Most nature conservation documentaries seem to extol the wonders of the planet or show us the ways we're destroying it. The new PBS series "Earth a New Wild" takes a different tack, showing both the beauty of nature and how we can co-exist with it for mutual benefit. Premiering Feb. 4, the five-part series is hosted by M. Sanjayan, a biologist and senior scientist for Conservation International who traveled the world to bring the unique stories it tells to life.
"For probably the last century we have seen ourselves as separate from nature, seeing nature as something out there, pristine, gorgeous, beautiful, like the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and to be admired from that perspective," says Sanjayan, offering "Planet Earth" as an example of this type of documentary. "I wanted to turn the camera around, because I didn't think you could tell the story of the planet without also telling the human story."
Toward that end, the series includes primatologist Jane Goodall's efforts to combat the loss of chimpanzee habitats in Tanzania, the Chinese scientist who rescues, breeds, and reintroduces endangered pandas to the wild and the Portuguese cork harvesters whose work strengthens an entire forest's ecosystem.
M. Sanjayan and a panda cub explore a forest during a scene from PBS special "Earth A New Wild."
"The crew went to 29 countries; I went to about 20 — incredible journeys and fantastic wildlife moments, like paragliding with vultures. Who gets to do that, right? We got incredible access in China. Fourteen baby pandas were put into this pen and I was thrown in there — you melt. I got one to go out in the wild with me," Sanjayan recalls. "We got to be there when the first captive‑born female panda was released into the wild. I'll always remember that. It was an amazing, unbelievable moment."
There were many other moments that made indelible impression. "In Kenya, where I grew up, there are singing wells that the Samburu dig. They sing to their cows, and the cows come down to the water, following their owner's song. That blew me away," says Sanjayan. "Twenty million vultures disappeared in South Asia in a period of about two decades, and that has led to this unbelievable proliferation of carcasses of dead animals just piling up. Because of that, you have this plague of wild dogs, and with that comes the highest incidents of rabies on the planet now." As the first episde, "Home," shows, an cow antibiotic that killed vultures has been banned, and a breeding and rewilding project has brought them back.
In another example, "We tell a story about Lake Malawi and this incredible link between HIV along the lakeshores and demise of a particular kind of fish in the lake that's really eye-opening." Sanjayan also witnessed a Sami native of Arctic Norway performing reindeer castration — with his teeth. "This is a traditional method that they're slowly bringing back, because they think it makes the herds more resistant to things like climate change," he explains.
While he's aware that humans have done plenty to destroy nature, Sanjayan wanted to focus on ways people are preserving it in the series. "If I am starting with a premise that the Earth is screwed, that there's no hope out there at all, I might as well just stop now. And so I'm on a quest to find those signs of hope. It's not just about people giving nature a little helping hand. It's also that people are inextricably linked to nature. Saving nature is really about saving ourselves, and to me, that's an extraordinarily positive and hopeful message. We don't paper over the ecological disasters of the planet. We show it, but we quickly move beyond it."
He points out that "nature isn't, even in the wildest places, pristine in the way we have been shown often on television. Humans are a fundamental factor in the whole equation, and they have the power to change it for the good in some places and for the bad in other places. There's a pretty good argument out that the grasslands of the Serengeti are there because of the grazing of the Maasai and other nomadic herdsmen. Humans are part of that puzzle, not always for the bad. If we use that as the dominant paradigm — that we are part of nature, not separate from it — then people start thinking differently about their role in it."
Sanjayan believes that "Earth a New Wild" has the power to "shift the landscape" in how we perceive nature. "It shows the planet as it really is," he says. "And guess what? It's actually a hell of a lot cooler."
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