Two years ago, a follower recommended a film to me called The World’s Most Wanted Leopard. Produced by South Africa’s Ginkgo Agency, it documents photographer Adrian Steirn’s quest to document a rare Caucasian leopard in Azerbaijan: a small country in Southeastern Europe.
The World’s Most Wanted Leopard immediately became one of my favorite wildlife films. Apart from being a great adventure story with a tight “Hero’s Journey” narrative, it stands out from the crowd through its authenticity and emphasis on relatable, humanistic themes.
The World’s Most Wanted Leopard begins with a call to adventure. Steirn explains that he has learned that the Caucasian leopard – the largest subspecies of leopard – might still dwell in Azerbaijan, which would make them Europe’s last leopards. Realizing that he has an opportunity to make a difference, Steirn assembles a crew to head to Azerbaijan and try to photograph the elusive feline.
Once in Azerbaijan, Steirn and Co. are surprised to find ready support from the government and conservation groups. WWF-Azerbaijan refers Steirn to a man named Babakhan, who becomes Steirn’s guide as they search for leopards in Hirkan National Park.
Steirn, Babakhan, and their crew pass through many trials during their journey: Hirkan’s mountainous terrain and altitude prove too much for a crucial team member, vital camera technology fails them at the worst times, and the weather disrupts their meticulous plans.
Then, just when the situation is at its most dire, Steirn and Co. capture extraordinary footage of multiple leopards in Hirkan.
This unexpected, happy ending is part of what makes The World’s Most Wanted Leopard such a good film, but it is not the only factor.
Hero’s Journey Narrative
The narrative structure I described above – featuring a call to adventure, discovery of a guide or mentor, various trials, and unlikely success – follow the “Hero’s Journey” format famously described by Joseph Campbell. This is a tried-and-true method for telling compelling stories, and it partially explains why The World’s Most Wanted Leopard is so compelling. Another great aspect of the film is that it features authentic, human characters who act like real people.
My main complaint about adventure-based film and T.V. hosts is that they tend to overdramatize everything. There is so much shouting – most of it seemingly contrived to trick the viewer into thinking that something exciting is happening – that it quickly becomes annoying.
There is little exaggerated drama in The World’s Most Wanted Leopard. To be fair, Steirn is an enthusiastic presenter whose emotions are apparent, but this comes off as natural.
Similarly, there are many clips in the film of team members acting like real people: playing cards, wiping their noses in the cold, climbing up and down slopes without crying, and displaying emotions that fit the situation. In other words, they are authentic.
This authenticity has two benefits. First, it is nice to not be screamed at for 45 minutes. Second, by being themselves, Steirn and Co. invite viewers to identify with them. This is a key element of narrative transportation, which describes the process by which audience members become absorbed in a story. Furthermore – as suggested by this study on narrative persuasion – identifying with Steirn and his pro-conservation team might lead viewers to adopt more favorable attitudes towards wildlife.
Another aspect of The World’s Most Wanted Leopard that distinguishes it from other wildlife films is that it relies heavily on themes that are fundamental to the human experience.
There is a beautiful scene at the end of the Tbilisi, Georgia episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. In it, Bourdain is seated at a table with several Georgians, and at the end of their meal they break into a polyphonic song. Bourdain explains that these songs are about, “Pre-Christian things: things that have always been here, like forests, forest spirits, and lost love.”
While wildlife films contain plenty of forests – and some forest spirits – they frequently lack subjects such as lost love that have deep-seated, emotional appeals for many people. There is no lost love in The World’s Most Wanted Leopard, but there are perseverance and friendship.
Perseverance is one of the central themes in The World’s Most Wanted Leopard; Steirn and Co. have to overcome many hurdles to photograph a Caucasian leopard, but they never give up. As Steirn says just before the film’s climax:
Everything up until that point had gone wrong. We hadn’t been able to set up camp, and the two camera traps that Babakhan had collected had shown nothing…you think, ‘What are we doing here?’ But we had to keep going, there was no other option.
The above quote is the epitome of perseverance, which Oxford defines as, “Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”
Perseverance pays off:
Friendship is another major theme in The World’s Most Wanted Leopard. The clearest example of this is the bond that develops between Steirn and Babakhan.
The two men are different in many respects, including physical build, age, and cultures. Despite this, they become almost like brothers. Steirn recognizes this when he says, “In spite of the language barrier, he [Babakhan] was starting to become a really close friend.” The visuals in The World’s Most Wanted Leopard reinforce this message.
Whenever Steirn returns to Hirkan after being away, he and Babakhan hug or high-five. In addition, there are several shots of Babakhan helping Steirn up snow-covered slopes or down sheer cliffs.
Finally, the last scene of The World’s Most Wanted Leopard contains a medium shot of Steirn and Babakhan embracing, before cutting to a long shot of Babakhan slowly walking away as the screen fades to black. This is a crystal-clear depiction of friendship, and of Babakhan’s importance in the film.
The World’s Most Wanted Leopard is an exceptional film that deserves significant recognition. It revolves around a brilliantly-structured narrative, and distinguishes itself from other wildlife films through its authentic characters and use of humanistic themes such as perseverance and friendship. In so doing, The World’s Most Wanted Leopard demonstrates what a wildlife film can – and I argue should – be.
Final Rating: 10/10