A review of Sacred Nature Volume 2: Reconnecting People to Our Planet by Jonathan and Angela Scott* by Keith Somerville

Figure 1 Sunrise, Musiara marsh, Maasai Mara NR, Kenya

This latest book of outstanding photographs of wildlife, landscapes, people and the whole vast but fragile web of nature by photographers and naturalists Jonathan and Angela Scott is by any standards a weighty tome – weighing in at 288 pages of breath-taking images and at 3kgs in weight.  It will do wonders for your biceps and triceps, but it is worth every gram.  The combination of the impact of the images, of the quotations about nature and the narrative accompanying the pictures is incredible and is both joyful and sombre.  Joyful as you enjoy the simply entrancing pictures (such as the sunrise in the Maasai Mara, above) and sombre as you consider the narrative and the reality of human degradation and destruction of nature and the whole web of life of which we are a far from positive strand.

And we must remember, using the words attributed to Chief Seattle, the 19th century leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish nations of North-West America, quoted in Sacred Nature that we are a thread in the web of life and that,

 “Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.”

The book is a stunning work of photographic art, a thing of beauty and of abiding interest for those who love nature and wildlife and, very deliberately, a call to say enough and to add to the many voices calling for action to stop and then reverse degradation or total loss of habitats, extinction of species and, ultimately, endangering our very existence.  As Angela Scott has written, “Raising awareness about charismatic species such as lions and tigers, elephants and whales, catches people’s attention…[and] If we protect the habitat, the animals will prosper.”

The role of charismatic species in conservation and in raising awareness of species loss can be very effective, but it is often questioned and many people living alongside charismatic but highly dangerous animals like lions, tigers and elephants may have mixed feelings about the Western-generated stress on these creatures.    I put this to Jonathan Scott, and he replied referencing the work of a conservation scientist and very active conservationist, Dr Amy Dickman of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, which launched the lion study which included Cecil the Lion, and who runs the Ruaha Carnivore project in Tanzania and with whom I’ve collaborated on academic papers on conservation:

We concur with Amy Dickman on how we need to try to focus all the emotion generated by individual characters among big cats – Notch and Scarface for instance – Cecil of course – celebrity cats – and channel it to good effect in funding landscapes – habitat – in seeing the bigger picture. The charismatic animals are great for getting people’s attention, but we cannot just leave it at that – wasted opportunity otherwise. Amy was right. We need to preserve the “wild” in nature – the thing we love about lions – and not diminish it or them. Safaris in the Maasai Mara, for instance, have become primarily “entertainment” – a chance to record the moment, preferably with a “selfie” with cats or wildebeest not uncommonly looking bemused/curious/alarmed in the background; it is vital we manage the experience with greater respect for the animals, their welfare should be our primary concern, the Mara is unique, we must treasure it. The loss of wild landscapes is happening at a truly terrifying pace. Professor Joseph Ogutu who studied lions in the Mara in the early 1990s went on to become a highly respected scientist who has documented in detail the demise of Kenya’s wildlife both in and outside protected areas… The challenge is how to persuade the people in positions of power and who create and implement policy to act in good faith for the benefit of everyone and the natural environment we all depend on. Too often it appears as if nobody is listening – or if they are, the tendency is to tuck the bad news under the carpet rather than rock the boat, alter the status quo, cry “stop, enough is enough”, and forsake personal interests for wise management of our vanishing wild places. The good news is that local communities are much better informed today on matters that affect their future. This is mirrored across the world. Our hopes rest with individuals taking a more proactive stance in shaping their destiny. Each of us must choose to be the change we hope for rather than simply relying on others to fix our problems.”

Landscapes, habitat, resources like soil and water are key to our survival and the survival of ecosystems and biodiversity.  Sacred Nature has a predominance of charismatic creatures, but also some of the people who live alongside them and the landscapes.  If charismatic creatures can evoke not just emotions of awe and admiration but also awareness of what we are doing to the environment, to animals and to ourselves then there is a logic and a purpose and it is not just an “Ooh, how beautiful” moment that is soon forgotten.

Figure 2Lions feeding on a wildebeest kill, Maasai Mara NR

The photographs in this book, their subjects, their dramatic and emotive framing – that is real emotion and not something cranked up for effect – can and should inspire awe of the beauty of nature but also awareness of a need to act.  These images can also, if people view them and think about them rather than just flick through them as examples of an ephemeral beauty, begin the task of restoring a link between urbanised, removed distant humans and the nature from which they sprang.  Noting that half the world’s population is now urbanised, the Scotts make clear how “nature has come to mean something remote from everyday existence…something taken for granted”.   We must not take it for granted, and here I will emphasise the point while indulging my propensity to quote song lyrics

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

(Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi)

Many prime wildlife areas across the world are torn up, degraded or paved over to create roads, open up mines and turn rainforest into marginal pasture or soya and palm oil plantations.  Kenya’s Loita Plains, which the Scotts know well, is an example of grassland that has been largely lost to wildlife. Much of it has been put under wheat in fenced off plots, destroying the pastoral life of many Maasai communities and decimating or excluding the ungulate herds and the predators that prey on them.  There are many such examples globally of how poorly thought out “progress” resulting from an understandable desire to improve food security or national income can backfire, destroying the way of life of communities, damaging nature and, eventually, degrading the environment.  The Loita wildebeest herds, as the Scotts note (and painstakingly documented by Professor Joseph Ogutu and his colleagues), have plummeted from 120,000 to just 20,000 over a few decades because of the loss of the open grazing for Maasai cattle and the wild herds as it is converted into small plots or large wheat farms.

Figure 3 William ole Pere and friends, Mara North Conservancy, Kenya

I have stressed mainly the African images and aspects of the book but there are stunning photographs from India, from South America. Antarctica, the Galapagos and many other parts of the world all attesting to the beauty of nature and the hidden warning, brought out overtly in the text, that the beauty is being tarnished and could be lost forever.

Throughout my journalistic and now academic career, I have gained a reputation as a sharp critic who does not take suffer fools and foolish films, narratives or images gladly.   Earlier this year, with my co-authors Amy Dickman, Paul Johnson and Adam Hart, I had published in People and Nature a strongly critical paper on the sensationalism and anthropomorphism of the BBC series Dynasties, entitled Soap Operas Will Not Wash for Wildlife (https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pan3.10202)This series, we felt, while beautiful in its filming had mixed and potentially damaging messages about wildlife and conservation.  Those who have read my critiques and are waiting for me to stick the knife in will now be disappointed.  I was blown away by this book, not just by the immense artistic value and appeal of the images but of the whole work, how it has been put together and the depth of feeling behind it.  It includes habitats, communities, wildlife as part of nature’s web – indivisible and equally damaged by what we do to any thread or to the whole web.  That is what readers should take from the book and they should note the stress throughout on indigenous communities and their enduring, organic link to the habitats, a link many of us in urban areas or human-engineered countryside have lost and which we must rediscover, value and use to provide the impetus to say enough is enough and end the anthropogenic destruction of our world.

Figure 4 Jonathan and Angela Scott

All photographs here are taken from the book, with permission of the authors.

To purchase Sacred Nature 2, go to: https://www.hphpublishing.com/collections/sacred-nature

For more about the Sacred Nature Initiative, go to: https://sacrednatureinitiative.com

Professor Keith Somerville of the School of Anthropology and Conservations Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and Centre for Journalism, is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and of the Royal Historical Society, and author of a number of books on Africa and wildlife, including Ivory Power and Poaching in Africa; Humans and Lions, Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence; and, Humans and Hyenas, Monster or Misunderstood.