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10 things you didn’t know about Sir David Attenborough

Like most people, I’m a huge fan of Sir David Attenborough, and his ability to inspire millions of individuals, old and young, from across the globe to take an interest in our natural world. It’s hard to understand exactly the level of influence that the veteran broadcaster has had, but the stories from his incredible career pay testament to how he’s dedicated his entire life to understanding more about our planet and its wild creatures.

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But with a career so very much in the public’s eye, there must be very little that we don’t know already know about the BBC great. Or is there?

I’ve tried to compile a list of ‘10 facts you didn’t know about Sir David Attenborough’ – do let me know your favourite, or if you have a fun fact that didn’t make the list, please leave a comment in the box below. Here it goes…

1) Sir David Attenborough’s favourite animal…

is identified, re-evaluated, and changed on a regular basis. “Today it’s a weedy seadragon,” he explained when I had the incredible honour of speaking to him in Kingston, London  – it’s an animal he researched and filmed off the coast of southern Australia. “They’ve evolved to look like weeds and spend the entire day dancing,” he confirmed.

2) If he could belong to any other species for a whole day…

it would be a bird of paradise. A few years back I witnessed the then 89-year-old answer this question during an audience Q&A. He smiled and replied “a bird of paradise of course, so I could dance all day looking beautiful, and see how many ‘birds’ I can attract”.

3) His love of animals comes from…

a book he read in early childhood. Sir David credits Ernest Thompson Seton’s book ‘Wild Animals I Have Known’ as igniting his passion for animals and the natural world. At the beginning of the BBC film ‘Lobo The Wolf That Changed America’ — which tells Thompson Seton’s tale of hunting the notorious wolf Lobo, and in doing so giving him a respect for animals and their personalities which would make him ultimately turn his back on wolf hunting — Sir David expressed that his love for animals and recognising them as having individual personalities comes directly from having this book in his library as a child.

Ernest Thompson Seton - wild animals I have known book

4) He once fought off a pickpocket…

while travelling in Jakarta. Sir David describes this in his book ‘The Zoo Quest Expeditions’; “I suddenly remembered that in the breast pocket of my shirt, I was carrying all my money, my fountain pen, my passport and ticket. I clapped my hand over the pocket. It landed not on cloth, but one someone else’s hand. I gripped it as hard as I was able, slowly bent it back and removed my wallet from its fingers. Its owner, a sweating half-naked man with a dirty cloth tied round his forehead, glared at me savagely… I decided that in the circumstances it would be better to be gently reproving than to attempt an impersonation of an avenging fury, but the only word I could think of was ‘Tidak. No’.”

5) He agrees with cloning animals…

to save a species. “I actually agree with cloning a species if you’re down to the very last one,” he said when I had the pleasure of meeting him. Though it seems he only agrees with cloning two animals of species, adding; “but you would have to clone a male and female though, unless you plan to go on cloning over and over again to keep the species going.”

6) The rarest animal he’s ever seen…

was the last ever Pinta Island Tortoise – which he described during a lecture he gave for Environment Trust for Richmond upon Thames in 2015. He visited the male giant tortoise, known as ‘Lonesome George’, in the Galapagos Islands before this solitary creature passed away on 24th June 2012. The Pinta Galapagos tortoise was already thought extinct for about 100 years, until scientists discovered ‘Lonesome George’. “There was only one in the whole wide world, and I saw it. So that is undoubtedly the very rarest of a species you can have; the very last.”

7) The creature that most obsesses him most…

and grips his affection more than any other, is a human baby, he told the Radio Times in a 2014 interview. “An 18-month-old child is simply riveting, because evolution has evolved that response in us to make sure we protect them,” he added.

8) He names the blackbirds who visit his garden…

albeit in his words ‘unimaginatively’. As he states in the book ‘New Life Stories‘, based on his interviews on Radio 4 in 2011; “I have a blackbird in my garden — a male — who has a white feather in his left wing. I call him, rather unimaginatively, ‘Whitey’ and his arrival, a year ago, transformed my understanding of the dramas and battles that go on in my shrubs and on the bird table. Suddenly I was aware how frequently — or infrequently — one individual bird visited my garden; how often he fed; whether he was likely to win an encounter with another male; whether he was courting; and what his relationships were with others of his own kind.”

9) He’s decorated his home with images of nature…

or at least one room. A sneak peak of his home in the film ‘Great Wildlife Moments‘ shows peacocks on the fire place, leaves and plants on the wall paper and a penny jar plugged with feathers. It’s EXACTLY what I’d hoped for from our biggest wildlife hero!

Sir david attenborough house

10) He visited Elsa the lioness of Born Free fame…

and Joy and George Adamson, out in their home in Kora National Park in Kenya. He even had to endure Elsa’s cub Jespah playfully swiping at his legs. He writes of the encounter in the 1960s; “They were certainly playful, but equally, they didn’t seem to know their own strength. Jespah in particular enjoyed playing games. His favourite trick was to hide behind a bush and then charge out as you were passing and take a swipe at your legs”. Ouch.

 

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What one more fact? Discover what Sir David Attenborough has chosen as his most exciting moment in filmmaking.

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Tania Esteban chats about her role as a Digital Researcher for BBC’s Big Cats, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II

Tania Esteban behind the camera

I’m sure that, like me, Thursdays for many of my blog readers have meant one thing this January — Big Cats!

The BBC’s natural history programming has started 2018 on a high, with this exciting new series exploring the secret lives of wild cats. This past Tuesday viewers were treated to a rare insight into an international project that’s battling to bring the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and improving wild habitats.

I was fortunate enough to chat to Tania Esteban (whose work can be discovered at TRE Productions) about her work behind the scenes on the series, which involved researching, setting up shoots, storyboarding, and translating for the crew (Tania credits being bilingual as major advantage in securing her role on the project).

Listen to the full interview on the SoundCloud link below.

After discovering her film A Lion’s Tale through Twitter back in 2016 (it featured on my Top 5 ways to beat Blue Monday post in January 2017), I was incredibly excited to chat to Tania about the film; her first big steps into her career in documentary-making; and the amazing work she’s done with the BBC since completing her Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking…

Kate: ‘Big Cats’ was your first project for the BBC, what did you do for the series?

Tania: It was my first foray into the BBC because it was work experience. At the time I was editing A Lion’s Tale, which was good timing, so I applied for the BBC work experience pool. I thought; “I’ll just apply and see if I get it” — it’s usually quite tricky because so many people apply and I knew I may or may not get it. I was at university when I got the call and they said: “We’d love to do a quick interview with you if you’d like to do work experience”, and of course I said; “yeah, I’d love to!”

The reason why was mainly because I could speak Spanish and they sent me to Spain to do a recce of where they were going to film the Iberian lynx for the third episode, on the conservation element of it. So I was very excited because this was my dream project — I wish I could have worked on it for longer. But I spent a month and a half working on it; doing lots of research and getting to learn the ropes of production. We’d just learnt everything on the [Masters] course, so it was fresh in our minds and a good chance to see whether I could do this in the real world of work.

What did the work experience involve?

I helped the main researcher and assistant producer — the lovely Sara [Douglas]. We went out to Spain and actually flew into my home province — which was hilarious; I told the team that I could show them all the best tapas bars. I did a little bit of filming on an Osmo [a type of handheld camera] — so that’s kind of field notes and getting a general scope of the area so that the producer can look and think ‘right, we’re going to film here and we’d like to do this…”.

I did a lot of translating; liaising with the scientist and finding out key facts that would feature heavily in the story. It was my job to work around the language barrier and make them feel comfortable with the team and ask questions about where we could place the cameras and gain their trust — which I love doing, because I love talking to people. 

BBC big cats

What did you enjoy most about working on Big Cats?

I really enjoyed finding pure science, learning how to set up shoots and the storytelling element and thinking about different camera angles and story boards to help the production.

It was very high security and we had to put protective clothes on so we didn’t spread any disease to the animals and they hosed us down, because they’re critically endangered these lynx. And they’re so beautiful; very small animals. I’d never seen them before so that was very exciting. 

It was really inspiring for me actually, because I never realised how many passionate conservationists there are in Spain. I was quite blinded to that in a way because I’d grown up there, but I’d never really had the opportunity to meet any of these people, such as Miguel who features on the programme.

The conservation work is incredible and I’m very glad that — from the perspective of a half Spanish woman — the conservation work that the team is doing is now coming out and being seen. It was brilliant to see that and to start my BBC role and my work as a researcher on a programme that features big cats — as I was obsessed with big cats at that time, after working on my film ‘A Lion’s Tale’.

What’s it like behind the scenes? Did you learn things that weren’t in the final programme? 

Yes. You see all these things behind the scenes and you’ve got your team there; so you find out all of this knowledge and information that embellishes a sequence. And even if that doesn’t make the final cut, you still have that knowledge with you and you still have that bond that you’ve made with these people. I think it’s very important to keep up those relationships where ever you travel in the world, because you never know.

Like the connections you made during the production of A Lion’s Tale; the likes of Ian Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Will Travers. How did that come about and where did you get the idea for the film?

I was studying the Wildlife Filmmaking MA course in Bristol after completing my Zoology course. I’d know for so many years that I wanted to do this particular MA course; since I was 14 and I saw it advertised. So I planned all my A Levels and GCSEs to get to Bristol and do this course. So when I got it I was ecstatic! And as part of our final year projects we had to choose a story we were passionate about; I wasn’t too sure what that would be — I knew I really liked big cats, but wasn’t sure what the story would be. Then Ian Redmond came in [to the university] and gave an inspiration talk — as always. He was talking about vEcotourism and he said this one sentence — that it was the 50th anniversary since the Born Free film was made and I went; “that’s the story!”

A Lions Tale film poster

Click the image to watch A Lion’s Tale

How did you get to work on the filmmaking side?

I’d recently read how lions had declined by nearly 70% over 20 years, and it’s just terrible when you think about how their numbers have plummeted. People always think that lions are so numerous, and they’re really not anymore — so I thought that’s the connection. So I went up to Ian [Redmond] and said “I’m a huge fan and I’ve got this idea for a film I’d like to make with Born Free; could you maybe put me in touch with Will Travers and Virginia McKenna if they’d be interested. And that really got the ball rolling and I got in touch with Will. Will was absolutely incredible — and I’m such a huge fan of his, so I was terrified of meeting him — and of course Virginia has always been such a hero of mine; as I’m sure she is of yours, and many people. She’s got this incredible presence. I even did a presentation about her when I was at school; I was 10 years old and we had to talk about our biggest heroes, and I chose her.

Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’s met Virginia McKenna has said she has such a positive air about her, and she’s so passionate and she ‘does’. She’s an activist — she acts upon her word.

virginia mckenna at home

Virginia McKenna portrait by Tania Esteban

So once the ball was rolling, I spent six months setting up the shoot and liaising with them constantly and then doing all the storyboards, doing all the research; talking to Victor — who’s one of the rangers out in the Kenyan Born Free offices — and then crowd-funded it. It was just a bizarre, really incredible year of planning this dream shoot and I thought: “right, I’ve got 10 days to actually shoot it, just a tiny percentage of a production.”

Actually getting out there was incredible because I got to fulfil a childhood dream of filming a story about one of my absolute heroes and an animal that’s very dear to my heart.

A Lion's Tale film poster

When I started editing it, I want the piece to be very much a memoir of Born Free and of Virginia McKenna as well, because she has dedicated her whole life to conserving wildlife. And her son [Will] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. He never stops. He’s seriously incredible.

What was it like going to the 2016 ivory burn in Kenya for the film — to witness the biggest ever stockpile of ivory to be destroyed?

That was something that I was unsure as to whether it would come off. A lot of people asked “what’s the connection?” and I said “well, there is a connection”, at the very end — there was a different ending that I didn’t use, it’s a personal copy that I keep — it’s Virginia McKenna saying: “it’s not just about elephants and lions; it’s about the whole eco-system; it’s about the whole of nature — protecting it. It got me really emotional actually.

Being at the ivory burn was one of the most overwhelming, powerful things I’ve ever filmed. You’re so focussed as a camerawoman, thinking: “I’ve got to get this shot, and I’ve got to get that shot — I’ve got to get the president as he comes out to light the ivory, and I’ve got to roam around with my gimbal to try and get some of the shots of the rangers and the burning flames…” and then you look up and see this 50-tonne pile of ivory going up in flames. It was the smell actually, more than anything and you could hear the ivory crackling because bits of it were hollow — it was so powerful.

Tania Esteban film the 2016 Kenyan ivory burn

That’s why in the film I used Virginia’s voice, Will’s voice and Victor’s in the film, to narrate it. I wanted them to give a voice to all those people who had been working together to reach this moment. It’s all about emotion in the storytelling. That’s what I tell a lot of people — especially in conservation — because nobody wants to be lectured anymore. You’ve got to get them emotionally or visually arresting images to try and do these amazing people justice.

Just being there was amazing and I’m so grateful to Ian and Will and Virginia for giving me that opportunity to make a dream film.

Amazing! I know you’ve become a bit of a drone specialist; how has that come about?

Drones are amazing! I got started with them about 2 years ago when I saw a video on Vimeo that someone shot in Scotland on a Phantom 2 — a very old type of drone — and I just thought “god, it really does open up a whole new world!”. It was only then that it was beginning to get more commercial and anyone from the general public could start to buy consumer drones and give it a go. So I bought a secondhand one to see if I could actually fly it before I start taking it seriously — and it was terrible, the drone was quite terrible, but if you can fly a bad drone and a smaller one, then you don’t have to worry about the bigger ones.

I remember flying a drone over my house in Spain, and the mountains there have always inspired me, so just to see it from above and being able to take pictures was incredible — a whole new perspective. And that’s where it all started really. I realised it could add a whole new perspective to my storytelling. 

Tania Esteban holds a drone camera

I was at the BBC at the time and I thought: yes, I’m going to do this. It’s quite a lot of money, it costs quite a few thousand pounds to train yourself to get the license and get qualified, but I knew that it would perhaps open up more opportunities for me to go out on location and also to enhance my own videography and film work.

The conservation element of it is quite interesting, because you can use drones for aerial surveying — such as for monitoring orang-utan nests and tree distribution and species. In the forest it was incredible to pan up the trees that just go on and on, and it gives a good indication of the health of the forest when you see ferns on the trees, etc. And I’m always concerned about the welfare of the animals I’m filming — when I filmed elephants in the forest I didn’t get anywhere near them. So it’s exciting; you’ve got small drones like the Spark, which you can fit in your hand, and because of the size of it, the motors don’t make as much noise. That’s very exciting for wildlife filmmakers.

I recently went to Iceland, which is the most drone-able country — the way the landscape changes is like turning the pages of a children’s story book — and the new series I’m working on now heavily features a lot of drone work, so I’m going off to Canada very soon to go fly my drone. My first paid internal gig with my drone.

Exciting! And it’s always important to think about the welfare of the animals. So, tell me about your work on Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. What did you do for them?

That came about two months after I finished work experience on Big Cats and I’d finished editing A Lion’s Tale. The film came out at the start of November and at the end of November the BBC got in touch and said “would you like to do digital research for Planet Earth II?” Umm, yeah!

Digital research encompasses all the online aspects: all the video clips, all the behind the scenes pictures and all the social media clips and exclusives that people see online. And I was a part of the team that did all the different additional bits to support the Blue Planet II team. Which is probably why I was very active on social media about it, saying “check this out!” and all the random .gifs you probably saw about it.

Tania tweets about Blue Planet 2

We did some digital exclusives for Snapchat for America, which was interesting. My job was to look into all the archive which wasn’t used for Planet Earth, so I got to see all this amazing footage which wasn’t used on the main episodes and edit up clips for the digital platform.

We crafted these different stories with this incredible footage that wasn’t used on the series. Some of it was breath-taking, I hope its used for something in the future. 

For Blue Planet II I did the equivalent, but also got to do some additional interviews with some of the filmmakers involved and the conservationists — so that was good, as it meant I got to do some more camerawork.

I was so desperate then to move on to production — and I saw that Wild Metropolis was commissioned and so I came up with loads of story ideas and pitched it to the series producer and he said “ok, you can be one of our researchers” — which was great, as I could move on to production which was what I wanted, as it’s pure research. It’s been my favourite project to date. A lot of people don’t see these ‘mega cities’ from around the world as wildlife hotspots, but some of the stories we’ve found: wow! It’s coming out in October time, so keep an eye out for that!

What advice would you give to people who want to go into filmmaking and start a career like yours?

You have to be really passionate — and slightly crazy — about wildlife and natural history. I did the science route, zoology and I studied urban bat ecology for a year and did my dissertation on it and then I specialised in filmmaking, because that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t have to do that, I know plenty of people who didn’t, but I think it just gives you this filmic grammar if you specialise in filmmaking.

So yeah, just get out there, find your own stories — the world has opened up now, anyone can own a camera that shoots 4K now. Talk to people about their experiences, travel — it opens up a whole new perspective of your own life, as well as your career. Keep filming and get on social media. .

Tania with Victor and Born Free team after filming A Lion's Tale

Networking is about 60% of everything that we do. I also believe that if you can specialise in a certain area of wildlife filmmaking: gimbal work, long lens work, drone work, time-lapse, thermal — like you saw in Big Cats, the thermal imagery — there’s so many different niches that you can specialise in, I think you should go for it and pick one that you enjoy. I also believe in developing your own style; don’t just copy.

And always remember your roots; the reason you’re doing why your doing your filmmaking work — to make a difference, to inspire people, which is especially true of wildlife work

 

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Jumbo the elephant: the story of London Zoo’s most famous resident

“For nearly 15 years after he arrived at the London zoo Jumbo gave very little trouble, made the turnstiles click profitably, and was a source of tremendous pleasure to many thousands of visitors of all ages and all stations, including Queen Victoria herself and the children of the Royal Household… [But, keepers] Bartlett and Scott certainly needed all their proven courage and ingenuity when, in 1880, Jumbo, the biggest of all the beasts, began to play up.” 
W.P. Jolly, author of Jumbo.

Jumbo book by W.P. Jolly

Last weekend the heart-wrenching BBC documentary; Attenborough And The Giant Elephant broadcast to a huge outpouring of sympathy for the treatment of a ‘celebrity elephant’ in Victorian times. It seems the ideal time, therefore, to consider the roles of celebrity elephants across different cultures.

I attended the European premiere of the powerful documentary Gods in Shackles at the beginning of October; a documentary that explores the use of elephants in temples and festivals in Kerala, India. The film examines the somewhat contradictory attitudes towards the elephants, in which they are at once both beaten and abused and placed among the gods.

Gods in Shackles film

While the content of the film may be shocking (as I noted in my earlier blog post, one celebrity elephant featured in the documentary was known to have had razor blades hidden in his food in an attack by supporters of a rival elephant), it’s easy to forget that here in the UK, we’ve seen elephants treated exactly the same way — a fact that brings me hope that attitudes toward these loving, intelligent and sentient animals can change across India, too.

In England, our most famous resident elephant went by the name Jumbo.

London Zoo’s first African elephant, Jumbo — who would later cross The Pond and become one of the most famous pachyderms under the charge of the Ringling Brothers — is the reason the word ‘jumbo’ is now synonymous with elephants and used to describe large objects in the English language (and why it was added to the dictionary as such in the 1880s).

Jumbo dictionary definition

London Zoo’s most famous resident was later joined by a second African elephant; a female called Alice, and along with their impressive sizes (which set them apart from the other resident Indian elephants), the Press’ decision to report them as being romantically involved — when they in fact rarely crossed paths — helped to elevate their status; particularly that of Jumbo, when it came to his departure overseas.

Knowing that Jumbo’s story was used as inspiration for the Disney classic Dumbo and having seen the merchandise and literature surrounding Jumbo, the supposed ‘world’s largest elephant’ at the Making Nature exhibition in London’s Wellcome Gallery earlier in the year, I already had a fair understanding of Jumbo’s celebrity.

Arriving at the zoo’s site in Covent Garden in 1865, as part of an exchange with a Parisian zoo (they received a rhinoceros in return for the African elephant), he was the first African elephant that zoo visitors could ride. Formerly, all London’s riding elephants had been of the smaller Indian species.

Having the opportunity to ride such a grand creature — with the promise of one day growing to around 11 feet tall and carrying tusks of up to 7 feet long — endeared Jumbo to the crowds greatly. That and, as the BBC documentary points out, the timing of his popularity coinciding with the development of photography; meaning he could be documented in the public eye far and wide.

Jumbo the elephant offering rides

Zoo visitors taking a ride on Jumbo — up to six at a time.

Although Jumbo never did reach 11 foot in height, at his time of death he measured just over 10 feet (3.2 metres), which is an impressive height for an elephant aged 24, as he could have still had up to 16 years left to grow before reaching full height. The average height of a 24-year-old male elephant is around 2.7 metres (just shy of 9 feet tall), putting him at 20 per cent larger than average. His impressive stature earned him the perhaps exaggerated title of ‘the world’s largest elephant’.

Much like the elephant rides offered in tourist destinations across Asia and beyond today — which most people with an awareness of animal psychology recognise as being cruel — Jumbo was made to carry visitors in wooden benches slung high on either side of his back.

The seats faced outwards however, rather than forward facing, so riders would sit with their backs to the elephant. This allowed room for more riders — and with even less understanding of animal welfare than today, it was not unusual to see Jumbo ferrying up to six passengers through the Zoological Gardens.

elephant with riders

The biggest error on the part of Jumbo’s keepers was their ignorance to the animal’s needs — as perhaps is often the case with captive animals in zoos.

Abraham Dee Bartlett was the zoo’s head naturalist, and with Jumbo in his charge, he sort the assistance of keeper Matthew Scott, who would eventually travel to America with the elephant. Bartlett, while not truly understanding the implications of caring for a sentient being, at least understood the need to keep the animal under control for the public’s and his own sake.

He understood the change in male elephants as they reach adulthood (musth), which is something that today’s elephant keepers (mahouts) in Kerala — who are charged with caring for the country’s festival elephants — still give little allowance for.

As reported in Gods in Shackles, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season from 2012 – 2015, due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command whilst in a state of heightened aggression. Those mahouts who do understand the implications of musth often chemically castrate the elephants to stop the production of these hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

Abraham Dee Bartlett

Abraham Dee Bartlett, head of London Zoo during the days of Jumbo’s residence

Bartlett understood that all male elephants around the age of 20 become troublesome and dangerous — so it was no surprise to him when, in 1880, Jumbo began to play up; smashing his elephant house with his trunk, tusks and feet. Bartlett reinforced the elephant’s house with timber beams, in fear that Jumbo would escape and attack zoo guests.

At 14 years old Bartlett had personally witnessed Chunee the elephant of the Covent Garden Theatre killed after charging at crowds in a state of fury. W.P. Polly notes; “Everyone was astonished and frightened at the fury of the charges made again and again by the maddened elephant. Poison had no effect and there was very real danger that the beast might break out of his enclosure and bring the whole building down in ruins. Eventually a detachment of Foot Guards was rushed up from the nearby barracks, but even then shot after shot had to be fired into the wretched animal, and only after he had been hit 152 times was he pronounced dead.”

Expert opinion given in Attenborough And The Giant Elephant argues, however, that Jumbo’s rages may have been more likely a result of his poor diet of sticky buns, sweets and alcohol given to him by zoo guests; along with toothache from his deformed teeth; witnessing the death of his mother in the wild during his early capture and passage into captivity and the long term affects from a lack of companionship with other elephants.

His story reminded me of the film The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films. Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, The Elephant in the Room (by Director & Editor Tariq Chow and Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner — whom I interviewed around the time of the film’s release) provides a moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions.

The elephant in the room poster

Click the image to watch the full 13-minute short film

Farewell, Farewell poor Jumbo

So what became of Jumbo after his troubles began at London Zoo? Unfortunately, not all stories have happy endings — and Jumbo’s tale is perhaps best made an example of.

In 1882, he was chained in a crate for his passage to America to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming so frightened that he ‘clanked his chains, rubbed them against himself, roared and bellowed’ for some time.

Upon arrival, he drew much interest and publicity for the so-called ‘greatest show on Earth’, courtesy of his new owner Phineas T. Barnum. But would eventually meet an untimely death after a collision with a locomotive in Canada, while being led down a train line as the circus toured the country.

Polly describes the scene; “The grotesque angles of the derailed engine and trunks, the twisted rails and wreckage, and the swarms of labouring men, gave the scene a frightening urgency, touched with the fantasy of horror by the cries of animals, glimpses of scattered paraphernalia of the circus, and the body of a huge elephant with a weeping man by its side.” 

Jumbo skeleton and skin

An entrepreneur to the end, Barnum sold Jumbo’s skin and bones for public display. His skin mounted by a taxidermist was sold to Tuft’s College, Medford, Massachusetts (where it was eventually destroyed by fire) and his bones now reside in New York’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, however, was the Press reception that Barnum held to celebrate completion of the work on Jumbo’s bones and skeleton — a lavish meal was provided, where the menu included a jelly laced with powder made from a pound and a half of Jumbos tusks. Guests were also treated to a souvenir slice of inscribed ivory from the elephant.

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Dr Jane Goodall interview: reflecting on chimps in the image of man

This month I’m proud to announce that a very special interview of mine has been featured in National Geographic Kids magazine: my recent chat with globally renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall about her groundbreaking career studying chimpanzees.

An extract of our conversation; including Jane’s recount of both her favourite and funniest moments with the chimps can be heard here:

Later this month, the brand new feature-length National Geographic documentaryJane‘ will have its UK release on the 24th November, and on the 27th – 29th November the Primate Society of Great Britain, of which Dr Goodall is a patron, holds its 50th anniversary meetings where Jane will be guest speaker — making the timing of this article particularly exciting!

Jane national geographic film

It was a real honour to sit down with this conservation hero of mine in the incredible setting of Windsor Castle at the annual summit of Roots & Shoots.

(Part 1 of my interview, about Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots programme can be heard here).

Flint and Dr Jane Photo Credit NatGeo, Hugo van Lawick

Flint and Dr Jane. Photo Credit: NatGeo, Hugo van Lawick

Hearing about Jane’s determination to fulfil her dream to work with animals in Africa was endlessly fascinating and inspiring.

“When I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to go to Africa and live with wild animals and write books about them. That’s going back about 70 years ago now, and back then it didn’t happen in England that girls had those opportunities,” she tells me, as we both sip tea from china cups in this most regal and British of settings.

Dr Jane goodall and kate on conservation Windsor Castle

Dr Jane Goodall and I outside Windsor Castle

“So everybody laughed at me and said; ‘Jane, dream about something you can achieve’, but my mother said: ‘If you really want something, you’re going to have to work hard, take advantage of every opportunity and never give up’.”

The rest, as we know, is history. We talk through her favourite moments with her favourite chimp (David Greybeard) and some of the incredibly discoveries she observed in her camp in Gombe, Tanzania during her study for National Geographic — and the less than warm reaction she received from the scientific community at the time.

kate on conservation nat geo kids jane goodall article

To read the full interview, see this month’s National Geographic Kids magazine.

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Learn more about Dr Jane Goodall

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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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Jaguar journey: Alan Rabinowitz and saving a species

The jaguar; a most elusive, yet powerful big cat. Stealthy and strong, it hunts like a true warrior, yet lives almost like a phantom; ghost-like in the rainforests of South America.

Compared to the prolific press that Africa’s big cats — the lion, leopard and cheetah — are granted, the jaguar is rarely seen gracing the covers of magazines, receiving week-long coverage on prime time BBC broadcast slots, or taking centre stage in its own feature-length docufilm.

Despite being the world’s third largest cat, possessing such iconic features as its beautiful rosette-covered coat and bone-crushing jaws (the largest of any big cat), the magnificent jaguar and its vulnerability to the continued threat of deforestation remains a largely unsung story.

But for the last 30 years, one man has made it his mission to save these big cats. Dr Alan Rabinowitz, Chief Scientist at Panthera and the man who established the world’s first jaguar reserve, is himself somewhat of an overlooked entity here in the UK…

 

Discovering the jaguar

Some time in my teens, when I would rush home from high school to try and catch as many wildlife documentaries on National Geographic Channel as possible before the 6 o’clock news and the firmly established family TV time that followed; I fell in love with jaguars.

The Nat Geo documentary that first piqued my interest in the big cat was titled ‘In Search of the Jaguar’. The film followed the story of Dr Rabinowitz — and showcased his quest to a secure 5,000 mile pathway for the jaguar to move from Mexico to Argentina.

The protected pathway would be an invaluable conservation effort to allow the big cats to move freely and diversify their genes.

In search of the jaguar - jaguar journey

Shockingly, estimates at the time (around 2006) suggested that one and a half billion acres of jaguar habitat had been taken by man, leaving the surviving population isolated in small pockets. Back then, it had also recently been discovered that all jaguars shared the same DNA — so a method of sewing together these pockets was necessary to allow movement for more diverse breeding.

Known as the ‘Jaguar Corridor’, the pathway — spanning 18 countries — is intoxicatingly referred to as a ‘necklace’ in the documentary, and each potential new territory sourced by Rabinowitz is referred to as a ‘gem in that necklace’.

The imagery of the emerald forests of Brazil, the burning amber flashes of the elusive jaguar slinking in and out of view and this elaborate necklace of geographical gems has always made it stick in my mind.

That and the fact that Rabinowitz was himself fighting against the odds of a serious illness during this film; yet choosing his quest to save the jaguar over slowing down to save himself.

 

Intermission

As the formidable jungle cat slips in and out of view in its rainforest habitat in real life; so my interest in jaguars has slipped in and out of my consciousness over recent times.

In the years that followed my initial discovery of wildlife warrior Rabinowitz, I would read countless stories and memoirs about people who had entwined their lives with African big cats. I would come to understand the complex social structures of lion prides and marvel at the cuteness of baby cheetahs on BBC’s Big Cat Diaries; I’d even end up travelling to South Africa to see how these big cats find ways to share a continent, and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lone leopard on the horizon. But the Latin American jaguar; this most mystic and spiritual of cats would remain a quiet, secretive, yet powerfully present interest of mine.

Towards the end of last year, exactly 10 years after first viewing ‘In Search of the Jaguar’ I took a chance on following the big cat myself. Perhaps not in quite the same way as Dr Rabinowitz and his team, but through my own journey.

Historically, these animals are interwoven in ancient civilisation as mystic creatures of great spirituality; prowlers of ancient imaginations, paid testament to through elaborate carvings and etched onto the walls of temples: their spirituality and strength make them an iconic feline.

jaguar temple statue

It is perhaps this very spirituality and strength then, that guided me at the end of last year.

Picking up a copy of National Geographic Kids magazine’s September issue, I took in the beautiful jaguar image staring back at me from the cover and flicked through the copy, taking note of facts about jaguars snatching up prey, such as caiman and capybaras, by uniquely using the winding tributaries of the Amazon basin to their advantage.

Poring over information about their skull crunching canines and their skilful swimming abilities rarely seen in big cats, I used the article as my main preparation for chasing down a job at this most esteemed of natural history media brands. I referenced the article several times in my job interview for the publication; and after a securing a second meeting, I was offered a job at the company.

Within my first few weeks, I was tasked with researching jaguar facts for a promotional ‘jungle survival guide’, which would be released with National Geographic publications across the globe, in many different languages. My first real project with the company, and it featured jaguars!

National geographic lego expedition jungle guide

If signs come in threes, the next one definitely felt like one worth seeing — or rather, listening to. When one of my new colleagues recommended listening to a podcast called RadioLab, as it featured and in-depth look at trophy hunting for rhino horn, it didn’t take long for me to look around and find an episode about zoos.

I was curious to see the journalists’ handling of the issues surrounding captivity, and shocked at the coincidence that, quite unexpectedly, the final segment in the broadcast featured one Dr Alan Rabinowitz (a name I had first heard through Nat Geo many years ago); tracing his life’s work back to being a child, and encountering a lone jaguar in the Big Cat House at the Bronx Zoo

The powerful RadioLab story (which can be listened to by clicking on the player link above) focusses on why Rabinowitz connected so much with the jaguar (owing to a severe stutter throughout his childhood, which left him feeling voiceless — a symptom he could recognise in the pitiful yowling of the Bronx Zoo’s jaguar).

The severity of Rabinowitz’ stutter was barely touched upon in that earlier Nat Geo documentary, so hearing about the extremity of the speech disorder and the impact it had on the course of Alan’s life gave a whole new dimension to the story; and a whole new perspective on his connection to the jaguar.

The coincidence of re-discovering a human-wildlife story that had fascinated me so much as a teenager, and learning of such a significant side of the story — the influence of communicating with animals on learning to overcome a stutter — certainly reignited my interest in finding out what has happened to the jaguar population now, and how Rabinowitz’ all-important ‘Jaguar Corridor’ has made a difference.

 

Jaguar journey

In Search of the Jaguar ends with a tantalising concept: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an overwhelming challenge? For this wildlife warrior, that chapter has yet to be written…”

Just over a decade on, it’s safe to say that that next chapter is an exciting one! Dr Rabinowitz is now Chief Scientist of Panthera; founded in 2006 as the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species (including tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, pumas and leopards) and their ecosystems.

The Panthera Team take on the formidable forests of the jaguar’s range – on foot! Photo by: Veronica Domit Photography

Along with Dr Howard Quigley, Head of Panthera’s Jaguar Program, Alan is currently undertaking a three-year quest to journey by foot(!) through the 10 counties that make up the spine of his now well-established 18-country ‘Jaguar Corridor’, sharing his experience along the way of the progress being made—  and of course the jaguars he encounters!

On their journey deep into the jaguar’s range, together with Panthera’s scientists and partners, they hope to continue to shine a light on the developments in the jaguar’s population and range, as well as the challenges in places where jaguars are most at risk — so that they can continue to develop and implement global strategies to best protect the cat.

I’ve signed up to ‘join the journey’ and receive regular updates about the team’s progress and was delighted to read about the efforts to explore the powerful cultural connections that locals have to Latin America’s iconic big cat.

‘The Journey of the Jaguar is showing that humans and jaguars are coexisting’ one of their most recent email newsletters reads.

This sounds like an incredible achievement when there is often so much conflict between local populations and predators (such as in the case of last year’s poisoning of multiple lions from the Maasai Mara’s Marsh pride).

I contacted Dr Rabinowitz to find out more about his experience and how the local people are able to live alongside the big cat, when so often predators are seen as a threat.

“My best experience has been to see the enthusiasm of local people and local governments to the idea of an integrated jaguar corridor,” Alan explains.

“Also to see local people feel strongly about wanting to bring jaguar culture back into the lives of their children and the schools.”

Alan Rabinowitz - jaguar journey

Dr Rabinowitz on his epic ‘Journey of the Jaguar’. Photo by Veronica Domit Photography

Hearing of the desire to educate local children about the beauty and importance of jaguars as part of their learning in the classroom is immediately something that resonates with me.

“I realise more than ever that the future rests in the hands of the young,” Alan continues. “My hopes are that this journey creates a permanent platform and a permanent movement for saving the jaguar, saving jaguar culture, and making sure that the world’s third largest cat does not go down the road of the tiger, lion and leopard.”

And for a man who has faced (and overcome) so many challenges in his life, what has been the hardest part of the jaguar journey so far?

“The worst experiences, as always, are to see dead animals.” he tells me. “Jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, and other animal parts. And learn of the fear some people still have about jaguars.”

 

Join the journey…

You can follow the footsteps of Dr Rabinowitz and the Panthera team at: journeyofthejaguar.org and see regular updates and images on Twitter and Instagram.

The expedition is also being used to spread the word about The Stuttering Foundation, which is of course is an organisation close to Alan, and one whom he is promoting along the route by wearing the foundation’s patch.

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Jonathan Scott Special Interview Part 2: The Big Cats and the Marsh Pride poisoning

In my last blog post, I explored the lives of ‘The Big Cat People’, Jonathan and Angela Scott, most famed for their work on BBC’s Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Week. Inevitably, our conversation became not just about the amazing photographs and stories that comprised their latest book offerings, but also the animals that inspired the work.

Like me, Jonathan Scott was first inspired to follow a dream of seeing animals in the wild by the 1966 film, Born Free, featuring actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

“What really stands out from those teenage years is the memory of sitting in a cinema watching Born Free, the true story of George and Joy Adamson‘s triumph in returning the wild-born lioness Elsa to the wilderness of Meru National Park in Kenya,” he explains. “Its stirring effect was reinforced by a talk that a fresh-faced teacher gave to the sixth form one evening, illustrated with colour slides of his travels around the world on a gap year. I sat there aching to do something like that – to be free of studying and to live.”

img_5615

 And live he certainly has. Jonathan clarifies that he wanted a ‘life of adventure’ combined with a ‘window on to wilderness’. That meant Africa.

“Preferably careering around in the bush looking for big cats, just as I had seen Armand and Michaela Dennis doing in On Safari on the telly.”

Having graduated with a degree in Zoology from Queens University in Belfast, and spent a year exploring the North American landscape, he signed up for a fourteen-week overland journey from London to Johannesburg in 1974.

“Six-thousand miles later and having sold my onward boat ticket from Cape Town to Sydney in Australia, I spent an idyllic few weeks living on a luxury houseboat – the Sitatunga – stationed in the Okavango Delta, a wildlife wonderland known as the jewel of the Kalahari.”

articles-five-minutes-with-jonathan-scott-big-cat-man

From that point on, Jonathan fell in love with Africa and became a well-established author, photographer (winning the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 1987) and filmmaker.

I have grown to love writing natural history narratives about animal characters Angie and I have followed over the years,” he says, “such as the Marsh Pride of lions, the leopards Chui and Half-Tail, along with the cheetahs Kike and Honey and Honey’s adorable cub Toto of Big Cat fame.”

Marsh Pride

It is the Marsh Pride that we inevitably end up discussing the most.

The now greatly adored (thanks largely to Jonathan Scott’s work) Marsh Pride of lions were the subject of his first book, The Marsh Lions, co-authored with Brian Jackman in 1982.

img_5614

Scott credits Jackman with teaching him to appreciate the importance of the narrative flow, rather than simply producing a scientific journal: “He questioned whether I was writing for my chums at the Serengeti Research Centre at the expense of the general public, my primary audience. Learning to integrate the science with the narrative was something that took time for me to embrace.”

The pride, who live near the Musiara Marsh (which inspired their collective name) in the Maasai Mara National Reserve were the subject of several books, including those centered around the BBC Big Cat Diary series; which Scott authored on his own, with photographs by his wife Angie. They also starred in the BBC television series.

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Jonathan spent many years tapping into the lives of these cats, and their relationship with the Maasai Mara National Reserve – a protected area of more than 1,500 cubic km. He fondly refers to the Maasai Mara as the heartbeat of Africa, and observes that the lives of the Maasai people (often seen in their traditional red robes, adjourned with beads and carrying traditional weapons) are instinctively linked with the animals and the survival of the Maasai Mara as a whole.

This couldn’t have felt more relevant, when, at the end of 2015, the Marsh pride was back in the public’s consciousness after a mass poisoning.

“The poisoned lioness was 17,” Jonathan explained to an audience at the Royal Geographical Society, almost exactly one year on from the poisoning, “and a surviving cat from Big Cat Diaries in 1998 – one of Bebe’s pride.” 

Jonathan Scott 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 asked him in our interview whether the poisoning had ignited an urgency in him to tell these stories and share the amazing photographs that he and Angela took in the book Sacred Nature.

“People asked if we were shocked and surprised by the poisoning. We weren’t,” he explained.

“It is a fact of life for lions living among pastoralists or in the case of the Marsh Pride on the edge of a protected area – half inside the reserve and half outside – among the Maasai.”

His words made me think back to my study of Craig Packer’s book and the plight of lions following CITES last year.

“It was a tragedy, but rather like with the case of Cecil the male lion killed illegally by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe, the killing of [the] high profile [Marsh] lions caused a storm on social media and in the local and international press.”

“That created a far louder ‘voice’ on behalf of lions than we could have on our own. And that caused the Ministry of Tourism – and the Narok County Government responsible for the Maasai Mara – to take the situation seriously, particularly when people realised they couldn’t just wait for the storm to blow itself out.”

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

The poisoning forced the authorities to ensure that cattle did not come in to Marsh Pride territory at night when the lions are most active and incidents with cattle most likely.

“The Marsh Pride are now able to roam their traditional territory without fear of conflict with livestock owners. But this is not a problem that is just going to disappear. Kenya is home to large numbers of pastoralists with large herds of cattle worth a lot of money in terms of cash and a fortune in terms of cultural status.”

Scott explains that due to global warming, Africa – particularly East Africa – is more prone to patterns of wild rainfall.

“Prolonged droughts and failed rainy seasons are more common. When I first came to live in Kenya 40 years ago the onset of the rains was very predictable – the short rains began in mid-October through to December and the long rains started towards the end of March and continued in to June. Droughts and dry times mean that large herds of cattle are driven in to protected areas and on to private land illegally causing enormous problems for the government, the wildlife and local communities.” 

“There just isn’t enough pasture for all those domestic animals.”

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Despite opening this blog post with the early inspirations and aspirations of Jonathan Scott; his dream to have an adventurous life in Africa, I feel it is only fitting to close with the following statement from him:

“One thing I do know is that at 67 I had reached that time in life when I was eager to give back, to transition from following my personal dream of living with wild creatures to trying to find a fulfilling role as a conservationist and spokesperson for Africa’s wild places, in particular the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.”

“I wanted to acknowledge [with Sacred Nature and The Big Cat Man books] in a tangible way, the gift that Angie and I had been given by being able to spend so many years living and working in the Mara-Serengeti; to try to ensure that this last great wild place might survive the pressures that are currently threatening its very future.”

What next?

So, what can we expect from Jonathan and Angela Scott next? The pair have two new children’s books due out this year with Cambridge University Press – one on a Tiger Safari in India and the other on Toto the Cheetah.

Scott also tells me that they intend to take the message of Sacred Nature worldwide with a series of Exhibitions in key cities – London, Paris, LA, Sydney, Delhi, etc. That and a new TV series that they are currently filming in the Maasai Mara.

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Blackfish Tilikum: An homage to his memory and a promise to myself

Tilikum-Seaworld-580-2.jpg

It’s easy to think, after all the media coverage of ‘2016: the year of death’, that it was the worst start to a year that we have had in this country for a while; kicked off by the passing of David Bowie on the 10th January, two days after his 69th birthday. 

Though I felt terrible sadness at the loss of a musical hero, who will tie quite deeply into this story later (more on that to come), I remember the previous year starting off far worse. 

On the Wednesday 7th January 2015, at approximately 10.30am I had just finished signing off that week’s Primary School news bulletin at Discovery Education when my BBC breaking news alert pinged. The story read that the office of a satirical French newspaper had been stormed by gun men. Returning to work after their Christmas break, heads full of January thoughts and imminent news deadlines (just like mine), the editor and staff at Charlie Hebdo barely had time to register what was happening, let alone react. 

One eyewitness account said that someone had thought the gunman was someone staging a ‘joke hold up’ and laughed, before gun shots and screams broke the mood. Ten journalists and two policemen were killed that morning.

Journalists and news editors, people like myself, were angry. They killed the messengers. The public was outraged ‘they killed the cartoonists, they killed the funny guys!’ was one quote that stuck out to me. If memory serves, the Big Issue penned that one.

‘We won’t let terrorists win’, ‘pencils are stronger than bullets’, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ were some of the protest slogans I remember reading. 2015 had started with a very literal bang, and for one moment in time; we all stood up, stood together

and gave a shit.

charlie-hebdo

What does this have to do with the passing of Tilikum, I hear you ask? 

The mood of Britain was rocked and on edge. People gathered in their masses four days later at Trafalgar Square, pledged their allegiance to France, shouting their right to free speech. The streets of London felt alive with the absolute opposite of apathy. 

Six days later; one weekend on from London’s Unity March, and once again London’s streets were filled with angry people of all ages, exercising their right to speak up and be heard. This time it was a different kind of terrorist in the firing line. A terrorist that uses ropes, hoists, imprisonment in glass tanks, and funds their work with a cashflow from unsuspecting tourists. We stood once again on the steps of Trafalgar Square, and this time called out ‘Je Suis Tilikum’.

IMG_6832Me, at the anti Sea World protest in 2015

“I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”

Empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove. These were our messages that day. Riding a wave of protest that my fellow journalists; slaughtered at their day jobs, had created. We rode that wave for Tilikum, a whale who hadn’t ridden a wave himself in 32 years at that point. 

I was 24 years only at the protest. Tilikum was 34. He has 10 more years on me. And I thought about that a lot. All the great things I’d done in my life. 

Tilikum came to Sea World in 1992, when I was two years old. I was probably just getting to grips with walking a few steps and talking a few simple sentences back then. All the things I’ve done in my life since then… and Tilikum has been in the same tiny part of Sea World‘s Florida park, in the same tank, swimming in the same circles with the same view, day in, day out. All. That. Time.

A wild orca can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. A wild killer whale with 10 extra years on me should have a hell of a lot more life experience.

kate snowdon photoA wild orca I encountered in South Africa

I encountered Tilikum once. In real life, in person. Summer 1999, and I was nine years old, on a family holiday to Orlando. These were the days before social media ruled the Internet, before I could sit and read National Geographic from cover to cover, before Blackfish was a documentary that existed to be watched and shared hundreds of thousands of times. 

It felt like an innocent day of family fun, and my overwhelming feeling was that I loved this incredible killer whale and the way he could perform with his ‘carers’ so carefully and gently. I don’t think you can get away with that level of naivety in today’s Information Age. Tilikum was driven mad by his captivity and is now known to have killed three people.

Including his Sea World trainer, in the pool, in front of an audience.

001A family holiday snap from 1999.

Dominic Dyer addressed the crowds back at Trafalgar Square in January 2015, and quoted the words of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editor “I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”.

I felt the fire in my belly and I vowed to stand for that poor, disturbed, incredibly intelligent orca that I’d seen behind the glass all those years ago.IMG_6843See Dominic Dyer’s full speech and my coverage of the march that day here. 

“Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

There’s a second part to this story. Fast forward one year from the empty the tanks protest, to January 2016. Almost a year to the exact day, David Bowie passed away after a private battle with cancer. 

About a week on, we were back on the streets of London again, this time protesting outside the Japanese embassy.

A crowd, as big as the year before, marched through the streets once more with the message: empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove.

These three causes are completely interlinked; Taiji Cove is where wild dolphins are rounded up in Japan every year and killed by spears for meat consumption, or the most handsome specimens are captured to be sold into a life in tanks at marine parks like Sea World. 

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For those who know little about the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji, Japan, I would highly recommend watching the Academy Award-winning documentary; The Cove. 

As powerful as Blackfish, this tells the story of the other marine mammal that’s most commonly associated with captive performances alongside human trainers; the bottlenose dolphin. 

Significantly, just before the credits on this powerful documentary roll, the song ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie concludes the film. 

“I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

I’m reliably told that the artist, knowing the activist film makers were on a low budget, charged as little as he could get away with for the licensing of the song to be used in the film. Despite his affection for Japan, he risked his reputation with the country for the cause of the dolphins.

See my full coverage of the 2016 march here. 

As January kicks off once again with a personally significant loss; this time the passing of a creature whose gaze I once met through thick glass many years ago, I vow to stand up once again, and let my voice be heard.

The annual Taiji dolphin drive slaughter is in full swing once more its season running from September to March, and once again the waters of the Cove will run red with blood, and the ‘lucky’ dolphins who survive the massacre will be sold on to marine park shows across the world to face the same fate as Tilikum. Driven mad in a tiny glass prison.

I promise, to Tilikum, that as long as marine mammals are kept in tanks, I will continue to stand against it.

I will stand, until they can swim free. 

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Cecil the lion and his legacy: Taking the lions’ share

CITES 2016 has drawn to a close. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora held its 17th meeting in Johannesburg over the last month, and the conference — heralded as the most critical meeting in its 43-year history — delivered some surprising results.

Good news for pangolins (the most trafficked wildlife species, owing to their scales being used in traditional Asian medicine), who were uplisted to receive Appendix 1 protection, i.e. a total ban on international trade except for non-commercial import, such as scientific research.

A mixed result for elephants, as although they were not uplisted to Appendix 1, further talks to open the case for legalising the sale of ivory were quickly closed down, with parties unanimously voting to prevent a decision making mechanism for future trade.
cites-bannerI have previously written about the debate surrounding rhino horn, and, happily, CITES parties rejected Swaziland’s request to trade in white rhino horn, which to me was supported simply to allow rhino farmers to profit from long collected stockpiles of horns.

But in this Born Free Foundation’s Year of the Lion, I was particularly tuned in to the plight of lions. In the lead up to CITES, there were calls for the 182 Member Countries to uplist lions to Appendix 1, which would effectively ban all commercial international trade in lions and parts and products derived from them, and place far greater restrictions on the trophy hunting industry.

Instead of Appendix 1, however, a compromise agreement was reached banning only the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions. Therefore, those coming from captive-bred lions can still be legally sold — which means the export of trophies from lion hunting, or canned hunting, remains legal.

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I must admit, I’m shocked at this decision, not just because of the all PR that the shocking practice of trophy hunting received via Cecil’s story, but because the population numbers of lions speak for themselves.

In 1900, there were as many as 1 million lions across Africa; today there are thought to be less than 20,000 wild lions across the whole continent. There are fewer than 2,000 wild lions left in Kenya, only 2,800 in South Africa, and numbers have declined 66% in 15 years in Tanzania.

When reasoning that both elephants and rhinos are wildly recognised as under threat, and their population numbers are at 40,000 [wild elephants] and 25,000 [wild rhinos] across Africa, it seems crazy to think that lion numbers are at 20,000 individuals, and yet hunters are still invited to kill thousands every year and vast tracts are reserved for hunting.

Kate shamwari lion photo

The species is under so much pressure that — in a silver lining to the CITES outcome — Botswana announced it would voluntarily treat its lions as though the Appendix 1 vote had been approved; making trade in all lion parts illegal within the country. The Environment Minister of Botswana, The Honourable Tsekedi Khama, released a statement during CITES, before the plight of the lions was formally discussed saying:

Botswana currently hosts a fair number of lions and we have made a conscious decision that we will not entertain holding any captive carnivores in the country. And the decision was made because it just becomes a habit, an easy area of trade. The more we don’t manage and protect our wildlife, the more they are subject to abuse. My concern is that if we don’t uplist lions to Appendix 1 we run a very real risk of lions eventually being hunted and traded as body parts by unscrupulous people around the world, into extinction.”

The thing that struck a chord with me the most from his statement is the idea that Botswana will not have any captive carnivores within their country. I recently read an interview with Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in Geographical Magazine in which he suggested that wild lions, as we might traditionally think of them; roaming free within protected areas, stalking their prey, etc. could be entirely replaced with lions that exist within fenced areas where every aspect of their lives is intensively managed.

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Within the same interview, Travers seemed to have forecast the outcome of CITES 2016; in explaining that the conference does not concern itself with conservation threats, such as habitat fragmentation, conflict resolution or loss of prey base — it can only apply itself to the impacts of international trade. “There isn’t enough evidence that international trade is the threat”, Travers is quoted as saying, “As we see lion populations decline, so we’re seeing trade in lion parts and derivatives, both legal and illegal, going up significantly from both wild and captive-bred lions.”

After CITES

Looking ahead, I’m interested in knowing what we can do to help protect and preserve lions in the wild, as they should be, between now and the next CITES meeting in 2019. I interviewed lion expert Brent Stapelkamp, who spent nearly a decade working on the Hwange Lion Research Project with the University of Oxford’s WildCRU and whose study subjects included the now notorious Cecil the lion.

Brent saw Cecil the lion’s killing as a chance to talk about conservation efforts to tackle the many threats that lions face, and with a small team of equally passionate individuals, re-visited a concept born 15 years ago, by chimpanzee expert Dr NishidaWorld Heritage Species.

The concept is for UNESCO to create World Heritage Species in the way that it establishes World Heritage Sites for areas of historical significance and/or outstanding natural beauty. “Basically, it’s a global recognition that lions have been too much part of our evolutionary and cultural history to lose,” he explained, “and for that recognition to be used to protect them and generate the massive international funding needed to save their landscapes.”

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It would mean “hands off, this animal belongs to the world and is too precious for a select few to hunt or appreciate,” Brent added. “A long lasting sense that at least somethings are sacred.”

The advantage to investing in an apex predator like a lion is that they are an umbrella species and their survival will mean the survival of their prey and habitats too.

The Cecil legacy

I asked Brent what he thought it was about Cecil, who he had tracked for years, that captured the world’s attention when he was hunted. Cecil had been radio-tracked and studied by Oxford University’s team since 2008 as part of a long-term wild lion research project. But he was lured away from the protection of Hwange National Park, shot by a bow and arrow and reportedly died 40 hours later.

“Cecil’s demise was not a unique event and indeed I saw maybe a dozen such hunts during my decade. I think what made it “blow up” was that those that work around here, be they safari guides, lodge owners or researcher, just said enough is enough. Not again! This hunt was the straw that broke the donkeys back and a lot of people worked very hard to make sure the story saw the light of day. The world just needed to hear it and the rest was, I believe, a natural manifestation around the global attachment to lions.”

The sentiment of this was recently echoed by Mark Jones, Associate Director of Wildlife Policy at Born Free Foundation, who is quoted as saying: “until very recently, everybody seemed to think that there were loads of lions in Africa. What the Cecil incident did was bring to people’s consciousness the reality that these animals are actually being shot by rich Westerners paying lots of money”.

Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion

Several countries have been inspired to take significant action since Cecil’s death. France announced a ban on lion trophy imports in November 2015, and in April 2016, The Netherlands announced a ban on the import of hunting trophies from around 200 species, including lions. In January 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added lions to the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for American lion trophy hunters to ship their trophies home.

But even Cecil’s story is not without its conflict amongst conservationists. Stapelkamp explained in our conversation that it was common practice to name their study subjects at Oxford. “It was based on the fact that it was easy to speak about Cecil or Jericho than MAGM1 or GUVbM2; their database identities. Guides and members of the public wouldn’t know what you were on about. We enjoyed naming them too. Some had a lot to do with each personality of the story behind them.”

The concept of naming animals has always divided opinion. Renowned ecologist and lion expert, Craig Packer finds the whole idea of naming lions bizarre. “Normally lions are called things like MH3T or lion LGB,” he said in a recent Guardian article.

“The Cecil story tells me that we, as a species, can only show empathy with individual organisms.”

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

But nonetheless, Cecil’s story has helped Packer to lobby the US and EU for control of trophy imports, and he has asked the EU to take into account the corruption in Tanzania and consider banning all trophies from there.

The canned hunting dilemma

“The hunting industry is scared to death they’ll lose the lion.” This sentence, said by Craig Packer at the 2004 CITES conference — where he argued against animal welfare groups that trophy hunting has an indisputable impact on population numbers of wild lions — pretty much sums up the conflict that prevents lions from gaining Appendix 1 CITES protection.

“While your arguments may be flawed, I agree that trophy hunters should be kept on a tight leash.” He reportedly added, back at that 2004 meeting.

Packer, who has since been banned from entering Tanzania for speaking out against corruption in the trophy hunting industry, first went there to study baboons with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. Since then, he has dedicated his life to study lions.

His book, Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns, reflects on studies of lions carried out to see whether the trophy hunting industry harms the local populations with its continuous removal of adult males: causing frequent takeovers and infanticide (killing of other males’ cubs) by replacement males, who in turn live only until the next hunting season, and are then shot and replaced themselves.

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He champions regulating hunting using a minimum age (a male should be at least 6 years old before it is hunted) instead of quotas. “In the long term, there is no conflict between business and conservation,” he writes in his book. “Lions are like a crop. Look after them properly, and you can harvest more of them, making lots more money. Just be patient and let the lions grow up.”

To me personally, the exploitation of lions in this way leaves the door open to the same amount of animal welfare issues, as selling off rhino horn stocks and farming rhinos. But Packer believes hunting could provide the best incentive for conserving vast tracks of land.

This is something that Born Free’s Mark Jones has drawn attention to, citing in Geographical Magazine that we don’t understand animal populations well enough to understand what the value of an individual is to its population — regardless of its breeding age — as breeding isn’t the only thing that social animals, like elephants and lions, bring to their population.

He also argues against giving value to trophy hunting outfitters, as he believes that land management will inevitably then prioritise providing trophies over benefiting wider biodiversity — which is essentially what the entire ‘canned hunting’ industry is (i.e. shooting lions in the ‘can’; enclosed areas of unregulated conditions).

canned-hunting

Packer, at a recent event I attended at the Royal Geographical Society in London, also confessed to having seen photos of lion farms where conditions are ‘far below the reasonable minimum standard’.  “Whatever you think of someone who pays to shoot a lion,” he said, “the conditions those lions are kept in have no regulation and should have a minimum standard.”

Even though Packer doesn’t agree that trophy hunting has to necessarily impact the population of wild lions, he does suggest that the hunting industry greatly exaggerates its ‘positive’ impact on wildlife conservation, stating that ‘hunters lie’.

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 “A lot of clients head off into the bush believing that their $50,000 will save the world — when in fact virtually none of that money goes to conservation and the true costs of conservation are far higher.”

According to Mark Jones, the actual data suggests that only around 3% of the money generated by trophy hunting  actually ends up at the community level for development. During one area of Craig Packer’s research, he surveyed 26 villages from Mount Kilimanjaro to the shores of Lake Victoria, and found almost no benefits to local communities from either ecotourism or trophy hunting.

Other threats to the African lion

Canned hunting isn’t the only threat that lions face. Habitat loss has caused the numbers of traditional ‘lion prey’ — herbivores such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo — to drop by as much as 52% in East Africa, and 85% in West Central Africa.

As prey becomes harder to find, some lions have instead turned to preying on livestock, which can have a major impact on small-scale African farmers. To these people, cattle can represent a life’s savings — creating a direct human-lion conflict, which often leads on to retaliatory killing.

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Packer has encountered lions poisoned with rat poison as intolerance grows. The people poisoning the lions live in fear, or hatred, as the predators have eaten their husbands, wives or children.

As a result, he favours the South African system of conservation, with wildlife effectively kept behind fences and strict regulation. Indeed he ‘unwild’ wild that Will Travers predicted may be the future for the African Lion. “It may feel controlled and over-managed, but it works”, Packer says “and people do not get killed.”

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Solutions

After viewing the issue from all angles, it seems that over the next few years, there will be tough times ahead for Africa’s most iconic predator. “I do think that academia sometimes gets lost within itself and the production of papers, etc. can distract from conservation work,” Stapelkamp contemplates, “that has to be guarded against”.

He has set up a new initiative, The Soft Foot Alliance trust with wife Laurie to help mitigate conflict between man and lion, hyena, elephant, baboon and honey-badger. The aim is to improve local people’s everyday lives with conservation outcomes cleverly designed into each action.

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The positive is that even scientists who remain at odds in their approach ultimately reach a very similar solution. Brent and the World Heritage Species initiative position themselves as neither an organisation, nor an NGO (non-governmental organisation, i.e. non-profit, or charity), but a grass roots, ‘citizen campaign’ and believes that NGOs, such as the Born Free Foundation and research scientists, like Packer can successfully work together under a common goal, like the WHS movement.

“Unless we find a common direction we speak different languages and aim for different targets, and to be quite frank, we can’t afford to waste time anymore.”

Even Packer, who has expressed that ‘animal groups tend to seem religious’, concedes “There are two sides to every argument and both sides are right on certain points.”

“The wider solution is for the world to recognise that the great African wildlife reserves are true world heritage sites and that their protection should be paid out of global funds. They are world treasures yet UNESCO gives no money – there’s no revenue at all. A lot of people have been duped into thinking that just by being a tourist or a hunter, it is enough. It’s not.”

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If you want to sign the petition that calls on the United Nations to establish a World Heritage Species program, you can do so HERE. Keep up-to-date with WHS by following them on Facebook.

Learn more about trophy hunting

Have you heard about the documentary ‘Trophy’?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Want to hear more on Cecil’s story?

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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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