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'Akashinga' Meets 'Savage Kingdom' — National Geographic's Programming for World Elephant Week
August 9, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

 and Savage Kingdom — two National Geographic programs, two variations on the nature theme.

Akashinga: The Brave Ones (top), which premieres Wednesday, World Elephant Day, across all National Geographic's channels and platforms, is executive-produced by NatGeo Explorer-in-Residence and Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron, and it tells one of the most stirring and heartfelt stories you will ever hear about wildlife conservation in Africa. It's a short film, just 14 minutes in all, about the length of a 60 Minutes segment, but it packs the emotional punch of any full-on docuseries.

The Akashinga ("brave ones" in the local Shona language) is the name of an all-female anti-poaching unit in rural northern Zimbabwe. Their challenge is to stem the growing tide of elephant poaching using active combat tactics. It sounds like a gimmick, the kind of program designed for politically correct Western sensibilities, one more all-show-no-substance rallying cry for female empowerment in a notoriously patriarchal society.

As profiled on the actual 60 Minutes and in the pages of National Geographic magazine — veteran war photographer Brent Stirton won the 2019 World Press World Press Photo Award in the environmental category for his Geographic photo essay — the Akashinga program is anything but all show and no substance. The concept reaches deep into the heart of African village culture. The women are Special Forces-trained, and are willing to kill in order to save themselves; the ivory poachers are nearly all men, and often come from the same villages and surrounding area the Akashinga rangers do.

Women lie at the heart of African culture. They watch and listen, and are attuned to the comings and goings of everyone in their home villages.

Female rangers, many of them survivors of abuse and exploitation in their own right, are better at stopping poaching in Zimbabwe's Zambezi Valley ecosystem — a region that has lost thousands of elephants to poaching over the last two decades — because they understand, better than anyone, that local people have a vested interest in where they come from. Foreigners don't.

Women are less susceptible to bribery and are more instinctively suited to de-escalating potentially violent situations. Working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families; the figure for men is closer to 35%.

The Akashinga women include AIDS orphans, victims of domestic and sexual abuse, and single mothers.

Akashinga: The Brave Ones shows how women can change the world, and it's the most life-affirming program you will see on World Elephant Day.

Savage Kingdom (right, NatGeo Wild, Friday, 9 p.m. ET) shares a similar setting but is a different kind of nature program altogether.

Inspired in part — as perhaps too many programs were — by the success of Game of Thrones, this well photographed, slickly edited tale of warring clans of lions, leopards, hyenas and African wild dogs (also called painted dogs) in northern Botswana, Zimbabwe's neighbor to the west, returns for a fourth season later this week, and will air over consecutive Fridays this month.

The cast of heroes and villains is established early, in the first episode of the return, and features the usual assortment of dutiful mothers, absent dads, lazy teenagers, and needy, excitable youngsters. Savage Kingdom is a very specific kind of nature series, in which the viewer is encouraged to root for individual personalities, animals are given human names — the word "anthropomorphic" means looking at the world of an animal through human eyes, imprinting human emotions, feelings and desires onto everything they do — in a tale in which, presumably, good will triumph over evil in the end.

Evil in nature is relative, of course. Hyenas make easy villains — The Lion King has a lot to answer for — but many field biologists and behavioral scientists have a soft spot for them. Family groups of hyenas are every bit as complex as those of wild dogs, and they play a vital role in the ecosystem. (Little known fact: Lions steal more kills from hyenas than the other way around; hyenas are in fact tireless and efficient hunters in their own right.)

Savage Kingdom isn't about science, though. It's about the cut and thrust of warlords and pretenders to the throne, faithful companions and loyal subjects, would-be assassins, and ambitious underlings.

The new season opens in the middle of a drought. Animals are hungry, and while predators occasionally stumble over an easy meal, the next meal is always in doubt.

In the season opener, a hungry lioness is caught between feeding herself and her young cubs and dealing with unruly teenagers who are always first at the dinner table and last to leave but do little to help find the food, preferring instead to loll around in the sun and laugh dismissively at their uncool relatives. Dad is nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, in the tree-line not too far away, a mother leopard has to park her newborns in the grass while she hunts for food. A rogue male happens on her cubs while she's away, and the tension is palpable. (Another little known fact: Male leopards often kill cubs and even females if they happen on them by accident: It's part of the Darwinian order of survival in the real world.)

Hyenas, meanwhile, menace everything and everyone and seem determined to make others' lives miserable. The scene is set for much scheming and skullduggery. Savage Kingdom is Game of Thrones on four legs, and narrator Charles Dance — Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones — is the perfect companion for the viewer wondering what to make of it all. Dance, a Shakespearean-trained actor with a classical stage voice and RSC-styled accent, is appropriate to the material. It's hard to imagine anyone else saying, "Watch and learn, boys…heavy is the head that wears the crown," and selling the moment for the viewer watching at home.

The good guys — and girls — do win out in the end, after a fashion.

If they didn't, National Geographic probably wouldn't have signed off on a program for primetime TV, let alone a series now in its fourth season. Savage Kingdom is classic drama, where each and every character is tested, obstacles must be overcome, and victory almost always comes at a price.

National Geographic does make more high-minded nature programs, of course, including documentaries that focus on conservation in a world gone haywire. Akashinga, which probably deserves the full series treatment rather than a one-off short film for World Elephant Day, is just one example.

Savage Kingdom, for its part, is well made, entertaining and slickly put together. It pushes all the expected emotional buttons, in the right order, and the payoff, while predictable, is worth every minute. Savage Kingdom is sumptuously photographed and skillfully narrated, and a fifth season is easy to imagine. The animal kingdom endures, after all. As one clan succumbs to destiny, there's always another clan waiting to take its place. The cycle of life goes on.

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Alex Strachan, can you please have an update sent out on the date this will be shown on the Nat'l. Geographic channels? It is not scheduled for Aug 12 as referenced in the article. Thank you.
Aug 11, 2020   |  Reply
Alex S.
On World Elephant Day—tomorrow, August 12—Akashinga: The Brave Ones will be released digitally across National Geographic platforms — Akashinga.film, National Geographic’s YouTube Channel, Facebook and Instagram. Streaming sites, in other words. But free! No paywall. As it's just 15 mins. it'll be slotted in on NatGeoWild etc. where it fits. Hope that helps.
Aug 11, 2020
Am unable to find Akashinga: The Brave Ones on the schedule for National Geographic channels.
Aug 9, 2020   |  Reply
Alex S.
As mentioned above On World Elephant Day—tomorrow, August 12—Akashinga: The Brave Ones will be released digitally across National Geographic platforms — Akashinga.film, National Geographic’s YouTube Channel, Facebook and Instagram. Streaming sites, in other words. But free! No paywall. As it's just 15 mins. it'll be slotted in on NatGeoWild etc. where it fits. Hope that helps.
Aug 11, 2020
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