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Great Horned Owlets Rescue: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way!

Great horned owlets, Willow and Wisdom - Photo by Cheryl Aguiar

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of reading. So it was a real treat when first time author and all-round animal lover Cheryl Aguiar sent me a copy of her award-winning nature book, which chronicles her experience of observing a family of great horned owls and finding herself part of a rescue mission to save their two young owlets.

A modern day ‘Pocahontas’, Cheryl’s draw to nature and the great outdoors is a deep-rooted desire that certainly resonates. As does her compassion to help wildlife, one animal at a time.

Kate on Conservation holds Great Horned Owlets Rescue book

Kate on Conservation with author Cheryl Aguiar’s Great Horned Owlets Rescue book

Great Horned Owlets Rescue: Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way details Cheryl’s early encounters with wildlife in the woods where she grew up, and explains how these experiences — including rescuing a newborn baby rabbit and nursing it back to health as a child — inspired her later fascination with animals.

“Throughout the years, my love for wildlife continued to grow, along with many attempts at saving anything from small birds to tiny frogs”, Cheryl writes. “Some were successful and some were not, but I always tried to give them a fighting chance.”

I must admit, I knew very little about the Great Horned Owl before reading this book. Found throughout North America and Canada, these large raptors have bright yellow eyes and distinctive feather ear tufts, which combined with their deep sounding hoots, make them the perfect storybook owl.

Great horned owlet, Willow - Photo by Cheryl Aguiar

Through Cheryl’s tales of her daily (and weekly) visits to the owl family, I was able to learn fascinating facts about their diet (which consists of small animals; rodents, lizards, insects); how, and when, they are fed by their parents; the different stages of their maturity (i.e. when they lose their down feathers, when they leave the nest, etc.) and the challenges they face in their natural environment.

This charming tale takes readers on a journey of the highs and lows that Cheryl, husband Jim, her nearby Aunt and Uncle and close neighbours who share their woods, experience when high April winds bring down the gradually depleted nest that the young owlets have been hatched into.

Their affectionately named parents; Mama and Papa, like many great horned owls, chose to reuse an old nest — possibly built by hawks a year or so previously — and in this instance, it wasn’t up to the job!

Fortunately, Cheryl springs to action to save the little owlets, who find themselves alone and vulnerable on the forest floor as the last light of day is fading.

With her afore mentioned team of rescuers and the expert advice of seasoned pro and founder of Eyes On Owls in Dunstable, Massachusetts; Mark, she is able to give the little owls a fighting chance (and a brand new basket nest!). And so begins this beautiful and dedicated chapter of her life.

Great Horned Owlets Rescue book by Cheryl Aguiar

Great Horned Owlets Rescue by Cheryl Aguiar

An enjoyable read and a great source of information (for example, I had no idea that owl feathers are not waterproof, to enable them to be silent flyers), this is a cute little read and a great way to connect with nature.

To learn more about about Cheryl Aguiar, order her book or view her wildlife photography, click here.

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Want to discover more nature books?

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World Book Day 2018: My recommended Natural History reads!

Happy World Book Day! It’s no secret that I am total book geek, and if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you’re bound to have seen that I often share my latest book purchase — or the title I am currently reading (yes, I even have an Instagram hashtag; #kateonconservationreads) — and it’s no coincidence that my book collection is FULL of Natural History books.

Today, however, I want to highlight some lesser known, independent authors whose work has brought me much joy in 2018.

Fiction: The Absence of Wings, written by Mark Stewart

A collection of beautifully written short stories, often inspired by the author’s real life encounters with animals; The Absence of Wings is delicately penned with haunting tragedy encased in enchanting language.

I must admit that my bookcase doesn’t house nearly enough short story collections (which is surprising, given Rudyard Kipling‘s The Jungle Book is one of favourite books of all time), but this is one I’m so glad I own.

Easy to read (and lose oneself in) over and over again, I thought perhaps the best way to share it with you would be to share a reading from my favourite story Snow Bear, read by Mark Stewart’s daughter, Natasha especially for Kate on Conservation readers! Please take a few moments to listen to the video below:

The Absense of Wings can be purchased here:
http://markdestewart.wixsite.com/thescreamingplanet/the-absence-of-wings

Follow Mark Stewart on Twitter: @pendragonmist.

Poetry: ‘Animated Nature’ Selected Poems by Richard Bonfield from 1989 – 2009

I’m a lover of poetry, and huge fan of the great American poet Robert Frost, whose musings of rural life in New England are laced with nature and references to weather and the seasons. Even so, it’s rare for me to actively seek poetry collections; owing to the fact that I’m often enthralled in reference books, learning about the next animal, conservationist or political issue that I’m going to be writing about.

Richard Bonfield is an exception however, perhaps because his work found me. I discovered Richard’s poetry through wildlife artist Pollyanna Pickering, who has illustrated his books and their beautiful front covers. Richard was present at one of Pollyanna’s exhibitions and by chance I got chatting to him — and left with one of the most charming collections of poems!

Animated Nature book by Richard Bonfield

Richard was Born Free Foundation‘s Poet in Residence, and described by Virginia McKenna (herself an accomplished poet) as “one of poetry’s most original and amazing talents”, with his poems described as “extraordinary, deep and evocative.”

This captivating collection swings between profound, beautiful and humorous, and is well worth a read! Here, given it’s the 1st of March, Nick Stephenson reads the poem ‘Hare’. Please take a few moments to listen to this charming poem in the video below:

Animated Nature can be purchased through Amazon here.

Non Fiction: Wild Lives, written by Lori Robinson and Janie Chodosh

One of my favourite new finds, and the book I am currently reading, Wild Lives by Lori Robinson and Janie Chodosh is a fascinating exploration into the lives of some of the world’s leading conservationists.

Featuring 20 extraordinary wildlife warriors who have dedicated their lives to studying and conserving endangered and threatened species from across the globe; including lions, cheetahs, jaguars and dolphins, this book is a brilliant tool of inspiration!

Some of the familiar faces included in its pages are: National Geographic filmmakers and big cat experts Beverly and Dereck Joubert; dolphin advocate Ric O’Barry, who features in the Oscar-winning film The Cove; and lion champion (and author of the book Lions in the Balance), ecologist Craig Packer. This book is brilliant for discovering the wonderful stories of some of wildlife’s biggest heroes!

Wild Lives can be purchased here: http://savingwild.com/lori-robinsons-books/ 

While the mainstream media debates whether or not World Book Day has simply become an excuse for fancy dress in schools, I’d like to use it as a chance to celebrate two of my favourite things: Natural History and learning! Happy reading!

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Want to discover more books?

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Finding my story: gentle nature

We all have stories that shape us. Tales of triumph, or tragedy — or both — which serve to remind us why we do what we do, or why we’ve chosen to walk down the paths that we find ourselves on.

I have been influenced and my decisions inspired by gentle nature. More than once on this blog I’ve listed the story of Suffolk photographer Julie Ward as the inspiring figure behind my decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve in 2008.

Exactly a decade on from my gap year trip, and two decades since Julie was murdered in the Maasai Mara in 1988, I find myself in the most unexpected situation. I always believe in ‘reading the signs’ and serendipity seems to follow me. But this feels like a perfect nod of encouragement at a time when such things are needed.

This week started with ‘Blue Monday‘, the so-called most depressing day of the year. I must admit, every year it does indeed creep up on me. Last year I took the bull by the horns and wrote a blog post; “Top 5 Ways To Beat Blue Monday” and felt suitably inspired. This year, my partner and I booked an impromptu hotel stay in Canterbury — one of my favourite cities — and packed up the car, bundled up the baby and took ourselves off.

Kate in Canterbury

No blog post was written, but some well earned family time was underway after a busy start to January spent planning a major event for our little London business.

Now, most people know I’m a massive book nerd. I read, admire and pore over as many wildlife and conservation books as possible (I’ve even started a hashtag of my recommended reads on Instagram; check out #kateonconservationreads). So it was only natural that I would go book hunting in the charity shops and secondhand bookshops of Canterbury.

Audubon's elephant book

My first purchase of the day was Audubon’s Elephant, a book that explores John James Audubon’s struggle to publish The Birds of America. This felt particularly exciting, given that I’d just written a blog post about the Audubon Society and my time with Audubon Sarasota for National Bird Day and my latest guest post came from a brilliant and enthusiastic birder.

Zafara book

The next book to catch my eye was Zarafa, the tale of the first giraffe to arrive in France. Much like the wonderful book; Jumbo by W.P. Jolly, this book promises an in-depth study of captivity management and animal transportation in the 1800s through the real life story of a much-loved, significant ‘celebrity’ animal.

Having written about Jumbo the London Zoo elephant and his shipment to America just recently, the promise of an equivalent tale of a giraffe being transported from Africa to Europe — and the trials and public reactions en route — was too good to leave sitting on the shelf.

gentle nature book 1998

The most incredible find of the trip however, and what feels like the crown jewel in my visit was walking into one of the most incredible Oxfam bookshops and casting my eyes through the ‘collectibles’ section, only to see sitting on the shelf, a hardback copy of gentle nature!

I treasure my paperback re-print from the year 2000, complete with an additional preface written by Born Free star and Co-Founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna. It was, after all, this copy that I won in raffle by the charity, and here that I first read about Shamwari Game Reserve‘s big cat rescue centre (including the Julie Ward Education Centre), which I would go on to volunteer at 8 years later.

But sitting on the shelf in front of me was an entirely different cover design that I was sure must be from the original 1998 print run.

“This has got to be a 1st edition” I told my partner, excitement dancing inside.

“It’s not that it’s particularly old, it’s just that you never see this kind of thing in secondhand shops. People buy these books because they care.”

I leafed through the front pages to see whether it was an original 1998 print, knowing that regardless, it would have a story attached.

It would have belonged to someone who cared about wildlife, about conservation; someone wanted to see wildlife free and not behind bars.

Someone who wanted to support the family of a young female photographer who grew up in the county next to me, and whose unsolved murder in the Masaai Mara must have touched them.

“No way!” my heart raced faster. This book has been signed!

Sitting there on the page in front of my was an message from Virginia, signed off with ‘Every good wish, Virginia McKenna‘.

To think that back in 1998, when I was eight years old, one of my biggest role models was holding this very book, sharing a special moment with its former owner. I suddenly felt a part of something.

“This is incredible.”

There were more messages and signatures inside the book, most poignantly from Julie Ward’s parents. As a new mum myself, I ran my fingers over the words penned by Julie’s mother, Jan. For Julie.

Needless to say, I purchased the book and it is instantly one of my most treasured possessions.

I have never met Julie’s parents, I wrote a letter to them once as a child; after following Julie’s story in the news. It was a letter writing task at school, and I chose to write to them, to tell them I wanted to go to Africa when I was older and take pictures, because I loved the wildlife photography I’d seen of Julie’s and because she was the only woman I’d heard of at the time who was from the part of England I was, and who had been brave enough to go on an adventure to Africa alone.

Despite her tragic story, she had shown me that young women could be brave and go on adventures, even if they’re from a rural county, rather than a big exciting city.

It was a piece of school work, so the letter was submitted to my teacher and never sent.

But to know that there’s a little bit of the spirit of Jan, and her love for Julie in this wonderful book — it feels like the message has been transferred the other way. From her pen to my eyes.

canterbury street

I said that my goal this year was to reacquaint with my passion for photography as a way to tell the stories of wildlife, to highlight the difference between freedom and captivity, and to share the tales of conservation efforts — and I feel like my spontaneous decision to get in the car and do something different this week was a well-timed reminder that I’m walking the right path.

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Learn more about Julie Ward

Want to know more about the Suffolk wildlife photographer and her legacy?

Want to know more about the Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve?

Want to know more about Born Free Foundation?

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Remembering Rhinos launch: Special interview with Founder Margot Raggett

This week, many of the world’s top wildlife photographers and leading conservationists are joining forces once again for a series of events in London – this year to launch the coffee-table photography book Remembering Rhinos.

remembering rhinos

Remembering Rhinos is the much-anticipated follow-up to last year’s title; Remembering Elephants, for which I attended the launch at the Royal Geographical Society, London, the day before the Global March for Elephants.

Similarly to Remembering Elephants, Remembering Rhinos was founded by photographer Margot Raggett in association with the Born Free Foundation.

Like its predecessor, the book and its accompanying exhibition (opening today; 30th October until 11th November) both feature stunning photographs donated by top wildlife photographers from around the globe.

In this context of remembering the rhinos before they are confined to memory alone, the incredible images provide a profound, thought-provoking look at what we have to lose should we not win the fight against poaching, habitat loss and the horn trade.

Marlon du Toit Remembering Rhinos

The event comes at a time where the issue of rhino poaching for their keratin horns (the same substance that our fingernails are made from) has been spotlighted by the recent announcement of this year’s winner of the Wildlife Photographer of Year competition; ‘Memorial to a species’ by photojournalist Brent Stirton, which shows a victim of the illegal trade in rhino horn, taken as part of an undercover investigation. The decision of the international jury to select this particular image as their winning entry is a move that Remembering Rhinos Founder Margot Raggett describes as ‘brave’.

“I think the [rhino horn trade is an] issue is on a lot of conservationists’ minds and many of the judges of that award are conservationists,” she tells me in a special interview. “It was a brave decision to choose a picture which will have many of the public turning away from looking at it but it is incredibly important that as many people see it as possible nonetheless. We can’t deny what’s happening anymore, because we are all running out of time to save so many species.”

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton, winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award 2017.

I spoke with Margot about the new book, exhibition and Remembering Rhinos’ special launch event to be held at the Royal Geographical Society on the 1st November…

 

Kate: What will make the launch on the 1st November a success to you?

Margot: Good question, I am so focussed on arranging it right now, it is important to step back and think about that… Obviously a packed house, the chance for likeminded people to mingle, talk about the issues and be inspired is all important. But ultimately, the exhibition and launch are all about trying to sell books because THAT’S how we raise funds to put into projects. So the aim is to inspire people to buy as many as they can carry and make it everyone’s Christmas present this year! If we sell out of books by Christmas I will be absolutely thrilled – we printed 4000 rhinos books this year compared to 2500 elephant ones last, so a real step up. 

 

How did Remembering Rhinos come about? Was it always in the pipeline, or a direct response to the success of Remembering Elephants?

During the launch of Remembering Elephants I had a lot of people asking me what’s next, as if it was a given that there should be a follow up. But I was very keen to do one thing at a time and get that first book launched successfully before I made any commitments. A few weeks after that launch I headed out to Africa with my friend, actor Dan Richardson – who had kindly agreed to become an ambassador for us – to have a look at some of the projects we’d supported in Meru in Kenya.

From there we headed to nearby Ol Pejeta and had the opportunity to meet Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left on the planet. That same day we visited a rhino graveyard for all of the rhinos who have been poached in that reserve and the impact of both those visits was immense. Both of us were in tears for much of that day and over dinner that night I declared that I simply had to produce another book to build upon the support we’d gathered. And of course it had to be on rhinos.

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson with Sudan last male northern white rhino

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson visit Sudan, the last male northern white rhino

 

How many photographers are involved this time? Are they different or the same the photographers that were involved in Remembering Elephants?

Once again we have 65 contributing photographers and while many are the same, we have swapped in a few new names. Some of the photographers from last time didn’t have suitable rhino pictures and in some instances very few photographers in the world had the images we wanted, such as those of Javan and Sumatran rhinos. Former Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Steve Winter was a new name for this year and we’re thrilled that he agreed to come to London for our launch and deliver our keynote speech at our RGS launch on November 1st.

 

Why did you choose the Born Free Foundation as the charity to partner with on this?

It was important to me to find a charity partner whose ethics aligned with mine and whom I felt I could trust. No-one ever has anything other than good things to say about Born Free and Virginia McKenna is a personal inspiration to me, so it was a natural fit. They’ve been great.

 

Why is this fundraising campaign/the plight of rhinos so important at the moment?

The rate of poaching for rhino horn has soared in recent years with its value more than its weight in gold on the black market. Add to that the recent legalisation of the sale of rhino horn in South Africa, which only masks the illegal trade further, and rhinos are being killed more quickly than they are being born. It is unsustainable. I was chatting to someone the other day who said the media were reaching poaching fatigue in South Africa, which is a frightening prospect. Anything we can do to keep the issue in the spotlight is therefore critical – and the fact that we also raise funds, which can be so quickly deployed into rhino protection, is even better. We are doing something because the rhinos need us and that’s the right thing to do.

 

What will the money raised from Remembering Rhinos go towards? 

At the moment I have a working spreadsheet with potential funds allocated against eight different projects across Africa and Asia (all approved by Born Free) but until we know the final amount raised — which depends upon how many books we sell — we won’t know exactly what we have to distribute. I’d rather give bigger, more meaningful donations to fewer projects than spread ourselves too thinly. There will be an announcement as soon as we can make it.

But in the meantime there are two projects we’ve already started supporting in South Africa from funds raised earlier in the year, which are Saving The Survivors (veterinary care for victims) and Wilderness Foundation Africa (anti-poaching patrols). In mid-November after the launch is done, Dan [Richardson] and I are heading out to visit each of those projects and report back to everyone exactly what effect those funds are having. I see reporting back as a critical element to our success, people quite rightly want to know how their money is making a difference. Accountability is a key part of our success I believe.

Remembering rhinos book

 

Remembering Rhinos talk and launch

A special evening about rhino conservation and photography will be held at the Royal Geographical society, London, on 1st November, and will include talks from former Wildlife Photographer of the Year Steve Winter, Saving the Survivors founder, vet and photographer Johan Marais and Will Travers OBE, President of Born Free Foundation. The event, which Margot Raggett will compère, will also include a presentation of the images from the book and an auction of some of the images.

The books themselves will also be on sale on the night with some of the photographers available to sign them if requested. Books and prints will be on sale to support Born Free Foundation’s rhino-protection work.

Tickets can be purchased from Born Free Foundation: For more info, click here.

Learn more about the rhino horn trade

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Reflecting on a gentle nature

Lately, I have found myself in a reflective state of mind. Reflecting on my work, my goals, the small successes of the campaigns I’ve joined (Sea World agreeing to end the breeding of its captive whales); the near misses (the slow progress of the UK government in deciding whether to close the domestic trade in ivory); and the complete misses (never getting to see Tilikum free of his Sea World enclosure, CITES not delivering lions with Appendix I protection, etc.).

I suppose it can weigh heavy.

In need of a little pick-me-up, my thoughts went to the beginning —in fact, before the beginning —to the chain of events which began the ripple that would eventually flow into the creation of this sea of words; articles; posts.

It begins with the memory of murdered photographer Julie Ward, whose book, ‘A Gentle Nature’, I won in a raffle many years ago.

Below is a vlog I made a few years back, explaining who Julie Ward is and a little bit about her tragic story.

 

This is the book mentioned, which captured my interest in the Born Free Foundation and wildlife photography and was one of the inspiring factors which made me travel to South Africa to volunteer.

gentle nature

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I had chosen to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve because it is home to two Born Free Foundation sanctuaries for rescued big cats, and one of these rescue centres was opened in Julie Ward’s memory.

Shamwari friends with Kate

Celebrating a job well done with my fellow Shamwari volunteers at the Born Free Foundation”s Julie Ward Education Centre.

Since that vlog was filmed, a further development arose in the Julie Ward murder case, where new DNA evidence brought detectives a step closer to finding her killers.

The following video shows a news report from BBC News in the East of England. I must apologise for the quality of the video and give pre-warning that to get the most from the video, it will require viewers to turn the volume to full. It was recorded on simple digital camera by my ever-supportive parents, and emailed to me during my year in Australia, so that I could watch it online from overseas.

 

Back in 2013 I even designed my own mini Go Go Gorilla to send out to Born Free‘s Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari.

The basic elements of my design were my Shamwari work t’shirt from my time as a volunteer there, the Born Free Foundation logo, and an image of Julie ward herself. Such were the reaches of their influence.

photo(9)

It’s wonderful to reflect on my own locality, and how where I grew up ultimately had an influence on ‘how’ I grew up. There are so many wonderful figures who have inspired my path into gentle nature and compassion conservation.

Those that I’ve followed throughout my life are: the late Joy Adamson (writer of the Born Free autobiographical tale of Elsa the lioness, and its sequels) and George Adamson (Joy’s husband, who had a lifetime of incredible conservation work in his own right, rehabilitating captive lions, such as Boy and Christian back into the wild) and the late Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who founded the Born Free Foundation with their son Will Travers, and whom played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the Born Free movie).

I would also, like many people, have to cite David Attenborough in my list of conservation heroes whose footprints I would love to walk in. I am so grateful that, in blogging, I have found a way to honour those idols and to continue to grow in the shared goals; in all their triumphs, near misses, and total knock-outs.

 

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Jonathan and Angela Scott – The Big Cat People: Special Interview Part 1

In the days before we saw life through the eyes of animal robots, we saw life through the eyes of the people who knew them best – and Jonathan Scott was instrumental in that. I was 8 years old when I first tuned in to BBC’s Big Cat Diary, where Simon King and Saba Douglas-Hamilton completed the trio of big cat filmmakers that would change the way we saw lions, cheetahs and leopards forever.

man-with-cubs“I had a unique story unfolding right before my eyes,” Scott acknowledges. From his days of sleeping in his car while following African Wild dogs – which, by his own admission, allowed him to become ‘part of the pack’ –  to becoming famous as ‘the man that a cheetah crapped on’ (who can forget that famous Big Cat Week scene with Kike the cheetah?); it certainly seems he has had a life that many of us can only dream of.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Jonathan Scott is still bringing us ever closer to the formidable big cats of Africa, with a little (or maybe I should say ‘a lot’) of help from his partner in work, as well as in life; Angela Scott – or as he affectionately refers to her in our conversation, ‘Angie’.

At the end of 2016, the pair released an impressive combination of work; Jonathan Scott’s autobiography ‘The Big Cat Man and a coffee table book ‘Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance, which is predominately Angela’s photography.

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Angela Scott photographing cheetahs for Big Cat Diary

I spoke to Jonathan in a special interview to find out why he felt it was time to tell his story and what made him want to tell it publicly.

 “It is one thing to write an autobiography, quite another to figure out why,” Scott explains.

The Big Cat Man

“I think in some ways it was wanting to review my life to make better sense of it – I have lived life at such a frenetic pace that I sometimes feel that I need to slow down and take stock and think about the big questions that flash across one’s mind from time to time, reminding us that life is not a dream, that it is real, and that we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to what we are doing with this precious gift of being alive and the amazing opportunity that offers us – both for adventures and for personal growth.”

“Isn’t it an indulgence;” he added, “to think that your memoir is of interest to others – the written equivalent of imagining that anyone might really like to see your holiday photos.”

I actually purchased a copy of the book after listening to Jonathan talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London; guiding the audience through anecdotes of his extraordinary life, in preparation for some of the incredible tales and awe-inspiring photographs that feature in the book. Archives of life that I’ve spent the last month of so poring over as I read page by page before settling in for the night.

It dawned on me that it must be quite a daunting task, to give away the intimate details of human life to complete strangers.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

“I never [gave] a thought to who will eventually read it,” he states, “I needed and wanted this book to centre on me and my growth as a human being – not just about what it is like to live in Africa and spend time following big cats.”

 “I have always led two lives – like everyone to varying degrees – the life lived ‘out there’ in front of my eyes, one’s sense of self; and the inner world that for me was a bit of a muddle given the mental health issues I was grappling with. I really felt I was going to die – like my Dad.”

Quite early in the book, you learn the sad revelation that Scott was just two years old when his father died of an inoperable brain tumour.

“I was convinced that something was wrong that some awful disease was working its way into my system. It took me until I was 40 to lay that to rest.”  

“Marrying Angie and having a family gave me something much more important to worry about than my own wellbeing. Writing my story was a way of coming to terms with who I am – or who I think I am. And [a way of] being honest about my life and letting people see that we all have problems and issues and frailties – and that when you consider the lives of other people you need to see beyond the superficial. Particularly with people in the public eye.”

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“We are all just human – being famous doesn’t mean life is any less complex or angst ridden. I wanted people, particularly younger people who might want to follow the kind of life I have lived, to believe that following your dream is possible. It might be a very bumpy road but in following it you can find the most unimaginable joy and meaning.”

Hearing Jonathan’s words, I feel like, particularly in the current climate, the need to feel like there’s a sense of purpose to be found; a life outside your current existence is a very important rhetoric for young people to hear. 

“The autobiography I wanted to write was a more fulsome account of my life than my celebrity as a wildlife author and presenter of Big Cat Diary merited,” Jonathan explains, as he tells me how finding the right publisher proved to be an ‘elusive creature’.

“People knew me as ‘the bloke the cheetah crapped on’ from my encounter with Kike the car climbing cheetah of Big Cat Week 2003; surely my potential audience wanted to hear stories of daring do among large possibly dangerous wild creatures rather than of growing up on a farm in Berkshire along with revelations of whatever skeletons in the cupboard I might reveal.”  

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My own collection of Scott’s early books

Like many people, it was Big Cat Diary that first switched me on to the work of Jonathan Scott, and I subsequently began buying the BBC books that accompanied the programmes – originally co-authored with Brian Jackman, then later, Angela Scott – and whilst I came to expect more tales of the big cats we’d got to know on the television, the authors certainly fascinated me too. Skeletons in the cupboard and all.

The Big Cat People

The first thing I learned about the combined force of Jonathan and Angela Scott is that they are the only couple to have won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award individually – a testament to their individual skills and vision. Jonathan won the prestigious award in 1987 and Angela won in 2002.

Jonathan Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

Jonathan Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

The second thing I learnt about them, is that they go by the collective name: The Big Cat People. “Social media is a huge opportunity to have a shop window, but you do have to grow your brand,” Jonathan addressed the audience at ‘The Big Cat People’ talk at the Royal Geographical Society.

The Big Cat People feels a like brand that has been a long time in development. Prior to these book releases, the Scotts have worked on 29 other publications together!

Angela Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

Angela Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

I asked what makes them such a good team in telling these stories and sharing their world with people who may never get to see these places or animals for themselves. “Angie always says that the key to a great relationship –  both business and personal – is to make it a “Competition of Generosity”, Jonathan gushes.

“If you are always thinking of your partner’s best interests and prioritising them then – as long as you are both doing it – you will be successful. Angie is great organiser: very structured in her way of thinking, whereas I just tend to wing it and believe that things will always work out fine. So it is a great combo.”

“And we both love each other’s work; we think of it as ours. The problem sometimes – and I am always quick to remind people of this – is that because I am on TV I often get the lion’s share of the attention. But when it comes to our photography, Angie is the talent not me. She has a wonderful eye as you can see in Sacred Nature. Eighty per cent of the images are Angie’s.”

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I can very clearly see their intention in releasing both books together, as a combination of work for anyone interested in their lives and career. As Jonathan puts it, they are ‘very inclusive’ – the personal text of the autobiography with their pen and ink drawings and photographs, and then the splendor of viewing some of their best images in a big folio book.

“The books complement each other. We knew that the autobiography was not the right format to show off our photography to best advantage. Words predominate in the autobiography and images predominate in Sacred Nature. That was our intention.”

Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance

Sacred Nature comprises 10 chapters, each preceded by a short essay setting the theme and tone of the photographs to follow. As well as being Angela’s ‘mission’, Sacred Nature really is family ‘labour of love’, as their son David is responsible for creating the design concept.

“Our son is incredibly creative. He drew together all the elements that we wanted for Sacred Nature: the right images – both colour and black and white; the tone of the text, and he chose the quotes from great poets and sages to mirror the message of: ‘look, listen and absorb the mood created by the images and the words’.”

“He conjured up a little bit of the magic inherent in the wonder of savanna Africa and the incredible place we call The Last Place On Earth – the Mara-Serengeti – home of the great migration, all the big cats that have been our obsession all the years,  and so much more besides.

A leaflet teasing the design concept of 'Sacred Nature' and the book's review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

A leaflet teasing the design concept of ‘Sacred Nature’ and the book’s review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

Keith Wilson writes of the book in Geographical Magazine‘s November 2016 issue: “This may be Jonathan and Angela Scott’s 30th book, but it is without doubt their magnum opus.”

So, what is it that makes the book stand out so much? (Jonathan tells me that one journalist said of Sacred Nature: “It is a coffee table book on steroids.”).

It’s clear from his answer that he agrees with Wilson’s interpretation, which reads: “The Scott’s have been firmly established at the top of their field for decades, during which time the public has grown accustomed to witnessing their spectacular work in print and on screen (through BBC TV‘s hugely popular Big Cat Diary), but this book differs in many ways to any of their previous efforts. Sacred Nature is primarily Angela’s vision.” 

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Angie is a very spiritual person,” Jonathan tells me. “Compassionate; someone who reaches out to others in need. She grew up in Africa, spent her holidays on safari in places like the Serengeti as a child living in Tanzania.”

“She draws strength from connecting to wilderness – she loves trees and seeing plants growing in her veggie garden. And she is very artistic; she loves to draw and was always very artistic and her great passion was photography and the ocean. She is quiet, and shy and retiring – so photography gave her a voice, a way to express herself.”

“The genesis of Sacred Nature was partly to do with our age. I am 68 this year and Angie will be 64. We have had a long and successful career as authors, wildlife photographers and working in television. This was the time when we wanted to review and assess where we were in our lives and careers and plan the next step.”

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Some of the incredible photography featured in the book, giving and intimate view of Africa’s wildlife

He also cites concerns about the natural world, loss of wild habitat and diversity, and the surge of the human population across the planet.

“They all played a part in focusing our attention on the reality that most of the world is shut off from nature. Most of the world lives in cities. And the places that still harbour most of the wild animals on earth are mainly the most impoverished parts of the planet – such as Africa.”

The irony of these places, he says, is that local communities are too busy just trying to get by in ensuring they have the basics in life (and many don’t; ‘living on a few dollars a day’), dealing with far more pressing day-to-day priorities to be able either enjoy the natural environment or to see any reason to treasure it. 

“Most people living in East Africa will never see a wild lion or elephant. And those living in rural areas adjacent to wilderness naturally have a very different view of an elephant a lion or a buffalo to the one enjoyed by visitors on safari. Those same charismatic wild animals that visitors so want to see up close and romanticise are often a threat to life and livelihoods for local communities who bear the brunt of living with wildlife. Elephants and buffalos destroy crops at times and predators sometimes kill livestock.”

“We hope to take the message of Sacred Nature: that we need to re-engage with wilderness and to value it as the source of life, as the provider of our fresh water, our food and the air we breathe, and use it to remind people that the world will be a poorer place without other forms of life to share it with and marvel at.

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Purchase these incredible books here.

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The Great British Badger Debate

I have a confession to make. For all my pride in living in London, I’m really a countryside kid.

I don’t mean that I grew up grouse-shooting or fox-hunting — my background is nowhere near as privileged as that — but I’m countryside enough to have grown up in East Anglia, to have experienced getting stuck behind a tractor on pretty much every family drive we ever went on; to have seen muntjacs scampering through the woods on a regular basis in my childhood (usually dashing away from the dog that my nan and I would walk in Thetford Forest most weekends) and at least one of my brothers had a friend whose family ran a farm and would invite him to shoot birds of some description at one time or another.

There are plenty of fields full of cows and pigs where I grew up. We took school trips to a local farm and Harvest Festival was a big deal at school each Autumn.

Camping as a teenager

High school camping trip, as a teenager in Norfolk

At that level, the politics and welfare issues of it all fall away to whether or not the area you live in stinks of manure from the fields, or whether or not your school friend will let you feed polos to the horses when you go round there for tea. (Apparently that used to be a thing. I have no idea whether that’s still a thing. I’m not that countryside anymore.)

I suppose the plight of Britain’s badger has felt like a divisive one to delve into for me. Though I never announce it, and have certainly never mentioned it on this blog before, I haven’t eaten meat or dairy for a while now. Living in the City, it hasn’t been that hard to leave behind the immediate awareness of ‘school friends going without if their families weren’t making enough money from the farm’ to throwing myself entirely into supporting animal rights issues and decidedly detaching myself from the root cause of such appalling animal welfare conditions by changing my diet.

So I suppose I understood where author and anti-badger cull campaigner Dominic Dyer (whose background is in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) was coming from when he told his audience at Waterstones book store in Cambridge on Thursday that he ‘is not anti-farmer’.

“I’m angry,” Dominic explained, “I wanted people to know I was angry. I’m not anti-farmer though — I didn’t want to just attack farming. I do point out that the farmers are the victims of this; the supermarket price wars [reducing the cost of milk], the movement of cattle after the foot and mouth outbreak, the spread of TB [bovine tuberculosis], etc.”

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Dominic was discussing his book ‘Badgered to Death‘ in a talk with League Against Cruel Sports’ Vice-Chairman Charlie Moores. The book offers a great beginner’s guide to understanding the long history of this delicate and politically divisive subject (culling badgers as a solution to stop the spread of tuberculosis in cattle), delivered clearly, simply and passionately.

Personally, when reading his book; an in-depth exploration of the issues surrounding the spread of bovine TB and the subsequent persecution of Britain’s badgers, I found it increasingly difficult to sympathise with a campaign to slaughter (often inhumanely) Britain’s largest surviving wild carnivore, rather than vaccinate them. Especially when the evidence shows that over 95% of bovine TB infection spreads from cattle to cattle (not from badger to cattle!), and largely due to the intensity at which they are farmed (i.e. the high numbers making up the dairy herds, the limited space they are given, and the fact that they are kept indoors for longer periods of time).

Perhaps the most astonishing piece of take away information from Dominic’s book is that an annual TB testing system for cattle was put in place in Cardiff, supported by tighter movement and biosecurity controls, and a badger vaccination trial; and the result was that the number of cattle slaughtered for TB in Wales has fallen by 45% in the past five years! Today, 94% of cattle in Wales are TB-free!

I cannot understand why; when the solution is already rolled out in Wales, England doesn’t follow the same practice and stop the cull?

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Badgered to Death is a great introductory insight to the people, press and politics that come into play concerning Britain’s controversial culling of badgers. It feels like a complete and well-rounded view of the motivations behind the badger cull, and — as the author pointed out at the recent talk in Cambridge — it has been written as ‘a quick-moving, easy read; not a scientific journal’. An approach he says he took so that the book could be used to help those that support the anti-cull movement explain how they feel by sharing it with others and handing it over to MPs (apparently Theresa May has already been sent a copy).

The book also explores the media coverage given to the cull; and its significance and influence, as well as the role (or sometimes lack of) that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play in fighting against the culture of culling.

While it is clearly written from a very personal stance (capturing the last three years of Dominic’s life, so he told the audience at Waterstones), this book takes care to point out the differences of position and previous conflicts that might make the author uncomfortable, rather than simply omitting them. Including the public apology he issued to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which was one of the points discussed with Charlie Moores.

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For all the years I lived in East Anglia, I never saw a badger. Not even a dead one at the side of the road. I visited the Natural History Museum earlier this month, and took a walk around their mammal collection to have a look at a badger — having had my curiosity piqued after reading Badgered to Death — and I couldn’t even find a stuffed specimen there. I have no idea how a badger scales up, or what shades are present in their fur; but for some reason I feel a natural affiliation to the creature.

It seems I am not alone. I recently entered a pub in Surrey to find the bar scattered with photographs of badgers and an East Surrey Badger Protection Society newsletter on every table. I asked around and discovered that the pub’s backing of the badger was a source of pride for the regulars. How utterly refreshing, that a pub wants to support animals!

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I have a sneaky feeling that a certain supermarket’s Christmas advert, featuring British wildlife such as badgers, foxes and hedgehogs bouncing on a trampoline will also go some way in igniting a national pride in the badger. Well done John Lewis.

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But for all the celebration, as Chris Packham writes in the foreword of Badgered to Death: “For many reasons we had come to love the badger, to cherish and admire it, to protect and celebrate it and of course many still do. But the reputation of this essential member of the UK’s ecology has been targeted by a smear campaign which has been swallowed by the gullible and fuelled by those with vested interests. You see, in spite of all the science and all the truths that it outlines, the badger has become a scapegoat.”

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At the badger talk I attended, Dominic pointed out that the badger’s story is a certainly a very British one. “Britain is quite unique. Nowhere else on earth would you get people going out into fields in the middle of the night to protect an animal you rarely see.”

I asked him how he hoped the book would contribute to the ‘great badger debate’. I want it to inspire normal people to do something was his reply. “We hear the words ‘civic society’ used a lot now. Whatever it is about, animal welfare of something completely different, I want to encourage people to speak out.”

Badgered to Death is available to buy on Amazon now, visit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Badgered-Death-People-Politics-Badger-x/dp/0993040756

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David Attenborough responds: Lions in the balance and Radio Times magazine

I am intrinsically drawn to places of nature and natural beauty, and as I sit in this very British park, barely three minutes walk from Buckingham Palace, the contrast between the book I am reading and the place in which I am reading it is not lost on me.

I am reading a fantastically insightful and honest book by the Director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Craig Packer, called Lions In The Balance — Man-eaters, Manes and Men with Guns. There’s a good story behind why. It was personally recommended to me by none other than Sir David Attenborough.

lions in the balance book

Last month, I did something bold (by my standards, certainly not by Craig Packer’s…), I called out my biggest idol and inspiration for promoting lion cub cuddling; despite its devastating links to the trophy hunting industry (see one of my previous posts, Bred for the bullet, for further explanation of what this industry, also known as the ‘canned hunting‘ industry, actually means).

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Naturally, the posts received a bit of a backlash. Given that I’ve written over 90 posts on this site over five years, and prior to my criticism of the Radio Times cover for Sir David’s 90th birthday, I had only received 20-odd comments, the four responses that made it onto this post are a significant portion of my audience feedback. Most of the responses were angry at me, and one even suggested that my article was “at best a publicity stunt for my blog. At worst, an insult to an honourable man who has dedicated his whole life to animals and has achieved far more in that vein than I ever will”.

Ouch. I did my best to respond diplomatically and calmly; explaining my position and my own shortcomings and former of ignorance to this issue, myself having petted lion cubs in South Africa at a place that I’ve since discovered has previously been linked with the canned hunting industry (however, Daniel’s Cheetah Breeding Centre now staunchly educates against trophy hunting, following the campaign work of an American tourist). But I quietly knew that behind the scenes, I had already voiced my concerns, privately, to Sir David, explaining about the post I had written, why I had written it and asking what his thoughts are on the current situation with lions and the canned hunting industry.

A bold move, from my perspective at least.

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A week later, I had received a handwritten reply — not directly responding to the issue, but suggesting a higher authority on lions, ‘their place within society, ecosystems, and the trophy hunting industry’. One that I would assume he agrees with.

So far, Packer’s book has been a whirlwind of diary-style entries, detailing the experience of being held at gun point in Nairobi whilst on his honeymoon; studying lion and lioness’ reactions to varying mane lengths (long vs. short) and colours (blond vs. black); and near-death experiences at the hands of malaria tablets.

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I’m looking forward to reading more of this book and seeing how his studies and experiences compare to those described by Paul Tully of Captured in Africa in his recent interview for this blog; and to perhaps further explore the darker side to the cub-cuddling issue, which Sir Attenborough himself may have inadvertently promoted.

Want to know more about my discussion with David Attenborough?

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Colouring for conservation with Millie Marotta & Virginia McKenna

I love to sit in bookshop cafés. There’s something romantic about the notion: removing oneself from the wired in, Wi-Fi ready world around us to escape into fantasy lands or global adventure over a warm cup of tea.

I’ve never before sat in a bookshop café with a cocktail and some colouring pencils though — until last Thursday night.

Nestled in the basement café of Waterstones, Piccadilly; renowned adult colouring book illustrator Millie Marotta welcomed an audience of avid colourers and curious artists to a special event commemorating her latest book release and her new position as a patron of the Born Free Foundation.

imageAlthough I fancy myself as a bit of a coloured pencil artist (I wish there was a less loaded term than ‘artist’!), having held my own exhibition last year to raise funds for Born Free Foundation’s Europe Elephant Sanctuary; I’ve never actually indulged in adult colouring books before, so this was a delve into the unknown for me.

Without really knowing what to expect, but intrigued by the new book’s title: Wild Savannah, I listened intently as Sunday Times journalist Katie Glass interviewed Millie about her work, her training (she studied as an illustrator before becoming an art teacher, then getting into publishing) and her previous books, which have sold more than 4 million copies!

imageOne of the most interesting elements to me was Millie’s admission that creating the book allowed her to discover animals that she’d never before seen or heard of; such as the pangolin.

I asked her whether she ever had similar feedback from the adults that use her books: that indulging in her illustrations has allowed them to learn about a creature that they wouldn’t have otherwise come across, and she admitted that she is regularly contacted on her Facebook page by people expressing that the books have taught them something about the natural world or made them consider an environment in a new way.Millie Marotta 1It seemed fitting then that Born Free Foundation Founder, Virginia McKenna was invited to speak about Millie’s new position as a patron of the charity and how her books will go onto inspire a new interest in the wild for many.

The theme of her latest colouring book is the wild savannah, and as such, it includes illustrations of savannah landscapes in Africa, India and South Australia.

imageVirginia spoke passionately about the pairing between the foundation and Millie Marotta’s work; highlighting that in Born Free Foundation’s Year of the Lion, it was a special blessing to have Millie advocate the brand and even release a number of signed limited edition prints of her lion illustration, on behalf of the charity.

I spoke to Virginia afterwards about the art workshops that Millie will be holding in schools across Kenya, as part of a Born Free’s Global Friends initiative to help educate schoolchildren about their local wildlife; to help change attitudes towards animals consider ‘pests’ and find a way to work with them and the environment, such as through the use of lion-proof bomas around farmland.

Kate and Virginia

“Optimist to the core, Millie is one of the people inspiring that hope in Kenya,” she said. “Her approach is a valuable, powerful and unforgettable inspiration — lucky children I say!”

It sounded like an incredibly positive and progressive way of exploring an issue, and as a lover and advocate of education and schools, I think it’s a wonderful thing for Millie Marotta (especially as a former art teacher) to have taken on. Bringing together education and conservation can only be a good thing!

Now, excuse me while I finish off my rhino colouring…

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