National Geographic animal documentary has Game of Thrones twist

An old alpha male leopard is forced to hide in a fallen acacia tree after being chased by wild dogs.
An old alpha male leopard is forced to hide in a fallen acacia tree after being chased by wild dogs.PHOTO: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL

Documentary series Savage Kingdom uses the TV series to explain the relationships among animals vying for dominance

Savage Kingdom, the National Geographic Channel's new six-part documentary series, has been styled as a sort of Game Of Thrones set in the animal world.

Instead of the different noble clans competing in the popular fantasy book and television series, here there are families of lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs vying for dominance in a drought-ridden region of Botswana.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles earlier this year, film-maker Brad Bestelink says the analogy to Game Of Thrones will help viewers understand the relationships among the animals and some of the more unusual behaviours witnessed, including a stunning sequence where a lioness kills a leopard cub.

"We used it as a shorthand to try and understand what the dynamic was. You've got five family groups - wild dogs, hyenas, leopards and two prides of lions - all vying for the shrinking resources and having to go in and compete with one another, crossing paths continually, killing one another's offspring and killing one another."

Over 16 months, his five camera crews spent more than 20,000 hours tracking these groups in Savute, a remote corner of Botswana where the river runs dry about once every five to seven years.

When that happens, it is inevitable that predators will clash. "Everybody is fighting for the same piece of the pie, essentially."

The episodes - which air on the National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411) on Wednesdays at 8.40pm - are each told from the point of view of a different predator.

Dramatic narration is provided by actor Charles Dance, who played the ruthless patriarch Tywin Lannister in Game Of Thrones.

But unlike in the drama series, Bestelink believes there are no real villains here. "That is the only part that doesn't marry with that whole Game Of Thrones thing. The point is it's all perspective, it depends on what family you are with and your point of view.

"If we have done our job properly, you aren't championing any one of them - you understand each of their struggles. So 'villain' is a hard sort of connotation for any of the characters."

The film-maker does, however, prefer to focus on animals further up the food chain. "I've always had a fascination with predators because they are much more adaptive and intelligent than most of the animals," he explains.

"They have got to make decisions and take opportunities as they go. So they deviate from the normal behaviour very quickly and they have the ability to adapt and seize opportunities depending on environmental conditions."

Seeing animals kill and be killed has become part of the job for the Botswana-born film-maker. And while that can be difficult to watch sometimes, he says he would never intervene, even to rescue a helpless cub.

"You can't interfere with these things and you can't take sides. It's very natural, there's something innocent and pure about it, and there are reasons for this to play out. I have grown up in the bush and, for me, animals killing each other is just part of life."

But, he adds, "obviously you feel and there are elements that disturb you".

"One of the hardest moments I had to film in the series was when a lioness had a conflict with a leopard and one of the offspring got killed. They were two characters I had invested a lot of time in - the lion I had seen since she was a cub and I had been with the leopard through three sets of her cubs."

After that incident, he "left the field for a couple of days. I needed time off because it's emotional and harrowing".

"But you have to look at it philosophically - it's actually part of survival, part of that struggle and it's very normal. Each was doing what it knew best to survive."

While the series takes the unusual tack of assigning proper names to key predators and following them like characters in a scripted drama, Bestelink and Andy Crawford - his producing partner and wife - were careful not to attribute human characteristics to them, something they say has become all too common in wildlife documentaries.

Bestelink says: "I think a lot of films try and manufacture a story. But we didn't have to do that. We made sure we had enough time to follow those individual characters and their stories, and the dynamic was almost like scripted drama - they did cross over and conflict with each other, and all we did was present the circumstances in which that happens. And you take from that what you want to interpret."

Crawford adds: "We don't do any sort of anthropomorphic film-making. It does go too far in the industry, so we have a principled stand against that.

"But, in this instance, we name the animals so people can follow their biographies and relate to and care about them more. This ties in to our ultimate goal, which is to make people more aware and preserve their habitats. That is why we do this."

•Savage Kingdom airs on the National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411) on Wednesdays at 8.40pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2016, with the headline 'Wildlife version of Game Of Thrones'. Print Edition | Subscribe