Sleeping with the cheetahs: Wildlife film-maker Kim Wolhuter

Film-maker Kim Wolhuter, who lived in the wild with a family of cheetahs (above) to shoot the documentary. -- PHOTO: DISCOVERY CHANNEL
Film-maker Kim Wolhuter, who lived in the wild with a family of cheetahs (above) to shoot the documentary. -- PHOTO: DISCOVERY CHANNEL

After spending 18 months with a family of cheetahs, wildlife film-maker Kim Wolhuter marvels at their infinite patience

After tracking a family of six cheetahs for 18 months, Emmy Award-winning wildlife film-maker Kim Wolhuter believes animals have more patience with their young than humans do.

"When they go hunting with their young, the cheetah starts stalking the prey. The cubs then come running because they're playing and the prey runs away. You don't see the parents showing any signs of aggression towards them. It's just, 'Okay, we'll just go and try again'," says the 55-year-old Zimbabwean in a recent regional telephone conference with the media.

"Humans tend to think too much in a situation and we don't have the patience, whereas these animals have infinite patience. When they fall down, they get up and try again. I think we've lost all of that because we've become too educated."

He followed the cheetahs in the Malilangwe Game Reserve in Southern Zimbabwe for a two-hour documentary, Man, Cheetah, Wild, which premieres on April 27 at 8pm on Discovery Channel (StarHub TV Channel 422).

He has photographed and done documentaries for many television networks, including Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. His documentary Predators At War won two Emmys in 2006.

He makes documentaries to create an awareness of the need for conservation, he says. "I don't want to preach because that just turns people off. I want to entertain. Once they're entertained, they start understanding and getting engaged."

Wolhuter comes from a family of conservationists. His grandfather, Harry Wolhuter, the first game ranger at Kruger National Park in South Africa, was famous for single-handedly killing a lion with a knife after being pulled from his horse and dragged for almost 55m by the animal.

Wolhuter's father, Henry Wolhuter, was previously head ranger at Kruger National Park.

Wolhuter has three daughters, aged 18, 15 and 12. He took his wife and youngest child, who was then 11, with him while filming Man, Cheetah, Wild. However, they never got too close to the cheetahs.

"My wife and daughter never got out of the vehicle to be with a cheetah. That was one of our rules. The cameraman got out a few times, but he was never close to them," says Wolhuter, who has a degree in grassland science.

"We don't want these wild animals to get used to people," he adds. "If they leave the reserve, we don't want them to be used to anybody out there."

One of the biggest challenges of making the documentary was gaining the trust of the cheetahs.

"I would be up with them every day from sunrise to sunset, getting them to know me better. It was six months before they started accepting me and another six months before we started forming a bond, then everything became special," he recalls.

"I'd be asleep with them and they'd sometimes come and lick me when they woke up. It was incredible, something I never expected."

He got close to them by never showing interest in their food or feeding them. One of the highlights for him was seeing the five cubs grow up. "I spent 18 months with them and it was only after 14 or 15 months that they started killing for themselves. Following them from when they were tiny little things until now, when they're able to live on their own, that was very special," he says.

"The way they accepted me was also an absolute honour. I hugely respect animals and I'm so privileged to be a part of their lives."

seemanda@sph.com.sg

Man, Cheetah, Wild premieres on April 27 at 8pm on Discovery Channel (StarHub TV Channel 422).