World Earth Day: Nat Geo's Planet Possible boasts of two titles that present a lively, hopeful view of endangered wildlife
Planet Possible includes the documentary Tiger Queen of Taru, and two On the Brink episodes, focused on the Indian pangolin and the gharial respectively.
With 22 April marking World Earth Day, several around the world are focusing on the theme this year, ‘Restore Our Earth.’ With discussions ranging from protecting our existing biodiversity to rewilding barren areas and preventing further destruction, it is another reminder that we are fighting for the most important things in life – fresh air, clean water, healthy food, and a thriving natural world that can regulate and provide these.
In the spirit of passionately believing this restoration can be a reality is National Geographic India’s special programming initiative ‘Planet Possible.' On World Earth Day, the channel will air two shows, Tiger Queen of Taru, about the Central Indian female tigress Maya, and On the Brink, about the researchers and conservationists mobilising to protect two Indian species, pangolins and gharials (crocodiles), from extinction.
Tiger Queen of Taru
Born in 2010 in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maya took over her mother Leela’s territory after she suddenly disappeared, leaving her four cubs alone. As Maya takes on the challenges that come with growing up alone and handling a vast territory, she realises that the most certain way of cementing one’s hold over an area is through having cubs of her own. She first has two cubs with the dominant male Gabbar, that suddenly disappear, just as her mother had; next are three cubs with Namdeo who vanish one day too; then come three cubs with Matkasur whom she fights off since he is unable to protect the cubs. And as recently as 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown – and not included in the film – she has delivered five cubs.
Maya’s is a life of joy, tragedy, hope, and constant change. It is also a life that is substantially documented. As the scores of videos, blog posts, and news articles revolving around her prove, she is one of the world’s most documented wild cats.
The quality that then sets apart 24-year-old photographer and filmmaker Aishwarya Sridhar’s documentary is the empathy her storytelling awakens in the viewer.
Although the camera loses focus at times, and one wonders if different background music would be better suited to certain clips, the overall effect of watching the film is one of deep satisfaction at learning about this fierce tigress.
The film, 10 years in the making, shows enthralling sequences from every stage of her life. At its earliest, it shows Maya standing out among the litter and growling whilst looking straight at the camera. We follow Maya as she figures out being on her own after her mother disappears. Another sequence shows her scavenging food and later, her first live hunt where she does not how know to go for the prey’s throat. Her personality shines through in the clip of her playfully engaging with tourist jeeps. And her rationality is on display in deciding to mate, followed by her struggles as a first-time mother.
Another striking instance is when Matkasur, with an eye on Maya’s kingdom, enters the scene. “He must win over or conquer the female ruler of this land. Either way, he won’t tolerate cubs that aren’t his,” informs the narrator. Intimidating the cubs while Maya is away, he quickly makes them flee. When Maya returns and finds no cubs in sight, the film shows her confusion and frustration as she looks around for them, and captures her initial unresponsiveness toward Matkasur, until her survival instincts kick in and recognising the importance of maintaining her bloodline, she decides to mate with him.
With emotive sequences like these, at every turn, the documentary details Maya’s almost human-like decision-making. And with the aid of a lively narration as guide, it shows the emotions that must be coursing through Maya at key moments.
On the Brink
This hour-long program consists of two episodes, one about India’s pangolins and the other about Chambal river’s gharial population. While the pangolin is endangered, the gharial is highly endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. The episodes focus on the work that researchers and conservationists are doing to prevent extinction, and keep these animal populations growing.
The episode about the Indian pangolin follows the work of two researchers, Vikram Aditya of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, and Bhau Katdare of the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra. Both, owing to the animal’s scarcity, have not yet sighted the pangolin in the wild. The episode later boasts footage from Katdare’s latest, and first successful attempt at sighting the animals in Telangana’s Bhadrachalam, which is valuable data for researchers everywhere.
The reason pangolins are so hard to sight is the aggressive poaching they are victims of; as the episode confirms, pangolins are currently the most trafficked wild animal on the planet, to fulfil international demand for their scales, meat, and as live pets. Aditya’s research revolves around better understanding the illegal trade, through surveys and conversations with locals, surrounding tribal peoples, and through interviews with actual hunters and poachers. Several of these hunters believe that despite their activities, the pangolin population is increasing each day. Aditya hopes that once poachers realise how speedily the pangolin population is declining, and how at this rate, they will be extinct within a decade, trading and poaching will reduce.
The episode concludes with a picture of the future, discussing the impact of the Polavaram dam on the Godavari river, a hydroelectric and irrigation project in Andhra Pradesh. The project will submerge a large area of the northern Eastern Ghats landscape, which will affect forests in the lower elevation, the preferred habitat of pangolins. “Vikram believes,” adds the narrator, that “one of the few solutions left is to breed the animals in captivity,” calling into question the meaning and changing definition of ‘wildlife.’
The episode about the gharial goes over how with less than 200 breeding adults in 2004, the effort of the Gharial Ecology Project is a conservation success story as the Chambal river now stands as the gharial’s last stronghold in the country.
It also discusses the current questions about the gharial’s reproductive cycle that researchers Pankaj Kumar and A Jailabdeen are dealing with today, since they might offer clues that could aid the animal in survival. For this, they study the exact population and size of each adult, capture the communication and vocalisation amongst the animals, follow them through infrared cameras, and more. Researchers also find the nests with incubating eggs buried in the sand and check for the hatching of those eggs, leaving viewers with as-yet-unanswered questions like how the gharial knows which buried nest is hers and how she can sure that the hatchlings are ready to come out.
The episode leaves viewers with the cheery ending that in the recorded season, 300 nests have hatched, with 12,000 hatchlings surviving at last count.
Essentially, through two short episodes which are part of a larger series, the program details the importance of conservation and research for India’s endangered species, presenting a lively, hopeful overview of their state and current situation.
The two titles part of Planet Possible, Queen of Taru and On The Brink, will premiere at 12 pm and 1 pm respectively on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo Wild on 22 April on the occasion of World Earth Day.
— All photos courtesy National Geographic India
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