Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Okay, just lions. Animal Planet’s newest show, the five part series Into the Pride takes us into the Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia with our host Dave Salmoni, zoologist and big cat trainer, as he tries to “rehabilitate” a pride of belligerent lions. The lions are at risk of being destroyed if they don’t stop acting aggressively toward humans. After all, the reserve can only exist through the money it makes on eco-tourism. Will Salmoni be able to save the lions from themselves?

With elements of Man vs. Wild and Survivorman, the show spans a six-month period in which Salmoni will live on the reserve in a tent. His production crew sticks around for daylight hours, but during night, it’s only Salmoni, his camcorder, and the animals. The first episode opens up with some beautiful shots of the Erindi reserve and some choice words from Salmoni: “If I’m as good as I think I am, then each interaction with the lions should turn out all right. If my ego has pumped up my brain to a point where … I might oversell myself, then I’m going to pay with my life.”

Obviously Canadian, Dave Salmoni is a hunky, hairy, Gerard Butler look-alike. He is also funny and extremely likable; for instance, he names two of the pride’s cubs “Shizzle” and “Manizzle.” As far as leading men go, Salmoni has the likeability of Bear Grylls (without misleading viewers) and the pure manliness of Suvivorman Les Stroud (without being utterly bereft of personality).

When Salmoni finds lions, he performs what he calls a “bush walk,” which means dismounting his moped and walking toward them. He coos softly, speaking in a sort of baby talk, as if they were stray cats. In his first encounter, he finds the matriarch, who charges at him but stops just short. She is a massive lion with a large growth on the side of her back. Salmoni names her “Cleopatra.” “She’s cute,” he says.

Even in the first episode we see elements of the show’s breaking the fourth wall. Members of the production crew speak on camera. Salmoni frequently references his role in the show, calling himself a “primadonna” and saying that one of his goals is “becoming a TV star.” He also comments on the nature of his mission. “This project allows me to do things with lions that have never been done. . . . I want to know, is there really such a thing as a problem lion? . . . You’re not going to learn that from observing at a distance. You need to get on foot and look these animals in the eye.”

Aside from pepper spray, Salmoni’s only defense against a lion attack is a long wooden staff with a hooked end called a crook. Russell Bergh, a cameraman, says: “Dave seems pretty confident about stopping a wild lion with his crook. Now, he says he’s done it many times with captive lions; personally, I’ve never seen it. In my experience with lions, my money would definitely be on the lion.” Nearly all Salmoni’s encounters with this pride are exciting. In the second episode, three or so lions charge at him, staring him down as if he were a sick gazelle. Salmoni waves his crook, shouting, “Cut it out! That’s enough! Get out of here!” Amazingly enough, the lions back off. Yet Salmoni doesn’t leave. He walks back toward them, admitting to us that he’s scared, but the lions need to know that this behavior is not okay, and will not make him leave.

The second episode ends with Salmoni camping at night, singing a made up song on his guitar to let the lions know where he is so they won’t accidentally stumble across him at night. He’s not the greatest singer in the world, but the juxtaposition of his silly song with the raw nature of the Erindi reserve is breathtaking. Later that night he is awoken in his tent by the two male lions that are on patrol outside. He speaks to them and they growl back. It is truly a spine-tingling yet emotional moment.

Unlike other shows about lions, which can border on boring (lions sleep upwards of twenty hours a day), Into the Pride is fascinating. It has a great premise, an even better host, terrific and beautiful camera work, and it does not overstay its welcome. Better still, there are no false cliffhangers, no false emotions, and no lack of dangerous encounters with the creatures themselves. The only problem with the series is its shortness. Merely a blip on the Discovery’s radar before, Salmoni will clearly be back with more shows and possibly even a second season. For now, do not miss this one.

Starring: Dave Salmoni

Executive Producer: Phil Fairclough, Eugenie Vink

Network: Animal Planet

Airtime: Thursdays, 8:00pm EST

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