A thrilling wildlife show supports conservation in East Africa during COVID-19

A team of six trying to make a difference
by Mathilda de Villiers

In the year where everything was canceled, a film project was born on the plains of the Serengeti that would make the dreams of a five-year-old boy come true while bringing attention to conservation efforts during the COVID-19 era.

Brendan Allen is from Cape Town, South Africa, and has been in Tanzania since the planet called “lockdown” because of COVID-19. Caught by travel restrictions on his way to filming on ‘Survivor USA’ in Fiji, he decided not to fly home to South Africa and instead stay where he was. What was a potentially dire situation quickly turned into something important that would shape the next few months, not only for Brendan, but for wildlife lovers and the conservation efforts in the highly acclaimed Serengeti National Park. 

‘Serengeti Show Live’ was born out of an idea to bring live action from the Serengeti to those who were stuck at home because of the virus, while raising awareness of conservation problems due to the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. “People were sitting at home not really getting any good news, so what good news can you give people? Well, wildlife, if you like it,” Brendan says. Without tourists, there isn’t the usual money flowing into the national parks, which means there is a lot less support for wildlife conservation. Without so many bodies on the ground in the parks, there has also been a massive increase in poaching on the African continent and around the world, creating a “free-for-all” environment. Brendan and his crew came across a group of poachers on one of their game drives and succeeded in chasing them away, only confirming that the problem is still very real and unfortunately it’s not getting better.

Shooting a wildlife show with a crew of six

For more than two months, the small crew of six wildlife-loving souls has been traveling across the vast plains of the Serengeti following the migration, catching some incredible sightings along the way. They have released three episodes per week, a total of 24 to date. Brendan is behind the camera, in the director’s chair and behind the editing screen, with Carel Verhoef in front of the camera as the show’s host. The episodes hold well-rounded, highly acclaimed sightings and hosts great educational episodes alongside the main installments. Sally Grierson is production manager and they are traveling with three Tanzanians;  – Zebadia Mmando is their camp manager, Alex Malkiady is the chef and Mashine (Joseph Swai) is the driver guide and mechanic. “We’ve got three South Africans and three Tanzanians trying to make a difference,” Brendan says.

Alongside the great wildlife viewing, ‘Serengeti Show Live’ is also home to a ‘Kids Corner’, educational episodes, where children can get to know the African wildlife better by learning  interesting facts about the bush. This was a fundamental part of their first thought behind the show – involving the entire family. The episodes speak for themselves – the wildlife sightings that they’ve had has been absolutely incredible, reminding the viewer why there is such a huge need to help these animals stay safe and stay alive. 

Fewer tourists means more poaching and less conservation

Since the pandemic began, national lockdowns, border closures, quarantines and many other measures put in place have severely affected Africa’s $39 billion tourism industry. Poachers weren’t taking risks before going into areas where tourists would visit, so now while those areas are empty, they have free reign. Down in Botswana, a country bordering on South Africa, six rhinos were poached in the first few weeks of the lockdown beginning in March. In South Africa, an organization that responds to rhinos that need immediate care via helicopter transport, Rhino 911, reported a poaching incident almost every day. These incidents occurred in tourist hot spots that are, under normal circumstances, safe for the animals to roam in. 

Poaching has also increased in African countries due to hungry families feeding themselves and the means for illegal sales since COVID-19 has shut down many businesses on the continent and around the world. 

Producing a show with not much more than an iPhone

One of the biggest surprises that has come out of this production is that the whole show is predominantly shot on an iPhone 11, with the tight shots being shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV. They record sound with another iPhone and also use two GoPros. This might be the first time that a large wildlife production such as this has been shot in this way. They didn’t have access to higher end gear so the small group used what they had on hand and probably ended up being the first ones to ever do this. They have minimal equipment, but they definitely don’t lack passion or desire to have made this happen. “When I’m shooting and I’m out there and I’m looking at the  wildlife, it’s what dreams are made of,” Brendan says. Even though he hasn’t had the high-end gear he’s used to working with on large productions, all of their efforts have been very successful in creating a beautiful production. 

The crew’s living quarters are as raw as one can imagine, having been the only people allowed into the park. They move across the plains, setting up camp in between the wild animals without fences. It’s not uncommon for hyenas and lions to wander into the campsite and Brendan has woken up to the sounds of a hyena sniffing his thin, material tent. Being surrounded by so much life, yet being so far away from civilization is an experience in itself, especially with the park being empty at the moment and is made more prominent with everything going on in the world. 

A five-year-old boy’s dream comes true

Brendan has been in the film industry as a sound operator and boom swinger for over a decade. He’s a hobbyist wildlife photographer and he’s dabbled in filmmaking but this is the first time that it has been his main job on a shoot. But one thing has stayed true throughout his entire life – his passion has always been rooted in wildlife, ever since he began visiting the Kruger National Park in South Africa alongside his father when he was just five years old. It was always his dream to one day work on a wildlife documentary and to one day visit the Serengeti. “Lion King didn’t happen because someone dreamt about it. Someone actually saw the rock. The rock is going to be a part of one of our episodes, it’s here. It’s where Lion King comes from,” he says. Over the years, he has worked on many films and a few wildlife documentaries, but COVID-19 in effect made his biggest dream come true – to be involved in a large production of a wildlife show in “one of the most beautiful canvases in Africa.” 

Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) granted the crew access and filming rights for the time that they would need for free, in effect sponsoring $60,000 in waived fees. The organization is the governing body of the Serengeti National Park, and through the show they are reaping the rewards through the positive effects it will have on the tourism in the area, equally the conservation.

With the world standing still, once borders and flights start to open up again, choosing a wild destination such as the Serengeti will help not only the tourism industry, but the animals that reside in the area. “By creating awareness of the park [and] if you’re generating sales eventually through this program, that is conservation efforts in itself. Because without tourists, there is no conservation,” Brendan says.

While the borders are still closed, how can you help? 

  • Donate to organizations that are dedicated to protect wildlife and help conservation efforts.
  • Once the borders open up, make your first trip a safari in Africa
  • Share information and educate yourself on what is actually happening on the ground.
  • Think about volunteering your time at a local organization when things open up again, because many of these organizations depend on the work of volunteers to run. Some organizations haven’t stopped working because they can’t ask animals to wait for them to be relocated or looked after.
  • If you have access to a backyard, you can do your part at home by planting a tree or making your backyard bird-friendly. And by planting native species and removing invasive plants.

The show and the subsequent conservation efforts wouldn’t be possible without donations. If you love wildlife, you will love this show – for yourself or for the whole family.

If you would like to watch this show, please follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/c/SerengetiShowLive/videos

To donate, visit:  https://shop.directpay.online/paymybills/Serengetishowlive

The donation link and more information on sponsors and organizations that have made the show possible can also be found in the show notes underneath each episode. If you’re unable to make a donation, a simple share on social media channels is also encouraged and welcome. 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/serengetishowlive/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SerengetiShow-Live-101733234832429