Wild Wonderland: Breaking down wildlife stereotypes

A hyena takes a mud bath under the hot sun of the Maasai Mara. (Photo: David Maeri)
A hyena takes a mud bath under the hot sun of the Maasai Mara. (Photo: David Maeri)

The lion as the noble hunter, hyenas as cackling scavengers. 

We all have preconceptions of animals in the wild, human traits we assign to them through childhood fables and wildlife documentaries. The new release of the Lion King movie is a perfect example, where various animals are cast in the hero and villain roles. 

However, a few days in Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve and my mind’s animal narratives were completely dismantled.

Driving up from Nairobi I asked our driver Moses what his favourite animal is. “A hyena,” he told me, to my relative surprise. 

Moses was born and has lived his whole life in the Mara. He knows the unique personalities of the region’s animals like he does his closest friends. 

When I told him I did not like hyenas because I thought they were “mean”, he wisely informed me I had been brainwashed by the Lion King movie as a child and, in fact, these were some of the most noble creatures of the wild. 

And then he told me about them…

Hyenas are some of the most generous animals in the Maasai Mara, always willing to share their food with their pack no matter how small the meal. And with a tenacious spirit, they are also some of the animal kingdom’s most determined hunters. 

As hunters, alone or in groups, they can compete with leopards, cheetahs and lions. But while these big cats are seen as noble, elegant, and courageous, the hyena is unfairly categorised as sneaky and vicious. 

What also warmed me to the hyena is their feminist nature. Moses informed me that the spotted hyena society is matriarchal; females are larger than males and every clan has a woman leading the pack. These guys are turning the patriarchy on its head and perhaps us human beings can learn something from them. 

That conversation I had with Moses was an eye opening one and as we traversed the Maasai Mara over the next few days, watching its diverse animal inhabitants, my ingrained perceptions of animal characters continued to be reshaped. 

I began to realise how important it was to challenge these misconceptions and to educate myself about the authentic, complex nature of wild animals. 

This is something that James Hendry, one of the presenters of CGTN’s Wild Wonderland’s Live series, is hoping to accomplish as he guides his audience through the wonders of the Maasai Mara reserve. 

“We are hopefully moving away from the sensationalising of animals, of characterising them as villains or heroes,” he told me as we sat out in the Maasai Mara, just after Hendry finished filming the first live episode. “It is quite sensational enough out here without us making villains out of hyenas and heroes out of male lions (which is another ridiculous misconception in the wild).”

Hendry believes that this approach is where the future for wildlife programming lies. 

“We are becoming much more aware of the realities of biology and we are becoming more authentic in how we present them in an accessible way,” he says. 

“My hope for wildlife programming is that it will continue to cut out the sensation that humans think we need to impose on wildlife… not to rehash the same rubbish and to move along with the times with the latest research and technology.”

To learn more, watch our interview with James Hendry and take a peak behind the scenes of the Wild Wonderland Live series: