A New Wild

This post is a review of Earth: A New Wild, a nature documentary series.

Earth: A New Wild is a five-episode series produced by PBS and National Geographic. I have it on BluRay disc. The National Geographic website includes this description:

The series features spectacular natural history footage from the most striking places on Earth, filming encounters between wild animals and the people who live and work with them. With up-close looks at a range of species, from giant pandas to humpback whales and African lions to Arctic reindeer, Sanjayan reveals that cohabitations with animals can work—and be mutually beneficial. Distinguishing itself from nearly all other nature films, however, the series turns the cameras around, showing the world as it really is—with humans in the picture. (emphasis added)

There are a lot of interesting nature documentaries out there, but I find this one interesting because of the way it incorporates the human element. It is hosted by Dr. M. Sanjayan. He seems like a fun guy, as some of the episodes show him kayaking, horseback riding, or paragliding to interact with wildlife.

Some of the themes of this documentary series are ways in which people can learn to live alongside wildlife with less conflict, the importance of predators (and even of grazing), and the beneficial services provided by ecosystems. An interesting example of the latter is vultures in India eating carcasses and thus indirectly controlling disease—as people discovered the hard way when the vulture population declined.

Earth: A New Wild has episodes on Oceans, Plains, and Forests, among others. The episode about Plains is probably my favourite. It raises the idea that, notwithstanding concerns about overpopulation, healthy grasslands actually depend on having large herds of grazers moving about: they break up hard soil with their hooves, spread seeds around, and leave manure as fertilizer. The key is that they can't stay in the same location for too long or it will get overgrazed. This is where predators (or cowboys, in the case of domesticated herds) come in. By keeping grazers on the move, they keep plains ecosystems in balance. A concrete example of this is when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Elk had been spending a lot of time on the riverbanks, stripping vegetation bare and increasing erosion; once they had a predator to fear again, they stayed on the move and the riverbank vegetation had a chance to recover. Similar stories pop up in the other episodes too.

The episode about Oceans included the incredibly memorable phrase, "The Rise of Slime." This refers to the fact that the populations of large predators (especially sharks) have been depleted while algae has proliferated—the stock of biomass in the oceans is now over-represented at the bottom of the food chain.

One thing I liked about this series was that it included a number of stories of people and wildlife coexisting successfully. Some interesting ones were cork forests in Portugal that are commercially productive and biodiverse, water wells dug by herders in the African savanna that sustain wildlife after the cattle have moved on, and South American tribes using GPS to record inventories of species while documenting their own property rights.

Here are a few of the places featured in Earth: A New Wild:

I'll conclude with the monologue that introduces each episode:

The wilds of planet earth are spectacular. Yet one species is always missing from the picture: us. I'm Dr. M. Sanjayan. As a scientist and conservationist, I've dedicated the past 25 years of my life to studying and protecting the wildlife I love. Now, my mission is to tell you an untold story, where we humans are not separate from nature—we are part of it.