I woke up pretty late yesterday and turned on the TV while having breakfast. Recently, my sister and I have been watching some great episodes of different series on the Animal Planet. So I switched on the channel. A whole litter of five absolutely adorable cheetah cubs and their mother were on. It was a documentary film titled African Cats. I have seen several great stories about cheetahs on the Animal Planet. Hell, the wallpaper of my desktop PC is a beautiful photo of Toto and Honey – a heartbreaking story of a baby cheetah and his mother from Big Cat Diary. But that’s a story for another day. I was drawn to the show immediately and called my sister to watch it with me.
Three different stories from the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya were merged in one film. The heroines of one story was Sita – a single mother taking care of five cheetah cubs in the north of the park and the other was Layla – leader of the River Pride of lionesses in the south of the park and fierce protector of her daughter Mara. I started to watch the film from the part where Sita hunts a gazelle after a very intense chase. I was amazed to see the quality of the scene. The way they captured the extremely fast chase scene was breathtaking.
Then they showed Layla. The lioness has aged but she still is the best hunter in the River Pride. This pack of lionesses has many different-aged cubs and a single male lion, Fang who has a distinctive feature because of a broken tooth. In this scene, Layla leads an attack on a zebra pack by strategizing with the other lionesses –the way lionesses hunt most of the times. She is the fiercest among them all. But she gets injured during the hunt. As they finally managed to kill a zebra, they hurriedly begin to eat. Because in no time, Fang shows up and chases off the lionesses to fill his belly first. And he wasn’t even anywhere near when the hunt was carried out! This wasn’t the only incident which made me wonder why the males of most of the mammals tend to exploit the females, including humans.
Now enters the villain of the story – Kali. Kali is the most powerful figure in the park. He is an old, strong, ferocious and fearless lion. He has dark brown mane, which may be the reason why he was named Kali (from kalo in Bangla meaning black) even though it is a feminine name. Surprisingly, he formed a pack with his four full-grown sons, which is unusual for lions. The reason behind why Kali is not a lord of a lioness pack is unknown but in the film he and his sons are in search for a new pride. He and his sons rule the north of the park, thus coexisting with Sita and her cubs.
It is no surprise that eventually the single mother encounters Kali and his sons. With her cleverness and courage, Sita manages to distract the lions (who are five times larger than her) from her tiny helpless cubs. But in the process, she and her cubs get separated. Tired of chasing Sita (since lions are no match for the speed of a cheetah), Kali and his sons eventually leaves. Sita desperately calls out for her cubs and so do the cubs for their mother. It soon becomes dark and hyenas come out. In the end, Sita loses two of her cubs to the hyenas and is left with three (I almost cried during this scene). Nature can be really cruel.
Meanwhile, in the south, the River Pride has to travel far away to follow a herd of wildebeest – their food source. But Layla is injured and she needs to rest for a long time so that her body can heal. The River Pride decides to leave her behind because they have to ensure the survival of themselves and their cubs. Layla desperately calls them and her young daughter to stay. Mara is torn between the two but in the end, she decides to stay with her injured mother. You could tell how much she loves her mother from the way she kept going back to her and console her.
A few weeks or maybe a month or two pass by …
After almost destroying Sita’s family, Kali and her pack decides to cross the river that separates his part of the park from the south. The river is infested with huge crocodiles, which can be deadly for even fully grown lions. But even they are dominated by Kali and he crosses the river with one of his sons. The moment Fang sees them, he flees the scenes leaving the lionesses to defend themselves though he was supposed to be their ‘protector’. However, by this time Layla and Mara has managed to reunite with the River Pride. She and the other lionesses know that if they let the lions overpower them, they would take over the pride and kill all the cubs fathered by Fang. So in order to protect Mara, Layla leads the lionesses to attack the intruders and chases them off. Kali is forced to leave but his scheme to take over the River Pride has not ended yet.
After the extreme fight with the lions, Layla is injured even further this time. She then spends a lot of time with her sister during the rainy season and a strong bond is built between them, which leads her sister to adopt Mara in addition to her own cubs. Layla knew it had to be done. She knew her time is cut short. One day, without saying goodbye to Mara, she leaves the River Pride and limps far off to find a solitary place where she can rest in peace. Maya searches for her mother not knowing that she will never see Layla again …
I was really surprised to see the complexity of relations in the pride of lionesses. Layla did everything within her physical strength to ensure that Maya was safe. And when she became injured and weak, she bonded with another lioness to ensure that her daughter will be taken care of after her death. It will always amaze you when you see how strong mother’s love in the animal kingdom. Many would say it is mere instinct to protect the next generation but when you see the extent to which a mother would go to protect her cub, it will make you question that theory.
In the meantime, Sita’s three cubs have gotten a little bigger and they are filled with wonder as every day they discover something new about the world around them. However, their safety is again threatened when three male cheetahs show up which could be deadly for the cubs. This time Sita cannot outrun them and they bully her around. Then they find the cubs unprotected and it seemed like a tragedy is about to unfold. But surprisingly, the cubs hold their ground and hisses at the male cheetahs. Then a passing by elephant chases them off as they realize, according to the narrator, that “the bullies can also be bullied.” But it was such a pleasant surprise to see that the small cheetah cubs were brave enough to stand for themselves. They have indeed learned from their mother how to defend themselves.
To be honest, some parts of the stories seemed a bit staged. It seemed almost unbelievable that the plots and twists of the stories were so dramatic. Maybe some of it have been fabricated, but I believe most parts of the film happened the way they showed it. I have observed stray mother cats for a long time and saw how much they care for their kittens. It is completely possible that big cats do the same in the wild. I am not saying all mothers in the animal kingdom demonstrate unconditional love like Layla and Sita. Not even all human mothers can do that. But all the mothers do what they can within their capacity to protect their children.
They finish the movie with a happy ending after unfolding some incidents that will determine the fate of Mara, Sita, her cubs, and the River Pride. Anyone who is intrigued by the complexity of relations and emotions of the wildlife should give this movie a try. The visuals of the movie are also stunning. More importantly, this movie beautifully portrays that the bond between a mother and her cubs is the strongest bond in the nature. We often forget that we are part of nature too and the kind of relationship that we have with our mothers shape the way we live our lives. In the wild, the mother is the one who teaches her cubs how to hunt, avoid danger and basically survive. And it is the same for us too. Mothers are the ones who usually first teach us about our culture, language, values, morals and how the world works. It is of course thousand times more complex than animals but in its core it is pretty simple. We simply would not have survived without our mothers.
*Most of the images are collected from the website of Disneynature as this documentary film is produced by them. I was a bit bummed to find that out since I am not a big fan of Disney. Another fun fact: the narrator is Samuel L. Jackson!