Grasslands - Roots of Power Human Planet


Grasslands - Roots of Power

Documentary featuring the remarkable people who live in the world's grasslands, exploring their relationship with the natural world around them.


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Transcript


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Only one creature has carved a life for itself in every habitat on Earth.

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That creature is us.

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All over the world we still use our ingenuity to survive in the wild places,

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far from the city lights, face to face with raw nature.

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This is the Human Planet.

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Grass is a remarkable plant.

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It supports a great abundance of life.

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Wheat, rice, barley and corn,

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they're all grasses and they feed us.

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And the grasslands feed the animals that feed our world too.

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Our lives on the grasslands have transformed the planet,

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from the prairies of America

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to the rice terraces of China.

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But it's not been easy.

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It's taken every last ounce of human courage and ingenuity

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to become masters of the grasslands.

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Dawn on the savannah in southern Kenya.

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It's the moment Rakita and his mates have been waiting for.

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The wildebeest migration has arrived.

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Here, lush grasses support the largest herds of animals in the world.

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A bounty of opportunity for these Dorobo hunters.

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But there's fierce competition for all this meat on the hoof

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from some of the world's most efficient killers.

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So how do mere humans, without fangs or claws,

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who can't outrun a wildebeest, get a meal around here?

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Rakita uses brains and teamwork.

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His plan is to let the lions kill the wildebeest,

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then he'll steal their dinner from right under their noses.

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His two friends are essential.

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Lions aren't easily intimidated.

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First, Rakita must find the tracks of a lion pride on the hunt.

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(WHISPERING)

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At 65, he's a veteran hunter and takes the lead.

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They must watch their backs - this is man-eater territory.

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(THEY WHISPER)

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All the signs point to a fresh kill nearby.

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Rakita's been attacked by lions before. He knows this could end badly.

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They're up against 15 hungry lions, but, if they act as one,

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they might just intimidate the lions and push them off their kill.

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They make their move. Self-confidence is everything.

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This is the ultimate face-off.

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Suddenly, the lions back off.

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Rakita has just minutes before the lions realise it's a bluff.

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In a matter of seconds, he butchers the haunch of the wildebeest,

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and they beat a hasty retreat.

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This is a scene which has played out throughout human existence,

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hunters using brains, not brawn, to outwit their mighty competitors.

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Getting another animal to do the killing for you is clever,

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but making the kill yourself is an even bigger challenge.

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At the other end of Africa, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert,

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lies a much drier grassland, supporting far fewer animals.

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There's no free lunch here.

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Kun and Nao are Ju/'hoansi bushmen.

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Kun is a master hunter,

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one of a handful of Ju/'hoansi who still have the skills to hunt big game.

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So Kun is teaching his apprentice to keep this precious knowledge alive.

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The hunt begins by kindling fire.

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They burn the grass from around the only waterhole for many kilometres.

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They know the animals will ultimately come to drink here

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and when they do, they'll have nowhere to hide.

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Their bows and dart arrows are too small to kill outright,

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so they refine their weapons.

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Kun, the master, knows exactly where to find poison.

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Within this hardened sand shell is a beetle grub.

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If just one drop of beetle juice gets into the tiniest cut, it will kill him.

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He anoints his arrows with great care.

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But their prey are wily too, so they build a grass hide.

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This is an ambush.

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Kun wants his apprentice to get his first kudu.

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(WHISPERS)

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The antelope's acute hearing and sharp eyes

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mean he must learn to move silently and without being seen.

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But Nao has been spotted.

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The moment is lost.

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(WHISPERS)

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Two days later, the bushmen are still in their hide,

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hoping that the kudus' thirst will overcome their fear.

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But they stay away.

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Then even the master is caught unprepared.

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It's a leopard.

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Suddenly the hunters risk becoming the hunted.

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A leopard's jaws have the power to crush a human skull.

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They're praying the leopard hasn't seen them.

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Nao lies low in the shadows.

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This time they've managed to remain undetected.

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It's day six in the hide

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and the apprentice is no closer to getting a meal.

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A new group of kudu come in.

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They've got one chance.

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Both men raise their bows.

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Bull's-eye! An arrow has hit home and the kudu scatter.

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The injured kudu will run for many kilometres

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with the poison arrow in its flank, as the toxins slowly take effect.

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The pursuit begins.

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First, they must find the arrow shaft.

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It will show them which tracks to follow and also who made the hit.

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From here on, it's all about tracking.

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The ground is criss-crossed with hoof prints.

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The wrong decision will mean a wild-goose chase.

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While tracking,

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the hunters look at the landscape through the eyes of their prey.

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After ten hours, they finally catch up with the kudu.

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The poison has weakened it. She's exhausted, near death.

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Nao aims a spear to the heart to deliver a swift end.

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After seven days, Nao has finally killed his first kudu.

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Now there is one more person in the world who can do this.

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The meat they'll carry home will feed their whole village.

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And every part of the animal will be put to use.

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This burnt landscape looks dead, but grass is incredibly resilient.

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With the first drops of rain, it regenerates.

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And where these rains become floods,

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grass grows to keep pace with the rising waters.

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Around the world,

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many grasslands undergo such extreme seasonal changes,

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bringing new opportunities,

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but also lurking dangers.

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In Cambodia, the grasslands around Tonle Sap lake are flooding...

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...and for a few short weeks there are rich pickings to be had.

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It's Vaana's big chance to make a killing.

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He's here to hunt an unexpected, hidden and potentially fatal wild prey.

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Vaana's hunting skill lies in recognising

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the difference between an easy meal and a deadly catch.

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But it's not fish he's after.

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It's snakes.

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There are many millions of them in this flooded grassland.

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Most are edible water snakes but some are venomous.

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If he pulls up a cobra, its bite could kill him.

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It's a game of Russian roulette.

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Even his five-year-old son has to be a snake expert.

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Knowing which is which means survival here.

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The snakes gather in these huge numbers

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to hunt the fish which spawn in the submerged grass.

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It's no time to be squeamish.

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Every escapee sees Vaana's profits slither away.

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Vaana's whole family must get to grips with snakes.

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For the kids, they are welcome new toys.

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Vaana's catch is destined for the biggest snake market in the world.

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Over 6 million snakes change hands in a matter of weeks.

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His payment for a week's snake wrangling...

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60p.

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But survival in the grasslands isn't all about hunting.

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In East Africa, the Masai have learnt how to collaborate with a wild bird

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to get a sweet treat they can only get if they work together.

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(WHISTLING)

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Leitato is whistling to attract a honey guide.

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It's a bird that is aptly named.

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The honey guide answers their whistles

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with a call it only uses to talk to humans.

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She starts a game of Follow My Leader...

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...since only she can smell the food they're after.

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When she's close to the prize, she changes her call,

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letting them know they're getting hotter.

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The boys have hit the jackpot - a beehive. The bird's job is done.

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Now they have to fulfil their part of the bargain - getting the honey out.

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It's hidden deep in the tree protected by hundreds of angry African bees.

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They use smoke to calm them.

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But it doesn't make the stings any less painful.

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The boys know they have to pay their guide.

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Honeycomb with added grubs.

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It's the perfect partnership, but, as every Masai boy knows,

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if you don't give the honey guide its reward,

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next time it will lead you to a lion's den!

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So we've learnt how to find food in the wild grasslands,

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either on our own, or with a bit of help from others.

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But our mastery of the grasslands took a huge leap forward

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when we learnt how to exploit the grass itself.

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Wheat, maize and rice all started life as wild grasses,

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which we've bred into crops.

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This has enabled us to feed millions of people every year,

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and so we've settled down and built homes beside our fields.

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But this man-made abundance is irresistible

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to many animals we now call pests.

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On the African plains these cereal killers come in plague proportions.

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Isiah lives in Tanzania.

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His rice harvest is just days away, but he knows an aerial attack is imminent.

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He must be vigilant, ever alert to the sound he dreads.

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The noise comes first...

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(BIRDS TWEETING)

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...then the advance party...

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...followed by the swarm.

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They are quelea.

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They come in their millions and people call them locust birds.

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They are the most numerous bird species on Earth,

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ravenous for grain.

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(IMITATES BIRD CALL)

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Isiah and his neighbours must try to prevent the quelea from settling,

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otherwise the flock will strip their crop in an hour.

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It's not a battle he can win, it's about limiting his losses.

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As the seeds ripen, these migrant flocks never stand still.

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But they do have an Achilles heel.

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In order to breed, the quelea must stop,

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weaving thousands of nests in tight colonies.

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This is the farmers' chance to strike back.

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While most of the flock is away feeding, a deadly trap is laid.

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The birds return as dusk falls.

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So far, we're one step ahead in the arms race with the pests.

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And our ability to manipulate the grasslands

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has gone from strength to strength.

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We have supersized these man-made grasslands...

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...sculpting mountains, felling forests

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and redesigning the very surface of our planet.

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Seven grasses feed almost seven billion people.

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They supply three-quarters of our carbohydrates,

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bread and pasta, noodles and porridge.

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These artificial great plains are making wild grasslands

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amongst the most endangered habitats on Earth.

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Yet it was on the wild grasslands, which support vast grazing herds,

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that we achieved perhaps our greatest triumph...

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to subjugate these animals to our needs.

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Controlling a plant is one thing,

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but dominating a creature with its own free will

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requires a far higher level of manipulation.

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The Mongolian steppe is the biggest grassland on Earth.

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There are more horses running wild here than anywhere else in the world.

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The Mongols' ability to tame horses

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has made these nomads masters of the steppe.

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and, in a family of horsemen, Ulaana is the best.

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He's got riding in his blood.

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His ancestor Genghis Khan used horse power to build an empire

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but today, Ulaana's family face a different challenge.

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They must use their horses' speed and stamina to capture wild mares.

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Driving the wild herd back to the ger camp is only the beginning of a day

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that will test Ulaana's agility and strength to the limit.

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Ultimately he's after the mare's milk, but it's not that straightforward.

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These wild mares don't give up their milk easily.

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They have to be tricked into it.

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His success will depend on total partnership with his horse.

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First, Ulaana lassoes the foals, so the mares will stay close.

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But even the foals are feisty.

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Ulaana leans behind his horse,

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using its strength and weight to resist the pull of the foal.

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He must balance at a gallop, using only his knees.

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Once he's caught a foal,

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his cousin Tungaa must get a halter on before it escapes.

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It is the first time they have felt the touch of a human hand.

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Once they're tethered, Ulaana can move on to the mares.

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This is the real battle - mares are five times his weight.

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With Ulaana at full stretch, everyone lends a hand.

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After two exhausting hours, the men begin to get the upper hand.

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Haltered and hobbled, this mare is finally subdued.

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Then they're left to calm down with their foals.

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Only with the foal suckling will the mare let down her milk

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and then Tungaa has a brief chance to draw some off for the family.

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But Mongolians prefer their milk with a twist.

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Their innovation has been to ferment this sugary milk into airag,

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a slightly alcoholic yoghurt.

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The yoghurt bacteria turns the milk

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into their most nutritious summer food.

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Without harming their animals,

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Ulaana's family can live off them year after year,

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turning the goodness of grass into yoghurt

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but, having bound their lives to the grazing herds, they are nomads,

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following the herds on their perpetual search for fresh pastures.

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In other cultures, we have taken this mastery a step further,

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taming and breeding the wild herds,

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making them docile and easy to handle.

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In the African savannah, herders keep their cattle close.

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They are owned now

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and, like property owners everywhere, men will fight to protect them.

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In the grasslands of southern Ethiopia,

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the Suri take this protection to extremes.

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Here, rival tribes even fight battles over cattle.

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So Suri herders must become warriors.

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Shahuri will stop at nothing to defend his herd.

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For the Suri, cattle are currency.

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Too valuable to kill, they care for them intimately.

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Every year Shahuri must undergo a ritual trial of courage

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to prove he's got what it takes to be a cattle warrior.

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He gets strength for the combat ahead directly from his cows

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by drinking their blood.

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It may look brutal, but it doesn't kill them.

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This rich blood gives Shahuri essential protein and iron,

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and his prize animal will recover quickly.

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The vicious ritual of donga

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will make or break Shahuri's reputation as a cowboy.

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It's the day of judgment.

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The rival Suri clans arrive, psyched up and ready for donga.

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(SINGING)

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It lasts a day.

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You pick an opponent from the neighbouring village for a duel.

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The more victories you win, the greater your courage.

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Shahuri walks to the ring.

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Even taking part in this ritual takes serious guts.

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He has no armour. His only defence is a lucky sunhat.

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Shahuri watches and waits.

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The donga sticks are two metres long. They can cause serious injury.

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To win, you must thrash your opponent until surrender.

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Finally, Shahuri is ready for battle.

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It's a victory, but not emphatic. To prove himself, he fights again.

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Suddenly his opponent backs down. Shahuri is the champion.

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Lifted high, his clan celebrate his victory.

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His cattle have their protector.

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Shahuri has proved he can be a cowboy, Ethiopian style.

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But in the Australian outback, they've reinvented the cowboy big time.

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Here, supersized ranches across the country hold 30 million cattle.

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This is the total mastery of man over beast,

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our ultimate ingenuity in the grasslands.

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Round-up used to take a month. Not any more.

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Ben Tapp is a muster pilot,

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and he must bring in 2,000 of his best cattle in just five days to get paid.

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He'll need all his flying skills,

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his ability to read the cattle, and his mate Rankin, if he's to succeed.

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(INDISTINCT RADIO CHATTER)

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BEN: If you can understand the cattle,

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you can already anticipate what they're going to do.

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Like a good cattleman,

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you can identify every single beast, and every single beast is different.

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His cattle are out there somewhere.

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Scouting by air allows Ben to home in on them fast.

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It appears there's about six or seven of them along the line.

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When they find a group of cows,

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they drop down to the "death zone" to flush them out.

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Clipping any tree will be fatal.

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Don't put too much pressure on them. They're fairly hot now.

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Just stick with that mob there. Keep them going that way.

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You stick with them. Oh, here's this mob here.

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There are always some trouble-makers.

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We've got another...probably 150 coming in.

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The choppers work together, pushing the growing herd,

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but they've got 50 kilometres and billabongs to cross

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before they get to the ranch.

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Ben's cattle really don't like swimming.

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Anywhere here, where they're ready to cross, we'll just let them go.

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Oh, look out, look out!

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Every year, about ten muster pilots crash and burn.

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Just steady up there.

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-- They just work along...

-- Yeah.

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From eight kilometres out, the ground crew joins the drive.

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I think we'll target a little bit southward.

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Come around. Everyone's here, right?

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But Ben's still calling the shots.

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Oh, the motorbike follows. Come on!

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Come on, motorbike! Motorbike follow, come on!

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Hurry up! They're going to go that way!

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Keep them going the way they are heading there now.

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(BEN CHUCKLES)

0:46:320:46:34

Now, we don't need to wait for the wildebeest migration,

0:46:380:46:43

we create our own.

0:46:430:46:45

Grasslands have allowed us to dominate the planet.

0:46:500:46:54

They are the landscape of phenomenal human achievement.

0:46:540:46:58

They underpin our present global existence.

0:47:000:47:04

These cattle, native to India, raised in Australia,

0:47:070:47:10

will soon be shipped out to feed the international appetite for beef.

0:47:100:47:15

And over the season...

0:47:150:47:17

they'll make Ben a millionaire.

0:47:170:47:20

-- Are you making much out of it?

-- Yeah.

0:47:200:47:24

About 1.3 million bucks.

0:47:240:47:27

That's worth getting out of bed for!

0:47:270:47:29

-- Yeah.

-- (CHUCKLES)

0:47:290:47:32

Our ingenuity and teamwork, intelligence and courage

0:47:360:47:40

have all been refined in the grasslands.

0:47:400:47:44

And this uniquely human combination of skills

0:47:470:47:51

has enabled us to conquer the world.

0:47:510:47:54

Without the grasslands,

0:47:590:48:01

planet Earth would never have become the Human Planet.

0:48:010:48:05

Trying to steal food from the jaws of the most powerful predator in Africa

0:48:140:48:19

may seem to us like lunacy,

0:48:190:48:20

but this extraordinary and dangerous feat

0:48:200:48:24

has been practised in Kenya for thousands of years.

0:48:240:48:27

But it has never been filmed before, and may never be filmed again.

0:48:320:48:37

The Dorobo are an ancient tribe who live in the grasslands of East Africa.

0:48:440:48:49

Conservation laws now stop many of their traditional practices

0:48:490:48:53

and so threaten their whole way of life.

0:48:530:48:56

To record this unique sequence, the Grasslands team needed a man

0:49:000:49:05

who understands both lions and the Dorobo people who live here.

0:49:050:49:09

Jackson Looseyia, the crew's guide,

0:49:100:49:13

has a deep understanding of this way of life,

0:49:130:49:16

having grown up nearby in the Masai Mara.

0:49:160:49:20

When I was asked by the BBC if they are able to document this story,

0:49:210:49:25

I said, yeah, because it's something that I've practised myself.

0:49:250:49:29

I've chased lions from food when I was growing up.

0:49:290:49:32

I knew this lifestyle.

0:49:320:49:34

It's possible,

0:49:340:49:35

it's just a matter of if the BBC are able

0:49:350:49:38

to capture this before it is gone.

0:49:380:49:41

It won't be easy, as the lions here aren't used to cars,

0:49:430:49:47

so they're difficult to approach.

0:49:470:49:49

They mainly hunt at night when it's too dangerous to get close on foot.

0:49:490:49:54

So the challenge is to find a lion kill at dawn,

0:49:570:50:00

to enable the Dorobo

0:50:000:50:02

and big cat cameraman Warren Samuels to do their jobs.

0:50:020:50:07

We've got to wait for the lion to make the kill

0:50:070:50:09

and it's got to be at a time when we can still come out early morning

0:50:090:50:12

and still have enough light to film them on the kill.

0:50:120:50:15

We're hoping for a lot of luck.

0:50:150:50:19

At first light, Jackson joins the Dorobo,

0:50:200:50:23

in the hope of tracking down a fresh lion kill.

0:50:230:50:25

You can see this is a footprint of a lion, a very big lion,

0:50:250:50:29

and you can see there's a footprint of a wildebeest.

0:50:290:50:33

Look here, you see, this is a very, very big pride,

0:50:330:50:37

looking at the number of footprints,

0:50:370:50:39

and the number of places that they like to drink.

0:50:390:50:43

Because lions often hunt just before dawn,

0:50:440:50:47

the team have to follow them both day and night.

0:50:470:50:50

(INDISTINCT RADIO CHATTER)

0:50:500:50:53

(QUIETLY) In Africa, night is everything.

0:50:540:50:57

It's terrifying, it's scary. But it's so much alive.

0:50:570:51:00

Do you see them? There are the lions, we've found them, listen.

0:51:070:51:11

Sharing the night shift with Jackson is Human Planet researcher, Jane Atkins.

0:51:110:51:17

JANE: We just came across lionesses with their eight cubs

0:51:170:51:20

quite local to where the Dorobo guys live.

0:51:200:51:22

But the down side of that

0:51:220:51:24

is that when the Dorobo do come across a kill,

0:51:240:51:26

if it's in this area with this pride,

0:51:260:51:29

these lionesses are going to be a lot more aggressive and protective.

0:51:290:51:33

JACKSON: The struggle to try and keep up with this pride at night

0:51:380:51:41

is because they cross in places that a vehicle would not be able to cross.

0:51:410:51:45

Once you lose them, you know, they do stuff behind your back.

0:51:450:51:48

So you are having to be on the go the whole time.

0:51:480:51:51

After following the lions all night, they still haven't seen a kill.

0:51:530:51:59

Warren, on the day shift, discovers there's a very good reason why.

0:51:590:52:04

Ideally, the situation we wanted here was big herds of wildebeest,

0:52:040:52:08

we wanted to get lions making kills,

0:52:080:52:10

but the rains have come a little early,

0:52:100:52:12

so most of the animals are up on the plains.

0:52:120:52:14

All we've got now are small groups of five or six wildebeest.

0:52:140:52:17

So we're really hoping that one of those groups of lions gets lucky

0:52:170:52:21

and that they manage to kill one of them.

0:52:210:52:23

OVER RADIO: No more groups of wildebeest. Just that one group you can see.

0:52:230:52:26

Four more days pass and no lion kills have been seen.

0:52:260:52:30

Finally, they get a shred of luck.

0:52:320:52:34

We've got a big herd of wildebeest

0:52:350:52:37

going through the horizon heading to the crossings again.

0:52:370:52:41

We may have a chance again of a kill.

0:52:410:52:44

The crew head off on the heels of the Dorobo.

0:52:480:52:52

But after hours of tracking, again there's no sign of a kill.

0:52:520:52:57

Jane and the night shift take over.

0:53:000:53:03

We've just come across the lionesses and the male and all their cubs

0:53:070:53:12

on a kill, and we are about...

0:53:120:53:15

five metres away.

0:53:150:53:19

The adult male is sitting now on a wildebeest kill.

0:53:190:53:22

We are not going to be able to film this because, by the time it gets light,

0:53:250:53:30

they'll have finished it.

0:53:300:53:33

But it's absolutely amazing to be able to see it so close.

0:53:330:53:38

The vehicle is now surrounded by 23 hungry lions.

0:53:390:53:44

(SNARLING)

0:53:440:53:47

JANE: Oh, God!

0:53:560:53:58

(LAUGHS) My God!

0:54:020:54:04

We've just had a lion chewing at our back tyre,

0:54:060:54:10

and I absolutely kacked myself!

0:54:100:54:13

Look at them!

0:54:270:54:28

Not the Dorobo. They say they do it all the time.

0:54:280:54:31

I don't know how they do it, I mean...

0:54:310:54:34

(SQUEALING)

0:54:340:54:36

...it's terrifying.

0:54:360:54:38

By dawn, the lions have finished the kill.

0:54:450:54:48

At the shift change, the power of the lion's bite is revealed.

0:54:480:54:55

Look at that, it's amazing!

0:54:550:54:57

Quite an adrenaline-filled night, really.

0:54:570:55:02

It's eight in the morning, I've just finished my night shift,

0:55:030:55:06

and although we found lions on a kill,

0:55:060:55:08

by the time Warren came out and it was light enough for him to film,

0:55:080:55:12

the carcass was pretty much ripped apart.

0:55:120:55:16

You know, we've only got a few more days left.

0:55:170:55:19

At last they get the news everyone's been waiting for.

0:55:220:55:25

The pride they've been following has made a fresh kill.

0:55:250:55:29

It's light enough to film, and the Dorobo are ready.

0:55:290:55:32

We are just trying to find a position where we can get a clear view.

0:55:440:55:47

There's too much brush in the way.

0:55:470:55:49

The crew are still worried about the Dorobos' safety.

0:55:500:55:54

JACKSON: I didn't believe that we would get this shot.

0:56:520:56:55

I thought the lions would attack these guys

0:56:550:56:58

especially when they had their cubs.

0:56:580:57:00

But all of a sudden, when the big male got up and ran,

0:57:000:57:03

I was relieved, because I thought he would be the one which will attack us,

0:57:030:57:08

but I'm really, really chuffed. Great stuff! Ay-ay-ah!

0:57:080:57:13

The special connection I've got with the Dorobo is the lifestyle.

0:57:170:57:21

It's pretty sad to know that it's about to disappear.

0:57:210:57:26

The time that I've spent with these guys, I think it's too short.

0:57:260:57:32

I've realised how much I have lost and how much I have learnt so far

0:57:320:57:37

since I have been with them in the last two weeks.

0:57:370:57:41

I would be very happy if this has been captured for my kids

0:57:420:57:47

and the rest of the generations of the Dorobo kids,

0:57:470:57:50

and be proud that our ancestors, our fathers, our elders

0:57:500:57:53

did practise this scary, scary experience.

0:57:530:57:57

(GROWLING)

0:57:570:57:59

Grasslands feed the world. Over thousands of years, we humans have learned to grow grains on the grasslands and domesticate the creatures that live there. Our success has propelled our population to almost seven billion people.

But this episode reveals that, even today, life in the 'Garden of Eden' is not always rosy. We walk with the Dorobo people of Kenya as they bravely attempt to scare off a pride of hungry lions from their freshly caught kill. We gallop across the Steppe with extraordinary Mongolian horsemen who were 'born in the saddle'. And in a perfect partnership with nature built up over generations, Maasai children must literally talk to the birds. The honeyguide leads them to find sweet treats, but they'll have to repay the favour.


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