Explore the unbelievable relationship between award-winning wildlife filmmaker Kim Wolhuter and a clan of completely wild Spotted Hyenas.
Kim Wolhuter is a renowned wildlife filmmaker and conservationist from South Africa. What distinguishes his work from all other filmmakers is the incredible bonds that he forms with his subjects. Kim spends a minimum of eighteen months on each project and this extended period ensures that the animals he works with are completely relaxed in his presence. Through gaining unprecedented access to his subjects, Kim’s goal is to dispel myths that cloud certain species and ultimately restore our connection to nature.
There are very few mammals with a worse reputation than the spotted hyena. Kim has made it his mission to change that. Disney started villainising hyenas with The Lion King – smelly, dirty, ugly, devious scavengers.
Kim is based in the Sango Wildlife Conservancy in Zimbabwe, where he has formed a remarkable, tactile relationship with completely wild hyenas.
He works with three basic but critical rules:
He never carries a weapon – being armed can lead to arrogance which some animals might detect (although not as arrogance obviously but possibly as overbearing dominance).
The hyenas come to Kim apparently purely for affection. He NEVER feeds them. When food is involved, Kim will often remove himself from the situation.
They make the rules. Every interaction happens on their terms. Kim positions himself near the hyenas and waits for them to come to him.
Many people regard Kim’s work as unethical, interfering with wildlife and changing their natural behaviour. There is an element of truth behind changing their behaviour because, of course, if Kim wasn’t there, the hyenas wouldn’t walk up to him. However, this can also be said for safari vehicles. Just because an animal has become used to vehicles does not mean they enjoy the interaction. I have seen countless examples of safari vehicles having adverse effects on animals, yet far fewer people think of these as unethical.
Is Kim’s interaction with the hyenas harming them? From my experience, no. As pictured here, the hyenas appear to love the affection, and after all, the interactions are strictly on their terms. If they didn’t want it, they wouldn’t approach him.
The other often raised concern is that the animals habituated to Kim will be more vulnerable to poaching. There is no doubt that animals pick up on our body language, and a poacher will move very differently from somebody with innocent motives. The hyenas also know Kim individually; just because he has got the clan used to him does not mean that they will be comfortable in the presence of others. I experienced this firsthand.
To get these immersive, eye-level images, I also had to be low to the ground in and amongst the hyenas. Many of the cubs approached me in a familiar setting for the clan out of curiosity but with extreme caution. None of the adults came to within five meters of me, whereas they were more than happy to receive scratches from Kim.
I think most of the opposition to Kim arises because he is doing what no others are. It is in our nature to fear the unknown and to question different practices. A lot of people discount his work as unethical without ever researching what he does. Kim has dedicated his life to protecting wildlife, and by showcasing the relationships that he forms with his subjects, he allows others to feel what he does. A love of wildlife. The value of that alone to wildlife conservation is impossible to quantify.