Animal Planet comes to KZN
“DAD, DON’T be silly. Come back, come back!” Sitting in a Land Rover, Kathaleen Stephenson pleads with her dad, Animal Planet’s Jack Hanna, not to go too close to a warthog’s hole at Zulu Nyala, a private game farm near Hluhluwe, in KwaZulu-Natal where she believes a mother protecting her piglets could storm towards him.
“Didn’t you hear what Bernie said?” she carries on in an accent different to her father’s Southern drawl – the result of her having married an Englishman and living in Surrey, far from her native US.
Guide Bernadette Everett has just told the camera how dangerous warthogs can be.
“I once saw a guy come into the front of the burrow. The warthog came out and hit him like a 10-pound (4.5kg) hammer. It broke his leg.”
What Stephenson hasn’t heard Everett say is that she saw a mother warthog disappearing from the hole where Hanna is standing, in the hope that these human intruders would follow her and leave her babies alone.
For the first time in 10 years, Stephenson is once again copresenting a wildlife film with her dad, known also as “Jungle Jack” and for appearing on screen in khaki.
Back in the day, the two of them produced 65 shows of Hanna’s Ark.
At another spot on Zulu Nyala, Everett takes the film crew to the skeletal remains of a three- to fourmetre African rock python that was burnt in a fire. Everyone is fascinated by the sharpness of its teeth. Dad and daughter discuss the serpent as the cameras roll. It ends with him squeezing her with a hug to demonstrate to their millions of viewers how pythons, boas and anacondas constrict their prey.
Executive producer Elaine Pugliese says about 50 percent of filming for Animal Planet is based on planning while the other half is about things that crop up spontaneously, like Hanna’s discovery of a huge pile of “bokdrolletjies” (buck dung) near the python skeleton.
“Anyone for chocolate raisins?” he asks.
“Nature always gives us drama,” says Pugliese.
The drama that made the highlight of their trip to KZN was a nyala giving birth in the grounds of their lodge.
Reflecting on the moment, Hanna’s wife Suzi, a trained nurse, who also often appears on screen with him, remarks: “You were like a dad in a delivery room.”
The film crew, which has also been shooting rhino in the reserve, is relieved that the nyala has produced “another show”. Filming expeditions like their present African safari need to be viable.
Hanna has a history of getting audiences with presidents.
On this trip he met with Gabon’s Ali Bongo Ondimba to discuss conservation issues, en route to film the lowland gorillas and forest elephants.
This African filming safari excludes one of Hanna’s favourite countries: Rwanda.
His links with the tiny country, famous for its endangered mountain gorillas and infamous for the 1994 genocide, date back to 1982 when famous gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey visited Ohio’s Columbus Zoo
‘The drama that made their trip to KZN was a nyala giving birth in the grounds of their lodge
where Hanna was a zookeeper and is now director emeritus.
“She wasn’t in favour of zoos. Columbus Zoo was the first to have a mountain gorilla and she wanted to see it.” (The gorilla, Colo, is stil alive and the oldest living member of her species.)
After the genocide, Hanna built a house in Rwanda as there was little accommodation for people going on gorilla treks. One of his first guests was Bill Gates, he says.
“Now there are three-star lodges up there.”
Since then Columbus Zoo has invested in an orphanage and a school.
Among the millions it gives to conservation efforts, much goes towards people living in close quarters with endangered animals, to encourage alternative lifestyles to keep them away from the animals and dissuade poaching.
Hanna sees post-genocide Rwanda as a shining light in Africa.
“Rwanda was nothing. It’s now the safest, cleanest country in Africa.”
He wonders whether the rhino might be following a similar path, with something good coming out of something bad before it becomes extinct.
“I am praying that this iconic animal will show people how close we can come to losing something special and be a wake-up call to the world.”
He stresses that in spite of the environmental problems the world faces – with human overpopulation, which people are reluctant to talk about frankly, being a major contributing factor – he is not a pessimist.
“There’s no point in telling people with families that the world is going to pot. I put out a fun show. I really believe the younger generation feel more for the planet than the previous one.”
He points to the baby boomer generation, of which he is a product.
“On the farm I grew up on in Tennessee we would think nothing of draining oil from a vehicle and letting it flow out into the ground, or when washing a car leaving the hose on for days.”
Different images penetrate his sub-conscious in his adult life, like scenes of African women living in poverty, carrying heavy containers filled with water.
“When I brush my teeth I never leave the water running. Seeing those women taught me just how precious water is.”
After Zulu Nyala, Hana and daughter, with their film crew, head inland for more filming at lion and cheetah sanctuaries in North West.
DAD AND DAUGHTER SHOW: The camera rolls as Animal Planet’s Jack Hanna and his daughter Kathaleen Stephenson discuss dung beetles after finding one in the road at Zulu Nyala private game reserve.