The Wire: The Jungle in Our Living Rooms

The Wire

The Jungle in Our Living Rooms

Late last year, a video of a polar bear starving in the Canadian tundra left millions of viewers devastated. Whether it was a gritty reminder of the reality of climate disruption or – as others have written – a sign of disease, it was certainly proof of how images can stir us much more than lifeless data. But the viral video was also unusual. It is more common for nature videos to lift our spirits with magnificent sights than to try and shake us out of our complacency about the state of the environment.

Nature documentaries have been bringing the wild into our living rooms since the 1960s. They take us to remote regions of the planet, and imprint in our minds an idea of the state of the natural world. At a time of environmental crisis, they continue to show images of unspoilt natural splendour. It can be said that this will make urban men and women love and want to protect it and sensitise them to environmental degradation. Yet it may be that the jungle in our living rooms only gives us a false impression of nature as an abundant resource, and deepens our environmental ignorance.

We have come a long way from Disney’s 1958 Wild Wilderness documentary, where filmmakers drove scores of lemmings off a cliff to prove the legend that they committed mass suicide (and the film won an Oscar). The huge success of the big budget blue chip format started with Disney’s True Life Adventure films (1948-1960). It led the BBC Natural History Unit, which incorporated a scrupulous scientific approach, to bring us marvellous and inspiring visions of the natural world. It gave us a peek into the lives in the wild and into the dizzying diversity of nature. The darker issue of environmental degradation, however, stayed on the fringe.

Chris Palmer has produced more than 300 hours of nature programming. In 2011, he published a book, Shooting in the Wild, that described how commonly wildlife films use fakery – using animals from game farms, inserting fraudulent sound, shooting small animals and birds on sets, using computer graphics and more. “And if you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film,” Palmer writes, “it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer’s stomach.” Many films use ‘wildlife casting agencies’, like the company Animals of Montana, whose website lists National Geographic, IMAX, Animal Planet and the BBC Natural History Unit among its clients.

Even BBC, with its high standards of filmmaking, has been accused of routinely faking footage and using studio sets and sound effects to portray animals in the wild. In 2011, the media in Britain was scandalised to learn about scenes faked for David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet. A polar bear, shown as giving birth in the wild, was actually a bear in fake snow inside a Dutch zoo. The Mirror fumed over how Attenborough defended the footage by comparing documentaries to movies: “The dodgy footage was the most touching scene in Episode Five of Frozen Planet.”

Way back in 1997, the award-winning filmmaker Steven Mills lamented that “the loss of wilderness is a truth so sad, so overwhelming that, to reflect reality, it would need to be the subject of every wildlife film. That, of course, would be neither entertaining nor ultimately dramatic. So it seems that as filmmakers we are doomed either to fail our audience or fail our cause.”

There is no doubt that most wildlife and nature documentary makers feel passionately for nature. For those of us who have been in forests know how difficult it is to see an animal, let aside see it in action. And then not just the patience but the budgets start running out, too. “If someone wants to make a film on breeding birds of Keoladeo National Park, two to three months will be sufficient,” says Asad Rahmani, a former director of the Bombay Natural History Society. “But if you are making a film on a rare species or a species that does not show up quickly or is very shy, it will take years.” Shooting wildlife documentaries is a lot of hard work and genuine wildlife action shots are hard earned.

Nature – most abundant on TV

This contradiction between what was on screen and what was in reality didn’t get much attention until the turn of the new century. The change in approach came about when the media as a whole began to acknowledge and address the environmental crisis. Attenborough’s The State of the Planet marked a new awareness on the BBC. In place of blue-chip, green-chip programming made its presence felt with films like The Truth About Climate Change (2006), Saving Planet Earth (2007) and Last Chance to See (2009).

Discovery, which had partnered with BBC to produce Frozen Planet, is said to have objected to Attenborough’s warnings about the dangers of climate change, since a large part of the US population is in denial about climate change. (It had also objected to his reference to contraception in The Life of Mammals (2002), as it did not want to not ruffle conservative audiences in the US). The BBC and Sir David eventually prevailed. Attenborough, unshackled by the will of producers, expressed his thoughts on Radio Times in 2013: “We are a plague on the earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde.”

On nature channels we still watch with awe the endless, untouched expanse of the rainforests; expensive footage of a parallel universe of unspoilt and profuse ecosystems, with wild animals aplenty, roaming free and undisturbed. It is a false image. It doesn’t show us the inconvenient pictures of the deteriorating environment. Today, where nature is most abundant is television.

Flatter and destroy

In reality, we are facing the sixth age of extinction on this planet – the last one was the dinosaurs – and the single largest cause is human activity. Nature programming feeds a utopian delusion that pristine nature still exists in abundance – and contributes to our apathy. Huge budgets and clever editing hide the inconvenient picture of threatened wild species and degraded ecosystems. They make it easier for governments and businesses to paint environmental activism as misplaced and anti-development.

An honest representation of the issues and the condition of ecosystems does not mean films can’t offer inspiration and give hope as well. Mike Pandey’s new documentary, Gyamo: Queen of the Mountains, confronts viewers with the destruction of the habitat of one of the most endangered cats, the snow leopard. It is an excellent example of how spectacular footage from the Himalayas can be balanced with unsettling images of heaps of plastic debris left by tourists in one of Earth’s most pristine biomes.

 

Yet television and broadcasting technology largely continues to be an aide to masking the unprecedented scale of environmental destruction of the last half-century. It has done that by cinematically evading a reality of nature headed into ruin. We experience the ‘virtual’ wild in our living rooms, surrounded by rapid urbanisation and unrestricted consumption – our real links with the wild forgotten.

Adityavikram is an entrepreneur, nature lover and photographer currently based in Sri Lanka. Arefa Tehsin is a columnist and author of fiction and non-fiction books on wildlife. She is the ex-hon. wildlife warden of Udaipur.

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Session at Tata Steel Junior Kolkata Literary Meet

Kolkata friends, please drop in at the Junior Kolkata Literary Meet, Victoria Hall Grounds, if you want to know about the serpent hunters in the backyard!

Session: The Serpent Hunters in the Backyard

On 24th JanAt 9AM, ( At Victoria Memorial Hall Grounds )

http://kolkatalitmeet.in/2018/jklm.php

 

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Speaker

Outlook Money: Singapore & Beyond

 

 

Singapore and Beyond

The perfect post-summer retreat for the travelling soullarge_Ub1lQ2017_10_12_10_19_35

By Arefa Tehsin

Snaps by: Adityavikram More 

Oh yes, most things are high about Singapore. Its glittering high rises, hi-tech amusement parks, high-end shopping streets, the 541-feet high Singapore Flyer, the dizzyingly high Marina Bay Hotel’s swimming pool and the highest indoor waterfall in the world at Gardens by the Bay. Highly artificial though it might be, Singapore still has character, unlike the green desert of Dubai. Night Safari, River Safari, Clark Quay, Little India and not so little malls, the round-the-clock open Mustafa choking on electronics and the Sentosa Island with its nightly star attraction—a surreal light, sound and water show on the sea. There is something to do for every age group, the island country attracts tourists in drones.

Having been there and having done all that a couple of times, the Lion City does not dazzle me anymore. But this time the highlight of the trip was a cruise from Singapore to Penang Island and back. Before that, however, Universal Studios beckoned. If you have a family group 29-people-strong and you do all the rides together, Universal can be universally fun. From being a part of the Transformers’ mission to save the world to being inside a boathouse in a stormy New York City to being tossed like a tropical salad in a roller coaster, the theme park has the makings to give you either a hell of a good time or a panic attack.

Colourful Cycle Rickshaws in Georgetown

After the usual sightseeing (posing before the Universal Globe, the Merlion, the Marina Bay Hotel etc. posted by 50 other Facebook friends), we boarded the giant Ovation of the Seas, a cruise liner of the Royal Caribbean that falls in the Quantum Class—the second largest class of passenger ships. So what do you feel like today? Wind surfing? Pixels show with robotic screens? Rock climbing? A country pub? Live music? Gambling in a casino? Robots making you a cocktail? Japanese food? Mediterranean? A Las Vegas style show? Bumper cars? Jacuzzi? Football? Viewing the ship 300ft up in a capsule? Basketball? A massage in the spa? Nah… none of these. What if you just feel like flying in air? No big deal, you can do that too. And though you’re made to dress up for dinner daily, don’t expect a Titanic style grand ball.

However, one needs to book some activities months in advance. Else, you can miss out on much, especially if its a short 4-night cruise. The customer complaints redressal person would flash a dazzling smile and tell you they can’t do anything about you not being able to do any of the activities for which you took the cruise in the first place. So you have to pretty much be content with shopping, swimming and getting dressed in your fineries for dinner.

The best part of the cruise for me was when I stepped out of it. The ship docked in George Town, the capital of the exotic Penang Island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You need more than a day to explore this heady cocktail of a city, an eclectic mix of the time-worn old world charm and the outlandish new. Imagine a city punctuated with crumbling yet colourful Chinese shop houses, pedalling trishaws, mouth watering hawker stalls, unexpected museums (like the Upside Down one), Buddhist temples and Chinese mansions. Above all, George Town epitomises street art. The 3D artworks decorate the streets with their quirky humour and offbeat imagination. You can push the cycle with the two happy kids on it or crouch behind a boy crouching on an old motorbike. Or you can just stand and admire the art, without making a motley fool of yourself.

Dragon Art at Gardens by The Bay

Not to be missed in George Town is the Blue Mansion. Built by the iconic Cheong Fatt Tze at the end of the 19th century, the mansion rose from its ashes in the 1990s when a couple of Penang conservationists purchased it from Tze’s descendants. Now a heritage hotel, the lavish mansion stands proud on its indigo blue walls flaunting its granite floored courtyards, louvred windows, art nouveau stained glass and Feng Shui design. You can take a guided tour of the place. We were lucky to get the tour from the owner of the Blue Mansion herself. We saw the grandeur, got insights into the Chinese architecture and history and even saw some possessions of the family, including those of the most favourite seventh wife, while some men in the group sighed about the good old days.

And then we were back to the Kingdom of Singhapura, with its skyscrapers and friendly taxi drivers. Oh yes, you need to visit Hong Kong to see that most of the cabbies and others don’t want to flex their face muscles to smile. The last stop was pure delight for me – the Singapore Zoo! The real, after the artificial. Twenty-six hectares of a lush forest where white tigers roar, lemurs check you out, iguanas give you a withering look and orangutangs have their breakfast nonchalantly as you sit goggling at them.

Street Art in Georgetown

On the way back to the airport our tour guide gushed about Singapore being so “green.” Yes it is, green. But where were the other colours…of birds? It is uncanny that in a city with so many trees, there are hardly any birds. The guide said, “Oh, they are resting on the treetops.” What she didn’t tell was the Singapore government’s policy to shoot pest birds, who dirty their city, in thousands – common mynas, crows, feral pigeons, white-vented myna, purple backed starlings and Philippine glossy starling. The official culling program started in 1973 and today the Singapore’s National Environment Agency employs a security agency as well as volunteers from Singapore Gun Club to shoot the birds. To quote an article in New York Times (Nov 8, 2006), “Crows are everything that Singapore is not — raucous, indisciplined…and disorderly — and they are not welcome here.” That sounds more like tourists from our part of the world. If only the birds could sing their way into the island with Singapore Dollars too.

The Hindu: Not so pretty, mate

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YOUNG WORLD

Not so PRETTY, mate

         AREFA TEHSIN
Commons

You may think they look “ugly”. But ask them, and they’ll tell you who really fits the bill.

In the sub-Saharan Africa, there is a wild member of the pig family called warthog, which would make its domestic cousins look rather glamorous in comparison. If you think it looks naked, see closer and you’ll notice bristly hair on its wrinkly skin. They have four sharp tusks, a crest of hair on their backs and shovel shaped heads covered with warts, which are not warts at all but protective, fleshy pads. We have named them after their warts. How considerate!

We discussed some of the animals we think as the great uglies in the first part of this article, that appeared last month. Here are some more. Maybe after this we should have an article on what these animals would name us according to our looks or reputation. (Pimply Prema, Nerdy Nargis, Ratty Rijjo, Bittu Buck-teeth. Nah… Bittu Bad-breath, more likely.)

Sea Hare

ature’s uglies: Sea hare. Photo: Creative Commons/Scott A-P Muzlie   | Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Scott A-P Muzli

The two long growths on its head would have looked like rabbit-ears to the ancient Romans and they named this sea slug ‘sea hare’. Never mind that they are actually not ears but a nose. The largest species of sea hares can weigh up to 14 kg! When disturbed, they can release an ink to deter the predator. The slug with frills is a hermaphrodite — both a male and a female at the same time. When pregnant, it lays long noodle shaped strands with millions of eggs. Isn’t that egg-citing!

Vampire Bat

With their dark leathery cloaks, fang-like teeth, wrinkled noses and their appetite for blood, these bats are one of most feared animals of South America. Hundreds of them live together in dark caves and abandoned building and come out at night in search of unsuspecting victims. Their heat sensing noses lead them to warm blood. Making a cut with their razor sharp teeth, they lap the blood of animals like cattle and horses. Don’t find the vampire handsome? It won’t bat an eyelid.

Naked Mole Rat

Pinkish yellow skin wrinkled like a baked apple, giant incisors, spindly limbs and tiny eyes make them radically ugly to most of us. But these subterranean rodents who live in colonies under a queen are super animals. They do not get cancer, don’t feel pain and live much longer than animals their size. And to top that, a recent study shows that they can “turn into plants” to survive without oxygen! In the experiment, they survived for 18 minutes. They alter their metabolism so their cells sustain on fructose instead of glucose.

We tend to preserve only the creatures we find good looking and cute, like pandas and tigers, and do not care about those we find repulsive. In 2013, blobfish, a blob of a fish with a permanent miserable frown on its face, was voted the world’s ugliest animal. It has much to be miserable about as it is facing extinction due to over-fishing by humans. Now, who’s the ugly one?

The writer is a columnist, author of fiction and non-fiction books, and Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur.

Talks at Bookaroo, Bangalore 2017

Talks at Bookaroo, Bangalore 2017

 

The schedule of my talks/sessions at Bookaroo, Bangalore 2017.

Venue: Freedom Park

Bookaroo Speaker Profile: http://www.bookaroo.in/year/2017/bengaluru/

Arefa grew up treading jungles with her naturalist father. She was often found trying to catch a snake or spin a yarn. Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur, she’s the author of several books and columnist in newspapers/magazines.

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Saturday 2nd September

 

12.30-13.30 The Studio for 8-10 ages (English and Hindi)

Snake – Foe or Friend?

What comes to mind when you think of…a snake? Fangs? A slithering creep? Or a giant anaconda? … a mouse? The cute Jerry of Tom and Jerry? But who is the deadlier of the two?

 

15.30-16.30 The Studio for 10-12 ages (English and Hindi)

Do Tigers Drink Blood and Other Mysteries of Nature 

Do tigers drink blood? Does the ‘flying snake’ fly? Were the ‘Elephant Bird’ or ‘Roc’ eggs that Sindbad the sailor saw a myth or reality? Let’s get to the bottom of some of the mysteries of nature!

 

Sunday 3nd September

 

12.30-13.30 The Studio for 10-12 ages (English and Hindi)

Into the Heart of Darkness

Follow in the footsteps of renowned naturalist Raza H Teshin, deep into the wilderness in the dead of night, hear the sounds carried on the wind. Are those anklet bells tinkling? Is that chattering laughter?

 

15.30-16.30 The Studio for 8-10 ages (English and Hindi)

The Serpent Hunters in the Backyard 

Who is the venomous 100-legger in your bathroom? Who lives in your kitchen but can survive a nuclear bomb attack? Whose home is it? Wildlife isn’t confined to forests, check out the backyard with Arefa.

 

The Hindu: Ugly, Am I? Part I

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Ugly, Am I? Part I

 
 
 
 
 
If they are neither cute nor cuddly you wrinkle up your nose in disgust. But, these animals think well of themselves and don’t give a hoot about our opinions. 

 

We drool over the tall, dark and handsome, or the slanting doe eyes or the rose-petal lips. And the majestic mane of the lion king, the emerald blues and greens of the proud peacock, the fins of a goldfish forming liquid golden clouds… What about a pendulous nose like that of the Proboscis Monkey, or a smile with zigzagged teeth like that of a croc, or a nose tipping with fleshy rays like that of the star-nosed mole? Don’t tell me only a mother could love that.

Aye Aye

“Nay nay,” this primate will say. “Who are you calling ugly, dude?” Found only on the island of Madagascar, these rare dark brown mammals of the night have big eyes and ears, long bushy tails and rodent-like front teeth that keep growing their entire lives. They spend their days on trees sleeping curled up like a ball in their leafy nests and seldom descend on land. They have pointed claws on their long fingers and toes. It’s not just their gremlin look that makes them freakishly ugly to us, it’s their skeletal long middle finger.

At night, they tap-tap on the tree trunks with their long finger, hear the echo with their sensitive ears, tear away the bark with their large teeth to reach the insect tunnel and use their long finger as a grub dip-stick. It comes in handy to pry for insect larvae and grub…I mean grab a bite. People believe they are harbingers of bad luck. If they point their long witchy finger at you, you’ll die. People often kill them at sight and hang them upside down. Now if that isn’t ugly (and supremely idiotic), then what is?

Shaggy Frogfish

You may call it shaggy and unkempt due to its round, hairy appearance, but count your stars it can’t hear you and doesn’t stay on land. Shaggy Frogfish is a deadly predator of the seas who can swallow a prey almost as big as its own size, opening its mouth as wide! It doesn’t like company except when it goes out on a date. If the lady chooses to hang around a little after the date, the gent might get cross and have her for dinner. These fish, which are around 20 cm long, are masters of disguise. They can change their colour and use their dorsal spine as a fishing lure. Even if their fin is eaten by an unsuspecting prey, they regenerate another one. Simple. But the prey is unlikely to grow another head before next Christmas.

Panda Ant or Cow Killer
  • This black and white furry ant, which is actually a wasp, looks like a giant panda. Well, only in looks, not size. It is a kind of velvet ant that prefers to live alone and has an arsenal of defenses like hard slippery shell and legendarily painful sting. It has earned them the name ‘cow killers’, though their stings are far from that potent. Holy cow! Let not the gau rakshaks hear about this one! And it is South American, that too!
  • We’ll check out a few more weird creatures in the second part of this article. Hadn’t someone said that it’s weird not to be weird? We all are differently weird with our own preferences of food, friends, clothes… Maybe striped pajamas make you feel like a convict. But zebras wear stripes of every stripe. Maybe you hate flies over your food. But Kremlin the frog says, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” See?

The writer is a columnist, author of fiction and non-fictions books and Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur