ISawtheScience was privileged to speak with explorer, scientist and presenter Ella Al-Shamahi alongside executive producer Rosemary Edwards from BBC Earth’s Changing Planet, an ambitious and visionary 7-year project documenting 6 different habitats over the next 7 years. With Steve Backshall in Maldives, Chris Packham in Iceland, Ade Adepitan in Kenya, Gordon Buchanan in Brazil, Liz Bonnin in California, and Ella in Cambodia, the presenters will return every year to chart ecological issues threatening the planet while also highlighting stories of scientists and local conservationists fighting to make a difference. From the coral reefs, to collecting whale snot, to releasing pangolins and saving baby elephants, Changing Planet might just change your view on our environment.
To start off, would you share a bit on the inspiration behind the title of this documentary?
Rosemary: This documentary has been made by BBC’s natural history unit. For years, we have documented the natural world, and in that time, we have seen that it has changed almost beyond recognition because of many different several factors. We wanted to document that change. There are a lot of films and documentaries addressing the serious issues going on, but very few have documented the inspirational people that are trying to make the change, so that’s how the title came about. We are trying to document through the eyes of expert presenters who are trying to make a change. We have got to a point in our planet where there are certain things that are not going to be reversed, and so there is an adaptation. People are working to see how we adapt to that change and how we can limit some of those changes taking place.
Before we jump into the documentary, what do you find most amazing of our planet Earth?
Ella: I think it’s impossible for me to pick any one thing. It’s like you have a different favourite thing all the time. You know how Oprah Winfrey used to have her annual Favourite Things? I feel we are all like Oprah Winfrey, but its not like every year I have a few different favourite things. One year it’s like the Otters and my neighbours and my plants, and the next year it’s the desert and people, and the next I don’t like people but I like something else instead. It’s constantly changing. In regards to what Rosemary was just saying, I think one of the most exciting things for me was when Rosemary and the team told us about this idea, BBC describing it as the most ambitious factual series ever attempted (and that can get lost on people). But the truth is, usually television crews turn up at a location for sometimes a few hours, or days, or if we’re lucky, a few weeks, and even in the most unusual circumstances, they’ll go back for a year or two. But this is seven years. So when we say ‘our changing planet’, we’re actually documenting that change in real time over seven years, and that that’s the kind of project that is just on a completely different scale. That’s why, as a presenter, I’m really excited to be a part of it, but also as a viewer watching the other 6 presenters, I’m thinking ‘Oh yeah! What’s going to happen there over the next seven years?’. It adds a completely different scale of changing. It’s not changing in the way that we are used to seeing on television. It’s just on a completely different scale and it’s so important because this is such an important decade for our planet.
Rosemary: I agree with Ella, I think it’s really difficult to say. But if you ask me the most amazing thing about our planet, is its ability to regenerate if we allow it. And the key is if we allow it to, it has got an amazing ability to regenerate itself.
For our Singaporean readers, of the six habitats covered in this documentary, which do you feel will be the most relevant to Singapore’s ecosystems and why? What can we learn from this relevance?
Ella: I think there are quite a few that are applicable. Technically, in terms of geography, I guess I am closest since I’m based in Cambodia but it’s not really like that since Singapore is very built up and industrialised, so it’s not a simple comparison. What you’ll find is that most of the locations have a connection. I think, Rosemary would agree with me?
Rosemary: So I would say, every single one is important. Obviously, what’s happening in Cambodia affects quite a few countries in Southeast Asia, but if you look at another location like the Arctic, melting at an unprecedented rate, will also have a serious effect on Southeast Asia even though Singapore is much further away. Rising sea levels will affect whole sections of Southeast Asia probably more than the countries nearer to the Arctic. So, although they may be far away, each location represents a different issue and all of those issues will affect globally as time goes by.
“Changing Planet” can possibly be changing towards disaster or away from disaster. With the current global landscape, which change do you think we are going towards? Why?
Rosemary: In my opinion, it’s easy to say that it’s going towards disaster, but I think it’s much more complicated than that. I think that’s what this series is hoping to achieve because what we don’t talk about so much are the people who are doing their best to do something about it or to mark that change. So although it seems in a lot of reports that we are heading towards disaster, there is still time to change. The reason why we are going to look at it over a second year period, is – if we start to make changes now, then we can swerve that disaster and hopefully keep the status quo if we all act now.
How far are we from becoming a “Changed Planet” – where climate change has gone beyond the point of no return?
Ella: Technically, first of all, this is a big area of debate and discussion today. But I think it’s important to realise that with a lot of factors, they are reversible. So like with CO2 or temperature – they are reversible. The question is, how habitable are some parts of our planet going to be once it crosses those lines? And for some parts of the planet right now, we are ON that line. There are parts of the planet that are uninhabitable anymore. I don’t ever read it as a ‘this is the point of no return’. Things are reversible, but certain landscapes will be unreturnable for periods of time if we go past those lines.
Rosemary: We chose to film 7 years. It’s difficult because it’s not an exact science – we could’ve chosen 10 or 8 years. The point is that we have to act now, so we are going with certain predictions that we hope will change. For example, we’ve got under 5 years to stop the temperature from rising 1.5 degrees, pangolins could be extinct in 7 years – there are a whole load of predictions. But the optimistic view is that, it’s not too late to change those if we listen now.
Ella: There are landscapes right now that are burnt to a crisp or are now underwater. It’s strange to hear, for example, parts in the US where people lived being uninhabitable anymore because their homes are literally falling into the water. And that’s in the US! It’s kind of the moment of truth in some ways.
What is the most memorable part of filming “Changing Planet”?
Ella: We had very different situations going on. For me, meeting the heroes on the ground is always just amazing. People always talk about the animals, but it’s the animals with the heroes on the ground for me. I was a big fan of the pangolin – so cute. But it was also the team of rangers who were there releasing the pangolin who were really inspirational. It was also Mr. Lor living on the lake who was trying so hard for his people. I’m interested to know Rosemary’s response because she has to organise all of the shoots. This was all organised during covid, so I could see the team was working really hard – hard doesn’t even start to describe it. What was it for you guys?
Rosemary: I stayed in the United Kingdom. Knowing the stories going out, that were all written on a piece of paper but actually sitting in our edit suites and seeing you, Ella, with Mr. Lor, and thinking – Wow what an inspirational man he is, and how he was never going to give up because he felt responsible for his village; and seeing the people on the ground in Kenya desperately trying to save baby African elephants that have lost their parents. When you actually see the pictures and edits, it becomes so much more real. As we put it all together, you will see that it’s not just something happening in one area – we are joining the world, and in future series going forward, these issues will spread. For example, we filmed in the Maldives for the coral reefs, but we might have to move to Australia to say this isn’t an isolated problem. The death of a river system is not just going to be one isolated case in Southeast Asia. It’s also going to be in America or Europe or wherever. Seeing it all together is almost like a jigsaw puzzle, which I found very moving, I must admit.
Ella: Also, being teased by a baby elephant is so cute. I was so jealous. Elephants are just the most charismatic animals but also this particular elephant was so cheeky.
What do you hope that viewers will get from this documentary?
Rosemary: That there is hope with the caveat that we need to act now. That we can all do something however small or large. We are charting over 7 years and now, in year 1 and year 2 we can still do something about it. So, hope but with the caveat that we need to acknowledge the need to do something.
Ella: It’s like if you see any of the stories that we’re following; it’s the hope in my mind that the audience starts investing. Like in a reality TV show where people start investing in characters and go, ‘No I really like this character, I want them to be okay.’ I kind of hope that over the 7 years, people really start investing in all these places all over our planet and these people who have incredible, sometimes painful, sometimes heroic stories. Maybe if we start rooting for them, the more hope we have that things will be okay there.
Specifically for our Singaporean readers, would you have anything to say to them?
Rosemary: Please watch and see what is being done by inspirational people across the whole and then see what you can do on a local level to help. Because our hope is that,, This series is being showed in the UK. There is a version we have made for America, and what we are hoping is that as many countries as possible across the world will also have access and will also watch and all come to the same thoughts.
Ella: Watch and be inspired, hopefully. And what can you do in your own kind of geography, not just as an individual, but what can you be wanting for your people basically.
Changing Planet premieres on Sunday, 31st July 9:00pm, on StarHub channel 407, Singtel channel 203 and BBC Player.
Photography by BBC Earth
Interviewed by Raphael Ng and Lydia Konig