Tuesday, August 3

Wild animals: What happened in the savannah when it was emptied of tourists | Future Planet


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The sad look of a lion is the symbol of the discontinuity of the virtuous cycle of nature. When the feline is hungry, its habits are upset and the fragile balance of its understanding with man – its predator – is endangered to the point that the animal becomes a threat and a victim. This well-known paradox, which sustains a tense peace in privileged spaces such as the Masai Mara National Nature ReserveIn Kenya, it sets off alarms from time to time. And this is what happened last year, when the rainy season in that corner of East Africa turned into the universal flood, almost at the same time that human activity on Earth was abruptly stopped by the announcement of the pandemic, which He advanced without attending to nationalities.

A year ago, while in those endless plains of the savannah the greatest floods occurred in half a century, in Spain the exceptional state of alarm was decreed and a film crew from Televisión Española was trapped in Kenya. The filmmaker Regis Francisco López and his team had arrived a few months earlier to shoot a documentary series about the relationship of a pride of lions with the naturalist Jorge Alesanco, who has lived there for a decade. Borders closed, and then another chapter began. That film crew was doomed, of course, to document what happened in the animal kingdom while the rest of the people were confined. The result of those almost four months (plus what Alesanco continued to record) of audiovisual documents is called Wild Covid, wild pandemic, and can be seen this Tuesday 23, at 11:00 pm, on La 2 de Televisión Española.

Image of the documentary 'Wild Covid', which TVE premieres this Tuesday 23 at 23.00
Image of the documentary ‘Wild Covid’, which TVE premieres this Tuesday 23 at 23.00Jorge Alesanco

Feline patience at the airfield

One of the iconic images of those first weeks of confinement was that of a lion resting its head on a waiting bench at the Masai Mara airfield, under the roof of one of those shacks where tourists await their flights. The lion, seizing the facilities that until days before had been inhabited by dozens of men and women on safari, opened the news thanks to the team of Story Productions. “They canceled our planes back to Spain and we were able to document how the savannah was emptying of tourists while the BBC and National Geographic film crews were also leaving, which are usually very active in normal times,” he says. the director Regis Francisco López, whose team has the advice of the Kenya Wildlife Service in the territory.

However, the idyllic images of wild animals at ease, in their own habitat, were short-lived. When the floods of spring came, because the Mara River was so enraged as to drag the giant hippopotamuses to death, the crocodiles with fearsome jaws, and whatever animals, trees and cars it found in its path, the hunger grew worse to the great predators. The ungulates (hoofed quadrupeds) that survived fled as best they could, the river was left semi-desert with mammals, while lions and lionesses roamed everywhere, increasingly nervous, looking for prey in broad daylight, something that, according to those who live with them, it is quite infrequent. Then, the lionesses – who are the hunters of the pride – began to bite the animals that eluded them, to fight even with the crocodiles for a piece of meat, to scavenge and to deal with the hungry raptors; Images were collected of up to three predators competing for the bones of an impala and lionesses tearing, as consolation, the indigestible fat of an aquatic antelope. Meanwhile, the cheetahs –The fastest and most fraternal of the savannah– they were content to share some of their hunting exploits with the hyenas. The buffaloes survived vigorously.

The idyllic images of wild animals at ease, in their own habitat, were short-lived; until the floods of spring came

Faced with these scenes of natural life, it is impossible not to draw parallels between the images of a year in which human life passed between four walls, in front of the screens, and those of part of the animal kingdom in this ecosystem of the Serengueti facing their own food and weather vicissitudes. Thus, the postcard of the elephants on the brink of the stampede, between river ravines or narrowing channels, fleeing the flood, resembled that of the traffic jams in the main avenues of Paris that Friday in autumn when a new house confinement and the Parisians got into their road funnels trying to escape from confinement. If it were possible for humans to see themselves in the despair of animals, with their survival instinct intact, perhaps there would be more care for the environment and collaboration in mitigating the effects of climate change, the viewer is probably thinking.

Lionesses are the ones who hunt to feed their young.  Image from the documentary 'Wild Covid'.
Lionesses are the ones who hunt to feed their young. Image from the documentary ‘Wild Covid’.Jorge Alesanco

“It was something that we weren’t looking for and that life put us in front of,” explains the director. “From those days among felines, I would highlight the figure of lionesses, who in adverse moments are capable, by themselves, of raising the herds … The sacrifice they make for their cubs, because male lions can conquer a territory, but at sometimes the lionesses themselves confront the males. In addition, the cheetahs are a coalition, like these five in the documentary, which local people call the five better, and they have aptitudes to survive in adverse moments, because they present a different sociability; they grow up with their mother and stay with her until they become independent, ”he adds.

Protect the lion from man and indemnify man

After the flood, it is difficult for all species to compose themselves while they wait for the great wildebeest migration in search of green pastures, which occurs every year between August and September. In the case of lions – classified as vulnerable in the red list of the threatened species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature– its claws turn against the livestock of the local people, after suffering long periods of food shortage. And when a lioness steals a cow or a sheep from a Maasai villager, the truce is broken. At the end of the day, the cycle of threat to wildlife always ends up having consequences for man, with herdsmen injured and lions killed. Meanwhile, the cameras document this mute pulse of the lions hiding the remains of the cows and sheep they have had to prey when they no longer had wild prey to measure themselves against.

Cheetahs in a group attack a herd of wildebeest.  Image from the documentary 'Wild Covid'.
Cheetahs in a group attack a herd of wildebeest. Image from the documentary ‘Wild Covid’.Jorge Alesanco

It’s about a problem established in history and that has the world’s lion population in check, which lose their territory without pause, mainly due to the deforestation of their habitats. In this documentary, that confrontation is narrated as a close story that allows us to understand the reasons why we must protect the lion from man, and compensate the people who – like those who are left behind in the pandemic – lose their livelihood.

“This latent conflict between two predators is unleashed only in times of scarcity,” says Regis Francisco. And he adds: “We document those situations of great tension between the animals and the villagers that occur when the inhabitants of the place try to defend their cows or sheep, which provokes the lions, which sometimes pounce on them.” Hence the recent creation of a fund for the protection of felines and for the eradication of conflict through compensation for the losses suffered by the herders of the Maasai Mara.

Finally, in addition to the documentary Wild Covid, wild pandemic, to be seen tomorrow, the team of Regis Francisco and Jorge Alesanco shot the eight-episode series King of the savannah, which can be seen from June on RTVE.

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