Journey Weaver’s Nick Walton spoke with Acclaimed Botswanan wildlife filmmaker and producer of Savage Kingdom Brad Bestelink, about his childhood in the bush, the influence natural history films can have on new audiences, and how poaching can be curbed through effective eco-tourism.
You grew up in a family of hunters?
My great grandfather was a hunter and my grandfather was a hunter. He was killed by a black mamba snake and after he died my parents took one of his hunting camps and started doing photographic tours. That was 1968 and it was the first of its kind in the Okavango Delta. My dad had a problem with shooting things but he had a pot license to help feed the staff and guests so he would take his little blue Land Rover and follow the lions, and when they killed a buffalo he would scare them off, hack off the back end of the animal, and take it home before the lions came back. Sometimes the guests would comment on how tough the ‘beef’ was.
So, you were inspired more by cameras than rifles?
I grew up in a photographic and tourism culture, watching my parents bend over backwards shuffling people around. They were very progressive back then and are still doing it today. If you grow up in the wild you become very aware of what’s around you. From a young age, I was entrenched in wildlife, but I quickly realized that with tourism the amount of time people get to spend in the bush is limited. I wanted to be able to spend more time in the bush and not have to dance to someone else’s tune so I wrote to a few filmmakers who worked for National Geographic and asked if I could come and learn the ropes from them, and 13 years later here I am. There’s no other way to be in the field then like this.
How much time do you spend in the field each year?
To put it in perspective, in my adult life I’ve probably spent more time with animals than I have with people - my wife certainly likes to point that out. We will spend 15-16 months to produce just one hour of film; it’s a long time, a lot of work, with a lot of dedication behind it. You spend thousands of hours just to get one sequence that will only run for seconds on television.
Do you think wildlife films impact tourist’s perspectives?
There’s two sides; films do condense the bush into a few seconds, and people on safari do have certain expectations, and the reality is often not like television, but there’s also a reluctance by broadcasters to show the reality of the bush, and things like kills – every second tourist wants to see a kill but 90 percent of those who have, don’t want to see another because of the brutality. Natural history films tend to pasteurize all that stuff and won’t show the realty. As a filmmaker, I tend to go against that; I want viewers to emotionally invest in wildlife – they are predators and killing is what they do to survive and what we show is not gratuitous, we simply try to give nature context, so that people can engage. If people walk away from one of our films and want to know more about nature, that’s the best thing I can hear.
Is your native Botswana the success story of Southern Africa in terms of wildlife conservation?
Botswana is by far the pioneer and leader of the movement but it’s more than just the safari industry; Botswana has quite a unique history in terms of how it deals with wildlife. The Wildlife Act hasn’t changed since independence and is still recognized as one of the most progressive wildlife management laws in the world today. Basically, all animals in Botswana belong to the people; they are national assets so there is an intrinsic value associated with them. You can’t just shoot any animal that comes onto your land like in other countries in Africa, you still have to get permission from the government. So, in terms of poaching, if someone poaches an animal, they are stealing from the country and from the people of the country. In addition, the mindset that people have towards animals is completely different and because of that Botswana has this shoot-to-kill policy when it comes to dealing with poachers coming in from other countries.
What about eco-tourism?
In terms of eco-tourism, I still think it’s the only sustainable, economic processes that you can do that’s going to protect these assets. Sure, guys are putting up fences and banning people from certain places and using half an army to protect animals but that’s just a short-term solution. Eco-tourism adds a value to an animal and that will enrich and motivate people to protect it. That’s how sustainable tourism first started in Botswana, it was very hunter driven and it grew to a point that the government stopped hunting altogether. Think about it, one hunter flies into Botswana with one vehicle and one guide. A photographic group is eight people, with eight flights and eight mouths to feed and eight guys to look after them and at the end the animals are still alive. You can also see the towns that embrace tourism are booming.
Botswana has become a refuge for many species, including South Africa’s dwindling rhinos. How can the medium of film curb the demand for things like rhino horn?
It needs to start at ground roots level. We make films for conservationists and we try to bring as much of the natural world as we can to people who don’t have access to it but in many instances, we were preaching to the converted so with our latest series, Savage Kingdom, we took a Game of Thrones-styled scripted approach to make it much more accessible. We talked about power, and revenge, and lust, offering a touch of entertainment while still letting people see the lives of these animals. It was risky and National Geographic was a bit nervous about this approach but it’s been the most successful series that Nat Geo Wild has had to date; it was translated into 42 different languages and in doing so netted a whole lot of people who know nothing about wildlife.
It’s really the hand that feeds the hand; if we are able to covert more people across and start getting another generation interested in wildlife, then they will want to travel, and if they do that, they will bring money to places like Botswana, which in turn is incentivized to spend money on sustainable development. What’s key for me is tapping into the next generation, the technophiles and people who don’t have access to wildlife; how do we get those people steered towards an understanding of wildlife? That’s the direction we need to be headed in and you’re not going to get in that direction with the likes of Attenborough talking to them. You need something like Savage Kingdom that creates a different level of awareness
A Kiwi-born, Hong Kong based journalist, photographer and editor who specialises in travel, food and living. Nick has so far visited nearly 80 countries on 7 continents.