Written by: Kim Wolhuter
I’m a wildlife filmmaker working on Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, who is making a documentary about cheetah in the rainy season in between working on a much longer project on hyenas. I’ve been living here on the reserve for the last year and plan to stay for many more years.
I had been filming these cheetah for the last six weeks – a mother and her four youngsters – three boys and a girl, which are all about 14 months old. The girl is far more adventurous than the boys and already a great hunter.
When I first saw these cheetah about eight months ago, I got out of the car to get a low angle shot, but they bolted. But now having spent the last six weeks with them I thought I’d try it again. I’m always going for those low angle shots, as getting to the animal’s eye level just puts you right in there, and the viewer gets what it feels like to be that animal. But to get this right I have to develop a relationship with them so that they feel comfortable with my presence and I’m not affecting their behaviour.
On this particular day I found them all lying together in the late afternoon sun after having spent the whole day relaxing. The cheetah had killed an impala early in the morning and I decided I would try and film them on foot. As I got out of the car and moved away, they all looked up at me but didn’t budge. How they’ve come to accept me like this is insane. I can only treasure the pure privilege.
I sat around for a while and then slowly approached. Some of them watched me, others ignored me. I stopped when I got to within about two metres of this young female. She wasn’t even watching me. They rely a lot on sound and she obviously knew exactly how far I was. I stayed put taking pictures from different angles and then she got up, stretched and walked over to me.
She went down on her front legs, sniffed my foot and then gently nibbled it. It hurt a little and I retracted my foot. She wasn’t phased, stood up and looked around. Then back down and sniffed my foot again and, happy it was in good shape, she left to groom one of her brothers.
It all seemed so natural and so special. At no stage was I concerned, she was curious and trusting and it was important that I portrayed the same feelings, at the same time as being completely confident in what I was doing. They read and understand confidence. But it’s not enough to just tell yourself you are confident, you actually have to feel it. It must be natural.
I was amazed how their reaction had completely changed from when I first tried getting out of the car months ago. Whatever had caused the change, it’s just pure privilege to be accepted like this, and to gain such trust and hugely important respect.
I work on my own and I don’t carry a weapon for good reason, as I believe if you do have a weapon you lose respect for the animal and tend to push the limits intruding on the animals space, and if they attack because of you intruding, what right do you have to shoot them? Working like this is so natural and puts us (cheetah and me) on an even pegging.