Veteran wildlife cinematographer Bob Poole has been working for National Geographic his whole life. In his latest film, Man Among Cheetahs, he follows the harrowing tale of Naborr, a mother cheetah struggling to keep her cubs alive in the perilous Serengeti. We were lucky to talk with Bob about the film, as well as his adventures in wildlife film-making
Man Among Cheetahs is an astonishing documentary. It must have been quite a difficult film to make, especially with all the movement and tracking. How was that experience for you?
It was a tonne of work, but we really wanted to follow the life of this mother cheetah with her cubs and I didn’t want to just do radio tracking or satellite tracking, because we wanted a legitimate adventure and do it the old-fashioned way. I’ve followed cheetahs before, so I kinda knew what I was getting into, but this one was really difficult! This was such a rocky and bushy habitat! We always think of cheetahs out on the plains, but she… wow… we saw her jumping over rocks and crossing ravines, so it was a real challenge! Every time we lost her it was a major challenge to find her again!
Of course, you had the help of the Masai with the tracking. How did you come to have such a relationship with them?
This is a wonderful place we were working in. It’s called Naboisho Conservatory and it’s adjacent to the Mara. This is the very Northern end of the Serengeti ecosystem. The Masai have been there five or six hundred years, so they’re part of the landscape. This land is owned by them, but it’s been put into a conservatory for wildlife. So the Masai are still there grazing their cows, and they’re benefiting from the wildlife because of tourists coming to the area. I’ve worked in that area for the last ten years or so, so I know a lot of the people that are out there.
Why did you choose cheetahs as your subject to follow?
I think cheetahs are not well understood. We see them in little glimpses normally. I wanted to follow the whole emotional rollercoaster of the lives that they lead. The only way to really do that was to stick with one individual and just try to document everything that happened in the timeframe that we had. We were there about seven weeks. So that was the goal. I also knew that cheetahs lead this very precarious life; they’re the underdogs in their ecosystem because they share the same habitat and the same prey with lions and leopards and hyenas, but they’re much weaker, so if they’re not being threatened with their life, their food is being stolen!
You mention in the film that 95% of cheetah cubs don’t survive past two years old. Why is that figure so high in cheetahs? Is it that high with other big cats?
I don’t know what the statistics are for other big cats, but the problem with cheetahs is that first of all, the cubs are incredibly helpless. Unlike lions, they don’t have that pride to protect them. The mother is on her own. But the female is not a very powerful animal; her only ability is to get away! When the cubs are so small, it’s hard for them all to keep up. They’re little; they’re being picked off by birds, and jackals, and ultimately lions and leopards. Of course, nowadays, the biggest problem is habitat loss and not having their prey species. It means turning to livestock. Cheetahs just have a really tough life, and I think the film really does show how challenging it is for the mothers to raise these guys!
Speaking of lions, there is a wonderful scene where you come very close to an altercation with a male lion. Have you ever had a bad run-in with wildlife while you’ve been shooting a film?
I have, several times. When we’re filming, the objective is to film natural behaviour, so it’s best when you’re almost invisible, or they perceive you as invisible; you’re not a threat in any way to them. You can see that even in that lion; he was busy eating and not really concerned about me whatsoever, even though we were very close! Not intentionally! I don’t like being so close! But yes, I’ve had a terrifying experience with a lion who did try to jump in the car and I was in a very exposed position! I’ve been smashed by elephants and other things. But, it’s very rare. Animals are very misunderstood a lot of times; they’re really not out to get us. They’re afraid of us. They don’t want to mess around with us; they just want to go about with their lives! The beauty of filming in Africa is that animals will tolerate you and almost ignore you. That’s what we’re after, that natural behaviour.
What first drew you to wildlife cinematography?
I grew up in Africa. My parents were originally Peace Corps, and then my father started working in wildlife conservation. I had my first job with National Geographic when I was seventeen! It’s been crazy! Sadly, my father died in an accident when I was seventeen, but before he died he organised a few trips for me in Kenya with a team moving Cape buffalo away from people. The helicopter pilot one day went off to go fly for a National Geographic film crew that was making an elephant film in the area. He invited me to go along with him. I think the film crew took pity on me because my father had recently dies and he was a well-known conservationist. I got in with National Geographic as a teenager and I’m still there!
If budget wasn’t an issue, if you could shoot anything, anywhere in the world, what would it be and where would you go?
I would go right back to where I was for Man Among Cheetahs, and I would try to follow the whole story going on there. I would try to continue to follow Naborr and her cubs, but also pick up on the lion characters and let this whole thing evolve. I would want to do it over a long period of time. There is so much more to tell. We had seven weeks, but since then, I went back and Naborr was pregnant again. I think her daughter has had cubs as well; a cheetah was seen there recently with cubs, and I think that was her! I would love to follow all of their stories in the long-term!
Man Among Cheetahs airs on Nat Geo WILD on Monday 12th March as part of BIG CAT WEEK