Documentary maker and television producer Lewis Hatfull shares some of his experiences of endangered animals whilst filming in Africa.
As a 90s kid I grew up watching old Disney movies on VHS; Beauty and the Beast Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Robin Hood. These were on constant rotation up in my sister’s bedroom but the one that was played the most, so much so that we ended up destroying the tape, was of course The Lion King.
That opening sequence, which I’ve probably seen a thousand times, is now engrained on me. The enormous African sun clearing the early morning mist as animals stir and make their way to Pride Rock. Elephants, cheetahs, guinea fowl, impala, giraffe and of course the lions are just a few of the hundreds of species that appear in that now iconic scene. As a child I stared wide-eyed at the screen in wonder and as an adult I still do the same. I thought to myself – wow, this planet is amazing.
I’m a documentary producer and in the ‘before times’ I’m usually sent around the world where I would meet the most amazing people in the most stunning locations doing the most incredible things. (Although a lot of the time I would also find myself in a studio in West London)
Back in early 2019 I travelled to the foothills of Mount Kenya to start preproduction on an exciting new Channel 4 wildlife series filming at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, OPC for short. This place is enormous, roughly the size of the Isle of Wight and home to tens of thousands of animals including some of Kenya’s most endangered species such as Black Rhino, Elephant, Grevy's Zebra and Fatu and Najin - the last two remaining Northern White Rhinos in the entire world. This is an incredible place, home to East Africa’s largest black rhino population and one of the highest predator densities in the country – at last count there were over 70 lions spread across 5 different prides. All of this less than 10km from Nanyuki, a bustling town and army barracks.
We were there to make a series that revealed another side to the natural world. As the world’s human population grows exponentially the pressure to keep a safe space for wildlife to thrive grows ever greater. OPC is one of those safe spaces and it requires an unfathomable amount of manpower and resources to keep the ‘wild’ alive. We didn’t want our series to ignore the fact that human intervention is now required to maintain what was once able to look after itself naturally. We wanted to show the hundreds of people who devote their lives to keeping these animals safe. We wanted to show the fences, the guard towers, the migration corridors and the vet interventions. This is now the reality we live in. The wild is something that can no longer exist on its own so why should we try and hide that from our viewers? Gone are the days where natural history series perpetuate the illusion of unspoilt gardens of Eden where man has yet to venture (and ruin) - it’s far too late for that.
The Lion King is based on and set loosely in the Kenyan Savanah, a country that straddles the equator and is home to an abundance of wildlife and rich biodiversity. So, as you can imagine I lost my shit when 25 years later I found myself not only in the same country but in the same landscape that the Disney animators found themselves in when they came for their research trip. I had come full circle (...of life – sorry!)
But why am I telling you this? What if I told you that the majority of the animals you see in that opening scene are now endangered, many critically. In the past 30 years Kenya has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife. The Lion King was released 25 years ago. Think about it. All those animals you grew up with as a child are now hurtling towards extinction. Imagine explaining to your grandkids that the cast of the Lion King are now extinct. Or that their favourite ‘Sophie La Giraffe’ toy isn’t based on a mythical being or something you only saw in the zoo.
Between 1970 and the mid 90s large-scale poaching saw animal populations decimated. Black Rhinos alone had a population decline of around 96% over 20 years from around 70,000 to just 2,410. Thanks to the valiant efforts of conservationists across the continent that figure has increased to 5,500 but there is still a long way to go.
It’s not just Black Rhino that are under threat. Elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetahs...pretty much everything you can think of when you picture the African Savannah are now on the IUCN Red List and are in danger of being lost forever. It’s easy to think of the enemy as these Disney villain esq poachers but in reality, the biggest problem facing our most beloved species is actually us. Our exploding human population and insatiable need for more space, more food and more water are draining natural resources across the planet and disrupting biodiversity at all levels. By 2050 it is predicted that almost 90% of land animals are likely to lose some of their habitat.
Furthermore, as our own population increases, we are seeing more and more incidents of Human Wildlife Conflict (HWC). HWC is the negative interactions between people and wild animals and this is a huge issue in Kenya where the three most common types of conflict are crop raiding (50.0%), attacks on humans (27.3%) and livestock depredation (17.6%). Let’s take elephants for example: Where they once roamed free, they now have to pass through expanding towns and cities in search of food and water. Elephants spend the majority of their day eating and so when a herd comes across a field full of crops, they will of course devour it in a heartbeat. Farmers will do everything in their power to protect their livelihood and their absolute last resort is to hurt the wildlife but there does indeed come a breaking point. This might seem abhorrent to us, I truly believe no farmer wants to kill an elephant, but if that elephant destroying means your children will starve then what would you do?
One of the things that will stay with me for the rest of my life is the sheer lengths that the rangers I worked with would go to save just one animal. It was inspiring. If there was even a glimmer of hope that something could be done – they would do it.
For example, they were having a huge problem with a pair of ostriches who were struggling to reproduce because hyenas would always eat their eggs. They decided the best course of action was to move the ostriches into a protected predator free area...easier said than done. I will always smile when I think of the ridiculous plan to tranquilise the ostriches as they outran Landcruisers travelling at 70kph. Once darted and the drugs took hold, they suddenly became very drunk comedy ostriches running in circles like something out of a cartoon. I promise you no ostriches were harmed during this and I’m pleased to report that this pair are now successfully rearing chicks in their new home.
I’m not a conservationist, nor am I a zoologist or an expert on sustainability. But what I have witnessed over the past year has fundamentally changed me as a person. Working alongside those on the frontline of conservation as they do everything in their power to save our most beloved species while also witnessing first-hand the effects that climate change is having on wildlife in one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world changes you. How can it not?
What I will say is that we can all be doing a heck of a lot more to help our planet out. We don’t need to travel to the melting artic, burning amazon or bleached coral reefs to make a difference. It all starts with each and every single one of us and the decisions we make as consumers. Take some time to do some research on where you shop and where your food actually comes from. Support those businesses who are embracing sustainability and trying their best to tip the scales back in favour of mother nature.
Here’s some good news to end on. Back in August 2020 Kenya reported that its elephant population has started to bounce back has doubled since 1989. While its lion population has also increased from 2,000 in 2010 to 2,489 in 2020. That is incredible!
You see it’s not all doom and gloom. We are amazing. We can be the change we want to see. It’s very easy to get into the mindset that everything is broken so what’s the point in trying? We can’t ever think like that we are capable of so much more.