The Real-Life ‘Game of Thrones’: Inside the Bloody New Wildlife Series ‘Savage Kingdom’

Warring clans engage in a bloody struggle for power. Sound familiar? Forget Westeros. ‘Savage Kingdom’ reveals the bloody, gritty drama of nature’s true Circle of Life.

12.02.16 5:57 AM ET

“The following program might not be suitable for all viewers.”

It’s a disclaimer that TV viewers are more likely to associate with a gritty HBO series or cable drama, not a wildlife docuseries. But that’s exactly the point of Savage Kingdom.

While the new NatGeo WILD series was in development, the network would refer to the production in-house as “Big Game of Thrones.” It’s a name that would never stick for obvious copyright reasons, but which accurately described the bold new nature series the network was funneling resources into—not to mention the buzzy new direction it hoped the product would take the entire genre in.

Savage Kingdom is a three-part special about warring clans engaged in a bloody struggle for power and control over the kingdom. Sound familiar? Subbing in for Westeros here is rural Botswana, with families of predators—lions, leopards, and hyenas among them—battling like Lannisters, Starks, and Targaryens in a clash of wits and blood sport merely to stay alive as a drought approaches.

Narrated by Charles Dance, who himself played Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, this isn’t your typical nature documentary.

“We weren’t out to tell you how fast a lion runs or how much it has to eat in order to store up enough energy,” Brad Bestelink, the fourth generation Botswanan filmmaker who produced and directed Savage Kingdom, tells The Daily Beast. “It’s about kings and queens and jealousy and power.”

The Game of Thrones analogy first developed early on in the shooting process as shorthand to explain the dynamics of what they were seeing and trying to film. What resulted became more exciting than a scripted drama.

“We couldn’t have written some of these things better,” he says. “We have fathers killing sons. We have clashing between queens. What we want people to realize is that animals’ lives are as exciting as fiction.”

As exciting. And as brutal.

There is so much blood in Savage Kingdom.

You hear the sound of flesh and ligaments between torn from a carcass as a predator feasts on its prey. You watch as a baby is literally eaten, and then as his mother returns to find the remains. It’s hard to watch—not only because it’s graphic, but because the series turns these animals into characters you invest in.

They’re not wildlife shot clinically from a telephoto lens. You watch Saba, the leopard, and Matsumi, the queen lioness, as they stalk and hunt for prey to feed their young, barely staving off starvation. They betray, kill, mourn, and struggle just as humans do, to the point that, several times during our interview, Bestelink slips and calls them people.

Each episode is told through one predator’s point of view—Friday night’s second episode is from the perspective of the hyenas—but together as a series paints a stark portrait of the kill-or-be-killed reality of a very un-Disney-like Circle of Life.

“I think broadcasters too often water down the reality of what predators do, like they think we’ll be afraid of it,” Bestelink says. “Getting the platform to be able to show life the way it really is for these predators will just waken people emotionally and make them care about them more because they know the daily struggle and the fight they have to have just in their everyday lives.”

There’s a reason an approach like this has never been done before. It’s no easy task.

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Savage Kingdom is easily Nat Geo WILD’s most expensive endeavor, taking five crews over two years to capture more than 20,000 hours of footage, all of which was shot with cameras capable of 4K resolution—lending the series both its rare cinematic quality and its hefty price tag.

Bestelink, whose wife was also among the series’ filmmakers, estimated that the average shooting day ran 18 hours long. The crews would sleep on the roofs of their vehicles. No showers. No fridges to keep food fresh. You’ll be stalking a leopard and you might not see her for three days.

“It takes a certain kind of personality to do this and spend the amount of time we did,” he says. “It’s very remote, very isolated. And you have to be bush-wise people. You get out of a car, and at any point you could be killed.”

That’s a warning Bestelink has carried with him since birth. Generations of his family have worked in conservation and tracking. His great-grandfather worked in tsetse fly control efforts. His grandfather was a licensed crocodile hunter—until he was killed by a black mamba snake.

Bestelink himself has three very significant tattoos on his body: an elephant, a crocodile, and a lion, each representing an animal that has nearly killed him.

The elephant mauled his vehicle while he was inside it, completely smashing it up. Once several crocodiles tried to attack him while he was sleeping in a canoe on a wildlife shoot. Another time no less than 13 lions surrounded him while he was in the grasslands on foot. He called to his wife who was about 400 meters away, and who luckily heard him and drove a vehicle to the standoff to chase the cats away.

“They’re reminders to keep my life in context and keep me vigilant and, hopefully, alive,” Bestelink says about his tattoos. “The reality is that I spent my entire life out in the bush. The past 20 years I’ve spent more time with predators than I have with people.”

While he has no designs that Savage Kingdom will spark that kind of passion, what he does hope is that it will trigger at least a percentage of the emotional investment in these animals that he and his wife developed in the thousands of hours shooting them.

He has been with the show’s lion and leopard for nearly four years. He watched the lion grow from a cub. There’s a showdown between our two regal heroines that’s so heartbreaking in Friday’s episode that, after filming it, Bestelink had to leave location for several days to emotionally recover. Some scenes in the series his wife still can’t watch. They’re too brutal. She’s too close.

And that’s a good thing. “The more we can make people emotionally invest in these animals and wildlife and places, the better off we will all be,” Bestelink says. “That’s really what Savage Kingdom is about: Trying to speak to another audience about how exciting and dramatic these animals’ lives are and how they’re so worth investing in, so worth following, so worth loving.”

It’s a greater ambition for the network, too. Savage Kingdom follows a year after Nat Geo WILD’s vigorous documentary Wild Yellowstone, which employed cutting-edge technology and filmmaking techniques pioneered and popularized by action sports filmmakers, lending a muscular, athletic, even sexy energy to a genre often written off as bland or nerdy.

The program was the first phase in what Geoff Daniels, executive vice president and general manager for Nat Geo WILD, last year called “Natural History 2.0.” Savage Kingdom is that effort’s worthy successor.

Attaching Game of Thrones branding to a natural history docuseries is a not-so-veiled move at attracting a younger audience—the kind who might not typically be attracted to wildlife programming. And invigorating the production with the same kind of operatic, emotional, and, yes, bloody narrative devices isn’t just titillating to that demographic; it’s all the more impactful because its larger-than-life themes are, in fact, grounded in very real life.

“I think there are so many people who love animals and want to love the genre, but who never actually have been drawn into the experience and transported by it,” Daniels said when we talked to him last year for Wild Yellowstone.

Event specials like it and Savage Kingdom turn that audience on to the genre’s dramatic potential, kindling a sort of childlike wonder and passion for the animal kingdom, then engaging them in different creative and narrative ways that will enable the kingdom’s safekeeping for generations to come.

Because, as Charles Dance, in his grandiose Game of Thrones narration, advises, “The kingdom doesn’t care who lives, who dies. Every cub must learn how to kill, just to survive.”