'Night Stalkers' Sheds New Light on Power Struggles Between Africa's Top Predators

PHOTO: National Geographic filmmaker Martin Dorhn took "Nightlines" Bill Weir out with him in the dusky wilds of Mozambique to demonstrate his thermo-cam.
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A wildebeest steps into an African river, its thirst complicated by the constant threat of a crocodile's jaws.

SNAP! In a blink, a gruesome struggle ensues and as the prehistoric beast pulls its prey into the water, cameras are rolling: more primal reality TV for the animal-loving viewers of the National Geographic Channel.

Without the invention of the moving picture or the patient skills of the natural photographer, our understanding of predator and prey would be severely limited.

For most of the history of wildlife photography, we had no idea how these animals behaved when the sun went down.

But with the advent of lenses that can make starlight seem as bright as day and cameras that can turn body heat into ghostly silhouettes, we can witness the kind of life-and-death drama never before seen by human eyes.

To understand this nocturnal art form, we met up with National Geographic filmmaker Martin Dorhn in the dusky wilds of Mozambique. He demonstrates his thermo-cam on a nearby herd of elephants.

"It's lovely, actually," he says with excitement. "I could see them if they were five miles away, and that really makes this an incredibly powerful tool for working at night."

After years of shooting in places like the Masi Mara in Kenya, Martin thought he knew exactly how apex predators behaved. But when he started shooting them in pitch blackness, he discovered that the power struggle between lions and hyenas changes completely. Without a full moon, the big cats can't see as well.

"We filmed it when there's an animal that the lion is clearly looking for and it's just walking in the wrong direction."

And he developed new respect for the intelligence and hunting skill of hyenas, usually dismissed as sneaky, thieving scavengers.

He's captured how crocodiles are terrified of hippo and how the bulbous creatures seem to know they are the deadliest animals in Africa by the way even baby hippos nudge past enormous crocs.

He has seen leopards -- supposedly the most solitary of big cats -- hang out as a family, with the big male taking swipes at his mate and son, but showing incredible affection for a female cub.

But among all the creatures out here, the most dangerous and unpredictable is the hairless ape. People. A brush with gun-toting poachers provides one of the most dramatic scenes in "Night Stalkers," airing on Nat Geo Wild on Sunday, Dec. 18 at 9:30 p.m.ET.

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