If there’s anything we’ve learnt from Sir David Attenborough’s countless televised nature specials, it’s that wild animals are anything but predictable. Over the years, audiences have been enthralled by the dramatic turns the lives of animals can lead as they’re documented by Sir David and his team, facing everything from menacing predators to unfathomable weather conditions. In his latest special, we meet a meerkat family who – despite being tiny in stature – defy the odds in a bid for survival in a story that will undoubtedly instil hope across the nation.
Meerkat: A Dynasties Special is a follow-up to Sir David’s 2018 TV series Dynasties. When the programme debuted two years ago, we were introduced to the stories of five different animals: the lion, the tiger, the African wild dog, the chimpanzee and the emperor penguin, each with their own set of challenges to face. While some may assume choosing meerkats as the next subject is a sign Dynasties is taking a smaller-scale approach, they will undoubtedly change their tune when they witness the extraordinarily difficult lives of these mammals.
Narrated by Sir David, 94, the special follows a young meerkat queen called Maghogo who has only recently taken on the responsibility as matriarch of her family. The inexperienced monarch must rule over her subjects and try to raise her pups in one of the harshest areas on the planet, a salt pan in Botswana called Makgadikgadi Pan. With a dust storm arriving one day and a rival meerkat mob the next, there is seemingly no end to the dangers that surround the pack. But while the film crew may have been able to anticipate some of the threats that would emerge, there were others that took them by complete shock.
During a recent conversation with Metro.co.uk, producer and director Emma Napper recalled one day on location when the crew received an unexpected visit, one that crept up on them while they were in the zone focusing on the filming at hand. The region had recently experienced the wet season, which means that the typically hard salt pans had gone ‘a bit muddy’.
‘We saw these massive lion footprints in the mud,’ Emma said over the phone. ‘The guide said, “They’re quite fresh.” I was like, “What, last week?” He was like, “Hm, maybe an hour ago.”’
With the realisation that several lions could be extremely close by, Emma and her crew took note of how near they were to their vehicle in case they needed to make a quick getaway. And then suddenly, the lions were spotted.
‘The guide suddenly went, “Oh, they’re there.” Because we’d just been focusing on the meerkats, you just sort of don’t notice these three or four – not a big lion pride but still – four lions pace past us. You suddenly realise, “That’s very real, isn’t it? They’re very close. I wonder how fast they can run?”’
Fortunately for the Dynasties team, the lions in their presence didn’t feel the need to come any closer. But the lions they came across weren’t the only brush with danger the crew experienced. In the special, audiences will watch the meerkats face the tribulation of an immense dust storm, a ‘ferocious and spectacular’ natural event that the film crew almost found themselves caught in the middle of.
‘It’s funny when you’re filming animals and there’s dangers around because you’re concentrating on filming the animals and documenting the dangers,’ Emma explained as she recalled seeing the dust storm approach.
‘Suddenly you look up and think, “Oh gosh, it’s about to hit us,” and that can kind of take you by surprise,’ she said.
‘That’s the thing – you have to be in the zone to do this. It feels like you’re watching it through the camera, you’re thinking about the story, and then suddenly you think, “That dust storm is coming, those lions are quite close.”’
Amid the drama and dangers of the production, there were also many moments of levity too. At the end of the special, viewers will see how the meerkats interacted with the crew behind the scenes during filming, which lasted from the end of last summer until March this year, when it was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic.
As the meerkats were used to the presence of humans (as they are followed every day by experts), they had no qualms nestling under cameras for shade on the hottest days and climbing on the heads of camera operators. And the pups were also about causing mischief, playing and falling over as babies do.
Emma said that she found it ‘humbling’ to learn how ‘hard’ the lives of the meerkats are, animals that are ‘so small and so fragile’.
‘It’s absolutely gutting when they just suddenly die,’ she stated. ‘Their lives are so complicated and their bonds are so real and strong that it must be also just exhausting for the family when they lose such key members of their group. You definitely feel it, you definitely feel sad about it. They live very, very, very hard lives.’
But despite the trials the family at the centre of this special face, they are a resilient bunch, whose desperation to survive never wanes.
‘In the end it’s a story about how family can triumph over difficulties,’ Emma said. ‘I hope people are going to be wrapped up in the story and emotionally moved by it, but also it’s got a nice payoff at the end.’
Meerkat: A Dynasties Special airs tonight at 7.30pm on BBC One.
Credit: Original article published here.