Through their enthusiastic lenses, nature film-makers introduced Nepal to a global audience
Götz Dieter Plage (above) drove into our lives in one of those iconic early Range Rovers, a red one if I remember right, bristling with all the latest gadgets. His arrival in Nepal heralded a decade-long partnership with our Tiger Tops team and UK’s Survival Anglia television, making a series of wildlife documentaries throughout South Asia.
With lush brown hair and a brow wrinkled with seriousness, Dieter was an earnest German wildlife cameraman, much respected by his peers. Based in Chitwan in a synergistic deal brokered by Jim Edwards, Dieter experimented with the latest 1970s technology for innovative filmmaking in the wild –night scopes, image intensifiers, motor drives, steady cams, and even a single-engine aircraft.
Fresh from filming in Africa, he regaled us with hair-raising stories about close encounters with endangered animals, charging gorillas and marauding hippos. Around the circular river-stone fireplace of a Lodge evening, he laughed loudly at his own jokes before retiring early to tinker with his equipment. In 1977 this pedantic loner surprised us by turning up with a wife (Mary from Norwich always known as “Sweetie Pie”) who faithfully followed Dieter’s peripatetic and obsessive shooting schedule with doe-eyed devotion.
The facilities at Tiger Tops were the perfect base for Survival’s team which typically took over two years to complete their carefully crafted one-hour documentaries.
Dieter’s long-term camera assistants came in different shapes and sizes, becoming an integral part of our Chitwan routine – a short stocky one was a special friend of mine and a tall bearded one married my sister.
All displayed an infectious commitment to the natural world and went to great lengths to capture rare and authentic footage, sitting for days in canvas hides, hours on elephant back, or perched all night on a tree branch.
Through their enthusiastic lenses, the secret splendours of the forest and wilderness were exquisitely revealed to a television audience of millions. Conservation concerns were a recurrent theme – tigers and rhinos in Chitwan, leopards in Dudhwa and elephants in Sri Lanka.
Mike Price was a balding and bouncy Brit, diminutive and dedicated. Night after night he sat in the camouflaged machan set high on the ridge beside a tiger-likely trail, waiting with his camera ready. Each morning he would return for breakfast, weary and despondent – until the day when he appeared, still gasping and hopping with excitement. It was May, and his bare legs were caked in sweat and dust, the heavy camera case slung across his khaki shoulders.
When he had calmed down enough for us to understand him, Mike described the thrill of a tiger appearing silently out of the grass on the path below him – “stripes that moved” in the dawn light. At last, patience rewarded. It was a young male, and with the camera running he realised with some alarm that the purring sound was making it curious – the striped ears flickered with interest as it advanced up the bank. Mike had to remove the camera from the tripod as the tiger came closer and closer, until its face was peering through the slit window of the hide, separated only by a flimsy wall of canvas.
Even though primeval instinctual terror made his heart race, Mike had the presence of mind to keep the camera going, his hands shaking. “I was deafened by my own heartbeats,” he said later. In a career of close shaves in the jungle, this unsteady sequence became the centrepiece of Tiger Tiger, one of the first films to document the behaviour of these noble and elusive nocturnal cats.
As Mike recounted the story to us from the safety of the Tiger Tops breakfast table, luckily for him the young tiger decided discretion was the better part of curiosity, and moved on.
In return for logistic support and movies to share with our guests and staff, the partnership with Survival Anglia gave Nepal conservation credibility and accessed global groups such as the Audubon Society, Frankfurt Zoo and Zoological Society of London.
David Attenborough came, the BBC Natural History Unit and National Geographic. The integrity and international standing of Nepal’s wildlife conservation programme was secured.
The Smithsonian Institution’s long-term tiger monitoring project used Chuck McDougal and Tiger Tops’ trackers to pioneer camera trapping and radio collaring techniques, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands brought members of his 1001 Club of WWF donors as the guests of then-Prince Gyanendra, and Sir Peter Scott “launched” the first gharial back into the Narayani River, reared by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation to reinstate this threatened fish-eating crocodile. The first batch of gharial eggs was hatched in my bedroom, the white translucent orbs packed into a warm wet sandbox, before the crocodile breeding centre was set up at Kasara park headquarters.
In a poignant footnote, exactly 25 years ago this month Dieter Plage was killed in a horrific accident, plunging 50m through the canopy of a remote Sumatran rainforest. Hovering above the trees, he was suspended below a small airship in an adapted camera platform when his safety harness failed — a victim of his own inventive commitment to share the glories of Asia’s natural world.