Man, Cheetah, Wild:Interview with the Filmmaker

(Inasmuch as many of my readers have shown great interest in this program, I’m putting out the transcript of the teleconference interview with the documentary’s creator, Kim Wolhuter.)
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Why did you create this documentary?
Kim Wolhuter: I want to create awareness for conservation. But I don’t want to go out here and preach to everybody because that just turns them off. So, I want to entertain people with my films. Once they’re engaged, then they start understanding. I take the viewer into a place where they feel like they are the animals. Because these animals trust me so much, I’ve spent so much time with them and they trust me, I’m able to get right in there with them when they’re playing, when they’re killing their prey. I’m a foot away from them, sometimes bumping into them and they’re bumping into me.

Why did you choose to work with cheetahs in the programme?
Kim Wolhuter: The cheetahs are different from leopards and lions. They’re not as aggressive. Never at any stage did I feel threatened by them in any way. They get to touch me so much that everything that I’m documenting is totally natural behaviour. The cheetahs went to even beyond that and almost accepted me into their lives. I would fall asleep with them on the ground, just lying there with them and they would sometimes wake up and come and lick me. It’s incredible, something I never expected.

How did you gain the trust of the cheetahs?
Gaining the trust of these cheetahs took a lot of time. I would be up with them every day from sunrise to sunset just getting them to know me better. It’s six months before they really start accepting me and then another six months before we actually started forming a bond. It’s a lot of time and a lot of dedication.
For them, life is about eating and sex and nothing else. They’ve got to survive. When they kill something, it’s important not to show that you have any interest in their food. I never ever feed them. And that’s – that is crucial. And I never play with their food.
I saw the cubs come of age. I’ve spent 18 months with them and only after 15 months did they start killing for themselves, that’s the only time they can survive on their own. They don’t need their mother anymore. I’m just so privileged to be part of their lives.

What’s the most fascinating aspect of cheetah behaviour to you? .
Kim Wolhuter: when I filmed these cheetahs on Malilangwe Reserve, Zimbabwe, it’s a very different type of habitat from the open plains of Africa. Here, the bushes are very thick and I was just amazed how these cats can hunt in this really thick bush. Their speed is fascinating. They do this massive sprint for 300 or 400 metres and they make a kill. Then for the next three days, they don’t do anything. And then they go off hunting again. Hunting just means walking slowly until they find prey they can stalk and attack. Then they do this massive chase again.

When did you start shooting for this documentary and why a two-hour special rather than an entire series?
Kim Wolhuter: I started filming straight away, from the day I found the cheetahs for two years. The more intimate stuff with me, I shot a part of that myself. My wife came in next and my daughter and then later, we got a cameraman to shoot more stuff for me. I’m very fortunate in that my wife and family joined me in the bush when I did this thing. We all lived together out here. We lived permanently in the field and only have been out and then did we go to the city or out of town to buy food and supplies. But otherwise, we’re all out in the field all the time together.

Why didn’t you track them until the end of their natural lives?
Kim Wolhuter: I would absolutely love to do that. Unfortunately, I can’t get anybody to fund me to keep following that cheetah family forever. It breaks my heart that I don’t see them everyday anymore. I actually haven’t seen the two young girls now for about three or four months. And it really saddens me that I don’t see them everyday after they grew up with me. They’re like my kids. And I just had to leave them like that. But it’s a financial problem. That’s all it is. It’s the only reason. Otherwise, I would be out there all day, every day with them.

How much would you need to film one cheetah for its entire lifetime of like an average of nine years? And how much did it cost you to film this one?
Kim Wolhuter: For two years filming, we’re looking at about $300,000. It’s about $150,000 to $300,000 a year. You do it for nine to 10 years, you’re looking at $1.5 million to $2 million.

When did you first meet face-to-face with a cheetah?
Kim Wolhuter: first time I ever came face-to-face with a cheetah outside a vehicle was 10 years ago. I’ve seen a Cheetah from inside the vehicle where you’re safe many times. But the first time that I was actually out the vehicle was filming a mother with some small cubs. And I couldn’t see them properly, so I got out of the vehicle. The mother charged me. I just had to stand my ground, tried to ignore her charge. Thankfully, she returned to her cubs.

Were the cheetah as friendly with your family and your cameraman as they were with you?
Kim Wolhuter: No, my wife and daughter never got out the vehicle with a cheetah. That was one of the rules. The cameraman got out a few times, but he was never close to them. And that was also important. We don’t want the cheetah getting used to anybody, because if they leave the reserve and go outside, people will kill them. We want them to be scared of other people.

What was your biggest challenge when shooting Man, Cheetah, Wild?
Kim Wolhuter: The biggest challenge was just trying to film in this really thick bush. It’s fun following them but when they’re chasing something and, you know, hunting and killing, that was the biggest challenge. And getting these animals to accept me. And it’s not something I would encourage people to do because you will get eaten if you just go out and go and walk with these animals. You’ve got to understand what goes on. If something goes wrong, the encounter could be fatal.

How do you approach those animals? I mean how do you know you have this special affinity with them?
Kim Wolhuter: It all starts really slowly. As a filmmaker, you spend so much time in the field with whichever animal you’re filming and you start learning about them. I would get out the car to get a shot of the animal drinking from the animals’ eye level, so the viewer feels he’s in there. More and more I’d go out of the vehicle until the animal doesn’t react anymore, doesn’t feel threatened. Over time, I actually understand what he doesn’t want.
Today, I’ll go into a game reserve and film some Hyenas for instance. I’ll get out the car, sit on the ground, let them to come to me, and they will come to me. They will come and lick me and won’t try to eat me. But if you put across the wrong body language, you’ve got a serious problem.

When and how do you decide to do intervention in the case of endangered animals? With the cheetahs, you intervened at least twice, so when the lions came and when one of the cubs got sick.
I don’t intervene unless it’s an endangered animal or if it’s an animal that has an injury that is being caused by a man or a disease that’s been brought in by man. If it’s a natural thing and it’s not an endangered animal, it’s really hard, but I have to sit back and just watch it go through and survive. And it’s been amazing how many times the animals actually survive on their own. It’s incredible.

You haven’t seen the cheetahs in a while. Are you going back to visit then anytime soon?
Kim Wolhuter: Unfortunately, I can’t do that. I’m leaving the location where the cheetahs are. I do get reports every now and then from the people living in the area. But in the bushes, unless youfollow them every day, it’s really hard to find them.

Have you ever been bitten by any animal so far?
Kim Wolhuter: I’ve been stung by scorpions and wasps. I was quite badly scratched by one of the cheetahs I’ve been helping when she was badly injured. Otherwise, no, I’ve never been bitten by an animal.

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