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5 things that made Bradt’s Big Cat Festival amazing!

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.

Kate on Conservation holds bradt's big cat festival guide

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.

John Rendall shows George Adamson's photo at Christian the lion's legacy talk at Big Cat Festival

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.

John Rendall Christian the lion's legacy at Big Cat Festival

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.

Kate on Conservation and Tania Esteban

Who better to visit Big Cat Festival with than Producer and Director of A Lion’s Tale, Tania Esteban

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.

cheetahs tale book by princess michael of kent

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.

Jonathan-Scott-the-big-cat-people-talk

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.

Jonathan later joined a panel discussion on 'the future of Big Cats'.

Jonathan later joined a panel discussion on ‘the future of Big Cats’.

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.

Jonathan Scott and Kate on Conservation at Big Cat Festival

It was great to catch up with Jonathan Scott after his talk

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.

Born Free Foundation elsa toy on kenya airways stall

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.

Big Cat Festival goody bag and book purchases

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!

kate on conservation logo

 

Learn more about big cats

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Want to know more about lions?

 

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To walk with others…

For the first time in about 3 years, I decided to watch To Walk With Lions. The film, depicting the real life story of George Adamson (of Born Free fame) moves me deeply – not least because of the incredible performance of Richard Harris in the role of George, depicting the final months before his murder in 1989.

But beyond the legendary character of Mr Adamson, the film is really about the rise of the next generation of conservationists, in this case: Tony Fitzjohn. tony-2_2863796cIt was by sheer coincidence then, that I found myself at an IWCT (International Wildlife Coalition Trust) event just days later, to raise awareness of Tony Fitzjohn’s work in Tanzania over the last 26 years, continuing George’s legacy. There is something quite wonderful about revisiting a story that moved you, and then so unexpectedly coming across the next (real life) chapter. imageThe fundraising event, attended by IWCT patron Dame Judi Dench, was specifically supporting Fitzjohn’s work with African Wild Dogs – considered a pest to many game reserves and sanctuaries in Africa, due to their high success rate in killing game (and not always eating it…) the Wild Dogs, or African Painted Dogs are killed or driven out by farmers and game keepers alike. D3S_2213Even Shamwari was in the process of selling its Wild Dogs at auction when I arrived to volunteer there in 2008; after their clever hunting technique of chasing animals onto the electric fence to kill them, left several animals a night dead, but the Wild Dogs unable to feed off of them, as they too would end up with a nasty electric shock. n569541213_1260544_5001 The IWCT believes in supporting and protecting the welfare and rights of all animals, but is currently focusing its campaign efforts on dogs in the Philippines (stopping the dog meat trade) and supporting African Wild Dogs, which are too often treated as commodities. The organisation was holding this special evening to raise funds for new tracking collars for a pack of Wild Dogs that the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust has been breeding for re-release in Tanzania. D3S_2151 As well as having the acclaimed Dame Judi Dench as a patron, the organisation also boosts the likes of Peter Egan as patron, who works closely with the charity Animals Asia, and is best-known for his Ever Descending Circles fame. I must extend my thanks to Anneka Svenska for the invitation to, unwittingly, discover what happens when you continue to walk with lions, and African animals alike. DSC_0002

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A new Born Free adventure

Wow! What a month! Where do I even start to unravel my latest goings on? Life is certainly a funny game, filled with unexpected twists and turns; sunrises creeping up over horizons you hadn’t even noticed existed behind the entangled thickets of everyday life.

This last month has certainly been one of those such scenarios. Busy throwing myself into my many projects; my 9-5(ish) of writing for magazines, blogging for Livelikeavip.com, the odd music review, the odd careers-related post and even keeping an eye on the St Albans Film Festival — which is very close to my heart — it can be a little hard to keep up with myself sometimes.

But following a fantastic night in London celebrating Born Free Foundation’s 30th Anniversary ‘Wild Night at the Movies‘ event, I have been overwhelmed by the response my review post on the evening received –  including from the likes of journalist Kate Silverton (who chaired the interview with Born Free Founder Virginia McKenna on the night) and Will Travers OBE; CEO of the Born Free Foundation. photo(9)But who knew that Tweeting my blog post out to the masses would result in an incredibly inspiring and motivational meeting in a private member’s club off of The Strand, London, where I would find myself talking through my lifelong journey of supporting the Born Free charity: how it’s influenced my greatest adventures (my gap year spent volunteering in South Africa), my creative talents (my only art exhibition was themed on Africa Wildlife), my travel activities (I spent time in Australia volunteering for Conservation Volunteers Australia) and my career ambitions (my first job out of university was working for Discovery Communications), with Will Travers himself?!

With fantastic support and encouragement, the result of our meeting was that I will revive my Kate on Conservation blog, with the full support of the Born Free Foundation — receiving direct information and (hopefully) a few exclusives, to bring my lovely readers my genuine thoughts and perspectives on conservation issues across the globe from a compassionate supporter’s perspective. I can’t tell you how excited I am!

In the meantime, I’ve been pretty reflective on my relationship with the charity thus far… here’s a little look back on the journey I’ve had to reach this point of blogging with Born Free Foundation:

DSC_0098 Growing up, the stories of Joy and George Adamson’s life with animals captivated me!

DSC_0001So many inspiring thoughts and words on the pages of these beautiful books.

DSC_0127I’ve been a Born Free ‘adoptive parent’ for many years. Beginning with lions Raffi & Anthea in 1996.

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Using the Born Free Foundation as the basis for my end of primary school project; 2001.

DSC_0130I began fundraising for the charity in my early teens, beginning with collecting used stamps and loose change, selling raffle tickets, etc. Before applying for ‘Get More Involved’ packs.

DSC_0131I remember holding a tap top/bake sale of goods from my front lawn when I was about 14. On refection, it may have been a little more effective if I didn’t live in the bottom of a cul-de-sac…

DSC_0132(Above and below): Some of my early fundraising initiatives. Designing my own (rather crude-looking now) Born Free stationary and calendar.

imageA little look inside my homemade calendar…

DSC_0139Following Born Free updates over the years (some of my hoard, which runs from 2002 – 2014!)image2008, aged 18, I made the life-changing decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve, home of the Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries.

DSC_0141The letters I received at the beginning and end of my volunteering trip.DSC_0128Celebrating Born Free’s milestones over the years – 21st anniversary, 25th, and this year’s 30th year of the foundation!

DSC_0142The latest collection of literature I’ve been given in the last month – a bit of background reading for my blog posts to come!!

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A Wild Night at the Movies

We’re running late. The Piccadilly traffic stands still, a glistening of red rubies not unlike something I’d seen in a jewellery store window. Bathed in the cool white glow of the famous Piccadilly Circus screens, this would normally be one of my favourite city scenes. But not tonight, not when we’re running late.

“It’s 30 years since Born Free Foundation began.
25 years since the wise, gentle George Adamson was murdered.
20 years since our inspiration in all that Born Free does, my beloved father Bill Travers passed away…”

IMG_3307
Tugging at the doors of BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, they moved just a couple of millimetres before falling back on the themselves forcefully. It’s locked?
“How do we get in?”
“No idea. It is here, isn’t it?”
I find two buttons, one is for automatic wheelchair access, one for calling reception. I press both, instantaneously. One has to work.

“But 30 years for wildlife, and here we are, all together. The Born Free generation”. We applaud loudly and I’m grinning like a baffoon as Will Travers OBE descends the stage and returns to his seat beside his mother; Virginia McKenna OBE. I’ve seen him in countless newsletters and leaflets but he’s taller than I’d imagined. More studious looking. “The Born Free generation” I repeat in my mind. I agree. I’m 23 and this film and it’s namesake charity have always been a part of my growing up. In my life like a family member. Adoption packs, letters, bags for old ink cartridges, a pile of used stamps I’ve been meaning to send. A bookcase with a shelf filled with various editions of stories from and about the Adamsons; the films – DVDs next to VHS’ that I refuse to part with. A stuffed toy of Aslan sits next to a framed photograph in which I’m laughing with my Shamwari volunteer workmates as we sat across the wooden benches of the Julie Ward Education centre. A black and white poster of Joy sitting over Elsa as she’s rolling on her back, more like a dog than a lioness. Five seconds in my room and it’s undeniable. I’m one of the Born Free generation.

The door swings open slowly but at just the right speed to drink each feature in at a rate I can process. A screen above an elevator has the comfortingly familiar Born Free Foundation logo (phew. We are in the right place). A golden face, the symbol of BAFTA stares out from the first half of a staircase, and there at the foot of the stairs a small white plague, humbly announcing the 30th Anniversary ‘Wild Night at the Movies’. I check the time of my phone – 7.31. We’re not doing too badly.

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I hear the soft crunching of popcorn as a commotion breaks out on screen. The editing is a little more jumpy than I remember, and the speed of the frames as a man-eating lion runs into the gun fire of Bill Travers’ portrayal of George is faster than I expected. But it’s perfect. Charming, dramatic, nostalgic.

At the top of the staircase, passed the reception, we walk into the David Lean room. Large banners and merchandise stalls greet us. I can breathe again now. I smile as we’re handed a glass of Wild Thing wine and drink in the room as well as the sweetness of the wine. There are familiar faces all around — one of Born Free Foundation’s most passionate campaigners; Helen Worth (Coronation Street’s Gail Platt), soap nasty John Altman (Eastenders’ Nick Cotton) to name drop just a couple. “If you’d like to make your way into the auditorium…” a voice calls out. Will Travers steps aside with a smile and a “after you”, before I’ve even realised who I’ve slid past. At least I was gracious enough to allow whoever was about to step out of the elevator to enter the auditorium before me. It turned out to be Leslie Phillips CBE and his beautiful wife. Is this night for real?

IMG_3302

George Adamson: I don’t know what goes on in that head of yours anymore… What’s wrong with a zoo, anyway?

Joy Adamson: Nothing. Except that she won’t be free.

George Adamson: and Is freedom so important?

Joy Adamson: Yes, yes, she was born free and she has the right to live free. Why don’t we live in a more comfortable setting George? Other people do. We chose to live out here cause it represents freedom for us. Because we can breathe.

***

With all the grace and elegance I’ve come to associate with her on-screen presence, Virginia spent the next hour talking us through her life and career before and beyond the Born Free film (with a little help from Mr Phillips): expertly guided through the questions of a blossoming Kate Silverton (who vows that when she goes into labour she will have the film’s theme song on her ‘birthing playlist’, just like she did with her first child!). I was staggered to learn that this is only the second time that Virginia has watched the film, and that the song nearly didn’t make it into the final cut as the producers ‘weren’t convinced’ at first.

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As the iconic first line of John Barry’s “Born free, as free as the wind blows…” fills the auditorium I try to swallow the lump in my throat. It’s been building up since Bill Travers delivered the line: “You must be very proud”. Given the circumstances, it’s so poignant. I think everyone in the room feels both proud and inspired by Virginia Mckenna and I think to myself how proud Bill would have been of all that Virginia and Will have achieved through Born Free in the two decades since his passing. “I’m proud of her” the character of Joy Adamson responds.

All too soon — to the roaring sound of a passionate and heart-felt standing ovation for Virginia — my dream evening was coming to a close. But I had a lot of long-lasting thoughts to take home with me. What next? What will happen over the next 30 years? Will the animals still be free?

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“I believe in the ‘drip, drip, drip effect’,” was Virginia’s parting thought that concluded the interview: the response that led to the entire audience rising to their feet to applaud – “that if we keep doing the little things that we can, they’ll lead to a big impact. We must never lose hope. We will win.”

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Want to know more about Born Free Foundation?

Want to know more about the Born Free Rescue Centre at Shamwari?

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The Born Free Story

As I touched upon in my last blog post, I have recently read The Lions’ Legacy, the biography of the late George Adamson; whom the film ‘Born Free’ was based on.

In fact, I have read many books about George and Joy Adamson’s lives with lions, including Joy’s series Born Free, Living Free and Forever Free, which are the most famous titles.

Books about lions in Africa

Their life —  and later George’s life without Joy — surrounded by the sights and smells of the savannah fascinates me. Not least because their decision to hand raise Elsa the lioness, and the subsequent film depicting their tale, led to the founding of the Born Free Foundation.

It was Virginia McKenna OBE (who took on the role of Joy) and the late Bill Travers (whom depicted George) that started the foundation after being deeply moved by the tale.

Interestingly, there was a further film made about George Adamson, portraying much of what is covered in the afore-mentioned biography. The film ‘To Walk with Lions’ shows much of his later life after his marriage with Joy broke down. Even as an elderly man George chose to live amongst the African wild and sacrificed all he had for his beloved lions.

Being the avid follower of the stories and biographies relating to Born Free, I also bought myself a copy of the book ‘Christian the Lion’ but have yet to read it, despite it being quite a famous story. Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day to do all the reading I would like.

I suppose the appeal for me is that every time I read about the sights, sounds and smells of the bush I am transported back to a time where I woke up every morning for 3 months to the dramatic African sunrises and the songs of the birds flying over the reserve. I think to live in such a place that touched my heart the way South Africa did will always be a dream of mine.

As a further chapter to the ‘Born Free’ film, in 1996 the movie ‘Born Free: a New Adventure’ was released, telling the story of a young American family trading the concrete jungle of New York for the wilds of Africa. Similarly to Joy and George’s story, they find themselves having to introduce a lion back to the wild.

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