A wolf whistle in the Arctic

Nat Geo photographer and explorer, Ronan Donovan, unpacks the legend of the wolf in this three-part docuseries.

What makes Kingdom of the White Wolf more than just another nature documentary?

It’s how far we go into the lives of the wolves, we got to know them on an almost human level, their characters. We connected with them, and then it was important for me to show the comparison to the other wolves that we’ve done before; these wolves are unique, and I wanted to show that part of wildlife and celebrate it as a comparative piece.

And how tough was this on you physically and mentally, because this is, after all, the Arctic?

This was by far the hardest project I’ve undertaken. First from a logistical point of view; it’s a very difficult place to work. We had 5 000 kilos of equipment, 500 kilos of food and about 2 000 kilos of fuel. We had machines and all of this stuff we had to get to our destination, which was about 1 000 km from the North Pole [distance from Cape Town to Bloemfontein]. That on its own takes a lot of work, many calls and emails for months trying to organise everything. And now we come to the physical part, which I must admit was also the emotional part, was that I had never done this before for television. The burden of having to produce quality content that is worthy of National Geographic is not to be underestimated. Would you believe that I had knee surgery in March [2019] on both knees because of the injuries I sustained and I’m still recovering from that?

It is said that we can learn life lessons from animals. What did you learn from this pack of wolves in their natural habitat?

For me, one of the biggest takeaways from watching and spending months with them was how much they live life. Wolves are constantly surrounded by their family, their loved ones for their whole lives. They’re always in a collective that they know has got their backs when push comes to shove. It’s interesting to see how we as humans who live in urban areas, often try to seek the simplicity of living in the moment and living every day as if it’s our last. Wolves do that every day – they live as if there’s literally no tomorrow while surrounded by their families.

Once acclimatised to their space, how easy was it for the wolves to trust you?

Actually, the aim was not to get them used to me because they would obviously not trust any intruder in their environment. So, the first time I found this pack of white wolves, it was about six of them, some of them actually tried to steal my camera. They would playfully approach me, and amazingly enough, the cubs were the ones least trusting of strangers. It took them about three weeks to get used to me and relax and go to sleep while I went about filming them.

So, how long did you follow them around, and for the love of food, what does one eat in the North Pole?

I followed two different packs; the first pack was about a month and a half, and the second pack was a month. We then had our base camp where we kept our food and main equipment like generators, fuel and batteries. I would then go out and follow the pack for four or five days and come back to camp and refuel and go out again. We had very basic food that’s designed to last for long and easy to prepare.

Is there something about wolves that people are always surprised to hear?

People are always surprised when they see how playful, intimate and compassionate wolves are. They’ve been documented in folklore and urban legends for sure, but wolves always surprise me with how caring they are for each other.

Since you understand wolves so well, is it safe and is the wolf your spirit animal?

Absolutely not. I really enjoy them as a wild species, and I think they start a lot of interesting conversations about their connection to their wilderness. Wolves are kind of an entry point to speak about the larger issues about conservation and connecting to wildlife. I digress, what was your question again? Ah my spirit animal, no I don’t have one.

As a photographer, I’m sure you always had your camera in hand to capture every moment. But was there a time you wanted to just observe and be with the pack as one?

Yeah, there was a moment when the wolves were hunting and they separated the young cubs from the pack and there was something so natural and intrinsic about the way they protect the young. I just wanted to sit there and take it in without all the technology.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but did you ever fear for your life – I mean, we’re talking about wild wolves here?

Yep, people are curious about that one, and I’ll tell you there’s something about animals that can sense your fear and tension. If you relax, chances are they’ll go off on your vibes and no, I was never scared. There was never a moment when I thought “Oh boy, I’m on the menu tonight”.

Watch Kingdom of the White Wolf on Sundays on Nat Geo Wild (182) at 18:00

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