Arriving in the Delta at four days old, Brad Bestelink has just about as much claim to his environment as the animals he films. Catching up with him before his latest film series, Savage Kingdom, hits our screens in November, Rose Gamble finds out about fishing leopards, diving with wild crocodiles and living on the road
Producer, director and cinematographer Brad Bestelink grew up in Botswana. He specialises in filming unusual predator behaviour, forged as a result of unique environmental circumstances.
Brad and his wife, Andy Crawford, founded the Natural History Film Unit. The company has pioneered filming wild Nile crocodiles from underwater, and has produced several other films. His latest series, Savage Kingdom, produced and filmed over two years, captures an extraordinary sequence of behaviours as the mysterious Savute channel in Chobe, Botswana dries up, forcing a group of predators to find unique means of survival.
How did you get into wildlife filming?
I had very adventurous parents. My mum built the first photographic tourism camp in the Okavango. In 1960s Botswana, the only reason to go into the bush was to hunt and my parents were pioneering in taking a stand, offering tourists something different.
I grew up in the bush, arriving in the Delta at four days old. At that age your environment really permeates into your being.
I got my professional guiding license aged 16, yet I quickly tired of tourism. It was just sound bites. I didn’t want to hunt, I didn’t want to take tourists. So how else do you justify a full time life in the bush? I got an internship with wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverley Joubert, and stayed working with them for the next 12 years. I founded the Natural History Film Unit along with my wife Andy when I felt I had the skills to go it alone.
What has been your most unusual filming project?
Predators fascinate me. They are intelligent animals so if there’s an environmental circumstance that is unique, they will adapt to it. I went in a particular direction with my filmmaking, choosing to focus on this adaptation. I try to produce footage that no one has seen before.
We spend a huge amount of time in Savute, in Chobe National Park. The area is incredibly dry and desert-like. There’s a river, the Savute channel, which flows through it. A few years back the water had dried up and a family of leopards started feeding on the catfish left behind in the mud. The leopards developed a taste for fish and when the water started flowing again they learnt to catch them by diving into the water. We made a documentary about it called Africa’s Fishing Leopards.
How do you find out about these behaviour patterns?
What gives us the advantage is the amount of time we spend filming in an area. We see these shifts in the weather, in the environment. It’s always when their surroundings are on the cusp of change that predators will begin to adapt.
We also keep on finding new ways to learn. My wife and I pioneered diving with wild crocodiles in an area of northern Botswana. Crocodiles are totally different animals under water. They are extremely elegant and their navigation is incredible in the way they hunt and move. We learned entirely new things about crocodiles through doing this.
What does an average day look like for you?
Filming animal biographies and behaviour means that you’ve got to put the time in. We’ll live out in the bush for two years at a time. We sleep on top of the vehicles and move with the animals. We’ll track them from sunrise to sunset and get to know them. If you stay in a camp you extract yourself. You’ve got to keep moving. We just go home periodically to pay the bills, that kind of thing.
What are the key characteristics of a good wildlife filmmaker?
An intrinsic fascination with and love of animals. You can learn camera skills but, above all, it has to be a love of animals that drives you.
What do you like best about your job?
You can live in complete and utter optimism all the time. You live everyday with hope because absolutely anything can happen. In the city there are routines – out in the bush every single day is different.
Savage Kingdom, a series of three episodes, will premiere on National Geographic Wild on 25 November 2016.
Rose Gamble spoke to Brad whilst on a horse riding safari in the Delta with Okavango Horse okavangohorse.com, which is run by Brad’s father PJ Bestelink, along with his wife Barney Bestelink.