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“Patience, perseverance and a little luck made it possible” – an interview with BBC’s Big Cats series producer

 

Through the recent BBC Big Cats series we’ve been able to immerse ourselves in the lives of the world’s feisty felids – from the most elusive to the most deadly. With the launch of new technology systems which have allowed us to delve into the intricate depths of these animals’ lives, we were curious to find out more about the making of the BBC’s first series to focus solely on one group of animals.

Speaking to series producer, Gavin Boyland, we discovered the challenges behind creating the series, as well as why now is a crucial time to spread the word about big cat conservation.

Jaguar (Panthera onca) © David Lawson / WWF-UKJaguar (Panthera onca) © David Lawson / WWF-UK

Where did the idea for the series come from?

A few years back the Natural History Unit did a series on the shark family, and this approach, of doing an in depth, definitive series on one group of animals seemed to work well. It gave us the opportunity to really explore the diversity and character of a complete animal family. All we needed was a charismatic, much loved and perhaps a little misunderstood group of animals. What better subject matter than the cats? New filming technologies, and a surge in cat research, enabled us to document the cats in more detail than ever before.

What was the most challenging or surprising part of making it?

The natural behaviour and temperament of cats was always going to be our biggest challenge. These are shy, illusive, cryptic animals, usually solitary, often nocturnal, and always unpredictable. There’s a good reason why the BBC had never tried to do a whole series on the cats before. Simply finding them would prove difficult, never mind filming amazing captivating behaviour our audiences have grown to love. Patience, perseverance and a little luck made it possible in the end.

Two month old African lion (Panthera leo) © Martin Harvey / WWFTwo month old African lion (Panthera leo) © Martin Harvey / WWF

What do you hope this series will achieve?

Although it may sound like a cliché, making a series like this comes back to the three founding principles of the BBC – to inform, educate and entertain. When a series is scheduled for primetime, on our flagship channel BBC One (something that is decided when the show is commissioned) entertainment is a hugely important part of this.

We want our audience to be bowled over by the images and captivated by the story telling. We think the factual side of the show is hugely important, and we’re always checking and double checking all of the content as we want our audiences to learn about the cats whilst also being entertained by them.  But also, in this day and age when so much of the natural world is threaten by our activities, it’s only right that we’re frank and honest about it. It’s important that in the third episode we deal with the threats facing cats and their conservation, as this now becoming more common in natural history documentaries.

What did you learn about the challenges facing cat species?

Cats face so many different challenges, but there’s one factor in particular that seemed to come up again and again, and that’s space. It seemed to me that although there are still issues, cats are well protected. When given the right conditions, they breed well and can be very successful. What they really need is a space that’s safe, and lots of it. This idea is illustrated best by the tigers in India, all the reserves are at their carrying capacity, the tigers are breeding well but there’s simply no room for them to expand into.

Indian tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) © David Lawson / WWF-UKIndian tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) © David Lawson / WWF-UK

What did you learn about how we can protect cat species?

The biggest thing I’ve learnt is the incredible effort and passion that already goes into protecting cats. But there’s still so much to do. I hope with a series like this we can help raise a broad awareness. I hope we inspire people of go and see cats for themselves in their natural habitat. Making cats economically valuable and seeing profits shared with local communities is so important.

And finally, what is your favourite cat species and why (and has your favourite changed since producing the series)?

Having filmed, and featured, so many of the cats many have stood out. The adorable rusty spotted, the tenacious black-footed, the weird but certainly wonderful Pallas’s cat, the grace and elegance of the cheetah, the majesty and power of the tiger. But my favourite would have to be the Iberian lynx, they are, quite simply, beautiful animals, and full of character. The fact that they live in mainland Europe, amongst ancient Mediterranean oak or cork forest, adds a certain romance to the species. Their story is one of triumph against adversary. The rarest cat in the world, now, due to the incredible dedication and commitment of all those involved, is on the increase in the wild. We were incredibly privileged to be asked to film the release of two lynx, and for me it’s one of the most uplifting and hopeful moments in the whole series.

Find out how you can support our work to protect big cats.

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