Cheetah Family and Me
South Africa with Greg Wallace
The Scots’ favourite word, according to an official poll in 2013, is ‘dreich’. It means damp, grey and miserable.
That’s just one of innumerable rainy words north of the border: there’s ‘plowtery’ (showers), ‘smirr’ (light rain), ‘dreep’ (constant light rain), ‘dribble’ (constant heavier rain) and a score more.
Cameraman Gordon Buchanan from the bonny banks of the Clyde would have settled for any of them, as he surveyed the effects of a ten-year drought on the Kalahari desert, in Cheetah Family And Me (BBC2). ‘Where I come from,’ he told South African ranger Richard Satekge, ‘the rain makes people a bit depressed.’
‘Here,’ Richard replied fervently, ‘it makes people happy.’
The interminable dry season means nothing can grow, so food is scarce for the antelopes — impala, oryx, springboks and others — that are the chief prey for the cheetahs. Young female Savannah and her four growing cubs often went days without food.
As Gordon saw, that scarcity can be deadly for more reasons than hunger alone. Leopards stalk the same prey, and the competition is lethal. If the bigger cats find a cheetah cub, they will kill it.
Cameraman Gordon Buchanan with gets to know some big cats in Cheetah Family and Me (BBC2)
The boldest of Savannah’s babies, Suma, quickly became Gordon’s favourite. She was happy to swagger through the dry bush for the benefit of the camera, which was as big as a drainpipe, that he carried on his shoulder.
But after a night beside a simmering campfire, under a sky like an explosion in a diamond workshop, the film-maker awoke to discover fewer cheetah tracks in the orange sand. One was missing.
He and Richard found Suma’s body under a tree. Her neck had been broken by a leopard’s bite — killed so she could not grow up to hunt the dwindling antelope.
It was a cruel illustration of how ruthless the natural world can be, and one of the reasons that cheetahs are the most endangered big cats in Africa. Before World War I, there were at least 100,000 cheetahs in the wild. That number has since fallen by more than 90 per cent, to an estimated 7,000.
Because he is willing to live alongside the animals he studies for months at a time, Gordon’s series are uniquely revealing.
In recent years, we’ve followed him filming wolves, bears and meerkats, and he always forms a deep emotional bond with his ‘families’. This two-part documentary is bleaker than most. The prospect for these beautiful cats is grim. That makes his images of their sleek grandeur, and the delightful cuteness of their fluffy cubs, all the more valuable.
Also on safari, MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace was less expert as a naturalist. He was agog, as he watched vets tranquilise a leopard and fit a tracking collar.
A vet held up one big paw. ‘Wow!’ gasped Gregg. ‘I wondered where his claws were.’
South Africa With Gregg Wallace (ITV) proved, to nobody’s surprise, that the former greengrocer is more at ease in a studio than a tent in the wilderness. He emerged, after the first night of his life spent under canvas, looking wrinkled and dented, like a boiled egg that has been hit with a spoon.
Greg Wallace proved himself a less able naturalist in South Africa with Greg Wallace (ITV)
‘It was a bit nerve-racking,’ he grumbled, ‘and I didn’t sleep particularly well.’
This half-hour travelogue, the first of six, opened with a disastrous shot of Gregg standing with his back to us on the edge of a gorge, looking down on a wide, flowing river.
His legs were planted wide apart, and his hands were folded in front of his hips. He probably meant to be macho — but it looked very much as if he was, well, taking a leak over the edge.