Life

How A ‘Wildlife Soap Opera’ Hopes To Change The Face Of Conservation


I sat staring, my jaw hanging open. No more than 10 feet from me, Xongila, an adolescent female leopard, was practicing pouncing on a lifeless impala. The prey was still fully intact — its fur gleaming, its black eyes open, and its mouth gently pulled back. It was clear that this was a fresh kill, hunted just hours earlier.

Xongila paced away a few feet, then turned her head and stared at the carcass. She moved slowly towards her prey a second time — back arched, shoulder blades protruding. With a swift move, she was on top of the impala, biting directly into its neck. I glanced around our jeep at the other passengers — Angeli Gabriel, writer and host with National Geographic and Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb, winners of the company’s “Wild to Inspire” film contest. Everyone wore the same expression: “I can’t believe I’m watching this right now.” We all cringed in unison as bones cracked like hard candy under Xongila’s bite.

James Hendry, our NatGeo WILD safari guide, explained that Xongila was practicing important hunting skills, which would be essential once she was on her own. Her mother, Karula, was known by the NatGeo team as an excellent caregiver, having successfully raised 10 cubs (a huge feat in the big cat world). She sat nearby, unfazed by her daughter’s mischief. Karula kept nodding off as the young leopard went back and forth between her mother and the impala carcass. The two cats were up on a hill, out in plain sight and our view of them couldn’t have been clearer.

Watching this play out, I was struck by how similar the scene was to a mother and child relationship in the human world. Child playing with a toy at a safe distance, mother napping nearby while keeping an eye on the child. At one point Xongila accidentally bit down on her mother’s tail, and Karula barred her teeth and hissed with irritation.

This scene was one of many during my four days on location with NatGeo WILD’s safariLIVE that helped me truly understand what co-founder, Emily Wallington, had tried to explain upon my arrival at the private reserve. As we rumbled along a dusty road, I asked her how this new series would push conservation efforts. The show, the first of its kind, will take viewers on a live safari and give them a chance to get up close and personal with wildlife without ever leaving the comforts of their living rooms.

“The idea is really to get people to fall in love with these animals,” Wallington told me. “There’s a story in these animals’ day-to-day lives. A story that will lead you to feel invested in them. That’s our method of conservation….rather than to talk about poachers or to recite facts.”

A safari soap opera? At first, I wasn’t totally convinced. But as I sat and watched Xongila play with her kill, as the sky behind her slowly darkened, I understood exactly what Wallington meant. We ended up tracking Karula and her two cubs for three days and I found myself thinking about them each night as I settled in my room at the Djuma Game Reserve’s Vuyatela Lodge. I wondered if Karula had reunited with her son, Hosana, after they lost each other when a pride of lions moved into their territory. Had Xongila eaten the impala yet, or was it up in the tree somewhere? What if another animal got to it first?

Just as Wallington predicted, I’d grown deeply invested in the well-being of these animals. The producer of the show, Geraldine Kent echoed the sentiment when she told me, “You can’t protect something you don’t understand.” By allowing us to follow along, the NatGeo team offered up an immersive glimpse into the complexities of the animal kingdom. We had time to notice and appreciate how similar these species were to us, how difficult it is to survive, and how intricate their world truly is.

After a mesmerizing afternoon with Xongila and Karula, I was completely satisfied. If I’d gone home that night, I would have told my family and friends that it had been the best safari of my entire life (I’d spent a semester abroad in South Africa in my early 20s and had visited Kruger National Park). Little did I know, the leopard encounter was just the beginning of four days of slack jawed, “Is this really happening?”-type encounters.

The following morning, at 5am sharp, we set out in our trusty jeep “Rusty” to see what the new day might bring. Perhaps we’d see a zebra or giraffe. Maybe a tortoise or the infamous “go-away” bird. As we bounced down the rocky road, sleepy and bundled against the cold morning breeze, a voice crackled through the radio.

“James, come in. We found the Nkuhuma Pride. They are feasting on a buffalo just east of you.”

The energy in the jeep shifted. Alex and Justin scrambled to set up their cameras, Angeli fumbled with her phone to open Snapchat, and I started scanning the horizon—I wanted to be the first to glimpse the pride. We drove through shrubs, knocking down saplings like a charging elephant, then skidded to a stop in a clearing. In the distance, we spotted two adult females and five cubs huddled around a giant buffalo. As we drew closer, I saw that the abdomen of the massive beast was completely hollowed out and the lions were busy tearing meat off the spine. The females grunted and moaned as they fought over the best parts, while their cubs wrestled and played nearby, their bellies full.

We noticed that one of the females seemed distracted — agitated even — looking off into the distance. We followed her gaze, but couldn’t spot anything. Hendry explained that there must be something we were missing. Sure enough, the pride suddenly started to run away, leaving the kill, while the cubs fought to keep up.

As we raced after the pack, Hendry radioed to the other NatGeo WILD jeep, which was filming live, “Two cubs are missing, they may still be with the kill.” The lioness would periodically stop and turn back, looking for the cubs that she’d left behind. Just as concerned, we also kept our heads on a swivel, anxiously waiting for the missing cubs to catch up. It was getting late and we were expected back at camp, so eventually we had to leave the pack, not knowing if the cubs made it to safety.

That evening, hunched over a feast of pork ribs and mashed potatoes, the crew discussed what may have happened. “A group of anti-poachers must have gotten too close.” Hendry turned to us when he noticed our puzzled looks. “Lions are terrified of humans on foot. As long as we’re in the jeep, we don’t pose a threat, but the second we are standing upright, they want nothing to do with us.”

That seemed to be the only reasonable explanation at the time. It was later reported over the radio that the two cubs had made it back to the pride, safely — our crew let out a collective sigh of relief.

As Emily Wallington explained, it’s stories like these that keep fans hooked on NatGeo WILD week after week. During their SafariLIVE drives, airing online twice daily, the audience is even more involved — asking questions which are answered live during the show. Recognizing that the younger generation is truly the future of conservation, Wallington also launched a “school drive” program, dedicated specifically to grade school students. During these drives, only students can ask questions (via Skype), while the rest of the viewers listen in. I rode along on one such drive, and we spotted a leopard tortoise that poked his head out curiously to take a peek at us. The students were thrilled by this small interaction.

“Jacob wants to know how long a tortoise can live” Jamie Paterson, a Natgeo WILD SafariLIVE guide announced. Jamie then answered the question and went on to discuss predators, the speed at which tortoises move, and how to distiguish a tortoise from a turtle.

Viewers of SafariLIVE not only learn to love these animals, but also understand what it means to live in harmony with them. The tortoise was not touched or picked up because, as Jamie told students, “When scared, a tortoise will urinate, and this can cause dehydration out in the heat of the African sun!” During our evening drives, guides were careful not to shine the flashlight directly at a prey animals, because it would compromise their vision and make them more vulnerable to predators.

On the flip side, when a lion pride was hit with a very rare disease among wild animals — white muscle disease — the crew, while heart-broken, did not intervene as they watched two cubs become paralyzed and die. Some viewers begged the crew to do something, as this disease can be treated, but the guides understand that ultimately human engagement in these situations doesn’t benefit animals in the wild. It’s clear that the guides are setting a standard for how humans should interact with wildlife and the audience is internalizing this message.

On our last day at the reserve, I woke up antsy. I still hadn’t seen elephants. I’ve always loved elephants for their high intelligence and how they seem imposing yet gentle. Plus, who could forget The Jungle Patrol led by Colonel Hathi in Disney’s The Jungle Book? As a child, I was sold when little Hathi Jr. plead with his dad to let Mowgli join their herd. But as with any wildlife experience, Safari LIVE makes no guarantees about what you’ll see. That is really the magic of it all — the suspense of not knowing.

We packed into the jeep that now felt as familiar as the family van, and sped off. Soon we stopped by a lake to see hippos. We waited in silence with our binoculars pressed against our eyes. Nothing. A bird sat on a log and took a sip. The water rippled. Someone in the jeep yawned. Hendry started the engine. We drove on, all eyes squinting in different directions, hoping to catch one last glimpse of these beautiful animals in their natural habitat before the trip ended. An hour later, it seemed as if the animals had agreed, “Show’s over. You’ve seen enough.”

I sat back in my seat, deciding to enjoy the warm breeze and the sounds of the plain….

“Look!”

I sprang up to see one single elephant munching away on a leafy tree just a few feet from us. Soon, we saw others appear, one by one, as if on cue. Hendry explained that this was a herd of adolescent males who were trying out their independence, like any teen would, by wandering off on their own.

At first, they didn’t notice us at all. Hendry explained that the smell of the engine masks the human scent, and because we were not standing upright, the animals felt safe. But with the engine off, a gust of wind blew our scent towards the elephant nearest us, and he suddenly looked over and saw us for the first time. He stopped chewing and moved in closer, flaring his ears and stomping his feet. Then took another step in our direction. We kept looking at Hendry nervously, expecting him to start the engine, but he didn’t move. The elephant stomped once again and a tense moment passed between us as we all waited to see what would happen next. Finally, he lost interest and went back to a bush to continue feeding.

That is the most nervous I’ve been on this trip!” Alex Goetz, who was sitting closest to the elephant, said.

Hendry responded, “If this was an adult male, we would have been gone a long time ago. But this is an adolescent trying out his scare tactics. I knew he wouldn’t actually attack.” We were all glad he was right.

After a truly wild week, I reluctantly left the sanctuary with a newfound appreciation for the difficult, beautiful, infinitely complex, and deeply enthralling lives of animals in the wild. As James Hendry put it, “Contact with wild animals opens a channel for me as a human through which I can touch the wilderness…” after four days with their crew, I understood precisely what he meant.

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