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No ethics in an interdependent world: Nat Geo sells hunting stealth cam

I do not know how many of you read or watch National Geographic. I do, sometimes. Though a 2004 show (more on that later) on the channel taught me to be sceptical about even the very best in the business, the National Geographic Society has largely remained a sobering authority in a clamorous world of dubious nature and wildlife programs.

After all, as it proclaims on its website, “the National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888. It is one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world. Its interests include geography, archaeology and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation.”

Screengrab from the National Geographic website

Screengrab from the National Geographic website

Apparently, these interests now include the Stealth Cam. It is a specialised camera brand launched by Texas-based GSM Outdoors in 2000 for wildlife trailing and game surveillance. On its website, GSM says Stealth Cam is all about the hunt. The company goes on to claim: “Rather than piecing together mis-matched parts, through cutting edge engineering and resources, Stealth Cam built their first trailcamera from the ground up as one complete unit. The reception by the hunting community was overwhelming.”

So imagine the surprise of one of my young friends when he stumbled upon an advertisement promoting Stealth Cam on the National Geographic webshop. He reassured himself that it was an oversight or that the usually vigilant staff was not aware of the product and wrote an e-mail addressing all possible authorities in the Society.

“I honestly feel that this fact has not been brought to the notice of your management who would never engage in business to promote hunting gear,” he wrote, requesting the Society to “kindly disassociate” from Stealth Cam or any other interest out there to destroy precious wildlife.

He was happy that he did his bit and waited for the ad to be dropped. Instead, a response from the Society shook him up. In an e-mail, the Customer Experience Manager of the National Geographic Society wrote:

“This type of camera was originally made for hunters and now is also being used to observe wildlife and for home security. National Geographic offers this camera to observe --not harm --wildlife. In the course of fulfilling our mission to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge, we at the National Geographic Society deal with thousands of other companies and individuals across the planet, some of whose own missions may not align so well with ours. In this complicated, interdependent world, every company and every individual at some point unavoidably does business--directly or indirectly--with others who may not share the same philosophies and principles.”

There is little ambiguity about the purpose of the Stealth Cam which is promoted by the company with a set of proud trophy hunting visuals on its website. The brand unabashedly uses hunting as its USP, and brags that Stealth Cam was featured in 2007 on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels show in an episode on Hunting Technology, which is being aired to this day.

My young friend felt betrayed that the organisation he idolised since childhood had, gladly or otherwise, shaken hands with killers. But I was not really surprised. Far back in 2004, I learnt to rationalise my expectation from the NGC after watching a much-promoted Indian show on the channel.

The makers of Leopards of Bollywood promote the film on their website candidly: “In the city of celluloid dreams, unexpected nightmares abound. A silent stalker lies in wait for the unsuspecting victims. Unfolding in the shadow of Bollywood is a fascinating real life plot. Only in this case, fact is stranger than fiction… A story of fear, manipulation, retaliation and revenge and the fight against odds… Leopards of Bollywood captures (forest officer) Prakash's difficult and dangerous assignment to resolve a nasty man-animal conflict.”

Nasty it was. The slickly made thriller gave lay viewers the impression that leopards are blood-thirsty creatures out to get you in the middle of Mumbai. The film also tried to intellectualise the issue of conflict, ostensibly to suit the NGC bill, but came up with the naïve conclusion that “the leopards have adjusted to the intrusion into their space, by turning to human habitation for food, an aberration from their original behaviour”.

The makers of the film perhaps had no inkling that typical leopard behaviour routinely brings the animal close to human habitations in search of small prey, including dogs. Even the NGC missed the point completely while promoting the misleading film: “Leopards of Bollywood is a fascinating real life plot, full of fear, manipulation and a fight against odds. It follows Prakash Thosre, the wildlife advocate and Chief Conservator, Forests, Pune, who has been responsible for minimizing leopard menace in Junnar, Maharashtra in India, as he sets traps to capture the tricky leopards. However, even as he tries to minimize the menace, the attacks continue.”

The attacks continued because Thorse was doing something terribly wrong. It is well established that the problem in and around Mumbai’s Borivali National Park, and in many other areas in Maharashtra and elsewhere, was triggered by faulty human intervention involving random trapping and translocation of too many leopards in the name of resolving conflict. It only creates fresh trouble as the traumatised big cats try to home back and confront people in unfamiliar territories.

Yet, the film suited the NGC because it was “another example of compelling programming” with its blood and gore even if it was certainly not in line with the channel’s “constant endeavour to not only provide credible programming to our viewers but also make it relevant and relatable”.

This experience in 2004 has helped me get realistic. Channels need to make money to survive. Even NGC with its lofty ideals needs TRPs and its webshop must sell products, any product, to keep the Society afloat. It is perhaps pointless to nitpick on ethical or even factual grounds anymore. After all, it is a “complicated, interdependent world”.