Malilangwe elephant herds must be some of the most relaxed breeding herds in Africa. When I spend time with them they very quickly take little notice of me and wander past my vehicle, at times even touching it.
The great thing about this is it’s helping Lindy over her phobia for elephants. The last time she was with me, I was able to get her to even take photos of them. This turn around in her fear of them is so exciting for me. And so exciting for our Series on the girls in the bush.
But back to elephants. Where elephants occur in high densities they are eating themselves to destruction. Vast woodlands are being reduced to grasslands. Can these areas continue to support these high densities of elephants?
Filmed on location at Mala Mala, the National Geographic film tells the story of how five of Africa’s leading predators compete for territory and food during the brutal drought that affected the area in 2002/03.
Predators at War won two awards:
Outstanding Science, Technology And Nature Programming
Outstanding Individual Achievement In A Craft: Graphic And Artistic Design
Such is the life of a wildlife filmmaker, nothing is ever predictable. Some days are full of action and other days are quiet, but the bottom line for me is I’m out there all the time and I just love it. Maybe growing up in the Kruger National Park helped instil this love for the African bush in me. And today I’m lucky to spend all my days out in the wilds capturing images and footage for audiences around the world to enjoy.
Yesterday was a bumper day and so today seemed rather tame in comparison. But working with wild dogs there is always something going on and so much pack politics that one is always entertained.
Today was Floppy’s day. He seemed to have been given the orders that it was his day to lead the pack of BB pups. He was everywhere all the time, and unlike previous days he was first out the den and last back in, that’s if he even bothered to go back into the den. There was too much excitement outside to worry about being holed up for the day.
Floppy was constantly seeking the attention of any adult, only to be rolled over and tormented by it. And when the adult left him he went back for more. He just seems to crave contact with the adults, so much so that he becomes a pest to them and they will suddenly bite him and run off leaving him lying there rather perplexed. But that never got Floppy down and he was always back for more.
If any adult showed any sign of going into a stalk Floppy rushed it and was the first begging frantically always leading “His” pack to meals. Even adults that couldn’t feed were still hassled by Floppy’s constant begging and harassment.
This behaviour was so different to the Floppy we had got to know as he was always so timid being the last to leave the den, first back, always last in line begging and just generally acting out the role of the runt.
But today he changed his status and Floppy the Brave ruled the turf!
Coming back to camp this evening, it was just about dark when we encountered a hyaena on the track. It looked like a male and had no intention of running away. So I got out the vehicle, walked a short distance and sat down. Sure enough it walked over and sniffed my hand, then backed off. I walked further down the path and it followed, like I was taking my dog for a walk.
These animals always fascinate me. I have never seen this hyaena before and yet it trusted me. They are so intelligent that they understand my motives and my body language makes them feel safe.
Having been on Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa for about 10 years it was time for me to move on. I knew Malilangwe having worked here some 10 years ago for about 3 months. So I knew the area fairly well. But it’s the absolute beauty of the area, the stunning landscapes of Sandstone ridges, Acacia tortilis woodlands forming a closed canopy and open under story for hundreds of meter, Mopanie woodland, Brachystegia woodland, savannahs, grasslands and rivers just provide for such amazing diversity which is reiterated in the diversity of animal species. The look of Malilangwe is very different to other areas in Africa and it is this new look on Africa that I want to give to audiences around the world.
What is the movie going to be about?
At present we are working on a film about wild dogs. We’ll be following their lives over a period of 2 years. But not continuously. We are working with the wild dogs for about 4 months this year while they are denning. This is because they are then restricted to the area around the den. Once they leave the den they travel such vast distances we just wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. We will then film them again next year when they den. And should we pick them up in the course of the year we will spend time with them when possible. Then when not filming wild dogs, we’ll be working on a number of other projects that include: Elephants, Leopards, Lions, Ground Hornbills, the Baobab tree, hyaenas. As we’ll be based at Malilangwe for the next 4 years we’ll be working on all these projects and also anything else that may crop up.
What is it about wild dogs that makes them such a special subject?
Wild Dogs are a highly endangered species and today are restricted to very few areas in Africa. These animals are incredibly social and probably Africa’s most efficient hunters. They are very charismatic animals and provide for much entertainment. But it is their plight that will be central to the project in that I’m hoping we’ll provide entertainment that will spark action to help conserving these amazing animals.
How long will it take you to complete?
We’ll work for about 2 years on the project but not full time on the dogs. I expect each project will get 9 t0 10 months shooting time allocated to it.
Take us through your typical daily routine?
Our day usually starts at about 15h00 when we wake up and have our main meal of the day. (Other meals are eaten out in the field and for me it’s usually a peanutbutter and syrup sandwich and some fruit. Can’t do without my daily dose of nutbutter!).
Leave camp around 16h00 and spend the afternoon and then the whole night out filming. (We get some rest in the night sleeping on our camera boxes. That’s if our subjects are sleeping). Then we return to camp any time from 8h00 to 10h00 depending on what’s happening out there. There have been times when I’ve been in the field for 3 days without returning to camp.
What equipment do you use?
I’m shooting on High Definition, using the Panasonic Varicam. I use Fujinon HD lenses. The 16.5mm to 413mm and a wide angle 4.5mm to 59mm.
How do you find the animals each day?
Finding the dogs daily is easy while they’re denning. But once they’re on the move they travel such vast distances that we’ll battle to keep up with them. We are planning on using radio telemetry in the future.
Do you have a script in mind before you start filming or does it all happen on the fly?
We have rough ideas of a story before we start filming which is mainly based on my knowledge of the animals. But the real script only comes at the end of shooting in the field and we can assess what material we have and how to structure it into the film.
Where in the process do you start editing the film?
We’ll start editing only once we have about 90% of the film shot. The rough edit will helps us to see what shots are still necessary to polish the edit.
Which parts of the production process can be done onsite in the bush?
We have an edit suite in the field and will take the project at least to the rough cut stage, but we do have the capability to take it to picture lock which we hope to do in the future.
What has been your most exciting moment so far during filming?
Seeing a leopard in action has to be one of the most spectacular things to witness. And not many do and even less get to film it. I’ll never forget the day I filmed a leopard in the film “Beauty and the Beasts”, take out a male impala in mid air. Such acrobatic splendour.
Do you ever feel in danger when you’re up close and personal with some of your subjects, especially the big cats?
Whenever I’m in my vehicle, which is totally open, I feel totally secure. Well except when an angry elephant cow charges and hits the vehicle several times. But all cats are to be respected and only after having worked with a specific animal for 6 months or more will I trust that I can read that animals behaviour and start feeling safe around it.
How do you film at night without interfering in the action with lights, etc?
We film animals at night using lots of tungsten light. I’ve been doing this for the last 18 years and am totally aware of the effects lights can have on animal behaviour, and I’m very sensitive about it. Because of this we use a lot of light that lights up the whole scene and not just the animal we’re focussing on. In this way the animals aren’t blinded and go about their natural behaviour.
We have the lights on a separate vehicle to the camera. So whenever we’re out filming at night we are always in 2 vehicles. This allows me to have the lights where I want them, and the whole time I’m trying to create as natural a look as possible. So we invariably are backlighting the subject and getting the image to look as moonlit as possible.
What has been your greatest filmmaking achievement thus far?
I think my greatest achievement so far has been my latest film “Hyena Queen” (or “Hyenas at War” in the US). This film has only just been released so time will tell how well it does. But this film took me right into a clan of hyaenas that I literally became accepted as a clan member. I had access to the clan the far beyond anything I had ever imagined. This is a beautiful film and I’m hoping to get a strong message across in it to reverse the myths that surround this incredible animal, and put it on the map where it rightfully should be. A cuddly hyaena toy? No you won’t find one anywhere in the world. But just imagine and hyaena cub toy that whoops and giggles when you press it?! [The film airs on National Geographic in 2,3,10 September 2006)
What can we expect from the wildcast blog over the coming months?
The wild dogs will be the focus of our filming for the next 2 months and then the dogs will be on the move. Then it will be on to the elephants. But in the next couple of months it’s going to be interesting to see how BB’s pups fare. Will they all make it as the pressure to feed them all rises as they get bigger.
By following along here at Wildcast, we promise to take you up close and personal with some of Africa’s most interesting animals, especially the main subjects of the film – the critically endangered African Wild Dog, Leopard, Hyaena and other predators.
Wildcast is also an ideal resource for educators who are looking to enliven their natural sciences, biology, ecology, geography, etc classes as well for those who teach media studies or who want to give their students a real sense of what’s out there.
We invite teachers to mash the content and share lesson plans and related resources with others in the community.
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My latest release is a film on Spotted Hyenas, “Hyaena Queen” or “Hyenas at War” (the US version), where I developed this incredible relationship with a clan. I was taken on as a clan member, getting closer to hyaenas than anybody has ever done. So it’s not surprising I still carry this huge desire to see and be with them.
Malilangwe has a very healthy hyaena population. Hyaena’s biggest threat are lions but with their numbers being down the hyaenas are doing really well.
I’m really looking forward to some interesting interactions with lions as the hyaenas take the rule of law into their own hands.
When following the wild dogs out hunting a few weeks ago they encountered a lone hyaena and the whole pack gave chase sending the hyaena packing. But then suddenly the wild dogs had turned tail and came tearing back past me, this time with 7 hyaenas on their heels. The wild dogs had run straight into a hyaena den.
This den had 8 cubs younger than 3 months old and 5 under a year old. And adults? Well I’m not sure how many but probably another 15 individuals. This makes for a very substantial clan, a lot bigger than the 6 in my film.
The day after they had chased the dogs we decided to spend the night at the hyaena den. Several adults were around early in the evening but left the den in control of the cubs for the rest of the night. I like to think I know a lot about hyaena behaviour and so once the adults left I thought it was lights out until we would be woken by the groaning call of mothers coming back from patrol/hunting and calling their cubs out to suckle. I hadn’t been asleep a few minutes when I was woken with my vehicle rocking slightly. Oh….oh….. that means hyaena cubs under the car chewing on brake pipes. The more you chase them away the more they come back. And sleep just doesn’t happen ‘cos left to their own devices, you end up leaving the den in the morning only to discover the brakes don’t work.
Hyaenas just love to chew rubber. Any rubber. I suppose it’s all exercise for the strongest jaws in the world.
Those jaws sure made short work of that hippo carcass down at Malilangwe dam some time ago.
And ofcourse if you looking for humour in the bush, find the hyaenas. They’re not called laughing hyaenas for nothing. Their vocalisations over a carcass are full of hyaena excitement and laughter. And they’re always keen to play with each other or even wild dogs should they venture into the area. In this case at Malilangwe dam 5 wild dogs arrived at the hippo carcass. They weren’t allowed to feed but a young hyaena couldn’t resist the temptation of hassling them but it turned out more the wild dogs were hassling it. And each time the wild dogs left the hyaena it turned and came back for more. They just have to play.
They are such fun, so intelligent and just amazing animals and I’m looking forward to spending more time filming them in the future.