Category Archives: biodiversity

Burning Kenya’s Ivory: A 360 perspective & CITES 2016

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6am. Adrian was still asleep, I was praying that he felt better after his terrible bout of sickness…. to no avail. I felt so bad for him, that he couldn’t share this moment with me as a friend, filmmaker and fellow conservationist. Today was the largest Ivory Burn in history- 105 tonnes of ivory and all of Kenya’s leaders, wildlife activists were ‘joining the herd’ in Nairobi National Park to stand up against the illegal wildlife trade that has caused over thousands of elephant deaths due to the simple sake of man’s greed.

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Heavily guarded ivory, the Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers on patrol. 

However….

Rain…rain…not so beautiful rain! It HEAVED it down, the ground was quickly assimilated into a large soup bowl of red earth. My already worn out boots seemed to cling to the ground like roots. We had to queue outside the National Park gates and collect our press passes, much to my horror mine wasn’t there, but I was reassured when I had my UK Journalism (NUJ) Press Pass and the brilliant Tim Oloo to help us by pass the armed KWS rangers (the novelty of people with AK-47 guns hadn’t worn out..)

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They searched our pockets and bags for any explosives (I certainly didn’t fit the bill), and we were ushered into a packed mini-bus to drive us through the park in safety. Journalists, reporters, filmmakers and conservationists clutched their camera gear and tripods with gusto as we bumped along the muddy path. It felt rather like we were entering Jurassic Park inside one of their vehicles with its dense scattered Acacia bushes and thick highland trees.

We then we piled out of the bus as we arrived at the site we had done before on the 28th, and once again went through security with all our kit. Droplets of rain began falling, just teasing us as we hauled our kit across the already quagmire site.

The press stands were soon filling up and I bagged two spots with my tripod for good measure. Rather than on the journalist podium, I placed it just offside where a direct shot of the flames and president could be had (we’re talking photographic terms here, not actual shooting!) Then it began raining lions and hyenas…and I schlumped my way across to the press tent…which was like a rather nice watering hole– not the like where you could find drinks but the literally the ground meant your calves were submerged. I got the kit to high ground and worked out a plan of action. Wides and close ups on the tripods with the 200-400mm lens, and roving with the 17-200mm kit lens on the shoulder rig. Tim and Will were busy liaising and so all we could do now was wait for instructions and people to arrive. To say I was excited about seeing Leonardo Di Caprio was an understatement…. I wondered if Elton John would be coming too?

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 The rain at the ivory burn event, Nairobi National Park. Press avoiding the rain 8:45am, 30th April, 2016. © Tania Esteban

 

Being among top journalists from around the world made me laugh and smile, I was nothing if not a minute fly in comparison to their expertise… but I felt thrilled to be among them and curious as to what camera equipment they would be using. A lovely guy from the Huffington post asked me about my Richo Theta camera I was using and showed him my model, his was the updated grey version. Everyone wanted to be part of the new trend! Well I only saw two other people with one, so check out my 360 videos for some exclusives!

I thought I’d leave some of the kit back in the little white tent opposite the main presidential one, and follow Will. Again the floor wasn’t any better here. Heels would not be useful for any dignitaries! There I saw Will talking to Charlie-Hamilton James! One of my fave wildlife photographers, I was very excited to introduce myself and ask about his recent trip to film for Disney Nature. He told me he had just come from filming lions in the Mara, and I told him about my own film I was wishing to find in Meru. Then I bumped into Michael Owino, a local Sound Technician who offered to hold an umbrella for me in the rain- thanks Mike! He was such a help, I managed to get a few steady shots of officials as they prepared the ivory and rhino horn for the main event.

SO much was happening at this point (11am), and many journalists were beginning to set up and capture the events. Also bumped into Ian Redmond, Born free ambassador and Ape Alliance chairman who actually put me in contact with Will about the film, I owe pretty much the entire trip to him- thank you! He was busy filming for the BBC’s new exciting series (more revealed soon!) and I happily agreed to shoot an interview with him for it. So whilst milling around in the mud inside the tent, we shot outside when the weather cleared up. Ian was piece perfect and hit the key points, balancing the emotional and logical science on the issue.

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Ian Redmond at the Ivory Burn talking to Ian Douglas-Hamilton. ©Tania Esteban

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After that I went celebrity spotting! Was quite fun and I did see Kristine Davis who is an ambassador for the Sheldrick Trust (Sex and the City!), the modern lion man himself Kevin Richardson, and I met legendary wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott! Was such an honour to meet him towards the end. Also another of my conservation heroes Iain Douglas-Hamilton! I shook his had with enthusiasm before I realised they were covered in mud…I apologised profusely but hopefully he didn’t seem to mind, I doubt that a bit of mud will perturb this great man, father of one of my heroines Saba Douglas.. what I wouldn’t give to roam around Samburu bear foot and searching for elephants.

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Actress: Sex and the City star Kristin Davis, who is a patron of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
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Kevin Richardson, the  modern Lion Man himself at the burn.

Anywho! I also filmed the legendary Dr Richard Leaky as he walked among the crowd and then approached the main ivory pile. Then it was time to film the events going on inside the tent. I bumped into my new friend Michael as he was setting up his C300 onto the stage. There were dancers and performers as well as upcoming rising eco warrior, actor and musician Luca Berrardi, aged 12 he has accomplished many great things in Kenya, raising awareness about the plight of their wildlife. Check out his twitter profile.

Then after a few more roaming shots I decided to head out and capture the president when he came out to the podium outside. Journalists were clearly thinking a similar strategy…and we all crammed together in mud like penguins looking lost. The ivory gleaned in the afternoon sun, wet from the mornings downpour. Thank goodness I had placed the tripod earlier! Long lens on one camera, the other with the zoom…we were ready for the president and the lighting of the ivory. In the tent the words ‘Worth more alive” echoed in our ears, its staggering to think of the mindless bloodshed because of mans greed. Virginia herself quoted that ivory carvings represent”little symbols of death.” Charlie Hamilton-James and Jonathan Scott also lined up alongside us to capture that perfect shot of the president lighting the ivory pile- the symbol of Kenya’s strength and determination to eliminate the horrific trade as well as all others (including lion body part trade).

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Jonathan Scott at the Burn site, ready to take photos of the president. ©Tania Esteban

The president made his way along the muddy path and took questions from the press, I filmed away in awe of what I was witnessing. Kenyatta then lit the ivory and to our disappointment there wasn’t much of an all-explosive-light-up of the pile; a rather puffed out cough of smoke. But soon enough the smoke billowed and the flames grew

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Surrounded by the world’s media and press, all eyes on the president. ©Tania Esteban

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Billowing smoke as the president looks on and the world’s media. ©Tania Esteban

 

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President Kenyatta taking questions at the ivory burn. ©Tania Esteban

The flames were flickering up towards the heavens as the light fell, and a silence fell upon all of those witnessing this momentous spectacle. 105 tonnes of ivory, 6000 elephants…generations of elephants wiped out because of the simple sake of mans greed. I often reflect upon humanity, and my own existence as a human because of the terrible atrocities many people commit. The smell was overwhelming, a mixture of kerosene but more prevalent still the smell of death…burning carcasses and bone of once living creatures. The sound of the cracking of the ivory was equally powerful, and the burning hiss that resonated across the field. And then the carnage….

We all literally legged it as soon as the tape was removed to get the first shots of the flames up close an personal, the solemn meaning of the event was temporarily forgotten. But first there was a ditch to cross…

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Not pleased with the ditch to cross…its deeper than it looks!
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A solemn moment…Very privileged to have been given access to film but equally overwhelmed by the numbers of elephants slaughtered.

Once over the rangers patrolled the ivory like rottweilers with rifles, their heavy boots sinking into the ground, and posing for eager photographers. You could really feel the heat coming from the 11 stacks, the smell billowing away into the inky darkness

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I continued to film and photograph away, staring in awe at my surroundings. A drone engine suddenly pierced the air and we looked up to see an Inspire capturing a unique view of the burn, something we all would want to shoot! Check out the video by Barny Trevelyan-Johnson.

Here’s me in a 360 video filming at the front where the piles are burning, don’t forget to pan around!

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Filming at the ivory burn was a privilege, I was happy to be there to document this as a my first proper shoot, but I felt truly overwhelmed by what I had seen…
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10 tonnes each; up in flames….On the tusks are individual identification names, with information regarding the origin, weight, elephant sex, age and herd.
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The haze moving in, the smell was very powerful.

After capturing further shots I was the introduced to another one of my heroes, Jonathan having seen him photograph all day, and Ian Hamilton. What a privilege. Also saw the fabulous News anchor/presenter for NTV Wild, Smiriti Vidyarthi there interviewing Patrick Omondi and the KWS officials.

And so dear readers, the emotional rollercoaster of a day came to an end, and Will, Ian, Tim and myself readied ourselves to leave the sight…one last GoPro video….

But before you go, remember that THIS September  over 180 countries will convene in Johannesburg at the CITES meeting to decide the fate of lions and elephants– to upscale the protection afforded for lions and ban the illegal wildlife trade in ivory. Hong Kong’s chief executive C.Y Leung recently stated that they would attempt to phase out all trade in of ivory. Others are yet to act. In fact Zimbabwe and Namibia are planning to ask CITES to approve new legal sales of ivory – a dreadful idea.

SO..

Keep the FIRE BURNING…share on Social media, tweet, Facebook, Pininterest, about how YOU CARE about the fate of not only elephants, but ALL wildlife. In the next 30 years they could be gone forever. The greatest threat however is habitat destruction and this is something I will be addressing in the next few blog post. In the meantime, have a look at this clip by Wild Aid at the end of this article and start talking to your world leaders and politicians to act!

Also some of my ivory burn footage can be seen here in a preview of A lion’s Tale! See what you think (at 1:43 min in):

 

 

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!

 

 

Diving into BBC’s Big Blue Live

Going Digital: Social Media and 360 Filming

We dived into the BBC Big Blue Live Masterclass in Bristol to learn about the secrets of their latest live wildlife-drama hit.

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Laura Thorne, Paul Deane and Sam Hume took to the stage to reveal the digital highs and lows of this new immersive and multiplatform series celebrating the wildlife of our oceans co-produced by the BBC and PBS. “Bringing the world to Monterey Bay” created many logistical, technical and editorial challenges for the team. The boats out in Monterey had been rigged with live cameras but nobody knew which individual animals would be filmed! Back in the UK we’re used to seeing the similarly formatted Springwatch with a more regimented character appearance, but as experienced producer James Honeyborne said, “Nature is literally writing our script!”

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However the adorable Southern Sea Otters at the Bay offered the crew a life line, allowing them to follow the story of a female mother, Bixby and her young pup. There’s nothing cuter than a literal ball of fluff- a single looping vine clip had over 4 million views on social media. Now that’s transoceanic!

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The social campaign was hugely successful with experienced Digital Development Lead Paul Dean on board, where the stories, wealth of archive material (70% digital exclusives) and hot-off the platter video-bites were served up on the BBC Earth Unplugged social platforms to some of the largest audiences the broadcasters have seen online. In a world of increasing content, there is little time to grab an audience’s attention.

And so the wealth of GIFs, videos, Vines, stills and infographics kept both UK and American audiences entertained and enthralled by this little known oceanic part of the world.

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Even 360 got a test dive… a virtual interactive reality video where you can dive among the verdant and colossal kelp forests, or have a swim with seals and Steve Backshall in an equally engaging virtual world. The BBC were however careful to choose the right video clips to fit a particular platform, and were able to partner with PBS and Monterey Bay Aquarium to promote their content.

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Influencer campaigns of people with ‘big accounts’ such as conservationists and presenters were also targeted to “re-tweet” material, with the Blue Whale’s last minute appearance stealing the headlines.

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This indeed proved to be a crucial element in making Big Blue a splashing success worldwide. Co-branding the BBC and PBS worked surprisingly well for the team as well, despite traditional ways of publicising programmes. The team shared their top tips for getting your content out there:

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  • Know your audience
  • Be patient
  • Try out material
  • Know your team
  • Be multi-skilled
  • Pre-release your best content
  • Listen to you audience

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But most of all, be HUMAN. Audiences want to be entertained on Digital Platforms as well on TV, with stories that are risky, humorous and inspiring. Big Blue Live was a truly ground-breaking and thrilling interactive experience. The Live Team are now looking for the next big series where the logistical issues of filming at different times of the day can be overcome, but not at the expense of finding amazing wildlife. We racked our brains for a few places we thought might fit the bill- let’s hope they have potential!

Meet the Grauer’s Gorillas: a virtual reality

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Chimanuka– a 200kg male silverback Grauer’s Gorilla gently grooms his 3 year old sons back, carefully picking out the burs and ticks…meanwhile wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan captures the most amazing sequences of these gentle giants in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, one of the last retreats of these elusive Gorillas. Can you imagine watching this in 360… live? This might become a reality very soon…

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If you’ve all been watching the superlative “Gorilla Family and Me” on BBC 2 over Christmas, I am certain you’ve fallen for the protective 30 year old male silverback of the 25 strong group of Eastern Lowland Gorillas (or Grauer’s) and his adorable son, Marhale. The bond between these two is emotively captured in this compelling new series by executive producer Ted Oakes, DOP David Johnson and cameraman Gordon Buchanan.

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As a lead contributor to this beautiful, heartfelt piece of storytelling, Ian Redmond OBE– (wildlife filmmaker, conservationist and ambassador for the protection of wildlife) has developed a pioneering way in which to view these amazing apes from the comfort of your own home. Yep you heard me, ZERO risk of being sat on by a Grauer, bitten by parasite ridden mosquitoes or blown to bits in a potentially volatile conflict. vEcotourism (http://www.vecotourism.org/) is a virtual reality project that uses interactive on-line tours connects you at home with conservation projects and local communities in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas worldwide.

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Founded in 2004 by director Mark Laxer, current vEcotours are primarily being produced in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Indonesia to highlight the plight of the great apes in those countries, but as they grow they intend to tackle the challenge of conservation world wide. Ian films, presents and narrates all the content that is being brought to you on-screen on his travels and conservation work in these areas.

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Ian giving us a talk about his brilliant new project. It was such an honor to meet him; as a huge follower of his work I am very excited to work with him.

It’s innovative and fresh– allowing you to interact and take control of the content you want to see and find out in certain hot spots. Together with a team of volunteers (including myself), we are using our skills as editors, scriptwriter and social media associates to help Ian to be able to host these virtual eco tours and spread the message about the plight of the great apes.

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What we’re looking to do is have LIVE tours of these beautiful biodiversity hotspots of the world, where you can join Ian and a co-host via 2 virtual live streams and pan the virtual 360 world of the apes. With these panos (panoramas) you have the power to be able to zoom in/out during the tour, whilst having a team of wildlife experts guiding you. Interactive chat boxes allow you to ask questions with live feedback from Ian throughout the tour. You can take a look at some of the content (non-live tours) and where Chimanuka and his family live RIGHT NOW!

http://www.vecotourism.org/panos/prototours/kahuzi_stump/

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Of course, there’s nothing that can beat a real-life encounter with these magnificent great apes, but such virtual reality tours are a fantastic way to learn about the fascinating behaviour and life of an incredibly threatened species…the hope is it will inspire you to help protect the environment in which they live, take up a career in research or simply share your love for these gentle giants.

Time is running out for the largest Gorillas Species, as civil unrest continues to take its toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the last 50 years, its range has decreased from 8,100 square miles to 4,600 square miles today…and less than 9000 individuals remain. Please do what you can for this remarkable species and donate/share if you can:

https://secure.gorillas.org/save-me?platform=hootsuite

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REMEMBER tonight on BBC Two (27th December at 9pm to 10pm) is the last episode of the beautiful “Gorilla Family and Me.” So much emotion and storytelling with the 25 strong family, led by the charismatic Chimanuka silverback male. Shout out to my roommate who was the assistant editor- Charis May!

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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].

 

 

Urban Ecology and Impacts on Bats

Okay so bats might not seem frightfully important to us…surely they’re nothing more than flying rats? You’d be mistaken! These incredible mammal species are a highly evolved flying and echolocating species- the only ones to do so. They ensure our skies aren’t ridden with biting insects, prevent crop damage, provide medicine in the form of draculin, give vision to the blind and lets be honest, MAKE Halloween! I conducted 10 months research on them a year ago, and here’s what I found out about how our urban lifestyle is impacting them in the UK.

Importance and impacts of an urban landscape on bats: Urban foraging

Each bat has evolved is perfectly adapted to each habitat, in terms of wing morphology, diet (ecological niche), echolocation call, hibernacula and behaviour (Altringham, 2011; Threfall et al., 2008). Thus, it is of vital importance to study the effects of particular habitat features on bats, as each specie uses the landscape differently (Altringham, 2011, Coleman & Barcley, 2011).

Some exhibit behavioural plasticity and can adapt to urban environments, enabling them to effectively exploit their habitat without the disruption of roads, light pollution or buildings (Russo & Ancillotto, 2014; Stone et al., 2011).

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This has been seen in bats with long narrow wing morphology with a high wing loading, as open air foragers are largely unaffected by urbanization (Norbeg & Rayner, 1987).

The ability of synanthropic bats to dominate urban foraging areas can be problematic for the less well adapted species (Silvis et al., 2014, Russo and Ancillotto, 2014). Urbanization may result in greater competition between the synurbic and less well adapted species. Arlettaz et al., (2000) suggested that the decline of Rhinolophus hipposideros in Wales may be due to the expansion of Pipistrellus pipistrellus, whose populations have increased as a result of greater feeding efficiency with artificial lights normally avoided by the lesser horseshoe bat (Warren et al., 2002; Lacoeuilhe et al.,  2014).

Water in urban areas

Bats are vulnerable to evaporative water loss as a consequence of their morphology and large surface area to volume ratio (Razgour et al., 2010). Within urban areas, open artificial sources such as ponds, ditches and swimming pools provide bats with fundamental opportunities to drink and forage.

Certain species show preferences over these larger, less cluttered and open bodies of water (Seimers et al., 2001). The reduction in pulse-echo overlap, ability to detect spectral shift and high insect abundance over still water sources can attract large numbers of bats to urban and modified sites (Altringham, 2011).

Such examples can be seen in North Carolina, where studies looking at the importance of managed water bodies over natural wetlands revealed significantly higher bat activity by heliponds, despite equal densities of insects at both sites (Vindigni et al., 2009). Equally, studies on Greek islands showed that bats will also use artificial water sources such as swimming pools due to the lack of natural sources in such arid habitats, with minimal annual rainfall (Davy et al., 2007).

So this Halloween, cast a glance into the skies at night and spare a thought for this remarkable little evolutionary quirk of nature…

Into the realms of Giants- Whale watching in South Africa

It is only when, for the first time, that you see one of these COLOSSAL creatures in their element do you realise how small species we are – and yet able to cause so much damage to the world’s greatest biome that the Great whales live in.

These great whales are frequently found along the coasts of South Africa as the currents that pass through the Indian Ocean bring up-welling’s of nutrients and food to feed these 20 tonne giants. This is where the fresh, cooler waters from Antarctica meet with the warmer currents of the Pacific. However the main reason for the presence of the whales is to mate– this is literally a clubbing lek for whales wanting to find love, and also for mothers to give birth to their calves. Many locals have told me about remarkable sightings of females being pursued by amorous males for many kilometres on end, what sight that must be!

Their numbers are slightly increasing since the 1970’s ban imposed by the Whaling Union in Durban, and the dreadful practice of killing these magnificent mammals has halted. Most people now see the whales as being more valuable alive than dead which is huge plus. The whaling industry was hugely prolific back in the 1950s, from the shores of Argentina and South Georgia, (in particular during the Falklands war). South African whaling stations along the coast were also being established along False Bay where the meat was processed, where you can see remnants of the place today. Namibia also had a large station as well as Durban and Cape Town as well as in New Zealand and South Australia.

South Africa, DURBAN, Sperm Whale Caught, WHALING (1910s)

Thankfully, there are dedicated researchers setting off into the blue in all weathers to study different species and populations around the entire coast of South Africa. This is principally conducted by aerial photography, isotopic DNA analysis from  samples as well as fin photography. Through identifying individuals, the researchers are able to determine the return of philopatric individuals, where previous calves were born and returned to their birth place to mate and give birth themselves. Humpack whales in particular are attuned to this cycle. They will take 3 years to recover from giving birth, as it’s a very energetic process. I’m pretty sure if I was that big and gave birth to a 4m, 1.5 tonne baby I’d be in no hurry for more…

To see whales in their natural environment has always again been a life-long ambition. Watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries, and seeing incredible camera operators such as the multi-talented and hardy Doug Allen and Diddie made me want to come into contact with these gentle giants myself. Ocean Safari’s made this possible with their coastal tours of Plettenberg Bay, they are the oldest whale watching tour guides on this part of the coast and offer discounts to volunteer students (was 800 rand, now to 500 rand which is around £25-27) for 3 hours of whale watching. You have different excursion times from 9:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm daily throughout the whole week (weather dependent). So you should always call up if you want to have a tour and book it.

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The boat names Fat Boy, after the local name for the Southern Right Whales

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The different species of whales you can see include Southern Right, Humpack whale, Brydes whales, and bottle nose dolphins, common dolphin, sharks, cape seals and Orca! The possibilities are endless. The Captain of the Ocean Dafir’s was Marvin, who was an expert sailor- and I asked him how long he’d been sailing this particular vessel- and his response of 15 years assured me that we would be in good company and able to see and spot the whales. Our guide was equally qualified and friendly to us all. We had a quick safety briefing as usual and then headed off to the Plett central beach bay with our life jackets.

We were ready to set sail!

Thrash! We speed off towards the sea and jet stetted off towards the headland of Roberg where the Cape Seal colony resides. The weather had improved significantly compared to the previous day, although clouds did loom ominously in the distance. I had taken my trusty sea sickness tablet, Kwells, which I would recommend taking even if you “don’t get sea sick,” just because it give you that reassurance. I warn you, you WILL GET WET.

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Do take a rain jacket if the company you go with doesn’t provide you with one. The sea salt will leave you looking like a shipwrecked drugged up model with sea salted hair but don’t let that put you off! It was glorious bouncing along the Indian Ocean, and being kissed by the spray peppering our face. As we approached the seal colony everyone grabbed their cameras and gasped at the extent of the Seals climbing abilities. These were apparently the highest climbing seal colonies in South Africa, some at least 40m above the progressively swelling sea that thrashed against the rocks, sending a jet of white foam into the air like flecks of white paint.

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Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!

P1010393  Posing for the camera! Cape Seals on the rocks. There’s a fantastic opportunity to “Swim with seals” which is run by the same company.P1010376P1010404P1010429

I’m not going to lie, I was a little perturbed by the size and progressive onset of swells that efficaciously emerged from the seemingly endless ocean- this was my first experience on a boat on a choppy day. I have previously been on a dolphin safari in Spain, but the waters were tame compared to this. As we bounced along the sea, we kept focusing on the sea horizon, and the reassuring words of our friendly guide who assured us we would see Whales, and to keep looking out for the spouts of spray. The humpbacks and Southern Right whales have the two blow holes from which they breathe when they surface.

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Yes that is a helicopter drone you can see above the spray, they are being used now to take samples of the animals and take aerial photos- top class!

The sound they make as they breach is a characteristic “ptfffffffff” which is seemingly imperceptible amongst the sound of the waves and wind resonating through the hull of the boat. Everything seemed to be a Whale, every wave! After 30 minutes even I was beginning to lose hope and wish the trip was over as my stomach began to churn…but then I saw the cool waters break and an immense grey dark shape emerged from the depths and glided across the surface effortlessly, the afternoon light reflecting profusely along its streamlined body- it was a Humpack!

“Over there!” I gasped in awe.

The captain and guide then followed my hand signal to my surprise, was it a whale or did I imagine it? Nevertheless we sped on, and then there it was again, the spouting and the appearance of the whales back, this time accompanied by a miniature version of itself- a calf! This was a female travelling with its mother, perhaps one that had been born there and now off to feed. They did indeed seem to be hungry and moved with remarkable speed. I had no time at all to take photos, and so filmed everything on the GoPro. I would recommend the same. The water and spray could really damage your camera, and the Gopro on the selfie stick works wonders as a stabiliser.

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We followed them towards the north and Roberg, and then were surprised to see yet another whale join us at the side, and fluked with its broad and knarred tail, slipping once more into the deep dark depths of the ocean. It’s truly was magical. Then to top it all off, one of the males breached and its immense body left the waters for seconds, water streaming down its muscular and colossal body, and then landed with an all mighty splash. Wow! We saw a few more sightings of the mother and calf, and I believe we saw up to 4 individuals all busy on their way to feed or mate…

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And then all of a sudden as soon as it had started, it was all over, and the skipper had already extended our trip to get further views, and so we headed back past the seal colonies. I spoke to our guide about any BBC film crews that had shot in these waters, and apparently Dolphin Army was filmed off these waters! I mentioned my plans to film in South Africa as part of my final film project next year, and he said that they would be more than happy to accommodate students! Score!

So who knows, I may return to film some of these remarkable marine species in more detail the following year. But if you’re around Plett or South Africa in general, I can’t recommend a Whale Safari more highly, it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, and it’s now made more aware of what we’re putting into our oceans. As part of the #BigBlueLive filming that will shortly hitting our screens on the BBC, I think it’s vital that we get behind our gentle giants of the oceans and keep putting pressure on our governments to create more marine reserves around our waters in the UK and worldwide. Happy Whale watching!