How The Hunt used an elephant to capture groundbreaking footage of a tiger kill

It took an 65-year-old elephant called Gotham to capture a TV first in this week's episode — and here's how the feat was achieved...

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It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in wildlife film-making history; hundreds of hours in the making, executed in barely a second. But in that single moment you appreciate as never before the predatory power of the tiger.

A scene in this week’s The Hunt shows, for the first time, a tiger stalking and killing in its forest habitat – though because of the thick tree cover, the camera team weren’t convinced they’d got the elusive shot until they reviewed the footage.

“We’d been there five weeks and this was the first kill we’d seen,” says producer Jonnie Hughes. “She [the tiger] had leapt up onto the stag and taken it past a tree. It was obscured, but you could see the tiger taking the stag down. It was very neat and very fast.”

As in most ground-breaking feats, there were unsung heroes – namely a 65-year-old elephant called Gotham and an impressive piece of camera kit developed by the US military.

The camera – known as a Cineflex – provides unmatched levels of stability, whether it’s attached to a jeep for on-the-road filming or strapped to the side of Gotham to transport it into the dense woodland. The trouble was, Gotham was working to rule. 

“We only had access to the elephant for half of the morning,” says Hughes. “The animal welfare rule was that it could work until mid-morning and then it had to go back to its house and have a nice bath and something to eat. So we had only this window in the morning, but it still managed to work.” 

Hughes teamed up with cameraman Jamie McPherson to capture the tiger footage in central India’s Bandhavgarh National Park. “Because tigers are ambush predators, their biggest challenge is to remain hidden and they are genius at that,” says Hughes. “They get in as close as they feel they can to their target and then sit tight and wait. The moment their target steps away is the trigger for them to strike.

“We followed this female because we knew that, with five cubs to feed, she would have to kill every day, but still it was incredibly difficult. We were only with the tigers once in every four days, just because they can hide away so well.”

Key to their success was the Cineflex camera, originally developed to get long-lens images on helicopter reconnaissance missions. For the tiger footage, the camera was first mounted on a 7ft crane jib, secured to the floor of the jeep. 

While Hughes manouevred the jib and the camera around and above the jeep, McPherson followed and filmed the tiger using a console on his lap: “I could swing the crane around 360 degrees over the jeep, and I could shoot ten to 12 feet in the air and down to the ground for a low-angle look,” says Hughes. “Jamie used the joysticks on his console to focus and film. It’s more like playing a video game than manning a regular camera.” 

With the tiger kill captured from the jeep on a road about 100 yards away, McPherson and the Cineflex transferred to the elephant and ventured in for some close-ups. “We got to within 20 feet of the tiger,” says McPherson. “She was totally relaxed, as was Gotham. It felt a real privilege to be observing this absolutely  beautiful animal. 

The Hunt continues on Sunday 15th November at 9.00pm on BBC1 

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