Tonight, Discovery debuts Africa (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET), a seven-part collaboration with the BBC four years in the making, in which the team behind Life captures never-before-filmed species, animal behaviors, and natural wonders. The first hour, “Kalahari,” features the giraffe battle that has already gone viral thanks to the preview clip below. “That fight only lasts a minute, but when we shoot it at 1,000 frames a second, it’s like watching a boxing match in slow motion. They’re not just slugging it out, they’re almost working out their moves,” says Mike Gunton, Creative Director of the BBC Natural History Unit. “The young guy’s just going for the traditional hammering of the other guy on his rump, and the old guy’s going for the legs. I loved the fact that he knows he’s going to get hit, so he waits and ducks at the last-minute, and he actually goes for the solar plexus, like a boxer, and that’s what makes the young guy [fall]. We all thought, Ohmygod, he’s dead. He was out cold for three or four minutes before he finally got up. You’ll never look at giraffes the same way again. That’s one of the things that’s key about the series: Africa is a well-known place. A lot of people have filmed in Africa, so it was very important for us to try to say to people, ‘Actually, there’s a whole side to Africa that you just don’t know, and actually, all the things that you think you know about Africa — giraffes behave differently, rhinos behave differently, there’s a places in the desert with the biggest underground lakes.”
Here, Gunton teases a few more of tonight’s can’t-miss moments:
• Typically solitary black rhinos socialize at a location that is, thankfully, still secret from poachers: Because any light would spook the animals, a camera system capable of harnessing starlight alone had to be developed (pictured). Audio of the rhinos’ unknown language was captured, along with a failed breeding attempt. “The funny thing is, of course, he completely messes it up. After all this courtship and seduction, he keeps falling off, and in the end, she gets bored and sits down and tries to pretend to go to sleep,” Gunton says. “You have a preconception of what they are, what they do, and this reinforces one of the things I’ve always believed in all the programs I’ve ever done, actually: Animals do not all behave the same. They are like we are. They are individuals. They have characters, they have personalities, they have quirks. You get stupid ones, you get clever ones, you get accident prone ones. Seeing those characters coming out in that sequence, I thought, that’s going to connect with an audience in a way that I think is important. People like to be educated, of course, but I think they also like to be immersed and engaged with what it’s like to be with these animals.”
• A year-old African leopard tries, and fails, to hunt multiple prey: There’s a great shot of a ground squirrel staring straight ahead, dropping what he’s eating, and running away. “I have seen that shot 100 times, and I still laugh every time I see it,” Gunton says. “The timing. I love slapstick, and I think good slapstick is all about such superb, technical timing. Of course you can write a funny line [for narrator Forest Whitaker], but I think the real humor comes from the animals themselves.” Another example: The leopard tries to climb up and eat the kill his mother has hidden there. “He falls down. He’s such a baffoon. It’s not his fault: He’s a young guy, he’s trying to work out what’s going on. He doesn’t have any experience. He’s just messing up all the time. In a way, you could say, it’s quite a small story. It’s not a leopard chasing down some antelope and killing it. To my eyes, that’s less interesting. Of course there’s an intrinsic drama — life and death — but people know they do that. It’s the details of life that becomes more interesting. That’s where the humor and the real insight comes in.”
• A certain kind of desert wasp battles a Golden Wheel Spider twice her size because she’s hoping to lay her egg in its moist abdomen. Yeah, you read that, right: “That’s what we call co-evolution. They live together in a habitat that is very extreme and they’re bound by an evolutionary relationship and you get this sort of arms race between them,” Gunton says. “What happens is she wants to lay her egg in a place that has some moisture so that the wasp larva can develop. There is no moisture, so the only moist place she can find is a living thing. The trouble is, if she kills it and lays her egg in it, it would dry out in 10 hours. The grizzly thing about it is she has to paralyze it so the spider stays alive on a life support system to keep its body fluids, and also, it means when the larva hatches, it’s got living tissue to live on. It’s a kind of Alien type situation. So obviously the spider doesn’t want that to happen. The spiders who are better able to come up with some weird escape strategies to get away from the wasp tended to be more successful, so those traits have evolved.” Spoiler alert: This spider does manage to turn itself into a wheel and roll down a dune to safety. It’s an amazing shot. “What I really want people to say is, ‘Wow, what an amazing shot, and what an amazing thing that that animal is doing. Why is it doing that?’ That extra level of curiosity, extra level of wonder,” Gunton says.