The Neverending Story

Project: Operation Free Ranging Lions...
October 1, 1998

Project: Operation Free Ranging Lions

Description: The three-part doc is about the quickly disappearing lions and one man’s struggle to save them against the odds of diminishing hunting fields, conflict with man and tuberculosis.

Executive Producer: Bedelia Basson

Director/editor: Bedelia Basson and

Greg Nelson

Producer: Bedelia Basson

Distributor: GA&A

Budget: US$450,000 – $510,000

When Gioia Avvantaggiato, president and CEO of GA&A, was approached by Angela van Schalkwyk, editor of Screen Africa and product consultant to Rome’s GA&A since November `97, advising that there was a production she felt would be of interest, Avvantaggiato knew immediately upon reading a synopsis that Van Schalkwyk was right.

Operation Free Ranging Lions started production as a labor of love by veteran producer/director/editor Bedelia Basson in 1997. Basson, who has 18 years experience producing documentaries, many for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), is soon joined by Greg Nelson, a well respected video cameraman in South Africa working with many foreign news teams.

So committed are Basson and Nelson to bringing the emotional plight of the lions to worldwide attention, that they pool their personal funds to put Operation Free Ranging Lions in production, hoping somehow their project will interest someone who cares enough to back what they are doing.

1996: The Ligwalagwala Nature Reserve hires Gerrie Comasho, lion specialist for the Mbumalanga Parks’ Board, hoping to create an eco-tourism attraction by integrating lions into the reserve. The first lions Comasho and his team brought to Ligwalagwala cause problems – each one breaking out of the Kruger National Park’s boundary and killing cattle. Bedelia Basson has received permission to produce a documentary that will follow every aspect of the capture, feeding and breeding to re-introduce healthy, free ranging lions.

Also involved in the project is the veterinary surgeon of Kruger Park, Dr. Dewald Keet, who is followed by the crew during some of the most dangerous aspects of this operation – the darting and capturing of the lions – and some of the most heartbreaking scenes – the destroying of the lions that are infected with tuberculosis.

Greg Nelson joins Basson as first cameraman and the pair set up a production company, Wild Company. Nelson is so attracted to the project that he moves himself and his family to Ligwalagwala without any source of income. He and Basson pool their personal funds to acquire additional camera equipment and other production necessities.

1997: Dr. Keet diagnoses several lions with TB. Since there is no test to find TB in living lions, the animals are put down and dissected.

Meanwhile, Basson and Nelson are following Comasho and his lions. The male has mated with the females and they, in turn, grant him some of the privileges given to a dominant male. Soon the pride will be ready for release and Comasho begins testing the radio tracking system that will monitor the new pride’s progress.

Keet diagnoses a female lion with TB who is from the same area of the Kruger park as Comasho’s lions. The future of Comasho’s lions is uncertain as Keet believes they are probably infected as well and cannot allow them to be released into the healthy area of Ligwalagwala. A decision is made that this newly formed pride must be taken back to Kruger. The crew continues to shoot, while Comasho helps as the young lions are darted and put down. A post-mortem reveals that all are infected.

Comasho learns that there are several lions in the northern part of Kruger park who were constantly raiding neighboring cattle herds. Fourteen lions are brought to Ligwalagwala but within a few short months, three die. The remaining 11 lions are from two different prides and the researchers are watching to see if they will form a single pride. If all goes well, the 11 lions will be set free in January 1998.

Things don’t go as well as planned. For a variety of different reasons, five lions are darted. The grass grows too high to see the animals and they are now frightened and skittish.

Late 1997: The story keeps changing, and Basson and Nelson know they have to keep rolling. However, they are running out of funds. Just before the South African Television Conference, Angela van Schalkwyk, editor of Screen Africa, and Gioia Avvantaggiato of GA&A enter into a relationship wherein van Schalkwyk will act as a programming consultant for GA&A.

December, 1997: GA&A and Wild Company enter into discussions about where the documentary is going and what role GA&A will play. Discussions begin with the concept of a one hour doc budgeted at US$170,000. It is decided by both parties that filming cannot stop as the first pride is due to be released.

January, 1998: GA&A sends veteran executive producer, Giorgio Belardelli to South Africa to oversee one of the company’s co-productions Kalahari – Living on the Edge. While there, he views Basson’s and Nelson’s project and is impressed with the story they are capturing on tape.

March, 1998: Basson and Nelson advise GA&A that Dr. Keet had phoned announcing that he may have developed a test for TB in the lions, which would be a major breakthrough for nature conservation. He invites the duo to shoot exclusively as he starts to put his new methods to practice.

More discussions are held with GA&A and the concept of a three-part documentary is examined. The budget for each hour is between US$150,000 and $170,000 bringing the three-part doc to a total of between $450,000 and $510,000. The first hour will take the story up to the release of the first pride. GA&A commits formally and starts the process of pre-sales.

May, 1998: More bad luck hits the production. The film crew finds a pregnant lion who has been killed in a poacher’s snare. Nine lions break free before being released and are roaming around. Again, more funding is needed.

Avvantaggiato wants to enter Operation Free Ranging Lions at Wildscreen. She decides to have GA&A start funding the production immediately, as not only is some new equipment needed but Basson and Nelson will have to find a way to go into post-production for the first hour while they continue to shoot.

June, 1998: Just as Nelson is ready to bring the first hour of the three-part documentary to Rome, Wild Company captures on film a Mozambique refugee fleeing in the middle of the night across the Kruger Park. The man is seen being attacked and eaten by a lion. Basson and Nelson know this will be another chapter.

October, 1998: With the first hour completed and submitted to Wildscreen, GA&A plans to be highly visible at MIP, seeking pre-sales and additional coproduction involvement to complete the second and third parts of the series.

See also:

The War That Wasn’t: World War III (pg. 58)

Staying Power: Champions of the Wild (pg. 64)

Family Drama: Mountain Rivals (pg. 70)

Days of Wine & Pre-Sales: Wine World (pg. 74)

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.