Trek - Spy on the Wildebeest

Sunday BBC 1, 8pm
3.9 million, 15.2% Audience Share

The Daily Express - 11/01/2007, Nigel Blundell:
An astonishing array of spycams hidden in fake skulls, animals and mounds of earth, have shed light on one of nature's most awesome sights - the annual African migration. IT'S the greatest natural spectacle on Earth. . . as it has never been photographed before. With more than a million beasts on the move across the African grasslands, the scale of the Great Migration has always been awesome.

But with every predator of the plains stalking them, it has until now not been possible to get intimately close to these naturally nervous animals. The solution, as these amazing pictures show, took ingenuity, imagination and technical wizardry. To create a two-part series starting this Sunday, award-winning film-maker John Downer employed an array of spy cameras – in the air, at ground level and even in crocodile-infested waters.

As the wildebeest, zebra and other animals made their annual migration between Tanzania's Serengeti and Kenya's Masai Mara, they were tracked by remote cameras, disguised to look like creatures, that captured the action. Hovering over the herds was the discreet but colourful Dragonfly-cam – a miniature helicopter housing the world's smallest high definition camera.
Moving quietly through the crowds were Tortoise-cam, which ran through the grass on caterpillar tracks and was sufficiently lifelike to attract a real "mate", plus Boulder-cam. The latter trundled into the paths of hunting lions – where it was ignored by adults but raised the curiosity of the cubs.

Lying in wait ahead of the mass of grazing animals was Grass-cam, which blended into the plains for close-up filming of the herds. Then there was Tree-cam, which approaching herds activated by triggering an infrared sensor. Its disguise was so good that birds surveyed it for nesting potential.

Perhaps most extraordinary was Dung-cam. It proved to be an invaluable back-up and often worked alongside Tortoise-cam. To elevate it above ground level, it was sometimes raised on a heap of boulders – or real dung.

Staking out the waterholes was Skull-cam, a fake wildebeest skull, deployed on the front line of the migration to film the desperate animals scrambling out of the water with the crocodiles in pursuit. And cruising the mighty Mara River to capture some of the most dramatic scenes of carnage was Croc-cam. Designed to film the wildebeests' perilous crossing of the river, it housed two battery-powered hydrojets to drive it.

It was able to film the predatory attacks of real crocodiles above and below the waterline.
John Downer: says: "The spy cameras were kicked, trampled and bitten. Dragonfly-cam flew out of control at one point and crashed. But they all went where no cameras had gone before and we recorded 500 hours of intimate, often bloody and sometimes staggering animal behaviour." Sir David Attenborough, who narrates the programme, says: "This is the great wildebeest migration as you've never seen it before. Their epic march creates a spectacle that's beyond compare." More than one and a quarter million wildebeest take part in the migration, travelling nearly 2,000 miles a year.

They eat for 18 hours a day. Like a giant lawnmower, a million wildebeest graze 7,000 tons of grass a day – the equivalent of mowing 6,000 Wembley stadiums a year. And the herd drinks enough water to fill five Olympic-sized swimming pools a day – which is probably why they urinate enough to fill 125 road tankers, and produce 500 tippertrucks of dung a day.

EACH February the Serengeti plains experience the world's largest baby boom. In three weeks, more than half a million calves are born. These calves learn to use their legs faster than any other mammal – they are up and walking in under four minutes But just half the calves survive their first six months, a quarter of a million of them succumbing to disease and predators.
The 250,000 bulls within the herd trash thousands of saplings. Yet their destructive behaviour actually helps to preserve the precious grasslands, on which they depend, by helping to stop the spread of woodlands.

Elsewhere on their extraordinary trip, the herbivores are on the hit list of every other African predator, including lions, cheetahs and hyenas.

The series' producer, Philip Dalton, says: "The most spectacular stage of the great trek comes when the herds cross the Mara River, where hundreds of crocodiles lay in wait for the defenceless swimmers.

"Witnessing this struggle is intense and our spy-cams have captured the experience in ground-shaking detail."

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