photography book Sacred Nature by Jonathan and Angela Scott, and was delighted to find a free copy of the book A Summer of British Wildlife in our goody bags.
A Summer of British Wildlife is designed for use as a 100-day guide to wildlife spotting over the summer; so I’m very excited to explore its recommendations.
Pictured above is my haul from the event — information pamphlets, early book previews, vouchers, magazines and more — I can’t wait to see what Big Cat Festival has in store next year!
Learn more about big cats
Want to hear more from the people working with big cats?
- Discover Alan Rabinowitz and his work to save the jaguar
- Read Part 1 of my interview with ‘The Big Cat People’ Jonathan & Angela Scott
- Part 2 of my interview with Jonathan & Angela Scott about The Marsh Pride
- Exclusive interview with those working on the ground to save lions
- What’s was it like to work on the BBC series Big Cats?
- Rescue and relocation with Drew Abrahamson
Want to know more about lions?
- Read about the plight of lions at CITES 2016
- What happened when the story of Cecil broke?
- Lion Aid raises funds in Cecil’s honour
- Blood Lions: a Born Free Foundation documentary
- Global March for Lions