04Mar2015

Behind the Scenes of Africa's Fishing Leopards

By Brad Bestelink, Producer/director/cinematographer, Natural History Film Unit Botswana 

Of all the large predators in the African bush, leopards are by far the most secretive. Just finding them is tricky; sticking with them, and filming the intimate details of their lives, is something that required luck, determination, and a great deal of time. But it was a challenge that my friend Richard Uren and I always felt privileged to be taking on.

If a leopard doesn’t want to be followed, it will vanish – seemingly into thin air. To succeed we first had to earn the trust of our subjects, to the point where they would be totally at ease in our presence. This turned out to be a difficult task that took months to accomplish. In the early days, the mother leopard was wary of our ever-present vehicles, even though we gave her plenty of space. By the time she had her cubs, though, she’d become much more relaxed – and it was this acceptance of us that created a unique filming opportunity. Taking their cue from their mum, the cubs were a much easier task. Aged just three months, their inherent curiosity was soon drawing them very close to our vehicles.

Richard and I were always careful not to present ourselves on foot. As far as the cubs were concerned, we were an integral part of our vehicles, which by now were a near-constant presence in their lives (as well as being our own ‘mobile homes’). Whenever the mother left to go hunting – sometimes for days on end – we’d split up such that one of us always remained with the cubs. No wonder they came to trust us, and to develop what at times looked like affection.

Periodically, for days or even weeks, we had to return to our own families, or break off to film other things.  Finding the leopards again required an intimate knowledge of their haunts and movements, as well as an ability to locate and read their tracks. Like most animals they are very much creatures of habit, with favourite trees, preferred hunting places, and so on. Once we’d worked out their routines, our filming became much more productive. Often, the cubs would deliberately emerge from the dense thickets – as if coming to greet us.

It soon became apparent that the two cubs had distinct characters. The male was like a typical teenager: nonchalant, in his own world, and notably uncooperative. He often lagged behind, doing as little as possible.  He was, it seemed to me, indulged by an over-forgiving mother. The daughter, on the other hand, was very alert and much more edgy. She never missed a trick, always kept close to her mum, and was quick to respond to instruction.

Leopards live by their wits. They are remarkably observant animals, phenomenally tuned in to their surroundings – much more so than lions. At any moment, an apparently sleeping leopard can dart off and chase a squirrel or an antelope. And while lions hunt just a handful of prey species, we logged well over thirty different kinds of foods that our leopards ate, including eggs, birds, reptiles, and – most remarkably of all – very large catfish.

The fishing behaviour that we discovered happened only at night, which was quite a problem for us. For a start we couldn’t really follow them in the dark; and we also knew that to film this behaviour we’d have to take care not to disturb the cats, or for that matter the fish. Spotlights can seriously affect an animal’s natural behavior, so our only practical option was to use infrared cameras and lights.

We became adept at guessing which stretches of river to stake out, and before long our infrared equipment was giving us an astonishing peek into a previously unseen world. Take your eyes off the viewing screen, though, and there is only blackness. It’s fair to say we had some pretty hairy moments trying to manoeuvre our vehicles in total darkness along the edge of a river – but we were determined not to influence what the animals themselves were doing.

Over the course of nearly two years, we saw and documented more leopard behavior than I ever anticipated.  Filming these elusive predators is all about putting in the time, and earning their trust. Only by doing this, and by respecting both the animals and their habitat, can you hope to succeed. The reward – for the viewers, I hope, as well as for us – is a magical glimpse into a normally secret world.

This article first appeared in Broadcast 24th February 2015 

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