Life in the wild is hard. We know this.
From the first hour, the David Attenborough-narrated nature program Dynasties has been unflinching in its depiction of survival.
Even so, the fourth episode in this exquisite — and intensely personal — series, airing this weekend in the US for the first time (BBC America, AMC Networks, Sat. 9E/P, 8C), is harrowing and emotionally wrenching. The episode Painted Wolf, filmed along the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park, a remote, relatively untrammelled region of wilderness area in Zimbabwe, made director and cameraman Nick Lyon physically ill at one point, as he stood by helplessly as a painted wolf pup, part of a family group the filmmaking team had followed for two years, was grabbed by a crocodile from a riverbank.
Painted wolves — once known as African wild dogs, before conservation groups decided that the name “wild dogs” was unhelpful in raising awareness of the plight of one of Africa’s most rare and critically endangered predators — are social animals. For the purposes of storytelling, the filmmakers followed two groups in rival territories. As the program begins, one of the competing groups is led by a wise but aging matriarch, nicknamed Tait; the other group is led by her estranged daughter Blacktip, who is young and healthy and looking to stake out her own territory. Murder and mayhem ensue, in arguably the most bloody and brutal hour in Dynasties’ entire run.
Complicating the already complicated family entanglements are other predators — lions, hyenas and the prehistoric, monstrously sized crocodile that caused filmmaker Lyon such distress. Predators are conditioned by nature to kill other predators when and where they can, in part to alleviate competition for a limited and often dwindling food supply.
The wrenching scene, in which one of the pups is snatched unsuspecting by the paw and dragged into the water, flailing helplessly, made Lyon, a veteran cameraman and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, sick.
“When you follow animals as long as we did,” he told The Telegraph, via BBC, “you get to know them and care what happens to them.
“It becomes an emotional experience when you see one of the characters having a bad time, or having real success. I loved the puppies. I remember when they were out of the den for the first time at just three weeks old. They were so tiny, with oversized heads, that would overbalance on their front legs.”
Lyon described the rivalry between mother and estranged daughter as Shakespearian, both in scale and in the intensity of its rivalry.
From a natural history point-of-view — and from the perspective of the casual viewer who watches nature programs from time to time — the hour is a reminder of just how challenging life in the wild really is, even in the most ideal of climatic and environmental conditions, and the fine margins between life and death. It’s hard enough to survive, let alone thrive. It’s impossible to watch Painted Wolf and not be moved by what’s unfolding on the screen.
Away from the screen, if real life, painted wolves, African wild dogs, Cape hunting dogs or whatever you care to call them, face an uncertain future. As a nation, Zimbabwe is beset by genuine real-world problems that involve real-world hardship for countless people, problems that range from poverty, drought and hunger to corruption, bad governance and a failing economy. As pristine as the Mana Pools wilderness appears to the outside eye, the entire ecosystem is in peril, besieged on all sides. It’s hard to imagine how even an adaptable charismatic animal like the painted wolf can cope, and yet cope they must if they are to survive as a species.
Lyon estimates he and his camera crew drove through some 82,000 kms — 51,000 miles — of miombo woodlands while tracking Tait, Blacktip and their respective aunts, uncles, offspring and more distant relatives. The insights they gleaned along the way were extraordinary.
In its three outings so far during its US debut, Dynasties has established itself as a unique, compelling and hypnotic document of natural history, even by the lofty standards of other such BBC Attenborough programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Tough to watch, yes, but unforgettable at times.