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The missing touch

A critique of the wildlife films produced by the Discovery channel

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- "commissioners, producers and photographers are still investing a disproportionate amount of time, skill and money on films about the big top-of-the-food-chain mam mals," remarked Roger James, chairperson of the nomination panel of Widescreen'96.

The concept of conservation in the West has always been a scientific and intellectual exercise. For Westerners, wildlife and forests ought to be saved from humans and preserved in isolation. 'Wilderness' is a concept to them, one which you can romanticise about and react voyeuristically with. There has been a disjunction between people on the one hand and wildlife and forests on the other.

Commensurate with this notion of 'isolate and protect', came moving pictures based on the portrayal of a single species. Technically brilliant, these films on the leopard, elephant and so on, guaranteed to make your adrenaline flow. But they hardly ever talked about the people's interaction with these magnificent animals or the conflicts that arose thereof. However, the last decade has seen a change in the perception of Western conservationists. Experts have realised that cutting people off from their conservation plans does not work in developing countries. Big commissioning gurus like Survival Anglia, who have sponsored scores of single species wildlife films are now shifting gears, if their latest one on tigers made by Ashish Chandola is anything to go by. The film identifies people as the crucial protection agency for the tiger.

In such a scenario, the role played by the Discovery channel (now beaming in India), is interesting to analyse. Discovery is famous for its wildlife films, but it happens to be a votary of the old conservationism, and believes in museum films on the subject. Its films still talk of the big mammals of Africa, the birds and reptiles of Latin America and the apes of South East Asia. The focus on people has not yet been considered as an important link to conservation. Films such as these are likely to put the clock back by many years and will reinstate the position of 'isolate and protect', what Indian environmentalists are trying hard to fight today.

Some may say that only a minuscule percentage of the viewers are exposed to the channel and that, in the long run, it does not really matter. But it is this upper crust audience who comprise the policy-makers and administrators of the country.

What then should be the antidote for this kind of anachronistic communication; for films which view wildlife and forests as part of the whole and not as a world in themselves? The situation could undergo a change if local programme producers and software were to be accessed. An overseas producer will see the power game between the thompson gazzel and the leopard in the Kenya National Park as the high point of the film. But a local person may give the film a more down-to-earth, people-based orientation.

Today, a film on the Indian tiger is meaningless if the people's role in its protection is overlooked. The Discovery films are far removed from this reality and more importantly, with their technical finesse, they have been successful at rupturing this link.

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