“Malaika is really special. I have never worked with a cheetah like her before. She is a wonderful mother and she is hunting every day.” These were the first encouraging words from Sammy Munene, as we sat beside a relaxed cheetah and her four cubs.
The sun was just rising above Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve and the cheetahs’ breath was beautifully backlit by the first rays of warming light. Sammy knew what he was talking about.
I have worked with him many times before and there are very few guides who have more experience of filming cheetahs. It was his advice, and that of local cheetah researchers, that made us choose Malaika in the first place.
Over many years of filming in the Maasai Mara, we have got to know the local cheetahs very well. You can easily recognise individuals by the patterns of spots on their elegant heads. What made Malaika remarkable was that she had succeeded in bringing up four eight-month-old cubs.
Nine out of 10 cheetah cubs die in their first three months of life. Most are taken by lions and hyenas – the cheetah’s great rivals on the African plains. Though Malaika’s cubs would still rely on her for food for at least a year, she had done an amazing job to get all her cubs through the dangerous early months.
Now, with four very hungry mouths to feed, her work was cut out and she needed to make a kill almost every day. We had come to the Maasai Mara to film the cheetah’s dramatic high-speed hunts and we had great hopes that Malaika would be our star.
The duels between the hunters and the hunted are as dramatic as any event in the natural world. Certainly the sequences that people always seem to remember from the natural-history television series I have produced in the past always feature predation: the killer whales stealing away the calf from its grey whale mother in The Blue Planet; the snow leopard running down a vertiginous cliff and failing to capture a mountain goat in Planet Earth; or the pack of wolves working together to bring down a massive wood buffalo in Frozen Planet.
“To have any chance of success they have to be at the very top of their game, perfectly adapted to the habitat in which they live”
But, all too often in wildlife films, the predators are depicted as the bloodthirsty villains of the piece. Sharks are always man-eaters and nature is always red in tooth and claw. In reality, the situation could hardly be more different. Predators are, in fact, the hardest working animals in nature. Most of the time their hunts end in failure, and they are under constant pressure to satisfy their own hunger and that of their young. To have any chance of success they have to be at the very top of their game, perfectly adapted to the habitat in which they live.
For the past three years our team from Silverback Films in Bristol have been making a television series called The Hunt that tries to put these misconceptions right. We are delighted that once again Sir David Attenborough (with whom I’ve worked for 27 years now) has agreed to narrate the series. We are looking, in a detail never shown before, at the strategies predators use to catch their prey, and those their prey use to escape. We are not interested in the kill itself because by then the story is over.
Each of the episodes is based in one of our planet’s key habitats because each of these environments presents the hunters and the hunted with a different challenge. For instance, in the tangled world of forests and jungles, predators and prey play an intriguing game of hide and seek, while out on the exposed grasslands of Africa there is nowhere to hide. That is the key challenge Malaika faced every day when she went out to try to catch a meal for her growing cubs.
Cheetahs famously are the fastest animals on land. Certainly nothing can outrun them in the sprint, but there has always been an enormous debate about their top speed. For a long time the record books would tell you that cheetahs could reach up to 70mph. In fact, recently more rigorous research has shown their top speed is 58mph. That is still remarkably fast, and everything about a cheetah is designed for speed. It has a slight, lightweight build, its legs are long and its lungs and heart are large. Its muscles are packed with the fast twitch fibres vital for sprinters. Most importantly, it has the longest and most flexible spine of any large cat. This gives it an enormous stride of some 30ft – for more than half of that, the cheetah is completely airborne.
But such a refined body design does not come without a cost. The cheetah’s high-speed sprint is so energetically demanding that they can keep it up for only 10 seconds. The small antelopes, such as Thomson’s gazelles and impalas, that are their favourite prey have a top speed of around 48mph. The difference in speed between predator and prey is not that great. This all means that a cheetah’s success depends not only on its final burst of speed but also on its ability to creep up unnoticed within 50 yards of its prey before it starts its run. The open plains of the Maasai Mara offer little cover for this crucial early approach.
The drama of a cheetah hunt has been filmed many times before. But for the episode I directed in The Hunt we wanted to visually unpick every little detail of the contest between the predator and its prey. The final sprint is so fast and over so quickly that we knew a high-speed camera was essential to reveal exactly what happens in the last crucial seconds of the hunt. Luckily we were using the very latest high-resolution camera, which runs at more than 1,000 frames per second. This slows down the action 40 times and promised to reveal every tiny twist and turn in the high-speed chase.
But we also wanted to give the viewer a sense of the drama as the cheetah tries to stalk unnoticed closer to its prey. Often they spend 10 or 20 minutes in a cautious game of grandmother’s footsteps as they try to close the distance before their explosive run. We wanted the audience to feel the tension of every carefully placed paw.
Once again, technology was part of the answer. For Planet Earth we had developed a revolutionary gyro-stabilised camera system, mounted on helicopters. Because this kept even powerful zoom lenses rock-steady, we were able to fly the helicopter high enough so as not to disturb the animals, while still getting the close-up images we needed. This not only transformed the look of Planet Earth but also allowed us to film complete animal-behaviour sequences that we could never have captured on the ground.
I vividly remember showing extraordinary footage of hunting dogs running down their prey in Botswana to a research biologist who had studied these predators for many years. He had always wanted to know how the dogs coordinated their hunt and, for the very first time, he had his answer. The images captured from the helicopter revealed every detail of the geography and choreography of the pursuit.
For The Hunt we decided to take the stabilised camera system off the helicopter and try to mount it on a variety of modes of transport. In the Arctic we fixed it to an ice-strengthened boat so we could track polar bears as they hunted for seals among the moving sea ice. In the Southern Ocean, it allowed us to film albatrosses searching for prey over an angry sea.
We even designed a mount so that elephants could carry our stabilised camera. Used to working with tourists, the elephants had no problems with the weight of our system. This rig allowed us to follow tigers, right down at their level, as they hunted in their forest home. Very few tiger hunts have ever been filmed and all of those were snatched when the hunter left the forest to try to grab its prey in patches of open grassland. For the first time, we were able to follow the tiger hunting in the depths of the forest, its natural habitat and the reason it is camouflaged with stripes.
In the Maasai Mara, the system was attached to the side of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The zoom lens was so powerful that we could track alongside, parallel to the cheetah, from a position more than 300ft away, and still get totally stable full-frame images of just the cheetah’s head. You have to watch the series to really appreciate the power of this perspective, but rest assured it really does put you in the cheetah’s footsteps.
The latest technology was really only one crucial key in trying to film the cheetah’s hunt as never before. The most important part of wildlife filmmaking is always a real understanding of the animals. That is where Sammy Munene and his team of spotters were to play a vital role. Choosing the right individual cheetah to work with was just the start. If you want to film cheetah hunts, you don’t concentrate on the predator so much as on their prey.
The shot everyone dreams of is the cheetah running at full speed towards the camera. To have any chance of capturing those few dramatic seconds, you need to be positioned way beyond the prey where the cheetah is often totally out of sight. Not only did Sammy and his team help us choose the best potential prey, but they also carefully positioned themselves so that someone always had an eye on the predator.
Radios kept us all in touch, and behind the cameras were two of the best operators in the business. Sophie Darlington, who handled the high-speed camera, learnt her trade working in the Serengeti for the Dutch wildlife filmmaker Hugo van Lawick. Sophie has an eye for the perfect shot, and a lot of experience filming cheetahs. Jamie MacPherson operated the vehicle-mounted camera; he has great photographic talent and amazing technical ability. The stabilised camera is operated remotely with a system of buttons and joysticks that require instant reactions and a great deal of dexterity; it seems that Jamie’s many youthful hours on a PlayStation were not totally wasted.
As we left camp at sunrise, our spotter would update us on the radio. We were lucky with Malaika – she rarely strayed and we found her quickly almost every morning. Even more remarkably, in the five weeks we were working with her she tried to hunt almost every day. For 12 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, we never let her out of our sight, always keeping at a good distance and never disturbing the family. There’s something very special about spending so much time with a single animal. You slowly get under her skin and begin to understand how and when she likes to hunt.
It is patient work, but when the action starts it’s incredibly exciting. Everything kicks off when the radio crackles into action. One of the spotters has noticed a herd of wildebeest wandering towards the bushes in which Malaika and the family are resting, out of the sun. There are small calves in the herd – a perfect target. Sophie and I take a wide loop, positioning our car far from the bushes, hoping the wildebeest will come between the cheetah and us. Sammy and Jamie get in position so they’ll be alongside Malaika as she starts to stalk.
Jamie relies entirely on Sammy’s eyes and experience to make sure he is in just the right place to catch the action. “She’s seen the wildebeest. She is on the move, very slowly…” Jamie starts to capture the stalk. We are all as tense as Malaika. Cheetahs choose a single target and stick with it to the end of the chase. Malaika clearly has a wildebeest calf in her sights, and Sophie frames up. If a gazelle in the vicinity sees the cheetah, they will become alarmed, her cover will be blown and the hunt will be over.
The stalk goes on for only a few minutes but it seems like forever. Nobody can afford to lose concentration. “She’s going. She’s going…” blasts the radio – and the sprint begins. For a few frantic seconds Sophie and Jamie try to keep predator and prey in focus. With a rush of adrenalin, it’s over – and nobody is sure exactly what we’ve captured. Only in the evening, when we return to camp, can we download the images and properly review our day’s work.
It took many days and many hunts to build up enough shots to tell the whole detailed story of the cheetah hunt. But lots of the images were a revelation. Only when we saw Jamie’s close-up tracking shots of the stalking cheetah could we appreciate the extraordinary concentration in Malaika’s eyes. And Sophie’s slow-motion footage of the final few seconds of the hunt showed us that cheetahs cannot rely only on the careful stalk and high-speed sprint.
In those final moments, when they are right up alongside their prey, cheetahs have to be amazingly agile, twisting and turning with every movement of the other animal.
At the very end, cheetahs cannot risk jumping on their prey. Their lightweight bodies are too fragile and they might break a leg.
Instead, their prey is delicately tripped up with a perfectly positioned paw.
Despite all the challenges they face, with nearly half their hunts ending in a kill, cheetahs are among the most successful hunters on the African plains.
This article was first published by The Telegraph on 23 Oct 2015.