Cheetah!” shouts filmmaker Bob Poole as his open-sided Land Rover races over the rocky terrain of Kenya’s Serengeti plains. The brave Emmy-winning wildlife cinematographer has zeroed in on those signature spots hundreds of times before now, but his face lights up as though this is the first. Steering closer to the cat’s tall-grass hiding place, Poole aims his camera just as the cheetah leaps out to pursue a warthog. The lean, mean hunting machine he has in his sights is none other than the bold and resourceful mama Naborr, star of Man Among Cheetahs, a new Nat Geo Wild documentary that has a more relaxed—and, yes, wilder—shooting style.
There is no stuffy expert in creased khakis hosting this hourlong cat chase. Instead, Poole, a down-to-earth, T-shirt-clad American, lets events unfold naturally. On a scorching September day, he welcomes us into the passenger seat (hold onto that roll bar!) as he tracks, and sometimes loses, Naborr and her pair of cubs. He’s positively giddy sharing the joy and drama of the fierce single mom’s struggle to balance kids, work and a love life. (Suitors learn the hard way that whether she swipes left or right, it’s dangerous.)
“This is a seat-of-your-pants shotgun ride,” says Poole, who’s been making docs—he has over 100 under his belt—since he was just a teen. “The viewer is right there with me trying to figure out: What’s Naborr doing? Where’s she going? Who’s the target she’s hunting? It’s really high-energy, with lots at stake for her if something goes wrong.”
Nat Geo WILD debuts the second installment of the jaw-dropping documentary series 'Savage Kingdom' ahead of December's Big Cat Week.
The worst thing that could go wrong for Naborr is, of course, anything happening to her babies—two 4-month-old, wide-eyed fuzzballs. “Everything is brand new to them, so they are very curious, but they are also very vulnerable, especially to lions and hyenas, because they can’t run fast enough yet,” says Poole, noting that he had to sweat it out at one point while the cubs made a narrow escape from hungry predators. “I was invested in them emotionally, but I wouldn’t have interfered.”
Anybody who has attempted to capture great moments between a mom and her tiny tots in nature knows that it’s harder than herding cats. For two months, Poole and his crew, including wife Gina, followed the family through the environmentally protected Naboisho Conservancy in southern Kenya, where animals are acclimated to humans thanks to local safari camps and cattle herders—but they’re far from tame. If Naborr slept, the crew slept (often under the car for shade, with little other protection). When she ventured off-road, so did they (think bone-jarring drives) and when she slipped out of sight, they relied on Maasai tribe trackers to find her.
“I get my camera as close to the ground as possible, down to the cat’s eye level,” Poole says. “You’re in the hot sun, dodging branches—all these trees have thorns—and you’re getting scratched and scraped and holding on for dear life.”
This dogged approach to filming big cats will also be on display in a litter of new kitty docs airing during Nat Geo Wild’s eighth annual Big Cat Week (see sidebar). And for Poole, the free-roaming creatures have a lesson to share with humans. “The cubs have moments of absolute terror, and then later they’re just running and playing and jumping, having a ball,” he explains. “We could all learn from them. They’re living in the moment. They don’t hold on to stress.”
Inspired by Poole’s work and want to help save cheetahs? You can, with National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI). Even though (spoiler alert!) Naborr and her cubs survive, big-cat numbers are declining worldwide, with the cheetah population estimated to be less than 10 percent of what it was a century ago because of habitat depletion. In 2009, National Geographic launched BCI to fund conservation efforts that restore the places where wild felines thrive. To find out more about BCI and how you can contribute, go to nationalgeographic.org/projects/big-cats-initiative.
In this exclusive (and adorable) clip from Man Among Cheetahs, Poole explains how the play of cheetah cubs, while cute, also teaches them important life skills:
Man Among Cheetahs, Monday, Dec. 11, 9/8c, Nat Geo Wild