Why I Made “EARTH A New Wild”

© M. Sanjayan

Editor's note: The five-episode series “EARTH A New Wild” — hosted by CI’s Dr. M. Sanjayan — shows how nature is speaking to people. The show airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on PBS.

Over a decade ago I found myself in northern India watching a film crew from the BBC shoot a scene for the epic natural history series “Planet Earth.” I was lightly associated with the effort, and I was eager to see how it was done.

Predictably, a wildlife spectacle was unfolding in front of our eyes. But what really caught my attention was the action behind the camera’s field of view.

Perhaps a thousand villagers had gathered to watch the Western crew at work. They milled about, curious and incredulous that all this effort was being made to film what to them was their backyard. Every so often some guy pushing a cart, or perhaps a stray dog, would wander into the shot, and a fixer would be dispatched to shoo away the offender and keep the image pristine.

“Planet Earth” was a groundbreaking series, and I loved it because it opened all our eyes to the beauty and spectacle of our natural world. But it only told half the story. I knew then that I wanted to make a film that turned the camera around and showed the planet not as we wish it to be, but as it really is.

Easier said than done.

Five years in the making, “EARTH A New Wild” is our attempt to tell the story of the major habitats of our planet in an inclusive way, where humans are shown to be part of nature, inextricably linked to it and dependent upon it to thrive. We also wanted to demonstrate how neglecting nature has consequences not just for the wildlife, but for us as well.

Nothing illustrates this better than the vulture story in the first episode (“Home”), where we travel to South Asia to investigate the collapse of the vulture population.

In the last two decades, over 99 percent of the region’s vultures have disappeared. We’re talking 20 million birds! At first no one noticed, or maybe no one cared. Then people began realizing that dead animal carcasses — cows, goats, camels — were piling up. Nothing was eating them. One religious community in India which relies on vultures to dispose of human remains had to resort to solar concentrators to cremate the uneaten bodies.

It turns out the vultures were dying from a common anti-inflammatory drug given to livestock. A single dose was lethal.

The death of this unnoticed bird has had grave consequences. The rural landscape is now dotted with huge carcass dumps, where tens of thousands of dead animals are dragged in to rot. Visiting one near Jaipur, India was as close to the apocalypse as I ever want to come. The whole place, a jumble of bones and flesh, is crawling with feral dogs. In fact, now the Indian subcontinent has the highest population of feral predators, and with that has come the highest incidence of rabies in the world. The loss of vultures is literally biting us in the rear.

All this makes for pretty incredible TV but we don’t stop there. We go beyond and show how replacing the damaging drug with a nontoxic substitute, and the creation of vulture “restaurants” and rehabilitation centers are bringing new hope for the rescue of an species no one realized they needed. And we go paragliding with them over the Himalayas — eye to eye with vultures soaring on thermals for hours. Now the audience can see them for what they are: lovely and valuable.

In many ways this show is on the frontline of where the conservation movement is heading.

The mission of my organization, Conservation International, can be roughly summarized in four simple words: Save nature, live better. That’s the idea behind CI’s recent Nature Is Speaking campaign; it’s also the concept that “EARTH A New Wild” tries to bring to life through the stunning power of visuals.

Organizations like The Nature Conservancy (a primary partner in promoting the show and whose work is featured in several episodes), WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society are also embracing the notion that unless human communities account for the value of nature, saving nature will rest precariously on the frivolity of loving nature.

As much as I love wild things and wild places, I know love alone is not enough.

Our team traveled to 29 countries and 45 locations to make this series. Each story surprised me, made me rethink what I thought I knew. There is no way I could have told these stories without series director Dave Allen — one of the finest natural history filmmakers out there today — and his team from Passion Planet and National Geographic Television. And PBS is probably the only platform out there willing to take the risk of trying such a unique show in a genre that has bifurcated toward either blue chip natural history documentaries or reality television.

At the end of the day we tried to make something we would want to watch ourselves. No one wants to watch a lecture on TV. We wanted you to be entertained, to fall in love again and learn to value the natural world — except this time with us in it. If we succeed, then we will have forever banished this notion that people are somehow separate from nature — and the reasons for saving nature now really become about saving ourselves.

Oh, and we put in lots of baby pandas.

Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International. “EARTH A New Wild” airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on PBS. International air dates on National Geographic will be announced at a later date.