The spotted fur flashes by, a blur against scrubby trees and parched grass.
An adult cheetah running is a vision of grace under pressure. The phenomenal speed of the world’s fastest land animal — it can go from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds — is essential for its survival. It is either chasing prey or trying to not become it.
In Nat Geo WILD’s Man Among Cheetahs, cinematographer Bob Poole captures cheetahs streaking by as well as frolicking, eating and hiding. It’s an intimate look at animals famed for their elusiveness.
For almost two months, Poole chronicled cheetahs in the remote Naboisho Conservancy, a private reserve in Kenya. He shot some 16 terabytes’ worth of footage.
Having filmed a segment on cheetahs five years earlier, he knew where to find them, but he also knew they wouldn’t exactly be punching a time clock.
“We don’t stand a chance (of capturing footage) unless we are there 24 hours a day,” Poole says.
He worked with his friend Derrick Nabaala, a Maasai safari guide. The Maasai tribe has lived in Kenya and Tanzania for six centuries and Nabaala knows this land by heart. He took the night shift.
As the sky transitioned from all-encompassing blackness to an awe-inspiring sunrise, Poole drove in. Even scenes shot at night have a magical clarity. One evening’s activity included a lioness taking down a wildebeest — only to lose it to a massive lion.
Although Poole is clear about respecting the big cats’ boundaries — and their fangs make boundaries extremely clear — sometimes the animals come much closer than expected.
“I’m not worried about Naborr anymore,” he whispers, referring to the mother cheetah he is following. “I am worried about how to back away without pissing off a 500-pound lion.”
The film makes it to TV without any casualties on his side of the camera. But there are close calls on the other end, and they emphasize how vulnerable cheetahs are to lions, packs of hyenas and other predators.
“She’s got to get everything right, every single day,” he says of Naborr.
Naborr teaches her cubs that same lesson. All along, Poole knew he wanted the star of this film to be a fierce mama.
“To me there is nothing better than a mother with cubs,” he says.
Poole brightens as he recalls finding Naborr and just knowing that she would be the focus of the film. There was much that drew him to her, including the fact that her cubs “weren’t so small they would be stuffed under a bush.”
The documentary also shows how crestfallen Poole becomes when he loses sight of Naborr. It’s a bit of the frantic feeling a parent experiences when losing track of a child in a store. One moment the kid is there, then poof — gone!
Like many creatures in the wild, cheetahs are superb at camouflage, and at one point Naborr appears to vanish. Yet 42 minutes later, someone spots her in the Naboisho, which means “coming together” in Maa, the language of the Maasai. Poole tracks down Naborr with her cubs, keeping a respectful distance.
Among the intimate moments: Naborr swatting away a cub wanting to nurse. She’s weaning the cubs, preparing them for an all-meat diet.
The film engages viewers with the sensation of being there, racing along with the animals. As Naborr takes down an impala, Poole notes that she would outpace his car, even on the highway.
When Naborr summons her cubs, though, all she emits is a small squeak. A full-throated roar would alert nearby enemies. So she quietly chirps for her offspring, constantly tilting her head, looking for them.
“This is the perfect time to be filming these cubs,” Poole says. “They are in school. This is like Hunting 101.”
He describes the 45-minute film as a “non-hosted hosted show.” The audience becomes so attached to the cubs and so interested in the other animals that Poole becomes the stand-in for everyone — particularly when the cubs are in danger and viewers yearn to jump in and protect them.
Three male cheetahs, hunting as a team, capture Poole’s interest, too. More territorial than females, the males quietly stalk a herd of speedy Thomson’s gazelles, also known as “cheetah snacks.” They’re good hunters, but they can’t match a lone mother cheetah providing for her progeny.
One fascinating scene unfolds as a male approaches Naborr. He chases off the cubs, hoping to mate with Naborr. She brusquely rebuffs him.
Poole wonders whether the male is this litter’s father. As much time as the cinematographer has spent in the bush, Poole has never seen this mating ritual before. The male tries a few more times with Naborr and then sprays a tree, marking his territory.
“I guess we can add randy males to the list of things Naborr’s got to deal with,” Poole says.
While Naborr instructs her cubs on how to trip prey and kill it, Poole admits this is tough going — even for an experienced wildlife cinematographer. He’s visibly agitated when one of the cubs is momentarily lost again as hyenas lurk nearby.
Afterward, though, “the cubs seem to be having fun again,” Poole says. “It’s just insane. Their lives are so exciting. Can you imagine being chased by hyenas? That would have scared the life out of me and yet the cubs are full of fun and games again.”
Ultimately, Poole hopes Man Among Cheetahs and other nature films make people more aware of cheetahs — even become enamored of them.
“We want to get the point across that life is highly threatened, and cheetahs are underdogs in the big cat world,” he says. “What we want to do in a roundabout way is make you fall in love with them and make you care.”