As stunts go, it's a good one: Nat Geo Wild kicks off it's fifth annual Big Cat Week Nov. 28 with a special starring wildlife biologist and tracker Boone Smith in his attempt to infiltrate a pride of lions from the safety — he hopes — of a Plexiglas box. Toward that end, there's plenty of advance research and preparation that Smith undergoes before he invites himself to dinner, as he explains in this conversation with MNN.
MNN: How did you come up with the idea for 'Man v. Lion?' And what did you want to accomplish with it?
Boone Smith: National Geographic was looking for something to lead off Big Cat Week. I'd done some Big Cat shows previously. Each year we have to come up with something different. They wanted a show about what makes lions so incredible. We want to entertain people and inspire them to be invested in these animals and show how cool and awesome they are. If we can do that, people are more likely to become involved in the conservation program, the Big Cats Initiative. This documentary is a different perspective: Instead of that long lens, what would it be like to be part of the pride, right there, with the sights, the sounds, the smell? We build up to that as we examine all the incredible attributes — the speed, the cunning, the stalk, things that make a lion a lion — and we bring that all together with the power and intensity that takes place at the kill.
What went into the design of the box?
It was based on the idea of a shark cage. We wanted something transparent that we could film through, with inch-thick bulletproof Plexiglas. There are safety measures we wanted to consider. We took into consideration the nature of lions. They're not going to roll this thing over while trying to figure out how to get into it. It just had to be tough and hardcore. We tested it by getting on top of it and jumping up and down as hard as we could. We took sections of Plexiglas out with a sledgehammer. At first we used half-inch Plexiglas and I shattered it into a million pieces, so we tried the inch thick and barely made marks on it. I felt confident that it would hold. But you're out there in the bush and driving around on the back of a truck and bolts can shake loose. And you are dealing with a wild animal. It's unpredictable, which makes it exciting. I definitely had the adrenaline going. But at no point in time did I feel like I was in danger. Some of that could be because of what I do for work. I'm fascinated to be that close.
When did that fascination start?
I was fortunate to grow up in southeast Idaho with a father and grandfather who truly loved the outdoors. From the time we were little kids we were tracking, being outside around wildlife. I’m an outdoor kid. As soon as I started school it was very apparent that I could not be in an office and sit inside. My degree is in wildlife biology. My first biology job, I worked on a cougar project. Later I got into consulting work, capturing and radio collaring animals. That was 15, 16 years ago. I grew up around mountain lions. I don't know how anyone could not be excited by them.
What misconceptions do people have about lions?
There are generalities — lions live in prides, females do most of the hunting. One of the great things about cats is they're so individual, and we saw that in "Man v. Lion." The three males had very different personalities and we saw that in their interaction with each other: who was more curious, who had the bad attitude. We didn't want to humanize these animals, but show what it takes to survive. It's the toughest gig on the planet being a predator. Every day is about survival. If you lose out there, you die. The stakes are really high. And as far as creating awareness and conservation, when we benefit big cats we benefit so many other species, so it's a win-win all around.
Watch a trailer for "Man v. Lion" below.
What else do you want people to know?
Lions are an apex predator. If we have healthy apex predator populations, that usually means everything below is in balance. It's a great indicator of the health of our ecosystems. But with changes in technology and the way we live, I think we get detached from nature and wildlife. I think it sparks something in the soul to be around the power and the wildness of big animals, whether we’re out there in it or just know it's there, to have the ability to go to a place where nature is supreme is important for us as a species. It's good for us. Sometimes we lose sight of what the balance needs to be.
Are lions endangered? How about other big cats?
African lions are not endangered, but their populations are down to maybe 30,000 from hundreds of thousands. There are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. There may be as few as 300-400 Siberian tigers left. Snow leopards? We have no idea. So many species are disappearing. That's why the Big Cat Initiative is such a great idea. We can do something about it. We can be pro-active.
Related on MNN:
- The strange history of the man-eating lions of Tsavo
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- How to avoid animal attacks in national parks