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Attenborough’s Ark vs Reality TV: How both approaches serve nature poorly

by Jay Mazoomdaar  Oct 29, 2012 12:59 IST

#David Attenborough   #HowThisWorks   #Wildlife  

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.

David Attenborough. AFP.

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.

Yet, we seek false comfort in the idea that biodiversity is something far away and in need of protection from the local communities, while avoiding the fact that the greatest driver of biodiversity loss is our economic activity, or rather the growth in consumption of natural resource and energy that accompanies it. This, argues Adams, helps us deny responsibility.

“Particularly in the rapidly industrialising countries of Asia,” he explains, “the standard economic growth model is having some success in helping people to escape poverty, and others to become rich. This is admirable but also, for a conservationist, very disturbing. Global consumption of raw material and energy (and production of wastes) has risen inexorably… The Western model of consumption is unsustainable for any but a few, and the model has to change… Focusing conservation efforts on residual pristine landscapes is a way to treat symptoms not causes. It is displacement behaviour: the real issues are elsewhere.”

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, described the extent of human transformation as the “domestication of nature”. So it is not a matter of finding unchanged nature anymore, but responding to the impacts of that transformation. The challenge today, argued Emma Marris in her recent book Rambunctious Garden, is to save nature in a “post-wild world”. Conservation, she felt, must celebrate nature wherever it finds a place in and around (and in spite of) human lives and aspirations.

To recognise that the fate of humans and the natural world are intertwined, writes Adams, we must reintegrate conservation and justice by seriously factoring in the welfare and aspirations of people as well as the biodiversity they live with. With more than half of the world’s population already living in cities, the focus has to be on industrial and urban landscapes that easily become biodiversity graveyards.

How do we do it? Adam’s advocates developing “other spaces where wild species can thrive, clean watercourses where children can play and that absorb floods, novel environments such as green roofs or linear parks, and a culture of celebration of wild nature, from migrant birds overflying skyscrapers to butterflies on window boxes.” In India, this should also include letting the occasional leopard pass by in the outskirts of Nasik or Guwahati, or not wiping out entire populations of butterflies and a host of other life forms with the mindless spraying of pesticides.

Scrutiny of our growth strategies, however, will require years of enlightenment still. The inclusion of such policies in the election manifestos of political parties could be a beginning only when the mass electorate learns to realize how deeply biodiversity issues impact their livelihood security. Inclusive conservation could the first chapter in the story of inclusive growth.

Next week though, thousands of Indians, including myself, will watch and marvel at Attenborough’s new show with the rest of the world. Thousands more will travel far to national parks chasing tigers this winter. Many there will reward local NGOs for stopping the village herders from letting their cattle loose in the forests. Of course, still more will buy their second cellular phone of the year just because new models have been launched.

Meanwhile, every park in space-starved urban landscapes gets sanitised and manicured. Worse, city forests are chopped down to create gardens. Delhi’s sprawling Buddha Jayanti Park, for example, was curved out of its vibrant ridge forests. In Mumbai, rivers and mangroves are reclaimed, destroying vital ecosystems and triggering seasonal deluges. Each and every pond in Kolkata is strangled with cemented embankments that now hold dead waters.

To borrow from Adams yet again, nature is not a consumer good or a rare resource, to be chased down in some remote tourist destination. It is where home is. How we live, in nature, with nature, and as part of nature, matters, perhaps more than anything else.