On Sunday evenings many of us have been glued to our televisions watching the new series of Planet Earth 2. I’ve loved every one of the ‘planet’ series – Human Planet, Blue Planet, Planet Earth, you name it, I have it on box set! Although these programmes have opened our eyes to the wonders of the natural world, do they actually help conservation and the wildlife we become so attached to?
Last year Martin Hughes Games, Springwatch presenter, stated wildlife documentaries do not aid the conservation of threatened species. In an interview with The Guardian, Hughes explained that the documentaries were “a form of entertainment rather than a force for conservation, a utopian world that bears no resemblance to the reality” and that we were failing to raise public awareness of conservation issues. It’s disappointing that someone who stars in such shows does not have faith in their message. Whilst we all buy into the dramatic chases between predator and prey seen on The Hunt, or beautiful stories of new life like Freya the golden eagle on Autumnwatch, I think these documentaries give us much more than just television drama. So I have to say, I disagree with you Martin Hughes Games (sorry). In my opinion, wildlife documentaries are the reason most of us are interested in preserving the natural world in the first place.
Sir David Attenborough’s nature documentaries have inspired the new generation of environmentalists, ecologists and conservationists. They have made the public fall in love with the natural world. It could be argued that this love for watching the television may not develop into positive actions to conserve our planet. However, the Saving Planet Earth series helped raise around £1 million for the BBC Wildlife Fund, which supported over 86 projects for endangered species – just one series inspiring so many to donate and protect the planet. We are both entertained and educated by these documentaries, we learn to love endangered species and a result, long to protect them. What’s more powerful than that?
I studied Biological Sciences at university and the vast majority of students on my course were inspired to study science after watching nature documentaries. These are the people that will go on to defend endangered species, research climate change and stop habitat degradation. Their lives, and my life, have been shaped by what we have seen. By what we have experienced. Sir David Attenborough explained it perfectly when he said ‘no one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’ I think that is the essential point; nature documentaries allow us to experience the world in a way that may not otherwise be possible.
It is not only the viewers of today that enjoy these wildlife documentaries, they also serve as time capsules for future generations – the viewers of tomorrow. To record something is to bring it back to life. Nature’s memory is only so immediate in fossils or bones but we have the technology to record life and preserve the memories forever. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had footage of a Dodo bird? Or a Woolly Mammoth? I would have loved to witness what life was like at that time. It is possible that the animals and ecosystems today will not exist in 100 years. Wildlife films serve as a gift for future generations and we have a responsibility document the life on our planet – perhaps when they visualise what once was in all its beauty, they may protect what they have left.
In a recent interview with Michael Stevens (check out his Youtube channel, Vsauce, for amazing science videos!), Sir David Attenborough discussed the power of storytelling. Although wildlife documentaries may be dramatized, the stories actually act as a mirror for ourselves. The themes of love, hope, heroes and villains are all those we can relate to. We invest in the characters, or animals, in the story – I know I wasn’t the only one willing the baby marine iguanas to outrun the snakes in the first episode of Planet Earth 2, it was so intense!! The dramas and heart throb moments of life are the same across all species – the first life, the end of life, and the love and loss in between. As Sir David Attenborough put it, ‘these are the eternal stories’. We as an audience connect with the animals and realise that we are part of nature and we cannot exploit it mindlessly.
“We recognise that in moral terms, we can’t we can’t assume that everything is ours to do with exactly what we wish and that other creatures on the earth also have places in the grand scheme of things and that actually we are part of that and that if we damage them in the end we damage ourselves.” Sir David Attenborough.
In my opinion, the awesome footage we see on wildlife documentaries gives us hope. It gives us something to fight for. Negative headlines in the media telling us our actions are harmful to wildlife, extinction rates are increasing or that we still aren’t doing enough to slow climate change can weigh us down. Whilst these campaigns are necessary to help us understand the consequences of our actions, too much negativity can be counterproductive. If we only hear that our efforts are having no impact, it’s all too easy to become despondent and unwilling to change. Nature documentaries show us how beautiful the natural world still is. We see the ideal versions of habitats and whilst critics may argue this is an unrealistic representation of our damaged world, I think it is necessary. The ‘perfect’, untouched habitats motivate us to restore degraded ecosystems back to their natural state. These programmes literally enables us to visualise our goals.
So as you can probably tell, I am a big advocate for wildlife documentaries and their positive impacts on conservation. We have the gift of telling stories in more detail than ever before. As Michael Stevens explained, we are our planet’s auto-biographers, and isn’t that what we have been doing for centuries anyway? From basic drawings on cave walls to detailed descriptions of plants and animals, humans have always documented life for future generations. Now, we simply have a better method of recording, so let’s tell as many stories as possible.