Down in jungleland: Survival of the Fittest

Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but why do television programmes stoke our fear of the wild?

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published:November 6, 2016 12:24 am
survival of the fittest, animal survival attack, animal predator, wild animal attack, animal attack traits, lifestyle news, sunday eye, express eye, eye 2016, indian express Producers will say that action and a plot with strong characters is what attracts eyeballs and sponsors.

Back in the “old” days, it was relatively easy for parents to get kids interested in nature and the natural world. They simply said, “Go out and play and don’t come back till lunch time”, and bundled you out of doors. With or without friends, you roamed around climbing trees (and falling off of them, sometimes), getting bitten and stung and chased, and, occasionally, if a great hunt was a success, returned proudly home with the battered corpse of some poor lizard which you were ordered to throw out. (You obeyed and stopped hunting altogether because what was the point, if you were not allowed to make fire and eat your kill?)

It was also on such expeditions that you watched, enthralled, a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, crows mobbing owlets, dragonflies patrolling grassy tracts like World War I biplanes and trying to lay their eggs on reflective tarmac (thinking it was a water body), snakes swimming sinuously across ponds, ants conducting stupendous feats of weightlifting, fish ignoring your paper clip hooks and little balls of atta, and thunderstorms building up and booming like an artillery bombardment right overhead. And always, of course, you had to keep an eye out for the kites that would suddenly tumble down from the sky and deftly relieve you of your sandwich, parantha or biscuit. Over a period of time, you learnt that if you didn’t interfere with the lives of insects and reptiles and mammals etc, they didn’t interfere with you and either ignored you or ran away. You learnt to watch quietly and, hopefully, not be seen by them at all.

Without even realising it, you became involved — directly or indirectly — in the lives of other living creatures, and shared the world with them.

These days, of course, kids are glued to their smartphones, tablets or TV screens, so many parents simply shrug and say, “Well then, watch something nice on Discovery or National Geographic or Animal Planet.” Which, you might think, is the best option they have. Also, there was the additional benefit of the child actually learning something. Well, I did a quick run through the “natural history” programs listed these days and this is what I found. Tell me if you’d like your kids to watch this kind of stuff in order to develop a love and respect for nature and the natural world: Shark Attack, Nature’s Deadliest, When Animals Attack, Gangland Wars, Speed Kills, Animal Fight Club, Deadly Jaws, Predator Battleground, Creatures of the Night, Battle of the Beasts, My Pet’s Gone Viral, Rabid Beasts, Lair of the Killers, Predators up Close, Wild Wars, Mahayudh, Fatal Attraction, Man Vs Wild, Man, Woman, Wild,… and I’m running out of breath!

And yes, you can be sure there’s plenty of blood and gore in these programmes: animals tearing each other to shreds, the crunching of bones, people being ruthlessly stalked and ambushed by animals, cannibalistic honeymoons…the lot, all backed up with suitable sound effects and deep-throated voiceovers. Producers will say that action and a plot with strong characters is what attracts eyeballs and sponsors.

And they’ll add virtuously that nature is red in tooth and claw, with laws such as “kill or be killed”, and “eat or be eaten”. But what’s the overall message that comes out of these programmes? Watch Man Vs Wild or any such programme, where people (usually city folks like you and I) are dumped in the wild and told to fend for themselves. The first message that comes through is: “Watch it, buddy. Every living creature here, every iota of flora and fauna, has only one thing on its mind: to bite, sting, dismember, disembowel and eat you alive!” You’ll be told how one person, 12 years ago, was bitten by so-and-so spider and nearly died, the implication being that you’re next on the list, so watch it.

Most creatures will, of course, do their damndest to get as far away from you as quickly as possible, but, well, if you put your head into a beehive, or try to share a bed with a hibernating bear, only you can be responsible for the consequences.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of how some of these “action” programmes are made. How many times have we got cheap thrills and watched immaculately coiffured and beautifully backlit mice or rats, emerge from their holes, look around sparkle-eyed, while nearby a gorgeously polished snake slides sinuously towards it, its tongue flickering like the epitome of all that’s evil? The camera angles and lighting are perfect, as always.

How many times have we seen kaleidoscopic chameleons flick out their tongues in slow-mo to lasso a strategically placed grasshopper? There was one famous shot of a cheetah (or leopard) in face-to-face attack mode with a desperate baboon, which had its teeth bared in a desperate rictus of fear as it counter-attacked: it was as the photographer admitted, completely staged. And let’s not get into the issue of grown men wrestling and wrangling crocs or putting their heads into the mouths of kitty-cat lions All that many of these programmes seem to do is to ignite a pathological fear and horror of nature, and children, with their vivid imaginations, are prone to this. (At the same time, they may also enjoy the violence, which is another troubling prospect!)

Of course, nature is red in tooth and claw — and there will be (rare) occasions when people are at the receiving end of a wild creature’s angst (usually in response to something unspeakable that’s been done to it or its baby). But certainly, that will be much less often than you and I being subject to some maniac’s road rage or drunken recklessness — with or without dire consequences.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.