Vianet Djenguet

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Animal Babies - Cam­era op­er­a­tor

Based in Bris­tol, Vianet grew up in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo. He filmed the wildlife of his home coun­try for BBC Two’s Nat­u­ral World strand.

What was your great­est chal­lenge on this se­ries?

Un­der­stand­ably, the moun­tain go­ril­las in Uganda’s Bwindi Im­pen­e­tra­ble For­est, are highly pro­tected and ac­cess to them is strictly con­trolled – we were al­lowed only four hours a day with them,

And the great­est hard­ship?

The ter­rain in Bwindi was the most dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment I’ve ever filmed in. They weren’t jok­ing when they called this moun­tain­ous for­est im­pen­e­tra­ble!

What se­quence are you proud­est of?

I’m re­ally proud of be­ing able to show view­ers how in­ter­est­ing and com­plex the ma­tri­ar­chal spot­ted hyena so­ci­ety is, through the eyes of twin sis­ters. My best shots re­veal the mo­ments these cubs are learn­ing when to dom­i­nate and when to sub­mit.

What’s the most amaz­ing new be­hav­iour you learned about?

We all know about the chest-beat­ing dis­plays in adult male go­ril­las, but it was com­pletely new to me that in­fant male, and fe­male, go­ril­las also go through a chest-beat­ing phase.

Any dra­matic episodes when you were tempted to in­ter­vene?

I was film­ing Nyak­abara and her mother when the branch they were on snapped and they fell down a moun­tain­side. We were at the end of our strict, four-hour film­ing limit, so had to re­turn to base. That night I couldn’t sleep – I thought the next day we would find Nyak­abara in­jured. I wanted to call the go­rilla vets. Luck­ily, mother and baby sur­vived.

There are other chal­lenges with a ‘fly-onthe-wall’ style of wildlife film-mak­ing – what if your cho­sen stars die? “An­i­mal Ba­bies was ac­tu­ally quite a risky propositio­n,” Do­minic ad­mits. “The BBC is al­ways look­ing for more and more ambitious projects, and part of the am­bi­tion for this se­ries was that we weren’t film­ing generic ba­bies. And so that meant we had a strong chance one of them could die. If we went back to a lo­ca­tion, when it was six months old, or what­ever, we might not be able to find it again. Do­ing that with six an­i­mals was quite a gam­ble.”

With the odds of dis­as­ter so high, that must have led to some sleep­less nights? “We knew the odds, which is partly why this se­ries took so long to de­velop,” Do­minic says. “It’s ex­pen­sive telly! We had to find sta­ble fam­i­lies that were very well stud­ied so that we knew what the ba­bies’ chances of sur­vival would be – as well as you can know such things.”

Lit­tle Jezir, for ex­am­ple, be­longs to a troop of toque macaques that pri­ma­tol­o­gist Wolf­gang Dit­tus has re­searched for 50 years, one of the long­est-run­ning stud­ies of its kind in the world. He knows these mon­keys bet­ter than any­one. Mean­while, the moun­tain go­ril­las fea­tured in the se­ries, which live in Uganda’s Bwindi Im­pen­e­tra­ble For­est, have been tracked by an­other cel­e­brated pri­ma­tol­o­gist, Martha Rob­bins, for over 20 years. “Martha did her PhD at the Karisoke Re­search Cen­tre in neigh­bour­ing Rwanda, where Dian Fossey set up,” ex­plains Do­minic. “Af­ter Fossey died, Martha moved to Bwindi, where she be­came the first sci­en­tist to study these go­ril­las prop­erly at length. She’s amaz­ing.”

Chang­ing spots

Do­minic is par­tic­u­larly pleased with the se­quences in­volv­ing spot­ted hye­nas, but re­veals that orig­i­nally the in­ten­tion had been to film a leop­ard mother and her cub

in­stead. “We tried so many leop­ards across In­dia, across Sri Lanka,” he says. “Then we fi­nally found a suit­able fe­male, called Honey, in Namibia. Honey had a col­lar, so was track­able. She also had been filmed by other crews, so was ha­bit­u­ated to ve­hi­cles and re­laxed enough as a mother not to be freaked out by us. That’s re­ally im­por­tant – we don’t want to have an im­pact.”

What went wrong? “It’s quite hard to tell if leop­ards are preg­nant,” Do­minic tells me. “We thought Honey was preg­nant, but it turned out she wasn’t. Then she had an­other preg­nancy, but sadly her cub died in the den. She’d gone through two preg­nan­cies and ba­si­cally we were just out of time. That is when we picked up the hyena story.”

Con­tro­ver­sial choice

Do­minic knew from past ex­pe­ri­ence that hyena moth­ers are “quite ten­der” and re­ward­ing to film. “But I also knew that hye­nas wouldn’t be the first choice for the BBC com­mis­sion­ers, be­cause they would think that view­ers would be put off,” he says. Luck­ily, Kay Holekamp, who has been study­ing hye­nas for three decades, got in touch with the pro­duc­tion team to say that a hyena baby boom was un­der­way in Kenya’s Mara Con­ser­vancy.

“Kay ex­plained that one of the hyena clans she fol­lows had about a dozen cubs. They were run­ning around like lit­tle teddy bears,” Do­minic laughs. “We thought: ‘right, we’ve got to push for this’. And, it’s funny, but when we told the com­mis­sion­ers that we wanted to film them, they said: ‘Great, go for it’. I’m re­ally pleased, be­cause hye­nas are so mis­un­der­stood.”

“Just as Blue Planet Live helped to shift per­cep­tions of sharks, I am hop­ing that An­i­mal Ba­bies will help peo­ple see hye­nas in a new light. Hyena moth­ers are very de­voted, and will look af­ter their young through­out their life, even as grand­moth­ers.”

FIND OUT MORE

An­i­mal Ba­bies: First Year on Earth will be avail­able on iPlayer for a year.

“I am hop­ing that An­i­mal Ba­bies will help peo­ple see hye­nas in a new light.”

Above: spot­ted hye­nas usu­ally have lit­ters of two to four cubs and are de­voted moth­ers. Right: a trio of in­quis­i­tive hyena cubs take an in­ter­est in Vianet's film­ing equip­ment.

Above: Arc­tic fox cub Fela is the only one among his siblings to have white fur. Right: like all young­sters, sev­en­month-old African ele­phant, Sa­fina has a lot to learn and re­mem­ber.

BEN HOARE is fea­tures ed­i­tor of BBC Wildlife and writes our Wild Month sec­tion (p10–14).

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