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Filmmaker walks on the wild side in passionate documentary Man, Chetah, Wild

Regions: Vhembe Region

October 11, 2013

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Kim Wolhuter is a long way from the miombo of Zimbabwe, a long way from the wilderness he calls home and where he has raised his children to appreciate the outdoors and the natural things that live there.

Still, sitting comfortably alongside his filmmaker-photographer wife Taryn, in the Lobby Lounge bar of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, surrounded by Hollywood sirens and celebrities, he looks less like a fish out of water and more a committed environmentalist anxious to share his experiences making the documentary Man, Cheetah, Wild.

Man, Cheetah, Wild, in which the Wolhuters follow a family of wild cheetahs, on foot — often barefoot — for two years, premières Sunday on Discovery Canada.

Wolhuter is not some mzungu dilettante with a movie camera. His grandfather Harry Wolhuter was one of the original game rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the crown jewel in South Africa’s park system, a vast — and much-travelled — protected wilderness area that forms the nucleus of southern Africa’s Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which encompasses protected reserves in three contiguous countries, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Great Limpopo, signed into existence in 2000 by the leaders of the three countries, reflects a relatively new concept in African parks management, in which, political borders are secondary to preserving wild animals’ traditional migratory routes. Nelson Mandela has been one of the driving forces behind southern Africa’s so-called Peace Parks, which now include trans-boundary protected wilderness areas that link Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and not just South Africa.

Wolhuter becomes infused with passion as he talks about the big picture — the Peace Parks Foundation, whose plan to establish the world’s largest conservation area will result in a wilderness reserve that will eventually span an area of some 440,000 square kilometres — an area roughly the size of Sweden — and the smaller picture, about how a couple of photographer-filmmakers with two young children in tow followed a family of cheetahs for two years, filming their every step.

Wolhuter’s photography earned him the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award for 2012, and his four-year project following and filming African wild dogs in Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildife Reserve earned him a mention in the U.K. Natural History Museum in its annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year portfolio.

Wolhuter is mindful that Man, Cheetah, Wild needs to appeal to a mainstream audience if it’s to have a lasting effect, and not just animal lovers. The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal and a predator. It’s also an endangered species, not just because of human encroachment but because nature dealt it a mixed hand: A shallow gene pool coupled with a shy, retiring disposition built for speed, not fighting, that makes cubs and even adult cheetahs vulnerable to rival, competing apex predators like lions.

Wolhuter wanted Man, Cheetah, Wild to appeal to a family audience, not in a cuddly, romanticized, Disney-fied way, but as a realistic, real-life portrait of how a family with young children can live and co-exist with wild animals. His daughter Savannah was just 11 when she helped film a sequence, which appears in the finished film.

“I hope we can draw in more people than would see a program like this,” Wolhuter said. “I hope they’ll see how intimate this world is, become more understanding and have more empathy for these animals, because of the intimacy I have with them and the amazing things we were blessed to get on film. We’re not preaching to people. We don’t want to preach to them. That’s what the lecture circuit is about. With a show like this, we just want to engage them. We want them to just really enjoy what they’ve seen.”

As for being on foot, and barefoot to boot, without working from a Land Rover, Wolhuter says it’s a trick he learned from his own parents, to get closer to the land.

“I think when you wear shoes in the bush, you tend to just march and stamp over things and be very aggressive in the manner that you walk. When I’m out there with these animals, I’m trying to understand exactly what they’re going through. Just by having shoes on you miss a lot of what these soft-footed animals, the predators, do when they’re standing on a lot of thorns and rough ground, and don’t feel it. Being barefoot just makes me more a part of the whole experience. I think I’m trying to go back in time when humankind grew up with all these animals, try and live like that and realize that we did actually live with and we can continue to live with them.

“It’s so important to engage the audience. I think that by being so intimate, by getting so close — without shoes — it feels real, as if this is actually happening. Which it is. I’m not here to preach. ‘The world’s falling apart and this is what you have to do’ — nobody wants to hear that stuff. They want to see really good stories. I think when people see the way I interact with these animals, they’ll be moved. I’m not belabouring the point. I’m not saying, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’ It’s just there. It’s a very special thing to be accepted by a wild animal. These are not captive animals. They’re wild. It’s a huge honour. And it’s not something you take for granted.”

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