When I was young, I used to love watching wildlife documentaries. My best were the ones narrated by Sir David Attenborough, but most of them followed a fairly similar formula. A large, dedicated team of wildlife photographers would go out and, with incredible patience, over a period a year or two, collect hundreds of hours of film. Film of nature in its natural state. This would be pared down to a few hours of incredible footage which would be clearly and exhaustively explained by Sir David in his sensible, well-modulated, and inimitable voice.
We watched and learned. We learned all sorts of interesting facts, but more importantly than that we learned an approach to nature. Be patient. Be still. If you wait long enough, and observe closely enough, you will see amazing things.
Things have changed. There’s a new approach to wildlife documentaries. It’s fresh. It’s exciting. Documentary makers are no longer happy to sit back and wait. They want to really get in there and be part of the story.
This is how it’s done. You need a cameraman, a sound guy, and an arsehole. You go out and find yourself a large, seemingly dangerous wild animal and set up your camera and microphone. Then you get the arsehole to jump on the wild animal, or at the very least poke it with a sharpened stick.
This is cutting edge documentary making. It’s quick and it’s cheap, and you don’t have to waste any time teaching your viewers any boring old facts. This is not wildlife seen from a detached point of view. This is Grand Theft Auto wildlife. This is getting in there with nature and kicking its ass. And then duct-taping it to a stick.
If this is sounding a little familiar to some of you, it’s because I’ve written about this before. But I’m revisiting it. Because something special happened this week. A new generation has come of age.
You see, just like me, the generation that followed me apparently also watched a documentary or two. They watched and learned. They learned absolutely no important facts. More importantly than that, they learned an approach to nature. Don’t sit around and wait. Get in there and grab nature by the throat. Kick its ass. Duct-tape it to a stick.
When I scrolled through the news this morning, I saw that two young Australians had put this valuable education to good use. They went off to a remote part of the outback to catch some fish. The fish obviously weren’t biting, because they spent the weekend filming themselves wrestling salt-water crocodiles and posting the pictures on YouTube.
Typical. You can’t take an Australian anywhere. At least not if there is going to be beer there. I shook my head disapprovingly and scrolled on. To this. These are my people.
Typical. You can’t take a South African anywhere. At least not if there is going to be beer there.
There’s something a bit sad going on here. What these kids are doing seem wildly dangerous and risky. It makes them seem both stupid and brave. But actually it’s mostly just stupid. I don’t know many of the details of the Australian incident, but there is a reason that Steve Irwin, pioneer crocodile molester, could do what he did.
The saltwater crocodile is the world’s biggest and most dangerous. But it is a crocodile, and a crocodile is a fairly simple machine. It has a limited set of responses, and isn’t very smart. And it has a fatal flaw. Like all crocodiles, it can close its jaws with incredible force. What it can’t do with incredible force is open them again. The muscles that open the jaws are weak. So weak that if a drunken Australian youth gets his hands around them, those jaws are not going to open. And a crocodile without its teeth is a disarmed crocodile.
It is still however, a huge and powerful animal, and if those kids had made one tiny mistake, someone could have died.
I know a bit more about the South Africans. Believe it or not, those hooting, bellowing fools on that vehicle are all game rangers. Young, drunk game rangers, freed for once from the tedium of behaving nicely for their paying guests, and out for a party. As rangers, every day, twice a day, they take guests out to show them animals like elephants. They know elephants. They can read their body language and judge their moods.
I know a little bit about elephants myself. As big and frightening and threatening as that elephant seems, that is not a dangerous elephant. That is a nervous elephant. It’s making itself look bigger to try and get the rangers to back down. But it doesn’t want to hurt anyone. It just wants to be left alone. They knew that 99% of the time, if they ran at him, he would turn and flee. And 99% is good odds for drunken young men.
I have seen people do what that fool in the clip did before. But in very different circumstances. The people I saw do this were backing down an elephant that was about to stumble onto a bunch of hikers. They were protecting the people whose lives they had been entrusted with. Not like this asshat, who seems to be in dire need of some quality time up a sausage tree.
I’m sure that this is all sounding a little more ranty than my usual posts, but there’s a reason for that. When I was about eighteen or so, I went down to the bush by myself for a week or two, and I had a run in with an elephant. It didn’t look like the elephant in the clip. There was no posturing, or ear flapping, or slow advancing. The first I knew of it was the crack of a branch behind me. When I saw it, it was coming at me at speed. There was no trumpeting. Its ears were tucked back against its body. It didn’t want to frighten me away. It wanted to kill me.
I put my foot down, but I was driving a thirty year old Land Rover, a car not well known for its breakneck acceleration. The elephant must have got within ten metres of me before I pulled away. But pull away I did, and drove straight up to the area ranger’s office to report it. Elephants aren’t supposed to do that. But soon I understood why it did.
A few days before this happened, an elephant had been shot a few kilometres away. Elephants are amazing creatures, and can communicate over huge distances. All the elephants in the area knew what had happened, and they were all jumpy.
And that’s the thing. You don’t want a four ton behemoth with sharpened stakes at one end to be jumpy. That elephant in the clip isn’t going to disappear into a vast empty wilderness. It lives in the Kruger Park. The Kruger Park is a pretty busy place. It gets visited by over a million people a year. Very few of whom are rangers. And one of those people is going to be the next person who runs into this elephant. And who knows what will happen then.
Certainly not that stupid little boy and his big brave friends.