Discovery's 'Africa': The fun of filming chimps, elephants, and kickboxing frogs in the Congo

Tonight, Discovery premieres the “Congo” hour of Africa (10 p.m. ET), its seven-part collaboration with the BBC. In the Feb. 11 behind-the-scenes episode, we’ll see just how difficult it was to capture the first footage of a teenage chimp who uses four different tools to hunt for honey, and what happened when a cameraman decided to spend a night in a tree trying to film unpredictable forest elephants.

It took a crew a three weeks to track the honey-hunter chimp. “Trying to film primates, monkey and apes, in forests, is one of the hardest things on the planet to do as filmmaker, because you’re on the ground, and they think, ‘Gosh, I feel like going over there,’ and they jump through the trees. But by the time you get there, they think, ‘Actually, I don’t want to be here, I want to go back to where I was,’” Mike Gunton, Creative Director of the BBC Natural History Unit, tells EW. “It’s 100 percent humidity, God knows what temperature. You’re tripping. And the bugs. A lot of it’s in the head: If something happens that gives you a good shot early on, it can take you a long way and you can put up with it. But if you spend two and a half weeks without getting any shots at all, that’s the hardest. I don’t want to get the little violins out. But I didn’t go on that shoot, so I can say it.” Watch a sneak peek below.

Forest elephants essentially build their own trails and congregate in a famous clearing. “It’s like something out of Jurassic Park. At night, they frolic around, and of course, the males come and try to mate with the females, and that’s when you get the fights,” Gunton says. Watch a daytime clip below. Shooting at night didn’t work out so well for one cameraman, who was left in complete darkness after a male elephant chewed through a power cable and spent four hours trying to knock him loose from the tree in which he was positioned. “The funny thing about that is that cameramen don’t like to give the impression that they don’t have it completely under control. They’re not scared. So they tend to kind of say, ‘Oh yeah, it was nothing.’ There’s no question that was a very, very nerve-wracking time,’” Gunton says, with a laugh. “The local people there never go out into the forest at night. They said the only way they would be up in a tree at night is if they got lost, which probably wouldn’t happen…. It’s hard to know what was going through the elephant’s mind. I don’t think the elephant was trying to kill him. He sensed there was something he didn’t like or understand in that tree, and he wanted to find out what it was.”

From a large animal to a small one, “Congo” also features the mating behavior of kickboxing frogs. As Gunton explains, “Although it’s a rain forest, there’s not much standing water, so if you need to lay your eggs in water and have tadpoles, it’s quite tricky. So what this species does is it waits until there’s a particularly strong rainy period. When it happens, the males will get excited and think, ‘Right, it’s time to mate.’ They’ll climb to the top of a bush and call. The male who’s the highest is the male who gets the female. He’s the best. So there’s a male who realizes all the best places are taken, so he has to resort to fighting. Their back legs do these karate, kung fu kicks.” This, you’ll want to see.

Read more:
Discovery’s ‘Africa’ will make you laugh, and absolutely sob, tonight — VIDEO
Discovery’s ‘Africa’: Four can’t-miss moments in tonight’s ‘Kalahari’ premiere

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