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Big Cat Week: NatGeo Wild's 'Jade Eyed Leopard' a Diamond in the Rough
September 7, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 5 comments

On the face of it, National Geographic's annual Big Cat Week — which kicks off Monday (8 p.m. ET) with the NatGeo Wild premiere of Jade Eyed Leopard from NatGeo explorers-in-residence filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert — sounds as if it was designed to cash in on the success of rival Discovery's better-known, long-running Shark Week.

It's an easy assumption to make, but it would be wrong.

The emphasis in Big Cat Week is on conservation of increasingly endangered iconic species — critically endangered in some cases, and that's made clear early on in Jade Eyed Leopard, which is as much about survival as it is about the life of a young female leopard cub that the Jouberts tracked and followed over a three years in the wilds of Botswana, once of the last remote, untrammeled wildernesses on the entire continent of Africa.

Jade Eyed Leopard follows the tentative first steps and playful later years of the leopard cub Toto, the Swahili word for "Little Child," in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, the northern extension of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

Leopards are elusive and nocturnal, which means filming the life story of a leopard cub over the course of several years would have been impossible only a short time ago. Advances in thermal night-vision camera technology mean the Jouberts could shed light on the leopards' private lives in a way few filmmakers have before, and the results are plain to see.

The Jouberts have experience working at night; in their years in Botswana's Okavango Delta, where they made their name with National Geographic, they documented some of the first animal interactions at night ever witnessed and recorded on film, including evidence that lions will hunt and kill elephants at night, given the right circumstances and conditions.

Jade Eyed Leopard isn't really about teeth and claws, though. There's no sensationalism for sensationalism's sake here. It's an intimate, personal story about a wild, young cub bonding with her mother and navigating those early years of life when the world is a mystery, and survival is no game but rather a matter of life and death.

If the voice behind Jade Eyed Leopard's narration sounds familiar to anyone who's seen The Lion King, that's because it the voice of Jeremy Irons, who also narrated the Jouberts' The Last Lions and voiced the character of Scar in Lion King.

From its opening moments of a months-old leopard cub rolling in the long grass, drooling "and all dignity abandoned," narrator Irons tells us, in his relaxed, dulcet tones, to its haunting conclusion, filmed years later, as the now-grown leopard fends off a freshly killed antelope marauding hyenas, Jade Eyed Leopard is a gorgeous nature program, at the front of the pack in a crowded field.

If we can learn to respect, protect, and celebrate all such creatures struggling to survive in this fragile mosaic, Irons tells us, this jade eyed leopard may yet have a future. Hope springs eternal.

Either way, this quiet, often remarkable film is well worth watching.

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Advances in thermal night-vision camera technology mean the Jouberts could shed light on the leopards' private lives in a way few filmmakers have before, and the results are plain to see.
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