A terrified lion fleeing a pack of vicious hyenas attempts to leap into the truck… it’s just another day at the office for Dynasties cameraman John Aitchison

The matriarch of the Marsh Pride carries one of her cubs to meet the rest of its family for the first time, left, and cameraman John (BBC NHU / Simon Blakeney)

IT was a moment of terrifying exhilaration and panic; nature red in tooth and claw.

In one frantic fraction of a second, a lion fleeing a pack of hyenas leapt to safety as cameraman John Aitchison watched the jaw-dropping escape unfold.

Unfortunately, for him, the panicked lion was trying to evade his pursuers by bounding into his truck through the open roof.

John, who was filming for Sir David Attenborough’s latest wildlife series, Dynasties, said: “It was a real-life game of cat and mouse, where we were the mouse. The young male lion ran at the car, seeing it as his only escape from the hyenas.

“Dave Breed, our driver, managed to get us out of there in time. There was not a lot of time to spare.”

John, 50, is a veteran of big-budget BBC wildlife programmes but he says that living with a pride of lions on a three-month wildlife film assignment was a labour of love.

He first met Charm, the leader of the pride, 10 years ago when she was one of three young lion sisters roaming the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

John, from Argyll, named them after the iconic Three Graces, Charm, Grace and Beauty.

But in tonight’s episode, viewers discover only Charm has survived. She is the leader of her family, an unusual role for a lioness.

John filming the Marsh Pride (Louis Rummer-Downing / BBC NHU)

“Her ability to hunt, look after her cubs and indeed others, and steer them all away from predators makes her exceptional,” said John.

“It’s wonderful to witness such great characteristics in an animal.”

The pride’s struggle to survive is more poignant now that there are only 20,000 lions left in the African wilderness.

The majestic kings and queens of the jungle now struggle to survive on reserves, with man encroaching on their land.

John has filmed the lions’ fight for survival, as they compete against man for land. “It was so sad that at times I could not see to film for crying,” said John.

“I had never filmed anything before where I could not see for tears.”

But as much as he loves them, John understands lions’ first instinct is to survive and killing prey is what drives them.

He and the crew are ever-vigilant, knowing that they are potential prey.

“There were scary moments during the filming like when one of the lionesses’ curiosity raised the hackles on the back of my neck,” revealed John.

“Charm’s daughter, Ya Ya, tried to get into our open-top vehicle. She would lean against the side to rest in the shade when temperatures soared.

“Our car is open at the side, to allow us to film. She’s a curious lion and stuck her head inside the car, keen to leap inside.

“She knew it would be cooler if she came inside. Only two cushions stood between us and the lioness.

“She only moved off when crew member Dave Breed, started the engine.

“The sudden noise startled her and she backed off.”

A close-up (BBC NHU)

One night a poisonous snake crawled under the crew car at night.

“Fortunately it moved off and didn’t try to get into the car,” he said.

“Many of the snakes are poisonous including spitting cobras which can blind humans and animals. I have seen a few curious lion cubs who have lost eyes because they poked one.

“Hyenas are no laughing matter and the ferocious dogs are not scared of humans.

“I often kneel down while filming in the dark,” said John. “Once, when I was crouching down, I felt a bump on my hand as I rested it on the tripod handle.

“I turned to look behind me, expecting to find a person, but it was a hyena sniffing my hand. It looked at me and then wandered off quietly.”

He had met hyenas previously in Harar, Ethiopia, while filming Planet Earth 2.

“They come into the town at night to eat bones left out for them by butchers,” he said.

“The ancient walls even have hyena gates built into them to let them come and go. It is inspiring to see a harmonious relationship between people and wild predators.”

Dynasties (BBC)

It’s John’s passion for wildlife conservation that drives him to spend months capturing the intimate lives of wildlife on film.

He first began filming wildlife in west Africa in 1991. But his first camera was a pinhole one his dad made from a biscuit tin, when he was a child.

And the cameraman says it grieves him that each trip into the wilderness reminds him that wild animals face a horrendous battle to survive. “As the population of the Earth rises, the struggle for land and food is a huge one for wildlife.”

Dynasties, BBC One, tonight, 8pm.

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