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A few years ago, award-winning wildlife filmmaker Kim Wolhuter moved to a camp in Zimbabwe’s 60 000 hectare Sango Wildlife Conservancy to make a film about honey badgers. At least that was the plan until hyenas hijacked the whole show. Now this wildlife filmmaker is on a crusade to clear their bad reputation. I gave him a call to talk about his hyena love.

He has had to crank up the diesel generator so the call can go through. I’m grateful and also contrite because it seems such a rude disruption of the wilderness he shares with his wife Saskia and their adorable little daughter Kiki, who makes scene-stealing appearances in Kim’s videos.

So how are you? I start, falling back on the S'effrican catchall greeting, expecting the standard “finethenks- howyou?” response.

“I was out all night with the hyenas,” he volleys.

Ah. Like many species, hyenas hunt at night. One forgets that if he's to share their secrets Kim's life must abide by their rhythms. He does it wholeheartedly. He spends years living in an area, identifying his subjects, developing trust and establishing bonds with the clan so that he can gain access to their private world. This is the method that makes his documentary footage unique.

“I walk, run, hunt and sleep with these animals. I got back to camp at around 4 am. I’ve got things to do this morning; I’ll rest later when it’s hot then head out again with the pack before it gets dark.”

These intimate alliances allow him to portray their lives in ways audiences would otherwise rarely witness. He has made documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. His work has won three Emmy Awards, a clutch of Emmy nominations and a long list of other accolades. The film landscape is changing though, and he says it’s for the better.

“In the past, we filmmakers had to make footage that broadcasters could sell, which was always to do with the predators and elephants. The natural world is so much more than that, but we couldn’t sell a film about Impala although, actually I did, but it turned into a film about all the animals that eat them. Now with the Internet and social media, we can give other species some of the attention." 

He never set out to be a filmmaker. He’d been a shy kid, growing up with his twin and an older brother after the tragically early death of their father from contacting bilharzia when Kim was five.
Kim Wolhuter hyena wildlife africa

“I spent my earliest years growing up in the Kruger. Sadly we had to leave when my dad died. After high school all I wanted to do was to go and live with the Bushmen. I was very shy. I thought it was a way I could be in the bush and get away from everybody. My mother insisted that I had to go to university.”

He graduated with a BSc Grassland Science and worked on reserves in Botswana and Swaziland until his friend Richard Goss, a well-known name in wildlife filmmaking, suggested Kim join him in filming documentaries.

“I’d never had an interest in film or photography, or thought of it as a career but decided to give it a go. On the second project called Strandwolf: Survivors of the Skeleton Coast, Richard let me loose with ten rolls of film and I’ve been filming ever since. It's not every day you get a break like that.” It proved to be the defining moment of his career. 

Hyena Rights

After three decades behind the camera filming all over southern Africa, the Wolhuter family moved camp to live in Sango in the Savé Valley with the idea of making a film about honey badgers. At least, that was the plan. It was pushed aside after he stumbled on a den of hyena cubs and started connecting with this new brood.

His in-depth understanding of the species has evolved through years of close contact and deep bonds with clans he filmed previously. He knows hyenas to be playful, gentle, loyal and naturally affectionate animals. He finds it intolerably unjust that more often than not they’re portrayed negatively in film and the general media.

“It’s galling to see the species so badly reflected in the wildlife narrative. In almost every movie, illustrated story, animation or wildlife documentary you’ll see hyenas cast as the bad guys. They’re depicted as inherently nasty, dangerous, dirty, malicious and ugly. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a complete fabrication by the broader industry”.

He’s on a mission to set the record straight. Although he is well qualified in his own right to speak authoritatively on the matter, it helps that he stands on the shoulders of giants.

Barefoot Ranger

He is the third generation of Wolhuters to have dedicated his life to wildlife conservation. His grandfather was Harry Wolhuter, the first-ever Ranger in the Kruger National Park under the eminent Col. James Stevenson-Hamilton, the Park's inaugural and famously determined Park Warden whose nickname was Skukuza, meaning 'a new broom that sweeps clean'. Harry Wolhuter was a man of the wilderness. In his bachelor youth he was as rough as a goat’s knee. He lived alone in a barely-furnished ranger’s hut with his horse and his pack of trained dogs, used to defend wildlife from poachers. At night he bedded down on the floor under a pile of hounds for warmth. His 1948 memoir, Memories of a Game Ranger, is a wildlife classic, which continues to stir a love for the wild in its readers.

Kim, his grandson, is tamer by many degrees but the Wolhuter wildman heritage shows up in other ways, such as his refusal to wear shoes. I ran into him socially a few years ago. True to form he was barefoot. I was impressed by the fact that he felt no need to conform. The barefoot ranger image was never a deliberate ploy. He simply prefers going barefoot and over time it's become woven into a personal statement of sorts.

“I like to feel connected to Mother Nature and to what the soft-footed animals are experiencing. You’ll also notice humans walk incredibly aggressively when they’re wearing shoes. Anyway, if I wear shoes the hyenas will eat them because they’re rubbery and mine would be smelly.”

Rules of Engagement

Yes, about that. Hyena’s jaws are more powerful than any mammal of their size and most of the larger ones including the big cats. Come to think of it, their bite is stronger than a Great White shark’s. One of the spotties, as he calls the Spotted hyenas he loves, could effortlessly - and quite literally - chomp clean through his thigh or rip off his face. Does the thought give him pause? He doesn’t dwell on it.

“Hyenas are not aggressive predators and I don’t give them reasons to react with aggression.” More importantly, his ease among them is based on some crucial ground rules. While few, they are absolute and sacrosanct.

“I never, ever, carry a firearm, feed the animals, interfere with their food source, or initiate physical contact. The second you pick up a weapon you separate yourself from, and innately lose respect for, the natural world. The playing field is no longer even and you immediately take on a psychological notion of domination and arrogance instead of respect. I never carry a weapon and so I have absolute, fundamental respect for animals. Confidence is very different from arrogance. Animals sense it immediately. I never feed the animals - it's a rule that needs no explaining. And I never interfere with their food, as that would be seen as competition and food is their survival. Finally, they decide if they want to interact or engage with me or not.”

He eludes the suggestion that he possesses some special gift that grants him a connection with wild animals, but I press him on how it feels to be in relationship with the hyena clan to the degree that he is.

“Have you watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix?”

Yes, I reply. So I imagine you feel incredibly privileged to be accepted by wild creatures? Closely connected to the exquisite mysteries of the natural world? You never want it to end and can’t bear to be separated from it?

"Yes," he says, "it's like that."

links :

Memories of a Game Ranger  by Henry Wolhuter.
Find Kim Wolhuter on Patreon and social media @kimwolhuter
Read a short biography of Harry Wolhuter.
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