Not On Animal Planet
A few weeks ago I won another Hollywood award for an investigative documentary. This time we went behind the scenes of the reptile skin trade and its link to the fashion industry. We focused particularly on the cruelty involved in the production of these skins and the lack of sustainability in the off-take from particular lizard and snake populations as well as the potential impact on larger ecosystems.
At the awards ceremony, a trailer of this film was shown two evenings in a row: with absolutely none of my footage of the killings, blood, and cruelty. As a result, the average viewer of these clips would have had no idea why the film had won the award.
That's what editing can do.
I have little doubt that the reason for this "editing approach" can be found in the fact that the ceremony was going to be shown on Animal Planet. Animal Planet does not show gore.
But my concern is not about a mere editorial policy at Animal Planet—or the many other TV shows or channels dealing with natural history programming. Editing, after all, is simply a logical response to ratings and the problem of keeping viewers tuned in with images showing the "world in order".ť Showing beautiful nature. Showing heroes solving conservation problems, and happy endings. Truth and reality are not in demand. Editors will not take risks with viewers reaching for their remote control because they already had their share of bad news during the evening news broadcast. Natural history editors do not seem to consider it their responsibility to create awareness or to inform. Bad news is for the news channels.
Yes, it is hard to show the mayhem that prevails as humans deal with the environment and their fellow creatures. That includes most of us in the developing world and increasingly in the developed world, where we should know better and could have the economic resources to do better and lead by example.
What drives me to produce yet another film outlining yet another wildlife trade scene without any clean solutions—what is essentially a hopeless scenario? These days, my goal has become very simple: To take away the excuse of "I didn't know"ť especially from policy makers. To do that requires is to get the media on board. While there is a lot more print and TV media out there than ever before, it has become harder and harder to find outlets for the stories that can balance the-world-in-order fantasy, which is so easy and profitable to sell.
The internet might be better placed to deal with these realities. Indeed, it has become the best platform to present the tales that acquisition editors in the mainstream media will never take a risk on. The problem with the internet however might already be one of saturation: too many players competing for exposure.
More disturbing, in this context, however, is that those who really recognize the destructive trends in wildlife destruction and trading and how fast our plantary heritage of wilderness and wildlife is going—those people come from the later generations, comparatively, those at least old enough to look back and compare. They are not from the young, hip, internet-savvy crowd. There is another group of actors who in my opinion have become a big part of the problem rather than part of any solution. The conservation NGOs, or the conservation industry/establishment as I call them. They have been holding their hands out now for over 3 decades, asking for more money to solve the problems they are not solving. Some of these players are now in retirement and draw pensions. They have promised solutions from pretty much day one onwards. Every ten years or so, for example, there seems to be a new campaign to save the last tigers. Millions are raised. Then a decade passes before the next campaign is announced, when there are half or less than half of the earlier population levels of tigers.
A poster with a little orangutan sitting in a human hand with the slogan: "His life is in your hands", that is a tear-jerker, a very effective fundraising tool that allows anybody to believe he or she can save a charismatic flagship species for as little as 5 Euros a month. The failure over the past 30 years of any attempts to preserve the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia is not taken into consideration. So, to my mind, it all seems to be more about raising cash than saving a species. The oil palm and mining industries keep burning and bulldozing away forest faster and faster, working on the principle that "If I do not open up this piece my competitor will." Meanwhile, the conservation industry sits down in grand meetings with the oil palm and mining industries. Together they discuss and discuss, and and while these conversations about conservation are going on the forest comes down. Industry 10, conservation 0.
The trend is similar in other parts of the world with other resources such as wildlife, timber, fresh water, fish, and so on. Often it now goes to the level of one farmer cutting a specific tree for firewood before the neighbor does. One group of pastoralists emptying a waterhole with their livestock before a competing tribal group does.
The charismatic flagship species—apes, elephants, bears, et cetera—are, for obvious reasons, preferred in the conservation fundraising campaigns. I will admit that until the recent reptile film my investigative documentaries also concentrated on the more cuddly stuff.
It is simply easier to get the attention for the cuddly species. These are the ones we could and should be able to make a difference with—especially, I will imagine, the great apes, who are so very close to human and yet at the same time so close to disappearing in this century. The remaining population of chimpanzees would fit into one of the big Brazilian soccer stadiums. I am not even going to calculate how many of these big stadiums, with, say, 200,000 seats, it would take to house the 7 billion humans now inhabiting the earth.
Both chimps and humans are apes. What we have over the chimpanzee is our greed and our impressive capacity for self-deception. Not much else.
Yes, pangolins or rhinos might be worse off than chimps, but what is the chance we are going to save them if we can do nothing for our closest animal relatives? We love looking in the mirror; we love those animals most who most remind us of ourselves. The film and marketing of the reptile skin story once again underlined this predicament and attitude, reptiles are not in that league.
So I am now working on an overall expose taking in the charismatic mega fauna as well as the reptiles. This will include the hardest hitting material, in the context of wildlife poaching and trading, that I have filmed in the last two decades. All the stuff the editors of mainstream media have decided their viewers are not ready for. And my best footage, often the strongest material in the lot, has ended up on the cutting floor or - sometimes a glimpse being inserted. We will then try to take it to a new audience on the web and the social media, where there is much less censorship. We intend to suggest real activism as a response, ways in which young people can do more than write a check. We should have an occupy Wall Street type of movement for the planet; find ways to take out full page ads in the New York times; go for more pronounced name and shame campaigns including protests outside palm oil company headquarters; hold up placards outside embassies of governments that do not take their responsibility as global players and custodians of the same planet seriously enough (e.g. China). We could block the phone lines with calls, or clog up the e-mail inboxes of some policy makers at the national or international level.
What government players and policy makers should we focus on? Let us not forget the various UN bodies and conventions which are meant to guide/control the countries and leaders concerned on a global level but instead have become part of the problem. Let us take CITES, which has promised to control the international trade in endangered wildlife t. Or let us consider GRASP, which is a United Nations body supposed to conserve and protect the final wild populations of great apes.
Like big conservation, these big governmental bodies and international policy operatives offer the public the false fantasy that wildlife is being saved, that wilderness is being protected. Their top executives and mid-level bureaucrats hold meeting after meeting in five-star hotels, and things get worse by the day. When questioned about their effectiveness and the track record of the last two decades, they will tell you that they can only do what they are told to do. However the member countries, like the individual donors who have written their 5 Euro check to save the orangutans, policy makers hide behind the membership in these bodies and the financial contributions they make to them.
For an organization like CITES, where the rules concerning wildlife trade are internationalized, and where many of the most important participants from the Third World are members of an elite class within a corrupt government, often these conferences turn out to be nothing more than a dance of foxes around the hen house. And when the GRASP participants come from nations like, say, Indonesia, Congo, Guinea, where the god of growth cannot be angered with silly sustainability arguments or putting aside valuable land for wildlife habitat, they know that giving lip service to the cause is all they need do. In the end, nobody, certainly not a body like the United Nations will hold them accountable. There will be no sanctions, no trade restrictions, not even a loss of face.
Only last year, the CITES Secretariat finally looked into the illegal trafficking from Guinea Conakry to China of over 100 baby chimp babies, a business that required the slaughter of hundreds of adult apes throughout the region. In the official CITES report, Guinea was mentioned as the offending country, while China as the importer did not get any such mention. That level of political correctness will ensure that nothing will ever change. The executive players have careers to take care off, pension schemes to build up, and rocking the boat is not compatible with these personal objectives.
So I am making a last ditch effort to get the web community to join in and raise their voice. If we could get a large enough constituency in the developed world involved, the policy makers would have to take things more seriously. On the national level, these people have to be told that hiding behind UN conventions is no longer the answer. Pressure at that level could lead to more accountability and transparency in Geneva, Nairobi or New York. And pressure might, I hope, produce more 'conditionality'ť when it comes to donor funding and trade. Of course, we in the First World have the most responsibility for the state of the planet. â€śMost responsibilityâ€ť both because we have the means to change things for the better and also because we have been leading the way with the growth and consumption mania now involving a few more billions. So maybe it is now also up to us to say: Stop. No more growth. We are doing well enough, and we have enough. But will the man or woman in the street ever vote for any politician daring to advance this message? Maybe democracy is not the answer. Maybe the problem is human nature.
We have this one planet, and we have on it many, key indicator species who are on the way out. Anyone can see where all this consumption and the endless need for more growth is heading. If we can, in this context, do nothing for wildlife, including those who are our closest relatives, then what will be able to do for ourselves when we hit the wall? That time is not far off. Or maybe we have already hit the wall—in a truck going a hundred miles an hour and carrying 7 billion consumers--while the adrenalin rush from the collision, for a few more seconds at least, still prevents us from feeling the pain. However that does not apply to many of our fellow creatures.
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