David Attenborough will showcase 10 endangered animals from around the world in a new BBC Two wildlife special — Attenborough’s Ark — next week. A BBC release (read here) says that what interest Attenborough are not the tiger or panda but the unusual. In the show, he will explain why his picks — such as the Sumatran Rhino, Darwin’s frog and Black Lion Tamarin — are so important, and highlight the work of biologists who fight to keep them alive.
While it’s a novel attempt to shift the focus from the usual headline-grabbing big mammals, the show will be yet another measured, intimate attempt to make the viewer marvel at and sympathise with the fascinating animals in distress and feel relieved that some work is being done somewhere by some researchers to save them. For decades now, Attenborough shows have had that effect. But if someone could save nature somewhere else for us, the loss of biodiversity would not be touching new lows virtually every day.
Years after Attenborough institutionalised his classical approach, Steve Irwin’s generation made wildlife fun and apparently handle-able. The influence of both schools shapes contemporary green programming. So on the one hand, we have survival or reality shows where peppy presenters dare and triumph over the wild. On the other, there are dreamlike, endearing tales that bring to our living rooms pristine landscapes and a bounty of animals capable of human-like behaviour.
The first approach discounts the fact that the wild do not enjoy human contact and have a right to exist even if they do not have any exotic — ugly, cute or bloodthirsty — appeal. The second creates an illusion that all is well in the fantastic natural world far away from our polluted cities. Beyond such spectacles, the green channels have little appetite for complex issues –the socio-economics of environmental degradation, for example — other than a bunch of alarmist shows by professional doomsayers who bring in the TRPs.
But the media is not the only unreal instrument here. It only reflects, and is in many ways influenced by, the conservation models preached in seminars and practised on the ground. If calendar-quality shots stitched together in TV documentaries make the average viewer feel good, the success in increasing the numbers of a few wild species in some isolated protected areas surrounded by biodiversity graveyards makes self-delusional conservationists proud.
Cambridge professor Bill Adams described this phenomenon brilliantly in his recent essay Once the wild is gone (read here): nature works, it doesn’t just exist. One cannot fence off nature and expect it to survive. But the strategy of setting aside spaces for nature, writes Professor Adams, is in vogue since the late 19th century. The effort has been to find “remaining intact ecosystems” — areas that are still relatively unchanged by human action – and protect them.
In the last century, legally designated “protected areas” add up to nearly one-eighth of the earth’s area but, on ground, they are scattered, disjointed patches. The long-term viability of biodiversity depends on the continuity of nature’s web. The smaller the islands. the faster is the loss of species. In this interlocked web, conservation cannot work in faraway forests while we pollute every drop of water and sanitize every inch of land around us.
Also, there is hardly any “wild” place as we like to imagine it on earth. For centuries, indigenous people lived in forests all over the world. The policy of protected area management considers these native populations dispensable. Some are compensated for leaving their traditional home. Others are simply kicked out. The US military removed the Ahwahneechee people from Yosemite. The Maasai Mara and the Serengeti banned traditional livestock herders. Lakhs of tribals have been resettled out of Indian’s national parks. The resulting antagonism has significantly added to the biological impossibility of island conservation.