Are we all feeling a bit epochal? The Anthropocene — the brave new era of pervasive human impact on Earth systems — is due for scientific acceptance (or not) in 2016. Meanwhile, it is proving fertile ground for pop-sci, from Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age to Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene (reviewed here and here). Now the notion has floated far enough along the mainstream to reach TV with the five-part PBS series Earth: A New Wild, kicking off tonight.
The focus here is that rich, fraught edge environment where wild animals and humanity commingle or collide. M. Sanjayan presents. An ecologist who spent part of his childhood in Sierra Leone, he offers both scientific chops and an understanding of rural realities in developing countries.
Not least, the series shows development policy schemes in action — such as payments for ecosystem services, which enable poor communities in wilderness regions to steward the land and keep it wild. The programme is unusual in mixing such development paradigms with anthropocenic touches such as a lament for the catastrophically drained Aral Sea, or an industrial architect’s plans to reintroduce oysters round Manhattan.
Sanjayan is no magisterial David Attenborough. Yet he is engaged, sometimes eloquent — and endearingly thrilled, whether he’s gazing at infant giant pandas in a Chinese rewilding facility, or getting stuck in a metre of mud tracking tigers in Bangladesh.
With his crew, he racked up 45 shoots in 29 countries for the series — from Malawi to Mexico, Brazil and the United States, looking in turn at forests, encroached habitats, oceans, plains and freshwater. The gorgeous footage includes some from thermal cameras, which transform lions hunting at night in Africa’s Rift Valley into ghosts on the prowl.
Cherrypicked, not sanitised
While cherrypicked, Sanjayan’s encounters are not sanitised. In the forests of Ecuador’s biodiversity hotspot the Intangible Zone he meets a group of indigenous Waorani, whose knowledge of the Amazonian environment is encyclopaedic. Their shaman matter-of-factly relates how he and other members of the community killed several oil prospectors. Such scenes are interspersed with shots of wild boar tiptoeing to a waterhole and parrots nibbling nutrient-rich mud.
The scattered communities of Waorani may not reflect the Amazon’s past. Sanjayan points to geometric earthworks in forest clearings, some dating to 2,000 years ago and so vast and numerous that they suggest a human population as high as 60,000. Terra preta soils left by ancient peoples, engineered from biochar and human waste, have left 10% of the Amazon highly fertile, indicating how such hordes might have subsisted.
The concept of Earth as sustainable smorgasbord is thematic. The ocean-forest ecosystem of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, where 5 million acres are off limits to logging, is a goldmine for wolves, salmon, bears, eagles and humans — all thanks to the great Pacific herring run. The fish leave billions of fertilised eggs washed up on the coasts, a pearly caviar relished by wildlife and harvested sustainably by the Heiltsuk, a First Nation people who sink pine trees into the water to snag the eggs. The forest is fed in turn when salmon eat the herring and swim up the creeks; half-eaten by bears, their remains rot down to fertilise the soil.
Such ‘ecosystem services’ are not all passive. Many plains species, Sanjayan shows, are active farmers. Zimbabwean biologist Alan Savory led a cull of over 40,000 elephants decades ago to regenerate the land. When the measure failed, Savory did a U-turn, and now posits that even larger herds are needed. Elephants, he notes, efficiently aerate, fertilise and seed the earth; the trick is keeping them tightly bunched and on the move via humans or predators.
Like mobile ploughs and fertilising machines in one, the packed animals stir up the earth and deposit dung and urine, patch by patch. Testing the theory with cattle, Savory shows how grasses and even waterholes on his land have recovered. Thousands of kilometres away in Montana near Yellowstone National Park, rancher Bryan Ulring is successfully replicating the method, inspired by the harrying power of rewilded wolves. With the land regreened, rare birds such as the sage grouse are returning.
Such empirical evidence saves the series from becoming yet more ethological or anthropological eye candy, although quibbles remain — such as too much footage of baby pandas. However, in the growing body of popular science on the Anthropocene, Earth: A New Wild is a welcome fusion of conservation and development that reinserts the human into Eden. It gives the extraordinary people who live alongside iconic animals their due.
Take the man in the Sundarbans whose father was killed by a tiger. However grief-stricken, he makes his living in the mangroves and understands the tiger’s place in them: the forests would not exist without their ‘ecology of fear’. Nature is never complacent. We might learn that lesson from it.
Earth: A New Wild is produced by National Geographic Studios in association with Passion Planet, and directed by Nicholas Brown.
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