Q&A: Wildlife documentary filmmaker, Kim Wolhuter

| 30th November 2011

Photo: Taryn Burns

Playing with hyenas, hunting with cheetahs and running with wild dogs is all in a day's work for Kim Wolhuter. He tells Ruth Styles why he does it

‘Lions are totally overrated; we’ve put them on this pedestal as the king of beasts that they don’t deserve and they are bloody terrible mothers!’ Documentary film maker, Kim Wolhuter, doesn't pull his punches but he's passionate about wildlife. From running with cheetahs to leading a pack of wild dogs, his films capture the intensely close relationships he developes with wildlife and have won him international acclaim. That's not to say he's uncontroversial - far from it - but his work has shed new light on under-appreciated species such as the hyena - the subject of his best known work, Hyena Queen. In a mirror image of his approach to wildlife, he's similarly passionate about his adopted home, Zimbabwe. '[People] thought I was insane [to work in Zimbabwe] and that is absolute nonsense,' he says. 'It's just the media.'
Ruth Styles: Can you tell me a bit about why you’re working with cheetahs and what you hope to get out of it?
Kim Wolhuter: ‘I’ve worked with these cheetahs before. The first four years I was here [at Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve] I saw four cheetah [the entire time], then suddenly this mother arrived with four cubs. She was very nervous at first and then slowly I got to see more and more of her and eventually they got amazingly chilled out. I filmed them until they left their mother and it was just insane the interactions I was having with them. I even got out the car because I always want to get those low-angle shots and stuff and I found that they weren’t fazed by it and they would come right up to me. So I thought, now that the cubs have left, what would be really ideal is if the mother has new cubs one day and I film them. She disappeared so I carried on shooting a film on wild dogs that I was doing at the time and then suddenly, Six months later she arrived with five cubs. The cubs were about two and a half months old and yeah, initially they were a bit timid but after a week they were totally chilled out, the mother was happy with me being around her again and it just seems like an ideal thing to do.’
RS: Your other films have looked at wild dogs, hyenas and now cheetahs all of which have a generally negative reputation. Is that what makes them interesting?
‘Hyenas was definitely [a species] I wanted to do. The very first film I worked on was with hyenas. We were trying to change people’s perceptions but people didn’t listen because it was hyenas - they just switched channel. I am going to do a series on hyenas after the cheetah and that will change a lot of that stuff. I found hyenas here that I have never seen before, I got out the car and they come right up to me. There were six of them on patrol the other evening and I didn’t know them but I got out the car, sat on the ground and they came around and sniffed me, These are totally wild hyenas and you think, why, what’s going on and that is the whole perception that has got to change. It’s rubbish and the Lion King didn’t help either. The Lion King slaughtered them, big time. So I did choose hyenas to change [perceptions] and my wild dog thing is definitely [intended to] change things as well.'
R.S: You are quite privileged; the level of interaction you get with them is nothing compared to the average person...
'It is not the sort of thing visitors [to the reserve] will ever do; it’s purely for my filming purposes. With the dogs I kept it excusive to me so they recognised me with my whistle and I was the one who they could trust and nobody else. Everybody else has to discourage the cheetah from being too friendly with vehicles we can’t have a cheetah jumping into the back of a vehicle.'
RS: Let’s go back to the start of your career and how you got involved wildlife, have you always had a passion for wildlife since you were very small?
'My grandfather was the first game-ranger in the Kruger National Park, my father was also a game-ranger. I did a course in ecology at university and then I was involved in wildlife management for several years. I had no thought, no will, no nothing to be a film maker or a photographer, I didn’t even think about it but then a friend of mine phoned me up and said “do you want to come film making with me?” I said “no dude, I’m quite happy.” I was working in a reserve at the time and anyway, he convinced me to do it and that [was the first time filming]. Later, I went back to Richard and film making and he gave me a camera and said “go for it mate.” I worked with him for six years and have been on my own for the last 15 or so.'
ST: How do you choose your subjects?
'Unfortunately it’s all just about bowing down to the audience. Everybody wants predators. I did a film on impala once which was called Impala Fast Food. That’s the side thing, there are lots interesting little animals out there but you can’t get that sold; it is scary [that] you have just got to bow down to the audience. I think that is the beauty of the internet, you get something, you put it out there, if it is going to work, people will tell you straight away.'
RS: You are doing cheetahs now and then you're going back to hyenas. How will you do it differently for your third hyena film?
'The first one was just a pure blue-chip hyena film; all the facts we stated in the first one, we stated in the second one but nobody listened to the first one because they weren’t watching the show. The second one they were watching because I was in it and they realised there is something going on here but the second film was on a loose  pack of hyenas, only four adults and two youngsters. The one I’ll do now will be with a pack of 30 to 35 animals and it will be a very different relationship. I will spend a lot more time actually out there with them and interacting with them. The hyena film, I did, Hyena Queen, is six or seven years old now, so by the time hyenas comes out again it will be a decade on.'


RS: Nature is pretty brutal: how do you include the grim realities without putting people off?
'Well you don’t; that's the sad thing about almost every wildlife show out there. Predators at War is probably the most brutal stuff you will see on television and it is just sad that we have to edit out everything that is real. As soon as there is an animal suffering for whatever reason, we can’t show it. They don’t like to show hyenas ripping an animal to pieces because it looks terrible but we can show a guy shot up in Iraq, his guts lying on the floor there or on the front page on whatever newspaper and that’s fine. So why can’t we show the reality of what goes on here? I’ve got two young daughters and we did a series with them [and they are] in the bush and with me all the time, out there all the time seeing this stuff. I had some people who were with me at the time blogging as well writing saying “how can you allow your daughters to watch that?” And I say “come on guys, this is the real deal this is what is happening out there. How can I stop it? They’ve got to see it. Unfortunately wildlife is edited in a way that tames it down and I always cite this example where you have a lion chasing a zebra and it is in slow motion and the lions are after the zebra and it [the lion] jumps on its back and they go down, there’s a cloud of dust and then the lion grabs it around the throat and it strangles it. There is this beautiful music in the background and it is like a fairy tale but you have actually just witnessed full on bloody murder. We have turned it into this fairy tale and we have made people think that when you see a scene like that it looks quite tame and timid and whatever but people start to think “what is so rough about Africa".'
RS: And then you come here and hear the warthogs squealing for 20 minutes...
'Exactly and that’s the real thing. Having said that, people have this perception that Africa is a rough place, the bush is harsh and you can’t go walking out there because you are going to get eaten around every corner but actually most of the time out there it’s really chilled. I walk and run around this place more than anybody else does and the number of times that I have had a problem or encountered a dangerous animal is minimal. I could count on one hand probably but it is not to say that anybody can run around there and do it. A lot of it [is based on] luck. There was a young guide in Kruger who stopped night drive he wanted to have a leak or whatever and stopped on a bridge [because] that was the safest place. He walked to the end to have a leak and got drilled by a leopard. Hell of an unfortunate thing for the guy, but I have had experiences like that. You are lucky if you survived the first one, then the second one, then the third one and by the time you have survived a whole bunch of them, you have learnt a whole lot and your chances are surviving farther down the line become bigger and bigger. But if you don’t have that luck in the beginning you can get taken out like that poor dude.'

RS: What's interesting is that you are talking about luck and danger, but from a British perspective, you are already at risk because you are working in what we would see as a dangerous country in Zimbabwe... 
'I went to a film school in [Bristol] last year and told people I was working in Zimbabwe and they thought I was insane. That is absolute nonsense; it is just the media. If you want to get involved in politics then don’t go to Zimbabwe. If you are not in politics, it is the most amazing place, the people; you won’t find friendlier people. I’ve been blown away by the people here. I can break down on the side of the road and spend the night there and be safe. If that happened to me in South Africa, I wouldn’t wake up in the morning and my car would be gone. I am South African and my brother was murdered last year for no reason: a guy broke in the house and stabbed him 10 times – what the hell? No, this country is incredibly safe and for tourists is absolutely safe. All the people are very well educated, you can speak English to almost anybody out here and it’s magical here.'

RS: Is there is any animal you would never make a film about?
'Oh, no, I will do what I need to do; the bottom line of all of this is not making the film, it is living and experiencing. I grew up in the bush and that’s where I want to be, as long as I am out there, I spend more time in the field than any other profession in the wildlife, for me it’s a lifestyle, and I can get film to pay for that lifestyle. So yeah I enjoy shooting this stuff and the challenge, it’s cool because I love gaining the respect of these animals and being given the privilege of actually being a part of them. It’s the ultimate privilege to be accepted by a wild cat and that for me is what it is all about and if somebody wants to film me doing it then fine. Don’t let anybody kid you that there is money in it though because I haven’t got any, it’s a serious problem.'

RS: How does working in Zimbabwe compare to South Africa from a wildlife perspective?
South Africa is a hell of a lot less diverse. We’ve got 26 different habitat types here and they have three or four or whatever it is.  With that diversity it just adds so much to the look of [your film]. Also, generally, the wildlife in Zimbabwe is wilder. There everything is fully fenced in, there is no free land, so it is just an almost like a [compartmentalised] zoo whereas here there are big open spaces, wild country.'
RS: And yet you still manage to interact with the animals?
'Yeah, the wild dogs took time, in other counties like Botswana and  South Africa, for some reason, they are not scared of vehicles whereas these wild dogs were [scared] when I started working with them. It probably took me six months to get it so that I could walk with them and run with on the hunt. I ran with them from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they rest which could be two to three hours in the morning and hour in the afternoon. I can keep up with them quite easy but when they are actually chasing something, I can’t. They can chase for two kilometres, unlike cheetahs who do 300 metres. It’s brilliant.'

RS; What has been your ultimate wildlife experience then?
KW: '
I had one a few months ago. It was just getting dark and one [of the wild dogs] chased warthog into its burrow so I went and stuck my head in the burrow and of course the pig came screaming out of there and this dog went chasing after it again. It went over this rise then I heard this commotion and the other four dogs went screaming in that direction so I ran over there, went over the rise and there’s four hyenas and the dogs having this quick little barney. When they saw me the hyenas ran off. The hyenas ran away from me and the dogs chased them. I was running with the dogs but then the hyenas realised that if dogs aren’t running from [them] there is something funny going on. So I stopped and I had the dogs right next to me with  the hyenas 20 metres away. I thought [about] what happened last time, so I decided I would run at the hyenas. I start running at them and all these dogs come screaming past me, one hyena is going for a dog, so I go running after that hyena and all the dogs go there and it was all amazing; the most amazing interaction I’ve had, it was so cool.'

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