Can wildlife films convince us to save nature?

by Liz Kalaugher

A pack of African wild dogs closes in on a wildebeest, racing across the plains at up to 40 km per hour. The lead dog is tiring but a youngster behind powers ahead and snaps at the wildebeest’s hind-legs. Risking broken jaws, the dogs must kill before their prey reaches the safety of its herd. As Keith Scholey of Silverback Films revealed at the Richard Gregory Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, this scene from BBC wildlife documentary The Hunt couldn’t have reached us without the Cineflex kit that stabilises cameras when fixed onto a helicopter, a jeep, a boat or even an elephant.

It’s not all about the equipment, though. “You need a good operator for that technology too, that’s where the art comes in,” former BBC producer Scholey told an audience at the University of Bristol made up of the public and natural history film-makers in town for the Wildscreen Festival.

Science and technology help filming a great deal, by reducing camera vibration, enabling divers to stay underwater longer using rebreathers rather than SCUBA kit, or bringing us high dynamic range TVs that in two or three years’ time will have the brightness and colour we perceive in nature. Wildlife film-makers often turn to biologists too, to discover how animals behave or even where to find them. When Scholey’s colleague Alastair Fothergill wanted to film killer whales teaming up to make waves that wash their prey into danger, he turned to satellite-tracking experts John Durban and Robert Pitman of NOAA Fisheries in the US. Killer whales migrate such long distances that, before satellite tags, it was almost impossible to be in the right place at the right time to capture their actions.

The result? The first footage – in Frozen Planet – of orca using water power to knock a seal off an ice floe into the ocean, and a clip in The Hunt of a pod thwarted in their attempts to wash a humpback whale calf from the safe swimming spot above its mother’s back by the arrival of two “escort” male humpbacks. For many years, divers alongside female humpback whales had known to expect a less friendly male to turn up; the shots revealed why the males do this.

As Scholey explained, orca have only recently resumed hunting humpback whale calves, whose numbers have crept back up following the whaling ban. Since 1985, the ocean off Hawaii has seen 10% more humpback whales each year. Other conservation efforts have had less success. The ban on the ivory trade worked until the sale of stockpiles of legal ivory; now elephant poaching is as bad as it was before. Yet Scholey is hopeful that we can protect the elephant once more, adding that The Ivory Game is the best wildlife conservation film he’s ever seen.

Hidden change

There’s more to this than crisis, however. “I’m passionate about elephants, don’t get me wrong, but I’m more worried about the slow insidious changes,” Scholey said. In his lifetime, one-fifth of coral reefs have vanished and a further fifth are in a desperate state. By protecting 40% of each reef area with marine parks we can restore coral reefs – the zones act as breeding grounds for the large fish that keep the reef healthy but are removed by fishing. This habitat protection would work until 2050. Then ocean acidification is likely to kick in. The 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere each year, through activities like burning fossil fuels, also dissolves in the ocean, boosting its acidity. This is bad news for corals, which have calcium carbonate shells that become harder to make as seawater grows more acidic.

Not only is this harming the oceans but the extra carbon dioxide in the air pushes up temperatures around the globe. “We are squeezing the natural world into a tight bottleneck,” Scholey said. Yet film-makers haven’t told us about these issues and the solutions well enough. “It has to stay entertaining enough for enough people to watch it but…you have to communicate the problems as well,” Scholey added. “We can communicate crisis but insidious change is difficult. Time is running out, we’ve got 5-10 years to get it right.”

With that in mind, Silverback Films, where Scholey is a director, has teamed up with WWF to create the Our Planet series for Netflix. Due out in 2019, the show will reveal “the huge riches left in the natural world” and there will be information available alongside it on where the problems are and how we can solve them.

Virtual reality could also engage people by helping them visualise what the natural world looks like, how it will change and the no-brainer solutions that can save it, Scholey explained, citing Pokémon’s use of augmented reality, GPS and gaming.

Past 2050, he believes, the situation will improve, with industry creating less carbon dioxide and world population decreasing. “If we find the solutions and get everything [all species] through the bottleneck, we can turn the clock back and get something as good as now or even the ‘50s or ‘60s,” the film-maker said. “And that is something worth striving for.”

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