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.


Wild in the Backyard Reviewed on Goodbooks



Wild in the Backyard

By : Jane De Suza  /  2016

Wild in the Backyard
Author: Arefa Tehsin, Illustrator: Sayantan Halder
230 pages. English. Rs 199.00
Penguin Books, 2015

“Ma, did you know that lice poop is red?” yelled my nine-year-old son, and I hushed him because I didn’t want the neighbourhood thinking we were walking around with lice. Though, of course, if brave, battle-hardy, macho soldiers had them, why not us? In World War I, a soldier broke the record with 10,000 lice on him!

Here’s the thing: We’d never have known all this had we not been reading a book, and not the Guinness Book of World Records, but the very riveting Wild in the Backyardby Arefa Tehsin.

It’s knotty for an adult to be reviewing children’s books because evidently I am not a child. However, I do have two. The test is really how deeply engrossed they can be in a book; and for two boys, a book on lice, snakes and spiders is a winner.

Arefa Tehsin divides her book on the everyday creepy-crawlies in our lives into twenty-five chapters, each dedicated to demystifying the myths and clouds of dread surrounding them. Happily, this does not make for a yawn-inducing biology lesson; the author’s lively language turns it into a fun fest. It’s peppered with quizzes, questions, fill-in-the-blanks and a bit of reptilian and other creaturely dialogue here and there.

Sample this: A centipede mama eats her own eggs at times, and in utter gratitude for letting them survive, the babies, if born, sometimes – eat their own mamas! This alarming fact is softened by Arefa’s centi-talk:

“Baby: Mama, I’m hungry…

Mama: Oh no, my dear! I am not served with tomato ketchup!”

More on this soccer-team dream: Some centipedes keep growing new legs all their lives! And the males are chivalrous (or lecherous?) enough to allow the ladies to grow more.

Moving onto other lifetime-award-winning body-builders – geckos have up to a hundred teeth (and we thought they were as toothless as grandpa!) and they can replace each one every few months (Wouldn’t you love that, grandpa?).

There are so many fascinating facts in here, a kid could impress his whole class by spouting them. “You have Type O blood? You poor sucker! Mosquitoes are more likely to go for you!” And again, “You can go up in a helium balloon to escape a spider, but they can be seen wafting at those heights too.” Seriously, I mean, a spider can jump up to fifty times its height. What wouldn’t your basketball team give for that, right? A married rat is called a – dam! (Here’s when your kids are legitimately allowed to use cuss words!) Damn right! She’s called a dam. And the next time, any adult accuses you kids of mischief, challenge them, “You’re calling us a group of rats? That’s what a mischief is.”

The greatest gift this book gives to children is the respect it fosters for every living thing. The next time a crow drops a nut on the road, for example, your kid won’t call it clumsy. It’s intentional, so that the cars drive over it and do the job of cracking it open for the crow.

Let your child see how sophisticated each of these little ‘pests’ is. Some bats create their own napkins while eating on the fly. Stylish as they are, even their poop is named – it’s called guano. You think only dogs bark? Well, geckos do too. Most land-snails are so gender-sensitive and politically correct that they’re hermaphrodites and can choose to be a boy or a girl, depending on which chick or hunk they meet at the pub. The blind snake has a head and tail which look the same. If any of us humans could do half the things the wild ones in our backyard do, I’d agree we’re the smartest in the natural world. Until then, my vote goes to the ones who can sit while flying, or to the little guy who can take kitchen junk and turn it into fertiliser – and all without a skeleton of his own.

Arefa Tehsin loves the wild. She learnt to love it, walking alongside her naturalist father. Later, she went on to become a (ex-honorary) wildlife warden herself. Her articles are scattered around magazines and newspapers and she has authored many books. A junglee is what she calls herself on her website. And boy, are we glad she loves the wild, because it’s given us many hours of remarkable reading.

There is a disclaimer. This is not a book to polish off in one sitting. There are so many facts that kids will probably use it more as a go-to, or research book. If only this were recommended reading in schools though. How delightful that would be!


Jane De Suza is a humour writer and the author of SuperZero, whose next mission she is plotting on popular demand. She has written other children’s books, a parenting column, and a novel for adults, The Spy Who Lost Her Head.

My Talks at Ecole Mondiale World School

“I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake.” Can’t say I disagree with Edward Abbey. My three back-to-back talks at Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai on snakes, books and other such fearful things.


Ecole Mondiale World School - Nov 14 - Junior session Ecole Mondiale World School - Nov 14

Smithsonian Reviews The Elephant Bird


Books for the Multi-Culti Reader

The Elephant Bird by Arefa Tehsin, illustrated by Sumit and Sonal

Elephant Bird by Arefa Tehsin, illustrated by Sumit and SonalThe underdog overpowers her detractors. Check!

The unjustly accused is publicly exonerated. Check!

An unexpected friendship repairs foolhardy mistrust. Check!

Girl power saves all! Check!

Surely that sounds like just the superhero adventure tale you want to share with your kiddies!

Munia’s tiny village is in an uproar over a missing horse. Circumstantial evidence points to the single-feathered giant elephant bird – the very last of his kind! But Munia knows better: “Yes, he was big enough to swallow a horse, but that didn’t mean he had!” The elephant bird is Munia’s only friend, as she’s ostracized by the village children; because of her limp, she’s never invited to play their games. “Munia felt she had something in common with him. The elephant bird could not fly and Munia could not run.” She also realizes that he’s a “shy herbivorous bird.”

The villagers, however, are not convinced. “‘For years he has been lying silent, hatching his evil plans!’” the milkman insists. The crowd agrees the bird must be hunted down. When Munia attempts to defend her friend, she’s dismissed with an angry, “‘This girl has lost her mind!’” Even her parents harshly chide her.

So what’s a determined girl to do …? Dark jungle, howling jackals, screeching owls? Nothing will stop Munia from saving her innocent friend!

Author Arefa Tehsin – deemed an “honorary Wildlife Warden of Udaipur” – empowers, cheers, and rewards with her feel-good story of loyalty and truth. Artists Sumit and Sonal’s Gond-style art (a distinct, tribal folk art form originating from the Gondi or Gond community indigenous to Central India) capture Munia and her adventures in brilliant colors, and imaginative whimsy, inviting young readers to explore patterns and shapes, as well as appreciate unexpected details (that tiny brown mouse is never, ever far from all the action). The interactive possibilities makes this a book that keeps on giving …

Thanks to fabulous Pratham Books, a not-for-profit organization based in India with a mission to put “a book in every child’s hand,” this Bird is available in six Indian languages. For their global accessibility – 1800 titles (thus far) in 11 languages, with most of their titles costing less than 35 Indian rupees (50 U.S. cents!) – Pratham Books was recently commended by the Library of Congress Literacy Awards 2014, “For Its Effective Implementation of Best Practices in Literacy and Reading Promotion.” Here’s an empowering reminder that the most unlikely superheroes are the ones who are best at making everyday magic …

Fading Guardians of Fading Jungles

Authors: Raza H. Tehsin & Arefa Tehsin

Sumer… a name that is attached to us like the first roots of a seed that have just tasted earth, like a childhood dream you remember even when reality fades. It is a distant home we want to return to each year of our remaining lives.

Every year, when the sun is at its blazing glory, and one and all in the plains crave for the snowy mountains, we pack our rucksacks and drive down to a place where the sun is without mercy.

Sumer guest House By Adityavikram More

It is Sumer, a patch of jungle in the Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary, at the foot of Aravali hills. A forest guest house stands at the fringe of Sumer’s dry deciduous forest, unassuming yet inviting. For fifteen years we’ve visited this jungle and the guest house and for thirty years the other guest houses of the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary. In peak summers the forest streams and ponds are reduced to a few muddy puddles here and there. At this time, animals and birds come to quench their thirst to a water hole maintained and filled by the forest staff near the Sumer guesthouse. Panther, sloth bear, hyena, blue bull, sambar, chinkara, fox, jackal, wild boar, mongoose, ratel and all other denizens of the forest come to the water hole. We’ve seen carnivores drink water side by side with their prey; everyone under a mutual pact of peace for water. They come down from the hills to this valley each night and travel great distances to get a mouthful of water. This is one place they can be sure of getting water, one place that would not fail them even when all the streams of the forest have run dry.

Summer Dusk at Sumer By Adityavikram More

But for the past few years, the dependence on this water hole has reduced. The animals can no longer rely on this source of water. Even when it is filled, they pass by not knowing that they would find water there. Their only reliable source of water does not exist anymore. That is because the forest rest house is no longer equipped with enough manpower that can take care of its needs.

This is not just the case with Sumer jungle. All the wildlife sanctuaries of Udaipur district – Kumbhalgarh, Phulwari Ki Naal, Sajjangarh, Tatgarh Rawli and Jaisamand – are facing the problem of staff shortage. The forest department has always been quite under-staffed, and now the situation is deteriorating further.

In 1991, there were 80 employees at Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary, which was not enough then, and today there are only 53. What would be the situation 20 years from now of the Udaipur forests is something we rather not ponder upon.

Sunset at Sumer by Adityavikram More

Even the meagre staff that there is, has hardly any facilities or funds to protect the forests. They have no equipment like walky-talkies, suitable dresses and shoes or any weapons. Leave aside weapons, they don’t even have a wooden cane to resist the occasional fellers, poachers or trespassers. The allocated funds don’t even suffice to maintain the place.

The forest Rangers, who’re supposed to look after an entire forest range, are without proper vehicles. They should have jeeps to go inside the forest terrains and manage their range. Even where there is a rare jeep or two, there are no drivers.

Cadre management is not good to say the least. Promotions of some of the forest staff has been stalled not for years but for decades. At least once in ten years, when it is time for staff promotion, a post should be created and the staff should be promoted likewise. But there have been hardly any senior posts created. Some of the employees have remained on the same post for more than 20-22 years, many of whom are now fast approaching retirement.

There had been a ban on recruitments since 1986. For 25 years, there was no new field staff taken in. The older staff gradually retired. The ban was finally lifted this year, but still two-third vacancies remain unfilled. However, new IFS pass-outs are taken in every year as forest officers. Every organisation has a pyramid structure – most number of employees at the bottom, less in the middle tiers and least on the top. In the forest department the pyramid has been reversed – put upside down. There are more officers today than field staff!

What motivation can such an organisation inspire in its overburdened employees to go in the sweltering heat and protect the forests? To top this, now they’ve additional work of NREGA. It leaves them with precious little time to go in the field.

But in spite of the un-conducive situation and all the odds, there are people in the forest department who are out-and-out dedicated and truly in love with the jungles. One such unsung hero is Ganga Singh, the late forest guard of the Sumer forest. This fiercely honest man lived there, fought with the local felling goons as well as the villagers risking his own life. He didn’t let anyone take his or her cattle for grazing inside the sanctuary limits, or as much as break a neem twig from the jungle for brushing teeth. The jungle flourished under the shield of Ganga Singh, who had nothing for his own protection but a stick that he carried. He was murdered on 17th Jan 1994 in the same forest by some vindictive locals. The forest had grown so thick and dense under his fatherly protection that it took three days to locate his body.

We hear about the wildlife department of the country now and then when there are sensational issues and emotions flying high. The environment ministry and society at large gets geared to action. Ground issues, which are more detrimental, remain unheard and ignored for decades.

Of course we need to preserve tigers, but our concern should also percolate down to other animals, many of whom are steadily rising in the IUCN red data book like sloth bear and wolf. These wildlife sanctuaries, which are ideal habitat and quite needed to save such animals, stand completely neglected. They do not draw any society or government attention. We do hope that the correct measures are taken, and taken soon, to address these problems.

Lonely Tree in the Compound By Adityavikram More

The forest staff, who are no less than soldiers, are protecting a different front, which is enormously important for us. The difference is that they’re protecting this front, these forests, not against a foreign enemy, but from ourselves.

Twenty years from now, we may or may not be there. But we do hope that these remaining forests stand untouched, with the lonely guest houses and forest chowkis well-manned and proud. In order to protect these temples of Nature for wilderness loving pilgrims like us, the humanity and the generations to come, we must be considerate and grateful to the sentries who live and die in shadows to protect them.