ONE of television’s oldest adages warns against working with animals. For the producers and cinematographers of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, who will spend years in remote locations capturing the animal kingdom up close and personal, it’s an occupational hazard that cannot be avoided.
What is more, it’s changing, as humans and animals interact with greater frequency. Some, such as meerkats, have become darlings of the small screen.
But others, such as the noble elephant, have an uneasy relationship with man: revered and hunted in seemingly equal measures.
The BBC’s James Honeyborne, who produced the new series, Africa, is hesitant to declare there is a brewing war between the human and animal kingdoms. But he does concede the relationship is changing, and sometimes not for the better.
”Some animals have actually become more habituated to people, so they’ve become much easier to film,” he says.
”Meerkats, for example, who have been studied in the Kalahari for 20 years, will sit on the cameraman’s head if he sits still long enough because it gives them a vantage point.
”But you cannot avoid the fact that there are now a billion people living in Africa, so there is competition for space and food, the very basic things. And animals like elephants need to range over a very wide area. You can’t keep them hemmed in one park.”
Africa was filmed over four years. It is narrated by the legendary David Attenborough and delivers an unprecedented spectacle. From the first day of
pre-production, Honeyborne says, the brief was to present an Africa that exploded people’s pre-existing notions of a well-studied subject.
”The biggest challenge is that people think they know Africa,” Honeyborne says.
”They have seen a lot of wildlife shows on Africa, so what is there that is new to say? When I first took on the series it was with some trepidation in that respect.”
The search began for content that would meet the show’s resulting benchmark: new species, new behaviour or new location. Initially, Honeyborne says, it was a struggle.
For the first six months many of the stories that came in were too familiar.
”It took a year of research to start breaking new stories and in that time you’re building relationships with scientists and researchers out there on the ground,” he says.
”And over the top of that we were trying to film in a new style and meet the animals at their eye-line, so you’re immersing the viewer in their world.”
But that poses serious risks. The modern tools of the natural history trade are cameras secreted into rocks, or cameramen protected by barriers, or raised platforms.
Getting crews out from the protection of their four-wheel-drive vehicles and into the field, and at eye level, delivers an almost unprecedented level of intimacy. But it also dials up the risk.
The production followed what Honeyborne calls bush etiquette. ”The question is, how do you operate safely on the ground given elephants, rhinos, hippos are there? It’s often the big herbivores which are potentially as threatening as the lions or the leopards.”
Complicating the issue are the changing habits of animals, resulting largely from the impact of human interaction.
”Elephant poaching is on the increase, for example, and that is definitely making some elephants more aggressive because they’re being shot at and injured,” Honeyborne says. ”They’re being hunted.”
One particular case Honeyborne recalls was a cameraman, working on an earlier series, who was filming elephants from a platform at night. ”One of the elephants sensed him, reacted in an annoyed way and tried to shake the tree,” he says. ”Out there, no one is walking around on the ground at night, so the cameraman was alone and he had to sit it out. Four hours, having his tree shaken by this elephant.”
One of most startling notions Africa touches on is the ”unmapped” world, the very jarring idea that in the 21st century there are still parts of the planet that man has neither mapped nor seen.
It hit the headlines most recently when a mapped Pacific Ocean island turned out either to no longer exist or, curiously, to have been incorrectly placed.
In Africa, a rainforest was revealed in northern Mozambique using satellite imagery.
”It’s not necessarily a case of being unmapped but don’t forget nature always fights back,” Honeyborne says.
”So you can have an area which has, at some point in the past, had human population but humans have, for whatever reason, left and now it has been reclaimed by nature.”
In the case of Mount Mabu and its 7000 hectares of virgin rainforest, it was hidden from view largely because of the civil war in Mozambique, which had, for a long time, effectively cut the country off from access by scientists.
”It was completely wild,” Honeyborne says.
”That’s not to say at some point in the distant past there haven’t been people there, but we joined the second scientific expedition and we took the first cameras in there.” Among the discoveries were five new species, including bats, snakes and butterflies.
”The forest was teeming with butterflies and every day they fly out of the canopy into the mountains and display and dance and find a mate. It was something we’d never seen.”
The series approaches the continent by dividing it into zones: Kalahari, Savannah, Congo, Cape and Sahara, and concludes with a single program, in the established style of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, which explores the future.
Honeyborne says he wants the series to give its audience a sense of Africa through the eyes of the animals that live there. ”So that, by the end of the film, you feel you understand what it is about that place that is special and why it is special,” he says. ”And that’s not just an emotional thing, it’s based on a fact that you probably wouldn’t have known before.
”For example, the desertification of the Sahara suddenly happens 6000 years ago and before that it was a grassland. Once you look at the film on northern Africa you can see that the animals there are either refugees of that climate change or pioneers in a new world and it changes how you view everything.”
The biggest challenge for Africa remains human interaction with the wilderness.
The growing population will only amplify that problem, though Honeyborne says there are a number of conservation groups looking into and developing ways to deal with it.
”They are looking at corridors between national parks, migration routes and re-establishing old migration routes that have been cut off,” he says. ”In one case, in Kenya, a migration route was reopened using an underpass to a dual carriageway, so that elephants could use it, and they started using it within a day of it being built.”
Africa’s advantage, he says, is its massive size.
”It’s much, much bigger than people think. The Sahara is the size of the United States. The forests of central Africa are the size of India. You could fit China in there. You could fit South America in there.
”There has to be some hope in that because there is still the space. And isn’t it interesting that Africa is the last continent to retain all of its really big animals and yet it’s the continent we’ve lived on the longest?
”That gives me hope man and the big animals can live alongside each other.”
David Attenborough’s Africa premieres on Saturday at 6.30pm on Channel Ten.
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