While the definition of man constantly evolves, Boone Smith comes pretty damn close to the classic notion. His name is Boone, after all, he has the perfect level of scruff and, oh yeah, he tracks lions!

It’s no wonder, then, that he is the man in Nat Geo WILD’s Man v. Lion, which kicks off the channel’s fifth annual Big Cat Week this Friday at 9/8c. What’s that mean, exactly? Well, beyond tracking three male lions at South Africa’s Nambiti Game Reserve as they hunt for food and search for a mate, Smith gets a little closer.

He sits in a protective box, rigged outside with bait, to watch lions feast—hopefully not on him. One inch of clear acrylic (with holes) separates him from some of the world’s most fearsome predators. Fascinated, we tracked him down in South Africa (spoiler: he’s alive) to talk lions, life in the box and whether he’s a cat person.

“If I could’ve put my boy in there with me, I would’ve done that. When else is a nine-year-old going to be a foot away from lions, roaring and growling and eating stuff? You can smell the dust and the blood, the wildebeest and the lions. He’d never forget it.”

In Man v Lion, you are the man. What were you trying to accomplish and learn in the box?
We wanted to highlight all these different skills the lions have—what makes them really unique and special, from their strategy to how they kill things and what really makes them the king of the beasts. After they made the kill, we wanted to be part of the feast. There’s lots of great wildlife docs out there where we see lions on kills, but we wanted to have a different perspective, something that put us in there as one of the pride. That sounds really crazy, but it was really well thought out. We want to get people excited about big cats, so they go through Big Cat Week, learn about all the plights big cats are going through and then want to do something about it. If people tune in because there’s some fool sitting in a box, and they want to watch him get eaten, so be it. But hopefully at the end, they go, “Wow, lions are awesome.

What were you worried about beforehand?
We wanted to do this with wild lions. We didn’t want lions that were raised on a small little game ranch that were used to being fed. So that was the trick… could we even get this to work? Could we get them to come pay attention to us, and could we get them to hit the kill?

So you weren’t worried about something like your safety?
No. I work with really good folks. Like I said, the concept sounds really crazy, but the idea actually stemmed from shark cages. We looked at how to make it safe so that if a lion did decide to go absolutely nuts on this box—despite the fact that we’d be scared to death—it would be secure, and we’d be OK. We had a lot of experts that were part of this to make sure it was going to be safe. not just for us but for the animals too. It doesn’t do us any good to make the news at night for that reason. 

What about when you were actually in the box?
We did not know how the lions would react to us. We were really worried we were going to spook them off. After they figured out we were in there and they just accepted the box for what it was, they really came and explored it. You’d hear a creak when they’d push their head against it. They’d sniff all the holes. I had my leg against one, and a lion stuck its nose through and grazed my leg. I just about went through the roof of the box. There’s no doubt lions are intimidating. I think my excitement overwhelmed any fear I would have had. I was so excited to be that close and see it all taking place. They were there for hours and did so many cool things behavior-wise. It was perfect.

Will you let your kids watch the show?
Oh yeah. We expose them to a lot, and obviously they know I’m home safe now. They’re excited about it. My little boy loves cats and the outdoors. He thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world and was like, “Can I come sit in the box?” And I’ll tell you, I felt confident enough in what we had designed and set up that if I could’ve put my boy in there with me, I would’ve done that. When else is a 9-year-old going to be a foot away from lions, roaring and growling and eating stuff? You can smell the dust and the blood, the wildebeest and the lions. He’d never forget it.

boone-smith-man-vs-lion-box
“Hey there, you look familiar. Prey here often?”

How long have you been tracking big cats?
Professionally, for about 15 years, but growing up, out the door, that’s what I was doing. You name it, my dad had us outside tracking it down and learning about it. I grew up hunting, fishing, trapping. My dad and grandpa were extremely passionate about the outdoors and shared that with me all the time. They were really hardcore about it in a way that was contagious. I can’t tell you how many times I think of my grandpa, and I think he’d be really proud of what I’m doing.

Does your dad ever come with you when you track?
All the time. We collared 15 mountain lions together last winter. He’s who taught me how to use hounds and how to chase and track, so to have him come and help me find the animals, it’s handy, and he loves to do it. He’s turning 67 this winter, and I think, “Hey, if the old man can do it…” We’ve been all over the western United States together.

What do you love most about the work you do?
Probably two things. There’s the big picture. It’s very humbling to be part of a program like National Geographic, Nat Geo WILD, the Cause An Uproar program and the Big Cat Initiative and to be a spokesperson and help educate people. It’s a fantastic cause. It has such biological impacts and to be part of that is a great thing. On a personal note, there’s an adventure component that I absolutely love and am addicted to. I think the older I get, the more I appreciate what that is. It’s not necessarily about whether we catch the cat. Of course, that’s the objective and the job I’m hired to do, but it’s really the adventure of doing it.

What do you bring with you when you track?
Depends on the location, but I never walk out the door without something to start a fire. We rarely pack stuff to spend the night, like sleeping bags and tents. But I try to bring an extra jacket, a good knife, a good dog and a headlamp.

Do you consider yourself a cat person?
I’m a dog person at heart. I love my dogs. I grew up with hounds, and I still have them. I love working with dogs. I love working with big cats. But I will not ever have a house cat.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the job?
I really love the adventure side of everything, going to see what’s over the next horizon, what’s down that canyon, going into a place I’ve never gone. I love the idea of going somewhere so far and remote I can say maybe no one’s ever been right in this exact spot before. My life’s simple. I don’t need a lot. I don’t want a lot. I feel super blessed for the Nat Geo opportunities, and we do things for a great cause.

What lessons can you learn in the wild from animals?
You can learn a lot from animals and what they do. Why? Because survival for them is different than it is for us. We have so many wants, and we get caught up in those. But when you’re an animal, and you’re in nature, it’s about survival. It’s need and need alone because your life depends on it. So there’s so many things—tenacity, just being tough and being able to stick to it and see it through when things get rough—wildlife can teach us that make us better people.

Life motto?
Go big or go home.