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.”
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.”
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).