LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE is a documentary series that runs on three successive Wednesdays on PBS, beginning May 19. It chronicles what happens when an artificial waterhole is created inside Africa’s Mwiba Wildlife Reserve in Tanzania.
A filming blind is constructed within the waterhole. The animals don’t see the equipment, and the camera operators work remotely. This allows the wildlife to drink without fear, which in turn allows viewers a unique vantage point on Mwiba’s native creatures.
LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE covers a year at the title location, through the dry season, the hot season, and the rainy season. It is hosted by conservation scientist Dr. M. Sanjayan. The doctor’s co-host is cinematographer Bob Poole, who often went out alone in his Land Rover to do night photography in the areas around the waterhole.
Poole was born in the United States, but says, “I moved to Africa when I was three, and kind of grew up there.” He was part of the Emmy-winning cinematography team on 2010’s PBS documentary GREAT MIGRATIONS. Some of Poole’s other documentary work includes COMING OF AGE WITH ELEPHANTS, ABC WORLD OF DISCOVERY: WOLF – RETURN OF A LEGEND, KING COBRA, and WAR ELEPHANTS.
In a phone interview while he is in Idaho, Poole talks about LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE.
ASSIGNMENT X: Have you done a lot of work for PBS over the years?
BOB POOLE: Yes, I have. My first stuff with PBS is ages ago, probably thirty years ago. But more recently, I’ve been doing a lot of co-productions with the BBC as kind of a token American, and most of it’s been in Africa, although there’s been some in Asia. Probably the biggest thing I’ve done with PBS was a six-part series that I hosted and shot and narrated. That was called GORONGOSA PARK: REBIRTH OF PARADISE [in 2015]. It was about a national park in Mozambique.
AX: When the idea came up for LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE, were you involved in advising them how to construct the camera blind?
POOLE: No, I wasn’t. I was not involved in the set-up at all. I basically came on when we were ready to start filming?
AX: Do you know if the idea originally was, “What’s the best way for us to film wildlife at a waterhole, why don’t we make our own waterhole?” Or was it, “What would happen if we made a waterhole?”
POOLE: I think it’s more what would happen. And one of the reasons for that is that, in Africa nowadays, with wildlife habitat being taken over constantly by human activities, it’s getting harder and harder. People will come in, and they’ll block off waterholes to reserve the water for their cattle, and sheep, and goats, making it very difficult for wildlife to get any water in really dry periods. And in the past, it really wasn’t thought of as a great idea to build waterholes, because it just upset the balance of nature. But now, it actually could be a management tool, because you’re really losing a lot of the places where wildlife would otherwise drink. That said, wildlife really only thrives in most places inside of protected areas. But it is a good experiment, and I think that was the intention.
AX: Do you know if the waterhole is still being maintained now that filming on LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE has ended?
POOLE: I would imagine that that waterhole will be maintained, because it’s a very dry environment, and it was clearly good for the wildlife to have that water. And it’s also very clean water. Animals, like us, prefer clean water, and in the dry season, a lot of water that remains available for wildlife is really not very pleasant.
AX: According to your biography, you’ve had a lot of experience filming elephants. Did your previous elephant experience come in handy here, or did you have to do anything differently because of the blind and any other factors that were new?
POOLE: My experience with elephants goes way back. I was raised around wild elephants, so I know a lot about elephants. My older sister, Dr. Joyce Poole, is actually the world’s leading expert on African elephant behavior. She discovered some amazing things [even back when she was] in her twenties, like the fact that elephants communicate in frequencies that we can’t hear. So, she’s been a big force in that community for a long time. I’ve learned a lot, making films about her, and also, lots of elephant films that I’ve worked on.
But in terms of [LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE], I wasn’t really at the waterhole that often. I was from time to time, but most of the time, I was roaming around on my own, following clues, trying to figure out what animals were in the area, what might be coming to the waterhole – lions and elephants, all kinds of things. That was kind of my main role there.
AX: In the documentary, when you’re driving around in the Land Rover, we often see you when you’re talking to the camera. Who is photographing you in those sequences?
POOLE: We had quite a crew on this one. There were camera people who were in charge of all the cameras at the waterhole, there was crew that was dedicated to Sanjay, and at times, they would break off and follow me. A lot of the time, I was just filming out on my own. A lot of the wildlife sequences or images that you see there that are away from the waterhole, that’s mostly my footage.
AX: But when you’re driving around, there’s somebody else in the vehicle with you to photograph you?
POOLE: Yes. Occasionally, we would set up a remote camera [without an operator] that was just rolling. But for the most part, there was a crew.
AX: Are there animals in LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE that you had not filmed before?
POOLE: I can’t think of any. But my career has been filming African wildlife, and every time you go, you come across something you’ve never seen, or a situation that’s new and different.
AX: This may be a big spoiler, but do crocodiles ever come to the waterhole, or because there were no other nearby bodies of water to accommodate them, is that kind of an overland journey too much for a crocodile?
POOLE: There is nothing too much for a crocodile. They never cease to amaze me, what they do to survive, and what lengths they will go to find water. But to my knowledge, there were no crocodiles that came to that waterhole. It would be something that would likely take a while for a crocodile to find. I think crocodiles are really good at finding water when, say, they’re in a source of water that dries up and they have to move. They can do that by hiding in the shade during the day and moving at night. They smell out water. But we were only there at that waterhole for that one year, so it’s unlikely that crocodiles had found that. If they had, we would have seen them.
AX: Well, a hippo shows up in the first episode …
POOLE: Yeah. Hippos move great distances every day. They can move up to thirty kilometers in a night. So, they’re moving around at nighttime all over the place. So, it’s not really so unusual that a hippo found that.
AX: Would it be correct to think that a hippo is like an elephant, in that there aren’t too many other animals that would mess with them?
POOLE: Right. Hippos do get taken by some predators, like lions, but it’s really difficult. That’s a tough thing to kill.
AX: Hippos can be aggressive …
POOLE: Yes. I think, apart from mosquitoes, they kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They’re pretty dangerous. There is a sequence about [African] buffalo, which are also dangerous. I think it’s those animals that aren’t really great at running away that turn and fight, that tend to be more dangerous, and the buffalo and hippo are like that. I think that’s why they have that reputation.
AX: Was there any behavior that you observed during LIFE AT THE WATERHOLE that really surprised you?
POOLE: Well, one is a story point. It’s kind of a thread through this, following lions. There’s a female lion there who doesn’t have other females in her pride. In lion prides, females actually co-raise cubs, they’ll nurse other females’ cubs within the pride. I’m following a female, and she has three cubs, which I found when they were very young, some of the smallest lion cubs I’ve ever seen. I was able to do that using a thermal camera that can film in total darkness. And you see that in the series.
So, I followed these lions as they went through their first year. At times, I would lose them for months. And what was surprising, what I hadn’t filmed, before was a female raising these three cubs on her own. Very, very difficult, because there’s nobody to watch the cubs when she goes out to hunt, and she has to hunt and kill and feed for herself, and while she’s gone, those cubs are in real danger, because there are so many hyenas and leopards, and any other predator would kill those cubs. Even baboons or anything would try to kill those cubs. So, she had a very tough job, and a female raising cubs on her own is something I hadn’t filmed before.
AX: There are two males with her, but presumably one is the cubs’ father, and the other one is close enough to the other male, so they’re not inclined to harm the cubs?
POOLE: Right. Those are brothers, and they’re part of a pride [with] that female. Males are pretty respectful within the pride. They don’t argue over females. Either one is with her or the other, but there’s not a lot of competition in that way. You compete to take over a pride or you compete with other males trying to take over your pride, but within the pride, there’s not a lot of fighting among males.
AX: But it’s a very small pride, and the males can’t babysit the cubs?
POOLE: No. Those males are busy, because they have a really big territory and, as you see, there are other males that come in. And so, their job really is to defend that territory. [That’s why] it helps to have big prides. That’s one of the problems with lion populations in Africa now, is that there are these small prides of lions, as opposed to big prides that are able to defend themselves against incoming males. There’s a kind of perpetual turnover where there’s a lot of death.
When a new male takes over a pride, he goes and kills those cubs [that are the offspring of the previous alpha male]. And so these two males, the brothers, are the only males that are trying to defend a huge territory, and protect those cubs by keeping other males out of that territory. So, they’re not with the cubs. I mean, they would be with the cubs from time to time, but they can’t stay with them.
AX: Their major concern is other male lions, it’s not any other kind of predator? I mean, they’re not too worried about baboons, or …
POOLE: If they were there – well, nothing like a baboon or anything would come if they were there with the cubs. But I think, not really being a lion [laughs], but just having observed them so much in their habits, I’d say their job is to defend their territory, and that’s foremost than day-to-day watching over their cubs.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: Cameraman Bob Poole on LIFE IN THE WATERHOLE – Part 1