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Planet Earth II: Do documentaries say enough about extinction rates?

Planet Earth II’s Cities episode was one of the only ones to show direct human impact, such as these langurs in Rajasthan interacting with human inhabitants Planet Earth II’s Cities episode was one of the only ones to show direct human impact, such as these langurs in Rajasthan interacting with human inhabitants
14 Dec
Almost half of the species featured in BBC’s Planet Earth II are listed by the IUCN as being ‘near threatened’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘threatened’ or ‘critically endangered’ thanks to human activity. Laura Cole sits down with three members from the BBC’s Natural History Unit to ask why these threats aren’t directly stated, even when a species’ status is critical

It may come as a surprise that the biggest threat to the marine iguana isn’t the racer snake, it’s pigs and cats. These domesticated invaders were brought to the Galapagos by settlers back in the 18th century and scavenged the eggs of both the now vulnerable iguana as well as the more endangered snake alike. Also vulnerable are dancing Andean flamingos, the Asian rhino and the mighty African lion. In real dire straights – at ‘critical’ status according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – are those swimming three-toed sloths, the indri lemur, and the hawksbill sea turtle. The list goes on.

Though 45 per cent of the species recently brought to our screens in vivid, high definition beauty by the BBC’s Planet Earth II are listed by the IUCN as being near threatened, endangered, vulnerable or critically endangered, the status of individual species were rarely mentioned in the landmark BBC series, which has been lauded by almost all viewers and has come to be seen as being an authority on nature. Often, its eye-watering visuals gave the impression of abundance – even as some of the ecosystems shown face the worst extinction rates since the death of the dinosaurs.

shutterstock 393020464In Planet Earth II, marine iguanas in the Galapagos were shown escaping predatory racer snakes, but are the snakes the main threats to the iguanas’ existence?

The series was even criticised in the Guardian by a producer/presenter on another BBC nature series, Springwatch, for understating these threats, saying that Planet Earth II’s authoritative voice on the state of the nature could have done more to explain the direct human causes of animal struggle. Prior to the article in the Guardian, Geographical sat down with three of Planet Earth II’s production team to talk about this wider debate. ‘Part of our promise at the beginning of the series is to take you to some of the wildest corners of the planet,’ says executive producer, Mike Gunton, ‘and I suppose the remoteness of those places may make the Earth look more pristine than it is.’

‘There are certain situations where you feel it’s a shame to be travelling through landscape that has been devastated to a small fragment of what it was in order to film the last remaining wild animals in that area,’ says Fredi Devas, one of six directors that worked on the series.

‘Some are really on a knife-edge,’ adds Mark MacEwan, the cameraman responsible for capturing many of the series’ creatures including those bristling Komodo dragons and urban macaques. Extinction isn’t news to these filmmakers. More than most, they experience how certain species are becoming harder to find. ‘For many of the animals we feature, the populations are getting smaller and smaller,’ says Devas, ‘finding the right voice for that on television is a major discussion’.

Gunton, who is the creative director of the BBC Natural History Unit, has spent 30 years in the industry thinking about how to find the right voice. For Planet Earth II, he found that engaging audiences with these issues without leaving them feeling disempowered is one of the biggest challenges in documenting the natural world. He says: ‘We have found that if you bring hard conservation or extinction messages to a program like this – to suddenly drop audiences into an extraordinarily complicated and harrowing story – it can leave them in the lurch. Trying to mix a fraught and complex extinction message among those celebratory pieces is like trying to mix oil and water. We have found by experience that programmes such as Planet Earth II work best as a celebratory piece, to say “look how wonderful the natural world is.”’

shutterstock 376090744The IUCN lists many of the species featured in Planet Earth II, such as the saiga antelope, as being at various levels of ‘endangered’

The celebratory style is carried through to the series’ final episode on cities. We see langurs to the accompaniment of a swelling soundtrack, peregrine falcons thriving in New York and a leopard population living within Mumbai.

Of the 12 species featured in that episode, 11 were shown to be adapting to the city habitat. ‘These are animals that have been able to make the jump,’ says Gunton, ‘often because there is something unusual about them, a pre-adaptation that allows them to coexist with humans.’

The episode was directed by Devas who, having worked on other BBC series such as ‘Wild Arabia’ and ‘Frozen Planet’, enjoys exploring the grey area between human environments and the natural world. ‘Cities was mainly a way of showing extraordinary examples of animals that are overcoming the challenges presented by urbanisation – by an environment that is entirely designed and created for us and by us.’

It also showed some of the ways that wildlife can be welcomed back into built environments, such as Singapore’s ‘supertrees’, Milan’s forested skyscrapers and the hyena-friendly Ethiopian city. For Devas, it was important to show ‘how you can choose to let wildlife into cities’. While other Planet Earth II episodes adopted the world-without-humans style of nature documentary, the final episode embraced the idea that these two worlds can coexist.

shutterstock 417933514Will future series make more of the human impact on the ecosystems, whether natural or man-made?
However, Will Travers, President and CEO of the Born Free Foundation, hopes that the take-home message wasn’t just to engineer cities for adaptable wildlife. ‘Notwithstanding how amazing it was to see how a handful of species have adapted to the human cityscapes,’ he says, ‘the sad thing is that’s what it is – a handful of species. It’s not an ecosystem, it is a very small number of adaptable or opportunist species coming to terms with this concrete jungle that we live in. We should not be seduced into thinking that the city is an alternative abundant ecosystem, because it isn’t.’

Could the focus on celebrating animals – urban or otherwise – be lulling us into a false sense of environmental security? Devas thinks not: ‘There was a story that is the consequence of urbanisation that we didn’t pull back from – the hawksbill turtle.’ In some of the final episode’s most powerful scenes, turtle hatchlings were seen being lured towards the roads and storm drains of the city, confusing street lights for the bright horizon of the open sea. ‘Up there is basically a dead-end for them,’ says Devas, ‘and we didn’t shy away from that.’

The director hopes the hatchlings symbolised the hundreds of animal species that cannot cope with urbanisation. ‘The hardest part in the edit of the episode was deciding where to put that turtle sequence,’ he says, ‘because it would be naïve to think that you could make a film suggesting cities could solve the extinction crisis, however you don’t want to alienate the audience or leave them feeling that it is hopeless. If wildlife films engage you in the natural world and help to remind you how much you value, and care about, wildlife, then that may well motivate actions towards creating positive change. If these films can also raise awareness on conservation issues, and remain engaging, then that may have an even greater positive effect. And that is what I hope the turtle sequence in Cities has done.’

shutterstock 473426905Critically endangered Hawksbill turtles. The species' main threats are tortoiseshell trade, egg collection and slaughter for meat

When Planet Earth II did address species threats, it tended to be in general terms. ‘Similar to the turtles in the finale, each episode has a moment that identifies the fragility of that particular habitat,’ says Mike Gunton. In Islands this moment was the Christmas Island red crabs decimated by invasive ants species. In Mountains it was the retreating snow line. In Deserts it was the expanding desert area. ‘These are small moments which, except for in Cities, are not really illustrated,’ he says. ‘But having David Attenborough stating the facts over the images is our way of saying “you’ve seen all this wonder but actually don’t forget, everybody, that this is fragile.”’

One ‘moment’ that stood out from the rest was with the indri. As a species, the indri holds a special significance for the BBC. In 1961, filmmakers at the Natural History Unit were the first to ever capture it on camera. The footage was broadcast proudly in the finale of Zoo Quest to Madagascar, which was also the first nature documentary series presented by Attenborough. During the programme, it’s explained how the indri’s name comes from the Malagasy for ‘there it is’ which, allegedly, visiting European naturalists took for its title. ‘It has never been photographed or filmed alive,’ explained Attenborough 50 years ago. ‘What is more, it is extremely difficult to find.’ Using a pre-recording – or a ‘tape lure’ – of its eerie song, he’s shown attracting the attention of the hiding indris, which begin to sing in response. Then – ‘there!’ exclaims the presenter with infectious excitement, as the black and white primate fills the black and white picture for the very first time.

shutterstock 450150487The indri was a major find for the BBC’s Natural History Unit 50 years ago and Planet Earth II saw it return to our screens;
In 2016, in Planet Earth II’s episode on jungles, the indri is followed leaping through the trees so closely and in such high definition that you can see the flecked colour of its eyes and fingernails. Attenborough’s commentary is that the primate is so perfectly adapted to the rainforest that it can survive nowhere else. He adds that ‘even in the ten years since the head of this family was born, one million hectares of the rainforest have been destroyed in Madagascar alone, and with it half the indri population.’

However, what isn’t mentioned is that the indri has reached ‘critically endangered’ status with the IUCN, nor that it is among the 25 primates closest to extinction, that its population is predicted to reduce by as much as 80 per cent over the next 30 to 40 years. And when Attenborough says they can survive nowhere else, it also means that the indri’s diet is so accustomed to the leaves and petals of the Madagascan rainforest that it cannot survive in captivity either – trials have found that the strongest can only survive for a year in zoos. In the 50 years since Zoo Quest to Madagascar, experts estimate that 80 per cent of the Madagascan core forests have been cut down, fragmenting indri habitats.

So, it’s not impossible to imagine that the BBC, the first filmmakers to capture indri’s in the wild, could also be the last. Should current trends continue, ‘there it is’ will become ‘there it isn’t’.

shutterstock 454798720


If there is to be a Planet Earth III, will it ever directly film human threats to endangered animals? I ask Gunton if, should the species extinction situation gets worse, we will ever see indri fleeing from deforestation, or elephants running from poachers instead of their natural carnivores, or harvest mice from combine harvesters – all readily visible human impacts that are usually avoided in the series.

‘My answer to that would be – would a series like that be called Planet Earth III?’ he replies. ‘Or should it be called something else? There is a serious documentary series to be made that deals with that type of content, however, at the moment, we’ve kept that directness outside of the Planet Earth brand.’ Maybe the less-direct method works - in the days their episodes were aired, Google searches for ‘Christmas Island red crab’, ‘indri’ and ‘hawksbill turtle’ rocketed.

‘The real challenge,’ says Born Free’s Will Travers, ‘is to maintain that level of interest and direct it in a way that can bring about change.’ For him, the series is not so much a lost opportunity to emphasise extinction rates, as a chance to create action. ‘Let’s not leave them hanging,’ he urges. ‘We have been fed a diet of outstanding natural history programmes – largely made by the BBC – for which we must be eternally grateful. If nothing else for the historical record of these species if some of them are to disappear.’

He continues ‘now there needs to be some way to show people how to conserve what we’ve just marvelled at and move beyond voyeurism into action. That could be by giving viewers an online forum to discuss their concerns, or a toolkit that they can download on how to direct those concerns to decision-makers in industry, politics and land-planning. Often it is the simple case of giving people permission to do something that can be incredibly empowering. But is that the responsibility of the BBC?’

crabOnline searches for Christmas island red crabs went up dramatically following their appearance

Gunton feels that the BBC’s arguments for the environment can be found across the full portfolio of its programmes. ‘You have to look at our output as a whole,’ he says, ‘We looked at the African conservation efforts in Africa, The Future and polar environmental issues in On Thin Ice, both of which were companion pieces to previous big, glossy, landmark series. We also do pieces about climate change such as Warnings From The Wild, we look at specific environmental pressures such as salmon farming, or controversial issues like badger culling. These and other similar programmes can be much more direct. But ultimately I think Planet Earth II has a rather different role, which is to talk about the glories of the natural world.’

When it comes to responsibility, Gunton emphasises that the NHU has a duty of care to the audience. ‘If people tune in to watch one of our more direct conservation shows, they know what kind of images and messages they might take away from it. But you have to consider carefully if it’s right to drop in unexpected messages about conservation into Planet Earth or give them something that wasn’t on the tin as you don’t want to disrupt that trust between the filmmakers and the audience. We have been invited into their homes, after all, and just because we know something about the endangered status of the species, it doesn’t mean that it’s right to include it every time.’

For him, the issue is not so simple as adding or omitting extinction threats or conservation messages, but is a more nuanced process of being able to command the audience’s attention, to surprise and engage them within the parameters of their expectations. With the end result of showing the audience species to fall in love with and protect.

In the end, Gunton hopes that Planet Earth II created an awareness and a sensitivity to nature beyond its six hours of film, that sky-high TV ratings eventually cause direct action to protect ecosystems. ‘In debates like this you might want to be able to show instances where Planet Earth has definitively influenced the environment for good,’ Gunton says. ‘But actually I think any effects are much more nebulous than that. Hopefully it’s a “pro-planet, pro-future” ethos or mindset that we are helping to create.’

This article was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical Magazine

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