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The superheroes of 'African Cats' and 'Born to Be Wild'

The drama comes naturally in a pair of new documentaries — one focusing on two families of big cats, the other on orphaned orangutans and baby elephants.

April 21, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • A scene from "African Cats."
A scene from "African Cats." (Owen Newman / Disney Enterprises,…)

Disneynature's new documentary "African Cats" centers on two animal families struggling to survive in the savanna in Kenya: an injured lioness raising a cub and a cheetah who's just given birth to five cubs. The threats they face — including shrinking habitat and opposing prides — prompted the film's co-director Keith Scholey to compare the creatures to the sorts of characters who more routinely populate the multiplex these days.

"When you see what they go through to become an adult … they are just superheroes," said Scholey, who directed the film, which opens Friday, with Alastair Fothergill. "I wanted this film to be very truthful to that, so the audience would understand how incredible these animals are and what they have to go through to succeed."

For "African Cats," Scholey drew on his experiences working on Animal Planet's "Big Cat Diary," a nature series that also featured the cheetah mother Sita. He and Fothergill spent two years in Kenya's Masai Mara region shooting the documentary using state-of-the-art digital cameras. They filmed most of their footage from trucks in order to maintain a safe distance from the animals.

"The wonderful thing about the Masai Mara is that there have been tourists going there for many, many years, so all the animals have become habituated to cars," Scholey said. "They are not bothered by the presence of a car, especially the cats. If you stay within the car you can pretty much sit and watch behavior play out in a natural way."

The problems posed by vanishing habitat — and poachers — figures prominently in "Born to Be Wild," another nature documentary released earlier this month in IMAX 3-D. That film follows the efforts of two women, Birute Mary Galdikas and Daphne M. Sheldrick, who have worked tirelessly on behalf of orphaned orangutans and elephants in Borneo and Kenya.

"It is the stuff of fairy tales and very long novels," said "Born to Be Wild" writer/producer Drew Fellman. "We are trying to bring you into the world of these animals. It is about their resurrection and journey to freedom."

Galdikas has worked for 40 years to save and rehabilitate orangutans at her Orangutan Foundation International in central Borneo, while Sheldrick has saved and rehabilitated 130 baby elephants in Kenya through her David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Galdikas and her staff of nearly 130 are currently caring for 330 orangutans.

"All of them are wild-born orphans," she said. "Most of them are tiny babies, some are juveniles, and some are adolescents. The whole problem that we face is that we don't have enough forest to return them to."

The Borneo rain forest is being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, she said. "We have persuaded the Indonesian government to set aside forest, and we are also buying forest and patrolling it," Galdikas said. "We have a number of different tactics that we use in order to save the rain forest — just one tactic is not going to work."

Sheldrick said that tending baby elephants after their mothers have been killed by poachers for ivory can be emotionally taxing.

"There are good times and bad times as well," she said, adding that elephants "are very human animals. They have the same sense of family and death as we do. They are very caring animals, and in some ways, they are just better than us."

susan.king@latimes.com

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