Call it an act of self-preservation. The longevity of Londolozi Productions in South Africa depends on the continued existence of the country’s – and the continent’s – animals and their natural environs. So, from their point of view, promoting conservation and sustainable development makes practical business sense – in addition to benefiting the planet. With that in mind, the prodco is moving towards a closer relationship with the Conservation Corporation Africa (CCAfrica), whose mandate is ‘to establish a significant extent of African real estate under wildlife,’ primarily through ‘low-impact, high-yield’ tourism.
A strong familial link already exists between the two companies. Brothers John and Dave Varty started Londolozi Productions in 1981, after years of running a private game park (Londolozi) in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Reserve, which borders Kruger National Park. John took on the mantle of filmmaker-in-the-trenches, while Dave focused his attention on strategic planning on all fronts. Using the Londolozi model of land restoration, wildlife conservation and community involvement, Dave launched CCAfrica in 1990 to introduce their eco-tourism concept to other areas.
To date, CCAfrica and Londolozi Productions have operated as separate entities, although one has often assisted the other. This year, the Varty brothers are working to forge a legal alliance between the prodco and the corporation. Oloff Bergh, general manager of Londolozi Productions, says, ‘We see ourselves as providing Africa’s entertainment to the world. We do it through the medium of film as Londolozi Productions, and CCAfrica does it by means of leisure travel, and the two are closely linked.’
One of their most recent joint initiatives is the launch of a new website in late September that will feature real-time video streaming, first from the Londolozi park and later from areas including the Luanga Valley and the Masai Mara. Bergh says the prodco will have at least three full-time, on-site camera crews capturing images to create the experience of a ‘virtual safari.’ The site will have links to London-based distributor Explore International, which distributes Londolozi’s programs, and will offer information about CCAfrica’s lodges. ‘There’s a business angle and a conservation communication angle,’ notes Bergh.
In the early 1990s, the site of the first adult elephant translocation from Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou Game Reserve was Phinda, CCAfrica’s game reserve that lies south of Londolozi, between the Ubombo Mountains and the Indian Ocean in Zululand. Les Carlisle, conservation and development manager of CCAfrica, says that the young elephants initially had problems settling down – like errant teenagers lacking parental guidance – but stabilized after a breeding herd was translocated from Kruger in 1994. In total, more than 1,500 head of game have been re-introduced to Phinda.
Taking the conservation concept one step further, John Varty is focusing on the creation of tiger sanctuaries outside of Asia, and has already initiated a pilot project in South Africa. So far, says Bergh, two purebred adult Bengal tigers are being carefully monitored by scientists, to assess the animals’ suitability for relocation.
While the pledge to help save tigers from extinction is above reproach, John Varty’s methodology is raising eyebrows. Says Bergh, ‘It’s a controversial project, we make no bones about that. But it is a genuine effort to do something. If you look at the statistics, the plight of the tiger is so severe that we believe drastic action is required. There are those who disagree very strongly with what we’re doing, but we have always believed that to make an effort is better than to sit back and watch a species go extinct.’
Throughout the entire process, John is capturing the story on both film and DVCAM. The plan is to make two documentaries; one about the philosophy and rationale behind the tiger sanctuary initiative, and the other about the two tigers themselves – their adaptation to their new habitat, their first hunting lessons, etc. Bergh says that Londolozi will also likely produce some magazine-style programming and diary updates from the footage, in addition to streaming to the website.
Varty is actively involved in shooting other docs. Two one-hour one-offs in the works are Sense & Scentability, which looks at why some animals eat flesh while others eat vegetation, and Animal Powers, which explores the symbolism surrounding certain animals in different African tribes. A third project, called Wild Man Walking, is about John Varty himself, his conservation philosophies and his experiences in the wild. Londolozi is producing Walking, though John is only involved as the subject.
Roughing it in the Bush: A journalist’s POV
Flying in over South Africa’s Sabi Sands reserve, I had no idea what to expect. While markets like MIPCOM and NATPE offer a wilderness of sorts – opening day on the floor of the Palais comes to mind – the chance to be out in the field rarely comes my way. I was intrigued at the thought of trodding a natural history filmmaker’s turf for a few days. Granted, I wasn’t really roughing it, but I did gain perspective on what it means to mingle with the ‘Big Five’ – lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhino.
Day One, midnight: I can’t sleep. Separated from the forest only by glass on four sides, all I can think about is my encounter with a buffalo earlier that evening. A security guard had kindly pointed out the animal by shining a light in its face as we walked past, not ten feet away. Weighing about 600 pounds, the buffalo had not seemed at all concerned, though I was acutely aware of its ability to flatten me if I got in its way. I moved on. Quickly.
Day Two, dusk: Sitting in an open-air Land Rover, watching a herd of elephants in the distance, the snap of branches suddenly sounds much closer than before. One lone straggler emerges directly in front of the vehicle. After turning to look, it rejoins the herd. Later, we hear leopards exchanging grunts, though they never emerge from the trees. My heartbeat returns to normal sometime after dinner.
Day Three, mid-morning: A lion tries – unsuccessfully – to mate with a lioness, as three Land Rovers full of wannabe adventurers look on (talk about pressure). She chooses to lie in the grass. He starts wandering around, within an arm’s length of one of the jeeps. We’ve been warned not to stand in or lean out of the vehicles. The animals have grown accustomed to a uniform shape, likely regarding the Land Rover as another animal. I fire a withering look at anyone who shifts an inch.
Day Four, mid-morning: White rhinos pose like prehistoric hold-overs in the open grasslands. I watch them, they ignore me. I’m finally relaxed enough to take a decent picture (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it).