The Facts and Fiction in Discovery Channel’s ‘Serengeti’

Written by Thomson Safaris

discovery channel teaser

Over 3 million viewers have tuned into “Serengeti,” making it the best series debut for the Discovery Channel in the past four years and the highest rated TV nature documentary in six years.

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We recommend giving it a watch. The footage is stunning. The music is fantastic, and the story is innovative. Unlike other nature documentaries, “Serengeti” personalizes its subjects, naming animal characters and telling their specific stories over the course of “one year.”

“I personally felt that the viewer needs to see them as individuals,” John Downer, the series’ filmmaker, told NPR. “Rather than a pride of lions, a herd of elephants, you see a character in it, and you recognize their personality. And I think for us humans we find that easier to identify and relate.”

It’s a fun concept, and we love the intention: Downer explained this style makes it easier to empathize with the wildlife, encouraging respect for the animals and a newfound understanding of their value.

But is ‘Serengeti’ Real?

For the safari experts out there, you may notice some, well, inconsistencies. “Serengeti” is stylized, and it seems the editors and script writers have created much of the drama post-filming.

Want to know how we can tell? Read on! And if you, like some of the Thomson Safaris staff, would like to buy into the drama, beware the spoilers below!

Here’s how a safari operator with nearly 40 years of experience in the Serengeti can separate the fact from the fiction.

Green Season One Moment, Dry Season the Next

The seasons on the Serengeti are like night and day. Golden grass, dusty plains and gripping river crossings are key features of the dry season. An explosion of leafy vegetation, verdant countryside and toddling baby animals are green season staples.

Look closely and you’ll find scenes with footage from both seasons. Kali the lioness leads her cubs through the dry tall grass plains one moment, and a warthog she’s (presumably) stalking basks in the lush foliage of the green season the next.

Keep an eye out for season switches as you watch.

Wait… Are These Really Our Animal Characters?

Here’s an expert tip for tracking specific animals: Hair patterns like a zebra’s stripes, a hyena’s spots or a giraffe’s coat are unique, much like our fingerprints. That’s how zebra foals can spot their mothers in the herd. It’s also how many wildlife guides can keep track of which animals are which.

A characteristic scar pattern can make this even easier. And if you’re taking still photos of lions over a long period of time, you can even count their whiskers to confirm which cats are which.

Try this out at your own peril as you watch ‘Serengeti.’ A notch in an ear, a scar on a nose or an out-of-place spot are telltale signs these characters use stunt doubles and stand-ins more often than you think.

If you really want to get turned around, pay close attention to the size of Kali’s cubs, which seem to go from several weeks old to several months old and vice versa from time to time.

Bakari and the Baby Baboon

The timeframes and characters change to fit the stories, so are the stories truly real? Are the relationships really playing out the way we’re told they are?

The not-so-simple answer is yes and no. In broad terms, many of the interactions are based in true wildlife facts. It’s the details that get dicey. Bakari’s “single father” relationship with an orphaned baboon is a perfect example.

Researchers have observed male baboons carry and care for infant baboons, even if those infants are not related to them. Do they do it out of the kindness of their hearts? Well, we haven’t heard any wildlife enthusiast put it that way before!

In truth, this is a mutually beneficial tactic. Researchers have observed resident, unrelated male baboons – like Bakari – care for infant baboons both to protect them and to use them in what’s called agonistic buffering.

Agonistic buffering is a method typically used by lower-ranking male baboons to reduce aggressive physical interactions with higher-ranking males. In other words, when Bakari is carrying an infant, the leader of the troop is less likely to fight with him.

In fairness, we like to think he’s fond of the little guy, too.