Category Archives: BigCats

Interview with Digital FilmMaker Magazine

I was recently interviewed for one of my favourite magazines – Digital FilmMaker! Here is the original with some of my photos from my ‘A Lion’s Tale’ shoot in Kenya; exactly a year ago. Hope you enjoy it and feel inspired to do your own!

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  1. Why will this project be of interest to readers of Digital FilmMaker?

Hopefully this will be of interest to anyone wanting to shoot their first short film and have only just begun to delve into this creative, thrilling world of visual storytelling. Also, that it is indeed possible to do on a very small budget, whilst travelling to amazing places in the process! Natural history differs to drama in that you cannot predict what the wildlife ‘characters’ will do; or control a great deal of external environmental factors. However, with careful planning and preparation during the pre-production stage; it is possible to make an emotive and personal human-wildlife story that resonates with your target audience.

  1. What had you done project wise in the lead up to this?

This was one of the first and biggest project that I was completely involved in. I studied Zoology during my undergraduate years and played around with cameras in different university societies; but nothing on this scale. I lived in southern Spain all my life before moving to the UK to study as an 18-year old, and upon graduating I then came to Bristol to pursue an MA in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University of West England. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to get into filmmaking (since I was 12), growing up watching David Attenborough and living in the countryside greatly inspired me. However, there was no academic support in Spain for me to progress in this field, and so dreamed of getting into camerawork and research at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol; where a staggering 40% of the world’s wildlife documentaries are made. The Master’s course certainly helped me achieve this, and part of the MA involved making our own film, drawing upon all the skills we learned alongside it. Whilst my academic background was scientific, I had always loved being creative as a child; storyboarding, drawing and writing took me to the far-flung exotic and biodiverse places I saw on our television.

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 21.58.46Where I grew up in Southern Spain – the light and birdlife greatly inspired me.

Watching producers and cameramen/women filming behind the scenes sparked my interest; combining the best of both science and art worlds. Then when I was 13 my father bought me my first DSLR, and could finally capture the Bee-eater birds and Short-toed eagles that were always tantalizingly out of reach. Armed with my telephoto lens, I wanted to share my passion with others but knew that being self-taught wouldn’t be enough to cut it in this competitive industry.

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I therefore had a lot of catching up to do at University; joining the Leeds Student Radio societies, television and photography clubs so that I could begin to create a portfolio and apply for the MA. This included a conservation YouTube Channel about local biodiversity, and two radio programs that I produced; Weekly Wildlife Watch and the Travel Talk Show. Whilst radio and LSTV taught me how to write, shoot and focus on story; PhotoSoc helped me to compose and learn about the fundamental principles of photography.

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  1. Who has done what on the film?

As part of the MA requirement, I saw the entire project throughout each of the processes – from the initial idea as a researcher, producer/director, camerawoman, sound, editor, SFX/mixer, grader and now social media manager promoting the content online. It was certainly challenging juggling the different roles, but I loved learning and trying out a variety of methods, techniques and styles from both the drama and natural history world. Learning through mistakes is certainly the best way forward in all walks of life, and by having total creative and editorial control I feel I’ve made something close to my childhood memory and dream. It certainly has been an extraordinary experience that I will remember forever.

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  1. And how did that utilise your individual skills?

With my camerawork, I attempted to adapt different styles of shooting as well as techniques to create a visual story that would suite a film festival audience. Such immersive filmmaking techniques include those seen on various BBC series capture the animal’s perspective to add an emotional level to the story, leading to a more powerful, captivating documentary. I attempted to capture privileged views of the lion in its environment, and learned a great deal about how different documentaries are made by analyzing the shots in different sequences.

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I shot in high speed in attempt to create a sense of drama for the first and last sequence of A Lion’s Tale, as well as with the use of extreme close ups (in particular the ranger patrol) for an immersive feel. The storyboarding of key sequences proved to be invaluable during the shoot, as it allowed me to focus on what I wanted to achieve in terms of framing, direction, action, speed.

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Early morning starts – shooting high speed with the FS700 and Canon 100-400mm.

Equally, I took the camera off the tripod and onto a small inexpensive rig to allow for camera movement – and emphasizes the feeling and mood for a scene. The use of jibs, cranes and float cams are increasingly being used in natural history to create dynamic movement and a parallax between the scenes as seen in drama. The development of gimbals has now made this possible, although I had to resort to a very crude version of one in the end – my arms!

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  1. So what’s the film about?

The Born Free story began with lions, and now 50 years later since the original film, A Lion’s Tale looks at the legacy that actress turn conservationist Virginia McKenna has left and the conflicts that lions and all wildlife face in Kenya. Set in the original heartland of the true father of lions, we journey to Meru National Park to see the Born Free team and Kenya wildlife service rangers on the front line of conflict and education. The world’s largest ivory burn is about to take place, as a symbol of Kenya’s determination to help all wildlife and stop the illegal trade. Will the next generation take up the challenge? Is there hope?

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This film reveals how Kenya’s new generation of conservationists is looking out for all wildlife, including the elephants, which is witnessed at the world’s largest ivory burn event – a symbol of stopping all wildlife trade and helping humans and nature co-exist. Gaining access to this historical event was one of the greatest challenges and provided me with the opportunity to capture a unique moment in time. It has quickly been adopted in the media with several feature films and documentaries have highlighted the event (The Ivory Game, Hugh’s Ivory War). It was a truly unforgettable experience, which I self-shot and have now begun to edit into a separate film alongside this production. Filming beside my heroes, both in the conservation and camera world was one of the highlights of the shoot. The worlds press and filmmakers were gathered to document it, and it was truly a sobering sight to see the 150 tons of ivory go up in flames.

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  1. Who wrote it and what inspired that?

The story of A Lion’s Tale began with my passion for lions and chance meeting with leading ape conservationist Ian Redmond.

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This love of Africa and felines started during my childhood, when I was encapsulated by the true story of George and Joy Adamson. For me, the purpose of making A Lion’s Tale was to emotionally engage and raise awareness – focusing on one of the major issues not only concerning lions, but all wildlife in Kenya. The original Born Free story captured the emotions of millions during its release in 1956, a time when our relationship with the natural world and ‘wild’ animals was viewed negatively.

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And so, whilst a large conservation movement was seemingly triggered with the momentum of a single film, it was the emotive driving force behind the true story about the real Adamson’s who released an orphaned lioness into the wild that led to actress Virginia McKenna to change her entire career and life plan – from actress to activist. I also felt it timely to produce with the upcoming ivory burn and Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species meetings in Johannesburg. I didn’t want to write a set script; and by using the characters’ voices in the film I hope this has allowed audiences to connect with and care about the cause – not be lectured on it. The major theme of the film is hope – an emotion that all humans can relate to and a message that I believe everyone involved in the filmmaking and conservation industry can use as a device to inspire and drive change.

  1. And who produced it and pulled the project together?

I was the producer of the project and responsible for all the script-writing, scheduling, budgeting, interviewing, shooting, etc. which did take extensive planning. After conducting all the research, calling and making the contacts; getting out on location was thrilling but accounted for only 20% of the production! Logistically it was challenging, Meru National Park is not a well visited park like the Maasai Mara or Amboseli. I booked a direct flight from London Gatwick to Nairobi to go and film at the Born Free office based there, the ivory burn and then a small carrier plane into the heart of Meru for the lions.

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Upon descending Meru, all I could see was a small office – no runway as such but more of a dirt track – then suddenly a giraffe galloping away from us in attempt to avoid a collision! However, the Born Free team and Kenya Wildlife Service were remarkable, they helped make the shoot a success – driving me to all the locations within this most beautiful and underrepresented of parks. The ivory burn was undoubtedly the hardest to get permits for; but with a lot a patience and incredible support from the Born Free’s president (CEO) as well as one of my contributors, Will Travers, I was fortunate enough to be able to film at the historic event.

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  1. Did you have much in the way of money to play with?

Not at all! I calculated a rough budget of £3000, as most of my negotiations brought the prices down and the park fees to film were waivered in return for me editing a separate version for them. This may seem ludicrous to most drama filmmakers, but in wildlife the budgets are far smaller and so this is where precision also plays a part throughout the production process. In total it cost £2600 for a 10 day shoot – this of course excludes all the pre-production and post costs as I was the one researching, filming, directing/producing, editing, grading, sound mixing; however the music was beautifully composed by MA student Richard Collins as part of his course. The facilities were provided by my university and the training in advance, but also a lot of practical reading and watching hours and hours of ‘How to…’ videos! Kit was also borrowed from the university and so most of the budget was spent on flights and accommodation. I did however set up a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise half the funds to go; kind support from family, friends and strangers alike. IndieGoGo was the platform I used as it’s less risky if you don’t hit your top target.

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  1. And what were your kit choices for this film?

Kit wise I used what was available at university; the Sony FS700 with the kit lens (18-200mm f/3.5-6.3), the 50mm f/1.8, 100mm Canon f/2.0 primes and the 100-400mm with the EF metabones adaptor. The telephoto was crucial for getting close to the action when it would have otherwise been too far and dangerous. This was especially the case with the lions! For sound; radio mics, Sennheiser 416 with the 522 mixer, and a Tascam for good measure – the latter was used to record atmos in the field. The wild sounds of Kenya truly are as vivid and vibrant as you would imagine. I loved recording the young group of school children who sang to us, it stirs up many joyful memories when played back.

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The film was edited on Premiere Pro, Pro Tools, and graded in Da Vinci. In hindsight, I would have loved to have taken an DJI Ronin MX gimbal, FS7 and a Phantom 4 Pro drone for the aerials; but very grateful for the access to the kit we had, especially as students. You are only ever truly limited by your own imagination.

  1. Where does it sit alongside the rest of your portfolio of work?

In terms of technical difficulty, time scale, and aspiration to make – it’s right up there! As I am sure many of you reading this have experienced, we are our own worst critics. However, this is one project that I was excited and dare I say it, proud to have made. It’s been a life-long ambition to meet my heroine Virginia McKenna, and never thought I would get to experience the true Born Free story alongside the incredible people who keep that spirit of the Kenyan wilderness alive.

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  1. So where are you with the film right now?

The film is now complete, however there are a few colour grading tweaks being done by a professional, as I now have the confidence to hit the bigger festivals! It was something that I lacked skill-wise, and could only grade and colour correct to a certain extent. I’m looking forward to the festivals and so far, it’s collected awards at six in the US, UK, India and Spain; winning recently at the Wild Film Fest in Falmouth. But more importantly, it’s been shared in the schools back in Meru where it was filmed, and where the real difference in changing attitudes towards these amazing animals can be made. They are the generation that can make all the difference.

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  1. How is it looking at this stage in the game?

All finished! It took me 10 months in total, with my fellow course mates and I recently enjoyed a screening of our films at the Everyman theatre in Bristol. It was incredibly rewarding to see in on the big screen with family and friends, as well as some BBC staff who came to support us. A project that you are so involved in does, to a certain extent, take over your life for a while – but it’s such an incredible feeling to see the end creation. Although I always say that if I didn’t set myself a cut-off point, I’d be forever editing! I received a heartfelt letter from Virginia McKenna, my main character, about how much she enjoyed the film – and that was very special indeed as she had a huge influence on me when I was growing up.

Incredibly exciting day at the #premiere of #alionstale @ the #Everymantheatre #Bristol😀😎🦁🐾🎞 #mawfonlocation

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  1. And how do you plan to promote it given that this is such a competitive marketplace?

I plan to promote it through a variety of social media platforms; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. and by connecting with influential Born Free supporters who can use their media presence to share and connect the film with the intended audience. Equally by continuing to enter festivals, I hope to promote it further worldwide. I also shot some 360 VR ‘behind the scenes’ clips to showcase on my website, especially during the ivory burn. Tapping into this market is key to reaching the younger audiences or those not necessarily interested in wildlife. During the run up to the film’s creation, I built up an online audience offering exclusive clips and images from the shoot as well as other stages of its development. It’s really important to engage with them and respond to what they have to say; as well as offer any advice. They also want their voice to be heard.

  1. Can you tell us about the other projects you’ve been working on?

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 19.05.27At the moment, I am employed at the BBC as a researcher with the digital team – one of the most innovative, creative and energetic group you’ll meet at the Natural History Unit! I’m loving every moment, most recently we released exclusive Snapchat stories for Planet Earth II in the US, and now I’m working on another digital project associated with the Blue Planet series. It’s incredibly exciting as you get to help out in various productions with different roles. Film-wise I do have a couple of personal project ideas in the pipeline, and I am very keen to shoot another short using the superb Panasonic GH5 – watch this space!

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  1. How do they differ from this one?

They differ in that they are not located in Africa! I’ve always been incredibly drawn to the continent but now have storylines I’m researching in Australia and Japan, both having more of a cultural-human element to them. However, another short I’d love to shoot is more of a pure wildlife blue-chip style, and I now have access to better equipment and financing to facilitate the projects.

  1. What is your favourite genre and why?

I’m a little biased when saying I adore making natural history, but it’s something I live and breathe every second of the day. For centuries, humans have told stories to make sense about the world- illuminating behaviour, making order out of chaos and to create moral meaning. It’s the way we can comprehend and pass on information, with which we have the insatiable need for form and structure in the way we tell them. Natural History has been documented for thousands of years through visual, physical and audible means, whether through the primitive Stone Age depictions of a hunt through cave paintings, to the now pioneering ultra-high definition wildlife films. Nature is endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and as a curious person it’s something that I’m always passionate and keen to share with others. I am certain most of us have this desire to learn about the world around us. I do of course enjoy watching a great variety of programmes and films; adventure, comedy, sports, fact ent, animation and action! You can learn many lessons from different genres.

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  1. Are there other genres that you’d like to tackle?

Natural History will always be my passion – but I do believe you can cross-pollinate genres and get interesting results. A superlative example the award-winning success Virunga directed by Orlando Von Einsidel; where wildlife documentary meets investigative journalism. It combines elements of “The seven key steps of story structure” as described by screenwriter John Truby, and regardless of it being a non-fiction film, Virguna also contains strong dramatic elements and a classical story structure of good versus evil. Battles depicted through the civil war and conflict between the park rangers and the oil companies are also tied in with the need to survive, along with the desire to exploit natural resources for profit. These all conjoin into a single cause and effect pathway through the combined use of a ‘run and gun’ shooting style and profound emotive pauses. It would be interesting to try a more daring, journalist approach with a conservation story – thrilling audiences by being immersed right in center of the action.

  1. So what is the filmmaking climate like in your neck of the woods?

Wildlife filmmaking is quite different to drama in my experience. Whilst we are adopting more cinematic techniques and technology using gimbals and aerials to create a parallax and dynamic edge; the set-up times, cast (!), budgets, and approach are quite different. I worked recently on a drama set as a camera assistant and found the whole thing fascinating; there certainly are no repeat takes when filming a wild animal in action! Equally, whilst in drama you have many specialized roles such as focus pullers, gaffers, and make up; wildlife crews are noticeably smaller as costs for location shoots would soon quickly rise – budgets are noticeably smaller. Most crews are a jack of all trades, and you learn quickly how to be as multi-skilled and useful to a team as possible. It’s the most incredibly rewarding and thrilling industry, and you never quite know what animals you will see and how they will behave. If you’re lucky, you can capture unique behavior that’s never been seen before.

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  1. Are you at the stage of making any money from this as yet?

No, I decided that this project would not be for profit, despite my access to the ivory burn. I wanted this to be an educational and inspirational piece and shared far and wide; available to anyone with an interest in wildlife and Africa. Now that I know I can make a short film – next time may be different!

  1. So where do you see this filmmaking route taking you in the future?

I hope to follow in the footsteps of some of my filmmaking heroes; Sophie Darlington, Sue Gibson, Justine Evans – the best female camerawomen in our industry! But equally, I do want to pursue my passion for producing and continue to create compelling stories. I recently met the producers who worked on Planet Earth II who were incredibly inspiring- their work is truly in a league of its own. David Attenborough of course has been the greatest source of inspiration; and If I can make entertaining, emotive and compelling films that inspire others to want to make even the smallest of positive differences on our beautiful planet, then I’ll be a very happy earthling indeed.

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Day 2: Born Free office Nairobi & Will Travers

Today we filmed another 3 interviews with the fantastic Born Free Kenya staff for the 30 minute version which I’ll be cutting for them. It was fascinating to see behind the scenes of one of the busiest wildlife charity offices in Africa…and yet the scene inside would suggest otherwise.

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Bliss in the office compared to the hectic streets of Nairobi!

We were pretty overwhelmed from yesterday- I went to bed that night with scenes of ivory towers and AK-47 assault rifles swimming towards me in slow-motion. The smell of death was also pretty horrific; over 6000 elephants were killed for their ivory, and each pile of ivory equated to 100 tonnes.

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10 tonnes of ivory per stack, representing the death of countless numbers of elephants.

So today we interviewed Tim Oloo, the country manager of the Born Free Foundation. He’s been working with them for over 2 years now, having previously worked for KWS as a senior scientist (5 years) and Serena lodges. His undergrad involved extensive research on Rhino’s in India, which he spoke about fondly. He clearly has hope for the future of Kenya’s wildlife and is supporting the efforts of both KWS and BF. We decided a nice set up outside would reflect his love of the outdoors and also avoid the troublesome tungsten lights inside. However the streets of Nairobi weren’t helping- what a noisy city!

Nevertheless, we pressed on, asking some passerby’s to be a little quiet for the interview, and we began. I sat as close to the lens as possible in order to achieve a nice eye line. The prime lens as a second camera was lovely…100mm will never let you down, beautiful bouquet. The wide shot was equally pleasing!

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Timothy Oloo of the Born Free Foundation

Next up was Phoebe, our logistical angel and office manager. She has been the point of contact in Kenya in term of getting hold of Victor, booking the hotels, sorting out the whereabouts of our stay and getting around in the Born Free Landrovers. We then filmed around the beautiful grounds of the BF office, with hundreds of butterflies frolicking, cavorting and mating in a an aerial orgy- spring had certainly sprung here. In this sense there is no spring as Nairobi is remarkably close to the equator. managed to film a butterfly mating in mid air- truly magical!

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The Nairobi Born Free Office
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Got to love a slider shot…
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Filming rain #DoesntGetMoreExcitingThanThis

We then headed into town for some lunch, Pizza for Adrian and a salad for me! I must say its quite weird to be stared at so much, but then again there aren’t that many visitors that are white to this area so I guess we must appear to stick out like warthogs in Wyoming. It then started to heave it down, so we retreated to to the office and filmed some slow motion droplets. I think Will is finding my obsession with the technique quite humorous. Got some nice slider shots of 3 life-like model statues too…roaaarrring success….

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First shot of lions- right here in Nairobi!

Then off to our lovely hotel (House of Waine), where we decided we had to find a sound proof place to interview Will…we struggled enormously… the rain was making such a racket on the ground but we had to do it today as tomorrow is the Ivory Burn! No time! SO we were helped by the lovely staff to find a quieter room upstairs. It was still rather tricky though I must say….however in such circumstances you have to make best use of what is available. We even had thunder…However Will was a master at answering all the questions, he truly is a professional and made our job a LOT easier. Huge thanks to the helpful staff at the Hotel!

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After that we joined him for dinner in the lovely restaurant. If coffee is your thing, then make sure you get it in Kenya- such a delicious earth blend. No idea what I ate, some sort of tomato/potato bake which was rather delectable. Over dinner we chatted away and listened to Will’s fascinating encounters with people at the plentiful occasions where he attends major events/meetings/conferences around the world. What a life he has had!  After that we headed to bed, but then DISASTER….

Adrian lost his potatoes…

 

LITERALLY..he was THROWING UP everywhere bless him! And worse…despite my best attempt to give him immodium and electrolytes, he just wouldn’t hold anything in. We reckon it was the pizza. I was feeling comparatively fine, but terrified at the prospect of taking him to hospital. His condition improved after getting rid of whatever his body was rejecting, but he was very weak…I don’t think he will be able to come to the burn like this, there is no way he can hold a camera feeling this ill..

I’ll have to go to the IVORY BURN ALONE tomorrow..

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With the shot lists, batteries charged and storyboards in mind, wish me luck!

 

 

A Lion’s Tale

As many of you know, I have been off filming in Kenya as part of my final Master’s film for the UWE Bristol-BBC course. Here is a little more background to the story before I start blogging the exciting events that happened during the trip!

Please check out more about the FILM here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-lion-s-tale/x/11469504#/

 

Synopsis

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2016 is The Year of the Lion that will honour the 50th anniversary of the film Born Free. A story of true determination, passion, love and drama – it is one of the most successful conservation stories ever told all. This film will be presented by Virginia McKenna, the actress turned wildlife activist as she tells us about her journey to protect the lions of East Africa and introduces us to the team of rangers currently working in Elsa’s heartland, Meru National Park. Led by Virginia’s son, Will Travers and the charismatic Victor Mutumah (Game warden of the Kenya Wildlife Service), we see first-hand how the threat to lions has never been so pressing.

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Wildlife activist Virginia McKenna; actress turn conservationist
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Meet Victor Mutumah: chef extraordinaire and wildlife conservationist or Born Free.
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OBE Will Travers: son of Virginia and Wildlife activist, president of the Born Free Foundation. Shown here at the major Ivory Burn event we attended.

Why now?

Their numbers have declined by 90% since the making of the film, and the recent lion census has revealed that in Meru poisoning, snaring and hunting is threatening the last remaining populations of the original lions raised by George Adamson. As the team search for answers across the dramatic landscape, it ultimately leads them to the local Borana people whose livelihoods are equally at risk from these majestic predators.

Without urgent action, lions could become extinct into the wild within our life time- as currently there are less lions than rhino in the wild

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Can the team help convince the new generation of children of the value of lion? Will they change from hunters to conservationists? Will Virginia’s lion legacy be felt in the true heartland where it matters most?

Where?

Our documentary will take place in the heartland of the Born Free story, in the little visited and utterly unspoilt Meru National Park where the Adamson’s released Elsa the lioness into the wild. Steeped in history, few places are comparable to the remote and rugged atmosphere found here with a vast range of habitats, criss-crossed with 13 natural rivers. From the majestic lion and the minute naked mole rat – it truly is a landscape of contrasts.

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Virginia McKenna

Despite being at the peak of her career, the film and all it still stands for changed her life…It’s powerful message stayed with her after the film and so she gave up Hollywood and began a lifetime of campaigning across the world to save animals from commercial exploitation, imprisonment, cruelty and the loss of their natural habitat-focusing relentlessly on her personal mission with the Born Free Foundation.

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The Story

In the beginning we meet Virginia McKenna, actress turn conservationist as she introduces us to the Born Free film she was involved with, and shares the impact it had on her. Through a series of interviews and cut aways to archive of the Born Free Film, we gain an insight into why lions are important to her, her relationship with them and what the Foundation is doing as part of their campaign to halter their startling decline….

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We then journey to the homeland of Elsa the lioness and the heartland of Joy Adamson- Meru National Park. Virginia’s voice guides us though a remarkable raw landscape in the foothills of Mt Kenya with its herds of zebra and elephants, home to the descendants of the original lions from the film. Here we meet Victor Mutumah of the Born Free Foundation and the rangers who fight tirelessly against poachers and bandits.

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The reality of what’s causing the lions decline is revealed in the field as the rangers track down snares and traps.However the main cause is shown as human populations encroach further into lion territory this often leads to human-wildlife conflicts and a fragile relationship between lions and locals. Is conservation on the agenda amongst the local people? An interview with a local farmer from the Meru tribe gives us an insight into where this stems from, and what is really thought about conservation.

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What does Born Free and the KWS need to do to change their views in on one of the last strongholds of lions in Kenya before its too late?

Born Free and the KWS attempt resolve this conflict by reaching out towards the community and giving them the tools to become conservationists. With the Global friend’s programme, they educate the next generation of lion guardians about the value of lions to their culture and livelihoods. By focusing on environmental education and benefits to human communities; Global Friends encourages communities to find their own solutions to human-wildlife conflict… As well as this, de-snaring operations and research are helping to reduce conflict and enable a better understanding of the last remaining individuals in the park. However the threats are very real to the rangers, who need to protect themselves as well as the lions they so dearly care about.

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On the final leg of the journey, we meet Virginia’s son, Will Travers as he journeys to the Ivory Burn in Nairobi National Park; the largest in history, and a symbol of hope to tackle the ever increasing rise in the illegal ivory trade and of all of Kenya’s species.

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But will this be enough to change people’s relationship between lions to a positive one? Is there hope for the future of Kenya’s lions?

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The Impact

On completion of this film, it will be screened at the BBC Natural History Unit this September 2016, a day of great celebration for everyone involved in the project and YOU at home for making it a reality. Then it’s off to the Film Festivals around the world! Virginia’s Lions could have an impact on raising awareness about the plight of lions and encourage protection from commercial trade at the 17th COP convening with CITES in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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The Born Free Foundation since its creation in 1984 originally with Zoo Check, it has raised over millions and grown into a global force for protecting and rescuing wildlife. It is working harder than ever with local communities to give them right conservation tool, with its personal passion for wild animals and desire for positive change remaining at the heart of the foundation.

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Resolution?

Virginia’s message of hope is an inspiration to us all, and something which all humans share. I hope to raise awareness about the plight of lions through my film, but also celebrate the story of Virginia McKenna and the Born Free Film which changed her life. This story is unique in that Virginia is not a scientist, nor a local Kenyan…but someone who has a deep passion and connection to the place and the wildlife around her. We will ultimately decide the fate of lions, and so let us chose hope and rally with Born Free to ensure the next generations will see this remarkable iconic species in the wild for themselves.

Photo credit: The amazingly talented Robyn Gianni took these photographs and is allow me to use them for the film! Check out her incredible work here:

 

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/163647394

 

The Hunt: With Alastair Fothergill and Huw Cordey

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A tiger sauntering through the long, tall Vetiver grass, an African leopard quietly padding down a gully, a spider delicately reeling out and laying a deadly silken trail….

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Their story begins with the fight to live another day in their unforgiving habitats – these ultimate “villains” of the natural world are given a second chance by Silverback Company Director Alastair Fothergill, Series producer Huw Cordey and their team in an epic visual feast- The Hunt.” Packed with stunning visuals of the like you’ve literally never seen before, dramatic story telling through cutting-edge editing, colours to pop your retinal cones and sound to resonate with your wild animal instincts…The Hunt truly marks the new age for incredibly high-end drama and storytelling.

We (wildlife filmmaking students), were treated to one of the first talks about this remarkable new series….

In the heart of the Chemistry building in Bristol University, barely a student made a shuffle to reveal their presence in the dark. Their only light source permeated from a screen which displayed the never-before seen markings of a new landmark series. Then enters Alastair and Huw- the ultimate documentary predators of our time, a most formidable duo set to storm the wildlife film industry market with a flurry of experience and talented flair… we didn’t stand a chance- we were preparing ourselves to be amazed….

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Alastair Fothergill
Huw Cordey on location in Kenya

They both spoke with such eager passion and confidence about their remarkable 6X60 blue-chip landmark series, which explores the dynamic relationships between predators and prey, each based in a particular habitat, with its own unique challenges. One thing in common that unites these animals is their struggle to survive and fail as predators-something that Alastair really wanted to capture,

“We wanted to put our audiences in the footsteps of a Cheetah. The previous shows have always depicted predators as ‘red tooth and claw, and so this is one of the most exciting relationship to film. We decided to base the animals in different habitats where each of the different ecosystems create these different challenges. Be it the open ocean– a big blue desert with ephemeral and notoriously difficult to find species, or the vast plains of the savannah where there’s nowhere to hide- where competition (interspecific- between different species) between other predators is rife.”

Although he admits that they were going to film the “BBC blue chip” animals (ie: Charismatic species), but also the more unusual such as the ancestral Telophores and Portia Sider.

It took 3-5 years to make, and I’m guessing at least £3 million per episode to make… But when your throwing in all the possible latest kit (Cineflex or ‘Eleflex’ as its known in Episode 2, jibs, cranes, Sony F55’s, helicopters, editing suites, sound crew, SF, musical composers, flights, travel…ect), you can’t expect to get incredible visuals if you cut corners. The remarkable almost mystical image of the polar bear that talented cameraman Jamie McPhearson captured was made possible with the use of the £300,000 cinflex camera and boat crew- and a total of 14 people and 8 weeks to capture that sequence! The co-proability of this series will, I’m certain, make a lot of it back so that we can enjoy even more exciting series to come (such as BBC 1’s One Planet, 2017!)

Alastair mentions he often think about what the next series will be, for example after Frozen planet they decided to look at habitats. But rather than just to look at the polar regions and tropical jungles for a sense of place, they also they turned to a new areas of natural history- animal behaviour…The most exciting dynamic behaviour is arguably between predators and prey. They haven’t forgot about the prey- despite not appearing as the “sexiest” of animals. One such species shown is the snow goose- where it will form large flocks to protect themselves from predators and use instinctive ‘next nearest behaviour’ movements to coordinate the huge triangular flock formations we associate them with.

Off to the Polar Regions in the first episode.  If you live in the poles you have to be adaptable. After frozen planet he was worried there would be no new stories to tell about its iconic wildlife. But again they managed to give us a literal brain freeze with the superlative polar bear sequence filmed by talented cameraman Jamie McPherson– it was absolutely stunning! Hats off to the remarkable colour grading by Adam Inglis, and editing by Andy Netley too. At some point I felt as if I was transported into Narnia with its gorgeous cool colour pallet. These animals are unique in that they change their hunting tactics serval times during the stalk.

“We didn’t manage to capture how this incredible behaviour stats in Frozen Planet, and so we wanted to film it this time.”

This is usually when the ice breaks up and they are no longer hunting seals on the ice. The weather however made it very difficult for the team to make it through one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the very beginning of summer when there’s meltwater, the skidoos can be used to get through this vast terrain. Polar bears weren’t at all bothered by their presence, if anything they could pose more of a threat to the crew and so they took “polar bear” security very seriously. At the end of summer, the ice breaks into a mosaic of ethereal blue-coloured ice pancakes, which forces the bear to change its behaviour accordingly. The ‘Aquatic stalk’ is where the bear pursues the ringed seals within the water, which is no problem for it is supremely adapted to swim with its webbed feet and high body fat ratio to prevent it from dying of hypothermia. The metal boat allowed the crew to move in the ice and move with the bear, use the parallax of the moving ice in a beautiful way, which led to creating this incredible sequence.

Another polar tale was filmed at Elsmere Island, most northerly Canadian islands. It is the nearest land to North Pole, 8 degrees north, and a total population of UK and Scotland (150 people), most of which are Inuit. This lack of people that makes it perfect for Arctic wolves, they are completely fearless of people. The challenge here for the team was keeping up with these finely tuned long-distance runners which can reach speeds of up to 40mph. So a larger crew was needed on the ice… 2 cameramen, 1 wolf scientist, 1 producer and 1 helicopter pilot. Then it was Arctic hare characters that leaped into the story with the wolves, leading to a rather entertaining sequence!

In this weeks episode we take a look at one of my favorite animals of all time- the Cheetah. This evolutionary powerhouse can run at 56mph at its top speed for 10 seconds, and has to get within 50m of its prey before the lactic acid burns into its fast twitch muscles and need to slow down to recover. The stalk is a very important part of the sequence, and the amazingly talented high-speed specialist camerawoman Sophie Darlington and the team tried to emulate this hugely important behaviour and put the audience in the footsteps of the cheetah… where every detail and sinew of the hunt can be analysed. They filmed it at a level of detail never seen before, capturing a very intimate and tense moment…at which most cheetahs will fails at this point to successfully make a kill.

This sequence was made possible with the use of the Cineflex- slowing the image by 40 times at 1000fps. This ‘black ball’ is home to a very powerful lens, with gyroscopic stabilizers which could make Taylor Swift’s Shake it off look like a graceful ballet. Mounted onto a make shift arm on the safari vehicle…it makes for the most remarkable follow up shots as the animal glides through the savannah grasslands. They were able to track the cheetah alongside it as it stalked without disturbing it from 100m away, preventing any interference. Alastair tells us rather counterintuitively that one of the skills about filming cheetahs is…

“Don’t follow the cheetah… Predict and follow WHERE the prey will go, and then go beyond it to try and capture the “down the barrel shot.”

Talented camerawoman Sophie Darlington

The Massia field guide, Sammy Munene, had the superb ability to get the team in the right place at the right time to capture one of the highlights of the series.

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“The last and most crucial thing is to choose the RIGHT Cheetah.” They spent much time deciding who would be their hero…and it was to be Malaika, BBC’s Big cat diaries star, with four 8 month old cubs. Such a remarkable feat for a feline, as 50-70% of cubs die at within their first 3 months. She was under pressure to kill every day for her young and growing family- and so the action heated up…2 cameras on the vehicle, 2 aerials and 6 weeks later led to the team capturing one of the most detailed and incredible hunting sequences of all time. Make sure you tune in this Sunday (TODAY) 9pm BBC One to see it!

But it’s not just all about mammals- the army ant sequence filmed by the brilliant Jonnie Hughes was a feast for the entomological eye and bliss for keen sound recording artist. Just enough of the tittle-tattle sound of the tiny footsteps of one of the smallest and yet deadliest of predators in the rainforest, which demolished everything in its wake.

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Equally the Darwin’s bark spider featured in episode 2 certainly proved that what it lacks for in size it makes up for in awe and charisma (YES I used an anthropomorphic word!) This spider was only described by science in 2009, and perhaps the reason it has never been filmed before. But nevertheless the teams found that the spiders were quite easy to find, and yet was still challenging in that they required just the right amount of wind and light to film. Huw tells us rather unwittingly that the number of camera kit cases required on such a shoot is inversely proportionate to the size of the animal- and with over 40 cases weighing over 40 tonnes… you can see why!

To really tell the story about the spider, a similar camera set up to the other sequences was required to get the shots they were after with all the dramatic elements and action. This quirky arachnid sprays out a stream of silk for over 20m, with which we are informed by the voice of natural history, Sir David Attenborough, that such material is stronger than steel. This sequences took 5 weeks (almost as long as the Wild dog and cheetah sequences) and so was no mean feat of technical skill and patience… even the smallest of creatures require the same level of detail to pull off a good story.

Of course our beloved hero Sir David Attenborough narrated The Hunt, with such verve and passion that it simply wouldn’t be the same without him!

The sound effects of the silk being expelled sounds rather like a spring coil being trailed along the floor, and is rather entertaining I must say! Anyone hear the sucker squelching sound of the crocodile’s nictitating membrane of its eye opening and closing? Or the mission impossible zipping effects of the Portia spider? The last squeaking breaths of the mantis? Hats off to the foley effects artist for being so brave! The music throughout the series has been quite sublime, the perky little notes with our smaller insect protagonists and action bass heavy chase sequences creates so much depth and engages the audience further. Clearly Alastair and Huw were proud of their music assembly and so they should be. Attenborough’s performance as a narrator and storyteller as always is faultless…a true master of hitting every single syllable and verb with incredible passion and verve- what a true legend!

The shear amount of dedication that went into making this series is truly astounding – and a HUGE inspiration to us up-coming wildlife filmmakers. Now that we’ve learned about how the whole team coordinates and how the industry works, we can really appreciate the hours, blood, sweat, tears, talent and of course money that goes into blue-chip productions like this. But if you have the right team, you end up with a remarkable piece of natural history that will inspire others to want to protect these fascinating species, with their array of intriguing animal behaviours.

Can’t wait to see what’s next for the team! (**Hint hint.. Keep watching out on BBC 1 and Netfilx!**) Tune into BBC One tonight 9pm to see the Cheetah hunt!

 

[All images above were taken by BBC staff and I do not take any credit for them, simply sharing their content in a review/analysis/report].

 

 

South Africa and Bristol MA Wildlife Filmmaking

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This last week has truly been one of the most exhilarating, emotional and thrilling times of my life…I will be visiting South Africa this Summer, AND have been offered a place on the incredible Masters course in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol, in partnership with the BBC! I literally wept with happiness, joy and relief when receiving the news on Tuesday…literally just had the interview two weeks previously at the University, and everything I have worked for these past 6 years has been worth it. I am truly grateful for both amazing opportunities.

Thank you to all my friends and family for their endless and continual support, as well as belief in me to pursue my dreams. This feels like this is the beginning of some very exciting adventures, and can’t wait to find out what excitement, hard work and challenges lie ahead!

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Hopefully you can join me on this journey and that I can inspire you to feel passionately about the natural world around us, and more importantly preserve it for future generations. It is our duty as filmmakers to protect the stunning and awe-inspiring places we visit and continue to tell the fascinating stories that unravel on a daily basis on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

UWESince I was very young, the remarkable literature talents of Lauren St John, David Alric, Michael Morpurgo and of course all of my history/biology/geography reference books provided me with an escape and world of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. I could travel the world from my bed, chair, rock, beach towel… and one place, always so vividly represented in all the books I read, was South Africa. Its rich culture, bright colours, sublime smells and majestic animals- and I yearned to visit one day. BBC documentaries and the mild attempts of the Spanish equivalent further gave me the impetus to one day visit this staggeringly beautiful country, and this I finally decided that THIS WAS IT! I’m going to SA this year after I graduate to have the experience of a lifetime.

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This is it! I am going to volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, Plettenberg Bay and work as a multilingual tour guide (sounds posher than it is)and photographer/filmmaker intern. Each of the sanctuaries under SASAA include Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife, which fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries to continue to bring in funds.

Monkeyland

A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so compiling this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates is an important part of the project. They do great work here and I am honoured to be a part of it, and help out in any way that I can.

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SO this will be my ‘job’ from June 2th till August 2nd! I’ll be writing regular updates on what I get up to, and how practical it is for YOU to VOLUNTEER for CHEAP ABROAD, it took me many hours to research ethical, well respected places that treat their animals well and don’t actually charge you to volunteer. The only cost involved is the homestay at Rock Road Backpackers (contact Mac: info@wwisa.co.za) which again is AMAZINGLY priced at £18 a night, FOOD, ACCOMODATION, TRAVEL to and from the sanctuaries included. Total cost for 36 days will be around £1600, but I’ve applied for £500 funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation, fingers crossed! Still an amazing prices considering.

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They are SO lovely there, I’m feeling really confident about heading over now as they seem to be very experienced in receiving students. Currently taking my vaccinations now (ouch tetanus hurts!), which are all covered by the NHS, but be warnerd, rabies is £40 a shot! It is necessary though, especially since I’ll be working with primates, (and an odd bat or two if I get the chance).

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I really want to be able to make a difference at the SAASA (South African Sanctuary Alliance) by bringing my skills as a photographer/videographer/zoologist and researcher, as well as help to build up a collection of all the species and individuals at the sanctuary. Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years now, I feel the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September. Not only do I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman. It has always been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. There’s so many amazing activities to get up to there too, canyoning, scuba diving, sky diving, caving, whale watching and I’ll also be going to the world renewed Addo National Park with students from Washington University!

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One day..one step closer…

SO! I’m currently studying for my exam finals now, and can’t stop thinking how lucky I am. I mean, I have worked really hard to get to where I am…and it’s not been easy by any measure. These past three years a Leeds have been a rollercoaster of emotions- but cannot recommend going highly enough. University teaches you more than simply lectures and how to avoid drunk people! But it allows you to find yourself, your purpose, your dreams, what your capable of and most of all determined to, no matter what, follow your dreams and CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK too.

https://youtu.be/KnmdUn3qQeI

Loss of Apex Predators

News & Views

Loss of Apex Predators in Dual-Apex Systems

By Tania Esteban, Samuel Ross, Jessica Rushall, & Louise Shuttleworth

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Apex predators are in global decline. The description of possible complex interactions between apices in dual-apex systems calls for further research.

Apex predators occupy the highest trophic level of an ecosystem, thus do not have natural predators themselves. They are capable of affecting ecosystem functioning through consumer-control and strong trophic interactions. There are currently unknown interactions between apex predators and mega-herbivores in systems where both are present. Because of this, the loss of apex predators from a ‘dual-apex system’ could affect communities in a highly complex manner. The decline of apex predators should be considered in systems with both mega-herbivores and apex predators. Tambling et al., (2013) explored this concept in an African ecosystem where lions (apex predators) and elephants (mega-herbivores) co-exist. In this article we discuss the potential effects of apex predator loss in this ecosystem.

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Mega-herbivores perform important functional roles in ecosystems. For example, elephants alter plant community architecture through trampling and overgrazing1. Direct aggressive interactions between elephants and other animal species also occur in these systems2, highlighting the key role of mega-herbivores in influencing species dynamics. Elephants also have indirect impacts on other herbivores through exploitation competition over resources, and depending  on the  system,  are sometimes able to outcompete smaller herbivores1.

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Figure 1. Weighted trophic interactions between species in the presence of apex predators: (a) with; and (b) without mega-herbivores. Interaction strengths are depicted by line thickness.

Lions are important apex predators in African ecosystems. They exert consumer-control, through predation on small and medium/large sized ungulate species, such as duiker and kudu respectively1. Like elephants, lions are classed as a flagship species because they are globally renowned, captivating, and of conservation concern. Lions are classed as vulnerable3, and are in decline because of hunting and persecution; diseases including CDV; and habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanisation4. If lion numbers continue to fall, large detrimental impacts on these ecosystems might be seen.

In multiple apex systems, interactions between apices are likely. Despite a lack of literature on the topic, there are potentially undescribed interactions between species occupying these apex roles.

Apex predators are likely to interact indirectly with other ‘apex consumers’ including mega-herbivores5. One of these indirect interactions can be facilitation by one apex on another; for example facilitation of predatory success of apex predators by mega-herbivores through environmental modification1. Another of these indirect interactions between apices would be the loss of one apex from the system. It is widely recognised that the loss of consumer-control has widespread effects, with the impacts of this loss propagating through the ecosystem. On a larger scale, trophic downgrading is a global threat, as systems are driven towards simplicity when consumer-control by apex predators is lost5.

In an African thicket ecosystem, Tambling et al., (2013) studied the interaction between lions (apex predators) and elephants (mega-herbivores). In this system elephants facilitate predatory success of lions through overgrazing and trampling of dense thicket vegetation. This allows access into the dense vegetation, which lions utilize because they are sit-and-wait predators. Lions will preferentially select for foraging habitats that maximise cover, over abundance or value of prey6. Therefore, modification by elephants facilitates an increase in encounter rates between lions and their smaller ungulate prey, as these  species predominantly inhabit this thicket vegetation1. In the absence of mega-herbivore facilitation, lions predominantly feed on larger prey species, as they do not have access into the dense thicket vegetation in which the smaller species reside [see figure 1].

As briefly discussed by Tambling et al., (2013), loss of apex predators in these systems could lead to multi-directional trophic cascades. Compared to unidirectional trophic cascades, impacts of predator loss can radiate through the system in a nonlinear manner. For example, apex loss could propagate down through trophic levels and ‘rebound’ back up towards the second apex (mega-herbivore) through changes in populations of smaller herbivores.

In a classic trophic cascade, apex predator loss results in increases in herbivore populations7. The extent of population responses to predatory release depends on ecosystem structure. In the African thicket ecosystem where mega-herbivores facilitate lion predatory success on small ungulates, if lions were lost from this system, the resulting population changes of small herbivores would be greater than in the absence of facilitation by elephants. Where elephants are not present, lions mostly cannot access small prey species that frequent dense thicket vegetation so they predominantly prey on larger ungulate species1, resulting in greater proportional population increases in larger ungulates if predatory release were to occur.

Following the exploitation ecosystem hypothesis, if consumer-control is lost, systems are limited purely by primary productivity so the extent of primary production determines trophic complexity8. If lions were lost from a dual-apex system, the ‘second apex’ would likely be affected, as mega-herbivores would face increased competition due to predatory release of other herbivores [See Fig. 2a]. Systems that support mega-herbivores face increased herbivory initially, so when apex predators in these ecosystems are lost, mega-herbivore populations are at greatest risk of collapse due to competitive exclusion of these species with low rates of secondary production9.

Although Tambling et al. (2013) studied facilitation in dual-apex systems, as far as we are aware there is no current research into the effects of apex predator loss in these ecosystems. The African thicket ecosystem should be used as a model for future studies into dual-apex interactions, as exploration of connections in this novel system was valuable. As briefly  outlined, complex multi-directional trophic cascades have not been widely recognised and described. If we are to gain valuable insight into the impacts of apex predator loss, we must research this area further, in different dual-apex systems, as currently little is known about the consequences of apex predator declines. Equally, the role of consumer control in structuring ecosystems is not widely recognised5. This further highlights the need to consider the effects of apex predator loss in ecosystems globally, and the importance of preserving all types of apex consumers in an increasingly downgraded world.

References

  1. Tambling CJ et al. (2013) Basic and Applied Ecology 14, 694-701.
  2. Slotow R, & van Dyk G. (2001) Koedoe 44, 85-94.
  3. Bauer H et al. (2012) Panthera leo: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (available at www.iucnredlist.org). Updated 2014 (Accessed 01 December 2014).
  4. Snyman A et al. (2014) Oryx, 1-7.
  5. Estes JA et al. (2011) Science 333, 301-306.
  6. Hopcraft JGC et al. (2005) Journal of Animal Ecology 74, 559–566
  7. Pace ML et al. (1999) Trends in ecology & evolution 14, 483-488.Oksanen L, & Oksanen T. (2000) The American Naturalist 155, 703-723