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By now, you may have heard of Kim Wolhuter – a renegade South African wildlife film-maker and acclaimed photographer who never ceases to amaze with his incredible animal interactions and relationships. He recently received a “pedicure” from a cheetah and is happiest hanging out at a hyena den! 

©Kim Wolhuter
©Kim Wolhuter

Kim is currently living under a tree on the banks of the Limpopo River at Mashatu Game Reserve in ‪‎Botswana‬ while he is filming a documentary on hyenas – although confesses to spending most nights sleeping on his camera box in his vehicle in the middle of nowhere.

Claire Roadley recently asked Kim to tell us a bit more about his life at Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, and his relationship with the hyenas.

Kim: Hyenas unfairly get such a bad press! And The Lion King didn’t do anything to help them. Before I tell you about my most amazing friends, let me put the public’s perception of hyenas into perspective. A British news agency contacted me about my picture of the cheetah nibbling my toes and within days they had it in five national UK newspapers. The same agency contacted me about the image below a few months before. Today they still can’t find anyone who wants to publish it. Why? Just because it’s a hyena? Or because my feet are more marketable than my mug?

Kim and a young female hyena called Tumelo ©Kim Wolhuter

So I have a serious mission to accomplish – to change people’s perceptions of these amazing animals. One of the ways I believe I can accomplish this is by people seeing me interact with them in the most natural way. When people surf television channels, they get to hyenas and keep surfing. But if they get to hyenas and see me sitting there with them, they stop and think, ‘holy smokes, is he nuts?!’ And they watch the programme. Once I’ve got them hooked, they will stay because they will be so amazed at what these animals are all about. And really, it’s no big deal working with wild hyenas. Just understand and respect them and you will discover how amazingly affectionate they can be.

The above picture is of me and Tumelo, a young female hyena that I befriended last year. She would regularly come to me for scratches and was amazingly trusting of me. I had been concentrating on cheetah for a while and when I went back to Tumelo a few weeks later, I found her limping badly. She’d been beaten up by other hyenas. She lay down in the shade of a shepherd’s tree. I joined her, she obliged, even in her injured vulnerable state. She let me pull the scabs from the bite wounds on her neck. She let me lift her back legs to inspect her injuries. Wow! So so so incredibly trusting, and all the while her mother watched lying about five metres away.

We have always made wildlife documentaries from the comfort of our 4×4s. But something was lacking and we needed to engage the audience more, get them to really be on the same level as the animal and so we did all we could to film animals from their eye level. This meant special mounts on the vehicle that were lower to the ground or even getting out of the vehicle and filming from ground level. The more I did this – remembering I spend at least 18 months working with specific animals – the more they got used to me and started to approach and investigate me.

©Penny Wolhuter

Then one day a hyena came right up to me. I put my hand out, expecting it to sniff my hand or nibble my fingers, instead she put her chin in my hand and put pressure on it resting it there. I reciprocated and started scratching her under her chin. Like a dog she loved it, lifting her head up so I could scratch all down her neck. From then on she would regularly come over for a scratch. I ended up developing the most amazing bond with this wild hyena. But in the back of my mind, there was always the philosophy that one shouldn’t touch wild animals.

©Kim Wolhuter

We film animals from our vehicles and they get used to the vehicle. But there is no doubt, that even though they accept our presence up to a point, they always have that thought in the back of their minds: “Why does this steel monster keep following me?” They don’t get anything from it, it’s just always there. Much the same goes with me filming them out of the vehicle. They come to accept/tolerate me, but again there is always that niggling thought in their minds: “Why is he following me?” They aren’t getting anything from me and so will never be able to fully trust and bond with me. They will always have that niggling concern. But I need the animals to bond with me so that they totally lose that concern and become completely trusting of me being around them.

For this to happen I need to give them something. We have to remember that for animals, life is all about food and procreation. I can’t feed them as that causes all sorts of complications, and sex is obviously not a factor, but what I can give them is love and affection – something that both the hyena and cheetah had themselves invited. Suddenly I realised that by doing that I was breaking down that ‘niggle’ and now I was truly bonding with these animals in such a natural way and in a way that now allowed me to document their lives in the most natural way possible without them being concerned with my presence.

Now I’m not saying you should ‘try this at home.’ These are dangerous animals and it takes me quite some time to develop these relationships. I’m not doing it to prove a point, I do it to be able to bond with them so I can get these amazing shots from angles that engage the viewer and actually get the viewer to feel what it’s like to be that animal. I could of course use remote-controlled mobile cameras to get right in there, but the problem with that is the animals react to these machines and are suspect of them and so behave unnaturally. What I do is just so natural.

I have wondered if getting animals used to my presence on foot won’t make them vulnerable to attack from other people should they venture outside the reserve, because now they’ve ‘lost’ their fear for humans? I always whistle when working with my animals, a very specific whistle that identifies me from other humans. But the sad truth is that we have so habituated these animals to our vehicles that any vehicle inside or outside the reserve can approach them.

©Penny Wolhuter

So after many years of questioning myself on the matter, I now realise that touch is a fundamental tool that allows me to bond in a very natural way with wild animals…

It’s important to understand that it is not my mission to touch wild animals. That would be a very wrong approach to have. When I’ve been spending so much time with an animal, it eventually gets to the stage where the animal invites the contact and that’s when I reciprocate. That’s when my whole being there changes from just being tolerated to actually bonding with the animal. To want to just walk out there and touch an animal means you have lost respect for it and you will never get to bond with it.

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