If there’s one thing lifelong conservationist and wildlife filmmaker Kim Wolhuter hopes viewers will take away from Wednesday’s PBS Nature special The Cheetah Children, it’ll be a sense of wonder for what remains of the natural world. Viewers themselves can take solace, too, in knowing that, if only for an hour, the news events of the day will seem faraway. PBS’s Nature — 36 seasons and climbing — has always been one of the more sober, clear-headed, less sensationalist nature programs, but it’s also carved out a hard-earned reputation for family-friendly programming that’s neither maudlin nor condescending.
The Cheetah Children, in which Wolhuter tracked a mother cheetah and her five vulnerable, weeks-old cubs with his camera through the thorn scrub and miombo bush of Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, has some hard lessons about natural selection and survival of the fittest, but it’s also a window into a world of almost breathtaking beauty. And simplicity.
There are no contrived confrontations between man and beast, no deliberately manipulative scenes designed to play on the audience’s emotions. In the best tradition of PBS Nature documentaries, what the cheetahs see is what you get at home, warts and all. Warthogs, too.
First, some background. There’s some of this in the program, but The Cheetah Children was never intended to be an informational lecture, or a PSA for saving endangered species per se.
The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, capable of sprints of 70 mph over short distances. More impressively, perhaps, the loose-limbed, lightly built cat is built for acceleration — an average adult cheetah can hit 45 mph in two seconds, faster than any Ferrari built by human hands.
It is also in serious trouble, and not just for the usual reasons — habitat destruction, poaching, trophy hunting, illegal wildlife trafficking for the pet trade, and so on. A genetic bottleneck early in the cheetah’s prehistory means that their gene pool today is tenuous at best. Many cheetahs are born with genetic deficiencies — a weak jaw, a lame foot, brittle bones, etc. Any kind of leg injury to an animal built for speed is tantamount to a death sentence.
Nature has compensated, as viewers learn early on in The Cheetah Children. Cheetahs have big litters, because the infant mortality rate is so high. Whereas the stronger, more powerful — and more genetically successful — leopard has one or two cubs, a cheetah may have as many as 10 or more.
Depending on the terrain, and how many rival predators there are in a cheetah’s territory — lions, leopards and hyenas will all kill cheetahs on sight, because nature has conditioned predators to see any competition for food as a rival for their own survival — as few as two cheetah cubs may live to see adulthood, and often not even that.
Wolhuter took great pains in The Cheetah Children to show that this is a natural process, one more complication in nature’s game of survival.
Even so, knowing the species is in real danger of extinction in our lifetimes, it’s hard to watch.
Wolhuter, the grown son of one of South Africa’s original park wardens — his father, Henry Wolhuter, was at one time Head Ranger of South Africa’s world-famous Kruger National Park, southern Africa’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park — grew up wild.
He learned from a young age how to survive on his own in the wilderness, and how to read nature’s signs, good or bad. He learned walk barefoot through thorn scrub, and in so doing learned how to blend into his surroundings and pick up on the small details that can mean the difference between survival and dying. He learned that wild animals can become more accepting of people outside vehicles, once they determine the intruder poses no threat. The result is that today, virtually alone among contemporary wildlife filmmakers, Wolhuter makes nearly all his films on foot. That affords him a rare intimacy into the lives of his live subjects, one rarely captured by other wildlife filmmakers.
At a recent meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif. — a world apart from the mopane forests and Zambezi teak trees of Zimbabwe — Wolhuter shared some of his innermost thoughts about living wild and one of his earlier documentaries, the self-explanatory Man, Cheetah, Wild, made at the time for the Discovery Channel. Malilangwe Reserve is in Zimbabwe’s southeastern hinterland, near the Mozambique border and about as far away from Zimbabwe’s tourist-travelled Victoria Falls as it is to get and still be in Zimbabwe.
“There's no special muti, as we call it, or juju,” Wolhuter said. “It's just that I've spent so much time with them. They've got to know me, and I've got to know them. It's hard portraying myself to them, how I can present myself with complete confidence. They can read that and understand that. They feel it.
“There's never actually been a case where cheetah have killed a person. Of all the predators — lions, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas — cheetahs are the most timid. They would rather run away from something than confront it. Yes, they do bring down antelope and other game. But those animals are running away from them. I don't run away. I present myself in a respectful manner, but also in a confident manner, and they respect that. We have this incredible relationship, which for me just went beyond anything I could ever imagine.”
Being on foot makes all the difference in the world to the resulting film.
“What I'm doing takes it to a totally different level. I spend a lot of time with these animals. Their behaviour then becomes totally natural, far more natural than if I was sitting in a jeep. I think it’s just so much more intimate than you're ever going to get sitting in a vehicle. So what we're trying to do with these cheetah is try to get you into their world. I think it’s something that people are going to engage that much more with.”
Wolhuter is not crazy, though. There are certain predators he wouldn’t dare get that close to, no matter how well he knows their habits or how well he read their emotions.
“Lions. Lions are . . . well, for one, you're not just dealing with one individual. You're dealing with a whole pride. But also, they're just far too big . Lions are incredibly aggressive animals, in that they want to kill anything and everything. Any other predator that steps up, comes anywhere near them, they'll try and kill it. So, you know, they're . . .
“I'm just not going to do it with lions.”