NEW YORK (AP) — Lupita Nyong’o remembers clearly the first time she touched a giraffe. She was 5, and it was part of her childhood education growing up in Kenya to appreciate the wildlife around her.
“They weren’t exotic, they were there,” she recalled.
Over the years, the Oscar-winning actress has been involved in conservation efforts to preserve wildlife, and has spent time touring the national parks of her homeland where she got to marvel at the beauty of animals up close. So when she was recruited by Simon Fuller to narrate the new Discovery docuseries “Serengeti,” which follows the trials and tribulations of animal families including lions, baboons, hyenas and elephants, it was an energetic yes.
But it also attracted her for another reason.
“I’ve never heard any one like me narrate these documentaries,” she said, speaking of her African heritage, in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I was really excited for the opportunity to narrate my own world.”
In “Serengeti,” which debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Discovery network, Nyong’o’s voice takes viewers on a journey following several species that were tracked in the massive Serengeti in Tanzania.
Filmmaker John Downer, a veteran wildlife documenter, was tasked with zeroing in on the familial dynamics of various species, like Kali the lioness, who is ousted from her pride in the first episode because she’s mated outside of it. She’s now forced to protect and feed her young cubs without the help of her family. Bakari, a baboon, is seen fighting for the affection of a female baboon who has given her affections to the ruler of the pack. Meanwhile Tembo, an adolescent elephant, is trying to find his way and place after his mother gives birth again.
Downer said “Serengeti” differs from other nature programs because it brings the viewer into the world of the animals in a more intimate way.
“We’re not seeing them just sort of as you would within the documentary which is usually about what they do in dramatic moments where you see something happen in their lives. This is kind of more personal. It relates to human behavior,” he said.
“We could see ourselves reflected in them, because we see them as animals as complex in many ways as we are, and having to make the same life choices but in very different environments, where it’s all about survival of the family and about jealousies and rivalries and many things that, you know, the human world encounters.”
The series produced by “American Idol” producer Simon Fuller, who was inspired by his own experiences watching wildlife on safari and his own time spent in the Serengeti. They were able to film on the Serengeti Reserve, a private area next to the national park, away from tourists, which helped them gain unfettered access to the animals.
“The beautiful thing about some of these reserves is that it could be one hundred years ago it could be a thousand years ago. The time doesn’t exist. . it’s suddenly their world not ours,” he said.
Thousands of hours of animal interactions were filmed over the course of two years and then whittled down to six hours.
“The big thing was spending time with the animals and letting them inform the story, so we were always feeding off what happened, when changing the story line as it happened,” Downer said. “We have to start identifying stories early; we have to abandon story lines if they weren’t going to work. So it became a process of actually thinning out the materials that we had so we could tell the most dramatic and true-to-life story that we could from the materials that we have. “
Drones were used to keep track of the animals when regular cameras lost sight of them; Fuller said a drone camera was used to capture a devastating moment when one animal was killed by a snake.
While there uplifting moments, there also were tragedies on the Serengeti that may bring tears to the eyes, as it did for one veteran crew member, who witnessed the death of a young member of a clan and wished he could have been able to intervene.
“(He) said ‘We couldn’t because we didn’t want to interfere with nature or that scene.’ And he was sobbing,” Fuller remembered. “That’s the difference in this show. That’s the difference.”
One of the animals that stole Nyong’o’s heart in the series is Bakari the baboon, who ends up caring for a baby among the clan when calamity strikes.
“It’s kind of the springboard for his entire arc in the series, but what I love about Bakari is the learning curve he goes on,” she said. “It’s really, really, really touching to witness his journey, that’s my favorite.”
She also learned more about hyenas, an animal she has long feared.
“It’s not that I’m no longer afraid of hyenas, but I appreciate what they do,” she said.
The series has already aired in the United Kingdom; there, it was narrated by John Boyega, who was born in Britain to Nigerian parents. Nyong’o says she traded notes with her friend and “Star Wars” co-star about the project.
“We were both excited because we got to be the voice that we heard so often, that European voice that we heard so often talking about our continent,” she said.
Too often, the natural resources in Africa are perceived not to be for the people who live there, Nyong’o said.
“Even in Kenya, I was very lucky to have parents that exposed me to the national parks, but there is a feeling that the nature we have is for people other than ourselves,” she said. “I think it is important that we as Africans embrace our nature . and enjoy it.”