The barefoot filmmaker
This is no job, but a true passion handed down through generations of our Wolhuter family.”
Teaser: Kim Wolhuter is a photographer, filmmaker, and conservationist
Main: He began his adventures in the bush as a young game ranger but his future was sealed when he picked up a camera. On his website, www.kimwolhuter.com, he is described as ‘a maverick wildlife filmmaker with an extraordinary ability to befriend wild animals’, and if you have ever watched one of his documentaries, you would have to agree.
“I spent my early years growing up in Kruger. Sadly we had to leave when my dad, Henry Wolhuter, died. He was the head game ranger in the Park at that time,” explains Kim. “My grandfather, Harry Wolhuter, the very first ranger of the Kruger National Park, is a national legend being the only man ever to kill an adult male lion single handed with a knife after it had pulled him from his horse.”
Kim’s first four years of school were at Uplands Prep. “My dad was one of the first pupils at Uplands. (It was Fullers in those days.). My mom, Joan Merriman, also went to Uplands. So did my older daughters.” After two years of national service in the South African mounted infantry and a degree in BSC Grassland Science from Natal University Pietermaritzburg, Kim’s first job was managing a game farm in the Tuli Block, Botswana. Later he served as the warden of Mlawula Nature Reserve in Swaziland for a couple of years before taking up the camera.
“I have been filming for the last 32 years. Today I find myself following the family tradition, although in a slightly different way, making documentaries on southern African Wildlife,” says Kim. “Since 1988 I have made wildlife documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.”
Kim’s documentary making is unique. He takes the time to bond with the animals first, gaining their trust and building relationships with them – all before beginning the actual filming. “I have now developed a very different niche in the wildlife filmmaking market, where I spend at least two years on a production, getting to bond and develop very intimate relationships with my film subjects, all wild African animals,” says Kim. “In the past these have included Leopard, Hyaena, Cheetah and African Wild Dogs. Through these intimate alliances I am not only able to document the animal’s lives up close and personal, but people are seeing these animals in a way they’ve never seen them before and are able to engage more with the animal and almost feel what it’s like to be that animal. I walk, run, hunt and sleep with these animals so much so that they completely accept my presence so everything I document is totally natural behaviour. This intimacy also provides a new look into animal behaviour, which at times is new to science.”
Lowveld Living gets to know Kim Wolhuter a little better.
As a child what did you want to do when you grew up?
Having done my national service in the mounted infantry, all I wanted to do was to go and live with the bushmen. I was very shy, and this way I could be in the bush and away from everybody. BUT my mother refused and said I had to go to university. Moms are always right. Thanks mom!
Were you influenced by your grandfather and father?
I think I must have been but they both died when I was five. But I have no shame with any job application, telling people who my father and grandfather were. It sure does help. My mother’s father, Clem Merriman, was one of the first settlers in White River and my grandparents on both sides are a part of the history of the Lowveld.
Would you say it’s in your blood?
More like it was in their blood. They’ve shared a little with me.
How was your love for the bush nurtured at a young age?
We left the Kruger and moved to White River after my dad died and later, I was schooled in Joburg. But my mother was amazing, always taking us to Kruger in our school holidays. We often stayed with the legendary game ranger Mike English and his wife Andre. Their sons Don and Ross were our age. Mike definitely nurtured my love for the bush, so much so that I always wanted to go back. Mike, and later Ted Reilly, (the father of conservation in Swaziland), very much molded me into who I am today.
Where did you work as a game ranger?
I managed Santhata Ranch in the Tuli Block in Botswana for three years. After which I was the warden of Mlawula Nature Reserve in Swaziland. I never really did work as a ranger, although it had always been a thought of mine to go back to my roots in Kruger.
I was talking to Mike English one day and asked him where he would retire to when he had to leave Kruger. He told me he had a small flat in Naboomspruit. Here was a man that had spent most of his working life in the wild and was going to spend the last of his life in a tiny apartment in the main street. I felt sorry for him as in those days a ranger’s pay didn’t allow them to afford much else. Mike luckily spent his retirement in Macadamia Village in White River and not cooped up in that tiny flat.) But it did make me realise I didn’t want to work for Parks, I needed to go private.
Tell us about your documentaries.
I’ve been filming for 32 years now and made numerous films. In the early days they were purely about animal behaviour, then I spent some time in front of the camera, but still shooting my own films. More recently with my understanding of animal behavior, I’m developing these very intimate relationships with my film subjects.
In the past, we had to make films that the broadcasters knew they could sell. So it was always the predators and elephants. The natural world is so much more than just them, but we couldn’t sell a film on Impala. I did actually, but it turned into a film about all the animals that eat them. At least with all the online and social media today, we’re able to give these ‘less desirable’ animals a lot more press.
I’m currently working on a hyaena film. Hyaenas are hard to sell. But we’re dictated by the broadcasters.
Where did you learn about photography and making films?
I never had an interest in film or photography, until filmmaker Richard Goss called me and asked if I would join him making wildlife documentaries. I had never thought of it as a career but decided to give it a go. On the second project, Brown Hyaenas on the Skeleton Coast, Richard let me loose with 10 rolls of film and said, “Go for it!” I’ve been filming ever since. It’s not every day one gets a break like that. Thank you, Richard.
What is your process of filming animals?
I like to go into an area and spend many years there. I wanted to do a film on Honey Badgers. I checked out several locations and decided to move here to the Sango Wildlife Conservancy in the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe. Having chosen a location specifically for the badgers, I would like to spend many years here, not only filming badgers but also to get in tune with many other species. Then I spend at least two years on the production over which time a natural story develops and my relationship with the animals grows.
How do you become trusted by wild animals?
Time and an understanding of what I’m dealing with. Whenever I get out the vehicle, I do so with complete confidence. This is so important as animals will very quickly pick up if I’m even the slightest bit apprehensive.
Confidence is very different to arrogance and animals understand that.
I work with 3 simple rules.
- I never carry a weapon. Never! This means I have total respect for the animal with no arrogant flares about me. Animals do pick that up.
- I never feed the animals or interfere with their food, as that as seen as competition and food for them is their survival.
- They make the rules. It’s up to them to decide if they want to engage with me.
I do have another sort of rule – I never wear shoes. In that way I like to feel more connected to Mother Nature and to what the soft footed animals are experiencing. The day we put shoes on our feet, we lost that connection to the natural world.
Tell us about your honey badger project.
These guys are going to be so interesting. Most of the work done on badgers has been in the Kalahari. I wanted to film somewhere different where we could expect different behaviours. It will be a project very different to my others. With hyaenas I developed a relationship with a whole clan. With the badgers it’s going to be a one-on-one relationship. What that is going to mean is going to be so interesting to discover. Fascinating times ahead.
Any hairy moments?
Hmmmmm… which one?
Unarmed on foot, I was charged by a lioness protecting her three small cubs. Scary! I had a similar experience with a leopard protecting her young.
I was chased down the road by an elephant cow and had to duck off into the bushes to get away.
I also had a showdown with a black rhino just three metres away. I only just won. All these were on foot. But Joanie, my filming car, has been hit by elephants on several occasions, the side has been pummeled by a buffalo and hit by a black rhino.
Have you ever been in extreme danger, when a subject has turned on you?
In quite a few of the above instance’s things could have gone horribly wrong. But with every experience one learns and understands more what it’s all about, why it happened, why did I get into that situation, how to avoid it in future, etc.
However, one particular story stays top of mind. I love Baobabs and whenever I see one, I leave the vehicle and investigate. These old massive trees have so many stories to tell and they’re their own mini ecosystem. Many animals live in them, on them, and around them. Often when walking around them I try to imagine what they’ve witnessed in the thousand odd years they’ve been alive.
Several months ago, I parked my car (Joanie) and headed west off the track to a Baobab I hadn’t checked out before. I was following a small drainage line to my south with dense undergrowth and a few bigger Acacias. To the North the vegetation was scrubby and fairly open. It was easy going although the devil thorns were at bit irritating on my bare feet. It was about a 400m walk to the Baobab and as I approached the tree, I was talking to my phone camera about this magnificent specimen. The Baobab had a fair-sized hole near its base, but not big enough for me to fit through. Strolling casually up to the tree I pushed the camera right up to the hole to film inside it, still carrying on ululating about this iconic exhibit, when in the screen of my phone I saw spots in the hole. My mouth froze and very, very silently I tiptoed out of there. I kept looking over my shoulder, but nothing stirred. I started doubting myself that there actually was anything in the hole. Safely back in Joanie, I had to satisfy my curiosity, although nervously. I drove off road, over a few mopane shrubs. Definitely not a quiet approach. I pulled up parallel to the hole in the Baobab only some three metres away. I hadn’t even switched Joanie off when there was a ferocious growl, a leopard appeared at the hole, disappeared and a second later bolted out the hole towards me and away. I was shocked to the core. Imagine if that had happened when I walked up to the hole? I still visit Baobabs, but a lot more cautiously.
Any challenges during filmmaking?
Wouldn’t life be boring without challenges. How would we ever feel we’ve accomplished anything? My biggest challenge is always trying to capture everything on camera. And capture it in the most natural way to do it the justice it deserves. For me that is also a huge sacrifice because I’m never able to witness a scene for what it really is. It’s always through a camera lens. And I think this is something so many of us are missing out on. Especially today as everybody has a camera on their phone, and our human psyche means we want to capture and share everything we witness. We really have to try and break away from this desire and immerse ourselves in the situation and experience it for what it really is. Not how our cameras experience it.
Having got into wildlife filmmaking, a career I never thought of or imagined doing, I now realise it’s the perfect place for me in that out of all the different careers in wildlife, I get to spend more time in the field than any of the others. So much time that I’m able to develop these incredible relationships with wild animals.
Laugh out loud moments?
These should be moments where I laugh about myself. I wish I could think of many but maybe I’m too arrogant to think of any. When it comes to animals, there are many. Hyaenas are classic humour. The excitement and laughter (literally) are so contagious especially over a carcass and when taking on lions.
But probably the best is hyaenas and wild dogs. It’s an age-old game they’ve played for millennia. Dogs are so much faster and nimbler than hyaenas and the game is just to pester them and bite bums. When they’re at it, it’s not unusual to find a hyaena with its backside in a bush facing the dogs, protecting its rear end from being bitten. The hyaena laughter and the dogs ‘twittering’ is full on entertainment. Just when a hyaena thinks it’s safe and leaves a bush the dogs come barreling in to bite its unprotected backside. Often the hyaenas are squealing even before the bite. Hilarious. The dogs eventually get bored and head off.
It all becomes a very different story when there’s food around. The hyaenas usually dominate and take over the carcass.
Is it possible to choose a favorite animal to study or interact with?
Oooh, that would be dangerous. But I’ll go there. Hyaenas. These guys are so affectionate, so playful, so intelligent, so caring, so successful. Very few people would appreciate this because we had all this myth about them drummed into us. But if you just had a moment to experience what I do on a daily basis you will discover all that. These animals could be on everybody’s favourite list, IF only people would open themselves up to understanding them.
Where are you based now?
I’m currently based on Sango Wildlife Conservancy in the Save Valley Conservancy in the Lowveld of Zimbabwe. Over 60 000 hectares of prime African bushveld with an incredible diversity of habitats, animals, birds, etc. I came here to do a film on Honey Badgers and that’s still my main focus, although hyaenas have again stolen my heart and my time.
Tell us about your experience of lockdown?
We’ve had the great fortune of being in the bush all this time over lockdown. For five months we haven’t been off the reserve and not had to wear a mask all this time. But then I suppose our lives as wildlife filmmakers are very much based on the lockdown principles anyway.
Future projects or studies you would love to pursue?
I will always be doing something on hyaenas. They need to be treated and respected for who they really are. Not cast as the villains in most wildlife films.
I’m also interested in doing a film on otters in the Lowveld region. There is no work on them and what interesting critters they are. Another is Ground Hornbills. These birds live to some 40 years and their behaviours in some ways are similar to wild dogs. I would just walk with them all day.
How has becoming a father again changed your life?
I have been a father for 24 years, but I become a new dad a couple of years ago. Kiki is the best thing that could have happened to me. At this stage in my life I see her life very differently than I did with my older daughters. As a toddler I see a lot of her behaviours that are so ‘animal’ like and help me understand animals better. As humans we totally over think our situations, instead of just letting go and dealing with it in the moment.
How involved is your daughter in your projects?
In my projects going forward, I will be including my family a lot more. My wife Saskia and Kiki will become an integral part of my films, through our daily lives and using my relationship with them and especially Kiki to educate youngsters.
Is there anything you would change about your life?
Not at all. It’s been an amazing journey.
One thing I do wish though, I wish I was a better tracker. I’ve always wanted to spend time with the Bushmen and learn to track from them. Sadly in my whole career I have never worked with a tracker.
Facebook/Kim Wolhuter, Instagram/Kim Wolhuter, YouTube/Kim Wolhuter
Watch his films on MAN, CHEETAH, WILD on the Discovery Channel.
Lowveld Living Magazine
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