On the prowl: Elephant-cams capture Indian tigers in the wild
The ‘secret weapon’ of wildlife filmmaking – ele-cams, or cameras on elephants, were used to film tigers like never before.
From the day their eyes open and they tumble out of the den, the show Tiger — Spy in the Jungle captures the day-to-day lives of four tiny tiger cubs, as they grow up alongside their devoted mother in the heart of India.
The revealing programme follows the different stages of a tiger’s life from playful cubs to learning adolescents and ultimately, to young hunting adults. To enter the world of this tiger family, John Downer and his wizard team, cameraman Michael Richards and techno-boffin Geoff Bell, deploy the ultimate all-terrain camera vehicles — elephants — kitted out with the latest high-definition ‘secret weapons’ of wildlife filmmaking — trunk-cam, tusk-cam and log-cams.
Ele-cam to the jungle
The four elephants here, in the Pench National Park, were also taught filming skills by their mahouts – for instance, how to keep a steady trunk and a delicate touch. As “natural 4x4s”, the elephants carry the hefty trunk-cam and smaller tusk-cam wherever the tiger family goes, across the park’s 10-square mile territory. The tigers seem oblivious to the elephants and allow them to place the trunk-cams right under their whiskers, to be filmed.
The elephants also use the devices to film the tigers on the move, while the human crew film from another elephant and control the “ele-cams” remotely. Tigers may be the A-list celebrities, but there’s a cast of rising B-list stars too. Cheeky langur monkeys are transfixed by their reflections in the log-cams (cameras lodged in logs of wood), and sloth bears, red dogs and a leopard with her cubs, all make cameo appearances.
It’s almost unheard of for four cubs to survive through to adulthood, and they face many dangers along the way — from rogue male tigers and leopards in their territory to being left home alone.
Preying for time
BBC Natural History filmmaker Jonnie Hughes, who follows the tigers every step of the way on the show, explains how they rigged and worked these “ele-cams”. “A tiger is the biggest forest predator on earth. Although, we have filmed tigers hunting in the open in the past, 90 per cent of their hunts take place in the forest, and that’s the habitat where they excel,” says Hughes, offering a first-person account.
“It’s not easy — the tiger has to find its prey in the first place,” he describes.
“It’s a real challenge to approach anything that’s obstructed by trees; creeping up without being noticed is extremely difficult in a forest covered in dried leaves and twigs. And tigers are plagued the whole time by other animals making alarm calls whenever they see one. Yet, the tiger has cracked all of these things.”
It is indeed very rare for anyone to film a tiger hunting in the forest, and certainly not with the BBC’s landmark production values, notes Hughes. “In India, you’re not allowed to follow a tiger into the forest on a jeep,” he points out. “And even if you could, a tripod on the back of a jeep bounces up and down if anyone even sneezes.”
Hang on for deer life
Hughes continues, “So we put our camera on an elephant. Tigers are very familiar with elephants and vice-versa — domest-icated elephants have been used for gen-erations in India.”
There’s an added benefit, he explains. “Being on an elephant means it smells of the elephant, so you don’t smell. It’s a cloaking device. And deer know that an elephant is not dangerous to them. They’ll walk towards elephants.”
On the first day that they switched on their cameras, the cameraman was blown away as “this little deer walked straight towards the lens,” recounts Hughes. “Deer would just not do that towards a normal camera,” he says.
But elephants bring their own problems, he adds. “What we wanted to do was to create beautiful footage at a tiger’s eye level. It was no good being 12 feet up on an elephant and looking down.”
As a result, they fell upon the idea of using a stabilised camera on a bespoke rig, which could be lowered by a pulley from the top of the elephant down to the ground, and then manoeuvred up and down as much as required to look over the grass. This way, they’d get to spy on the tigers from above.
The crew tried out the rig on a jeep as well. “It turned out that in spite of what we initially thought, we were able to get some great shots from the road,” says Hughes. “What we discovered was that as you drive along the road system, with a gyro-stabilised camera rigged to the back of the car, you can keep filming, in a long tracking shot,” he explains.“Tracking shots are the bread and butter of Hollywood now, from Bond to Bourne to Christopher Nolan’s films,” offers Hughes, for a comparison.
“The camera never stops moving, and as a lot of hunts are mobile events, the technique is perfectly suited,” he notes, adding, “It’s great because it gives the viewer a sense of the environment that the animal is in, as well as focusing their attention on the animal itself. Essentially, you feel like you’re there, and that is our goal.”
What to expect
Four 10-day-old tiger cubs, two females and two males, are living in the Indian jungle. This is their mother’s first litter and the cubs insist on tumbling out of the den, only to be carried delicately back to safety in her massive jaws.As they grow, their diet changes from their mother’s milk to meat. At 14 weeks, they can eat over a kilo of meat a day between them — the equivalent of 20 large steaks.
It’s a good job that this tigress is such a skilled hunter and that spotted and sambar deer are so plentiful. Charger, their imposing father, keeps his distance but helps to protect his vulnerable offspring from rogue male tigers and leopards. Life seems sweet, until one day, the cubs are left home alone and one of their greatest threats, an Indian leopard, is nearby.
The cubs are half-grown and still pretty playful, but it’s time to learn the hunting and fighting skills they’ll need as adults. Play fighting erupts between them — it looks nasty, but their claws are never drawn. The young tigers have huge appetites and their mother must hunt successfully on most days to satisy them. When they’re not eating, playing or fighting, the cubs sleep — and tigers love water, so a cooling water hole is perfect on a steaming day.
The spy cameras show that this wallow is also a magnet for a whole array of other forest animals, including wild boar and sloth bears.The cubs are starting to behave as individuals and take personal hunting tuitions from their mother. Then disaster strikes, when both their parents are injured, and a rogue male tiger puts in an appearance. They still have a lot to learn.
The cubs are beginning to gain their independence. They must hone their hunting skills, and the two males must prepare to leave their mother and sisters, and face the world on their own.
Tiger: Spy in the Jungle airs on Sony BBC Earth on July 15 at 9 pm.