Who’d be a wildebeest? They do look quite magnificent, in a primitive kind of way, big and horny. But they then behave so very unmagnificently, scared and a bit thick. They run because they’re lunch – big lunch on legs – for a lot of Africa. Who’s chasing, and hoping to lunch on, them today, here in The Hunt (BBC1, Sunday)? Wild dogs.
What?! A wildebeest is 10 times the size of one of them. Yeah, but the dogs are clever and work together; the wildebeest aren’t and don’t. When they do – grow some collective balls and stop to face the dogs en masse – they’re fine, the dogs can’t come near them. Even two wildebeest, working together and facing opposite ways, like Dr Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, literally covering each other’s asses, are OK. But when one breaks off and decides to go it alone, that’s only going to end one way.
A horrible way to go, too – worn down over time and distance, legs snapped at from behind, until eventually down he comes and the pack tears him into pieces. While the herd looks on. You’d think they’d learn after thousands of years, no? Stop and face the dogs; don’t go it alone. It’s not such a massive leap of evolution, is it? But then the dogs would go hungry, I guess. There’s more than one side to this story.
It’s hard not to get emotionally involved, though. Not with the insects – a grasshopper tongued in from a distance with a nice sticky thwack then crunched up by the chameleon at the other end of the tongue – that’s just satisfying, and funny. But the poor baby humpback whale wave-washed away from the safety of its mother by a pod of orcas, then drowned. And the impala ambushed by a leopard and dragged into a ditch to be devoured … Oh, the impala then walks out of the ditch, looking as surprised as I am.
That, I think, is the theme of this first episode (of seven), The Hardest Challenge: that it’s really tough for the predators, too, and most hunts don’t end in a kill. The odds are stacked against the hunter. It’s a bit tenuous, really – I mean, these migratory amur falcons passing through India don’t seem to be having any trouble at all terminating winged termites. And this Darwin’s bark spider in Madagascar may go to a lot of trouble to build her web over the river, but once done, she can just sit there and wait for lunch to fly in. I’m not seeing much of a link here with those dogs in Zambia, except that something gets eaten by something else at the end of it.
What this really is is just a series of hunts. Nothing wrong with that, maybe – it’s always the most exciting bit of wildlife film (and the dog hunt here is stomach-clenchingly thrilling and tense). But sometimes these shows pretend to be more – and more intelligent – than they actually are, by having Sir David Attenborough narrating and by being beautifully filmed, which this is – so incredibly beautifully. That’s what it’s about: the spectacle, the excitement, the thrill of the chase. It’s Bond, not Le Carré. Spectre, basically, the animal version. Do your own puns.
Time for more wildebeest misery, this time in Tanzania, at the Grumeti River, where a thirsty herd arrives for a drink. But rivers round these parts are full of nasty surprises. No! That’s not a semi-submerged log … Too late, though this time the Nile Crocodile misses. This monster needs to be snappier – he’s out of practice after a year without eating. He misses again and again. And then he doesn’t miss, and another unfortunate wildebeest is dragged in, drowned and torn apart. There’s something particularly unpleasant about that rolling thing crocs do, to twist chunks off. My dad once had a friend who was sadly eaten by a crocodile, but that’s another story …
I always enjoy the how-we-made-it bits at the end of wildlife documentaries. Human/animal interface might be even more interesting than animal/animal interaction. This week, On the Hunt features the Grumeti team, which includes husband and wife Mark and Vicky and their son Jacca. That’s a lovely working life, isn’t it, filming crocodiles with your family?
Patience required, though: just like for the big croc, there’s a lot of hanging around, still and silent, waiting for the river to go down, for the wildebeests to show up, willing them in … Bam!
“That was amazing,” says Mark, when they eventually get their shot. “So intense,” says Vicky. They’re both alive, almost quivering with excitement. Because they’re hunters, too, and that was one that didn’t get away.