I AM becoming more and more disenchanted by the wildlife documentaries and natural-history films on TV, as well as those “survival” programmes. Barring a precious few, all seem to focus on blood and gore — and how dangerous all forms of wildlife can be for us — implying that the presenter is a great Rambo-like hero for tangling with them.
High up on my private “hit” list would be those gung-ho snake and crocodile wranglers — who will tell you “never try this at home” and then go and grab a black mamba with their bare hands and gabble on about the number of people killed by this snake and the toxicity of its venom. The more sensible fellows, of course, use long tongs and heavy-duty gloves. The croc wranglers are, if anything, worse. Well, see it from the crocodile’s point of view. There you are, quietly sunning yourself on a riverbank, or in someone’s swimming pool in Florida (because this was earlier your favourite patch of swamp), when suddenly some heavyweight lands on your neck and tries to duct-tape your mouth and hogtie you while yelling at the camera about how strong you are. Then you are ignominiously dragged out by six rednecks who thump chests and congratulate each other on having done a great job.
Those heavy-duty “sports” fishermen really take the cake. They’re ecstatic once the bait is taken — and the massive sailfish or barracuda is thrashing for its life — with a barbed hook embedded in its mouth. Reeling it in and landing it is a process that, according to a stalwart, can take hours in a battle of stamina and strength. The fish is, then, weighed and measured, selfies are taken, after a lot of yelling and whooping, the fish is released back into the ocean, where you think it must make an immediate beeline for its therapist. Of course, you’ve so sportingly only released it so that some other fisherman (or maybe you again) can have a shot at traumatising it another morning.
Of course, I love my fish curry, but I would only fish if my catch were to be my lunch. Not to traumatise it.
What always astonishes me about wildlife films is how they always seem to have a plot (and, characters). There is always a coherent, dramatic (often tragic) storyline, which keeps the viewer glued. This either implies that the filmmakers have spent most of their lives following their subjects and the story unfolds as they do, or that they just shoot a vast quantity of footage and then construct (or reconstruct) the story from it, which, of course, takes away the authenticity. Filming wildlife stories is often a back-to-front process: where, perhaps, the end is shot before the beginning and a lot of the shots — particularly, close-ups — are shot separately in studios. All those shots of snakes pouncing on rats are done in studio dioramas — how else would the lighting be so perfect always?
Too many of these films seem to tell you: out there in the jungle, every single creature is out to get you — so, look lively. It’s as if all the forest denizens are coming for you (you can’t blame them, can you?) Whereas, in most cases, all they want is to get away from you as quickly and quietly as possible. Sure, if you get between them and their babies (or their lunch), or surround them, there’ll be trouble, but usually they just want to run away and hide. The “how to survive in the wild” films really make me laugh. First, nearly all those dudes telling you how to do so are usually trained exactly for that — often being top flight commandos. Second, they always have a complete and in-depth knowledge of the area’s geography where they’re shown to be “stranded” in: what plants are edible or poisonous (and how to identify them), what kind of weather to expect; what “critters” to be wary of, and how to scale a 100ft vertical cliff using dental floss (though often these guys carry “para-cord” which none of us have heard of). To ginger things up, they’ll also tell you how many ordinary people died while being caught in the same pickle (or swamp) in the last 50 years. Of course, the poor sods would have. They’re not lean mean survival machines — but usually flabby, bewildered souls scared out of their wits. And yet, often, these flabby bewildered souls, with zero training and experience, somehow manage to stick it out, in truly horrendous situations, until rescued.
Small disguised remote-controlled cameras now follow animals wherever they go, filming their every action. This has enabled us to get a peek into the private lives of many creatures (so that they’re no longer private) but then some people do the same thing on social media, so the animals should be happy. Many films come with the clarification that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film”, which may be good, even if it stretches credulity at times. Others, with the “disclaimer”, that killing of animals may be shown — for a noble purpose, of course. Which is what? Animals don’t kill for pleasure, for fun or entertainment. We do.
(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)