ISTS Ask: BBC Changing Planet Pt. 2

9 min read

Last year, the editorial team was privileged to have been introduced to explorer, scientist and presenter, Ella Al-Shamahi, and executive producer, Rosemary Edwards, from BBC Earth’s Changing Planet — a seven-year documentary project. (Check out that article here!) This time, we meet with Ella and Rosemary again for the second year of this project.

Changing Planet II premieres on Sunday 17th September at 8:05pm on StarHub channel 407, Singtel channel 203 and BBC Player

Rosemary Edwards, Executive Producer

Rosemary: This is a next chapter. And what we’re trying to do is to keep going back to specific ecosystems, to see how they’re faring and what new different pioneering projects are being undertaken in order to protect those environments.

So there are areas that you will see again. Ella, for example, is back in Cambodia. We go back to the Maldives, we go back to California, we go back to the Pantanal. But what we’re looking at are different projects within those particular environments and different species.

Ella: In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, this one being done outside of COVID was a lot less stressful for Rosemary and team. So, I think it was very different to do Cambodia. Cambodia felt different. But then in terms of the story, in so many ways, it just feels like going back to a place we’re familiar with now.

And we’re taking a slightly different angle on it where we’re looking at a slightly different part of the river, we’re looking at a slightly different story in the forest or a different species. Familiar but different.

Rosemary: In Series 1, Ella concentrated on the Tonle Sap Lake, Siamese crocodiles, and the fact that they were under threat. In Series 2, she’s concentrating on the efforts being made to rescue those crocodiles.

She also reports on — what I found the most fascinating thing and something that I didn’t know about — the commodity of sand and sand mining. Because we all know about erosion and animal trafficking. I must admit, I knew nothing about how precious the sand is and how it’s being eroded from our environment in order to build.

Ella: There was just this real fascination that there’s not an infinite amount of sand in the world. The more sand we take out, the more it has real environmental consequences.

As for the animals, it was quite sweet and amusing to go from the pangolin, which is just this really, really cute animal, to a crocodile. Like the baby crocodiles were very cute, but the bigger the crocodile got… I mean, we stopped using the word cute, shall we say, which is probably not the best word to use for any endangered animal, but sometimes you can’t help it.

What were the challenges faced when tagging and tracking these crocodiles?

Ella: Yeah, so the thing with crocodiles is that they are wild animals that are being transported, and they have no idea that the people transporting them are the good guys saving them. You can tell that they’re so pent up because they’re being transported in these burrito-like things on the back of these mopeds. They’re basically being held captive until they can be released. And because they’re wild animals, they do not appreciate what they’re being put through, so to speak.

Ella Al-Shamahi and contributors examining a caiman

And it’s amazing because the guys — they’ll sit and show you all their injuries. Crocodiles are incredibly strong animals. They’re all muscle. And it was interesting because I was amazed by the force of them.

So there were a few times where I thought my helping was going to be kind of minimal because there was already four people around. And it was amazing. If the crocodile was not in the mood, it needed all of us and more people to kind of jump in as well. It was really incredible. I mean it’s really important these people are doing it and they’re incredibly brave for doing it because it’s not for the faint of heart. I actually did end up with a tiny, tiny little bite, but it was so tiny that I was embarrassed.

Rosemary: Ella’s being really modest because she literally threw herself into it and she absolutely went straight into that jungle with a crocodile pillion on the back.

With each project, we go in to sort of bear witness and try and educate and hopefully put a positive slant on really serious subjects.

But it’s quite humbling to know that while we’re there for a short period of time, there are people doing this every day, every month just to keep on. And it is inspiring. It is inspiring to see the ingenuity of people and also the really cool science that’s being done.

I’ve worked in the natural history unit for over 10 years. I didn’t know that Siamese crocodiles were in that threatened level of extinction. So the series is trying to say, look at all these animals around the world, it’s not just the elephant, it’s not just the rhino.

Briefly introduce the technology or research initiatives in this series and why they are important. Why do we need to pay attention to them right now?

Rosemary: There is a whole gamut of different levels of technology. On one side, there are genius scientists coming up with really highly technical ways of monitoring animals to chart their success and whether they’re under threat. In series two, one of the most sophisticated tagging we did was up in Greenland where there’s a Scandinavian team tagging musk oxen. They have really big necks and the tags are really, really sophisticated.

Musk ox being examined, Greenland

And as I say, I’m not a scientist. I’m a journalist. So I don’t understand the technology, but they have come up with these ingenious tags that not only stay on the musk oxen, but monitor their migrations and even the whole reproductive cycle of the female. They’re trying to monitor good years and bad years to see whether arctic melt is going to affect the species to see how many young they have.

On the other side, there are people coming up with ingenious, really simple ways of trying to address the challenges they have. In Kenya, we’ve been where there’s increasing elephant-human conflict because the droughts are so bad and they’re lasting longer that more and more elephants are encroaching into the farmstead, eating, destroying crops.

But rather than shooting or destroying them, they’ve come up with brilliant ways of trying to just deter them so that they don’t have to harm them. So they’ve had bee farms to naturally deter elephants. But then the bees didn’t survive because of drought. They’ve now got little artificial bees that they use and bee noises. They do little chili bombs that they throw, which don’t harm the elephant. Elephants don’t like the smell and so they move away.

Ranger playing with elephant calves

But they’re little homemade gadgets that each farmer can do. So to me, probably more than the technology, is the ingenuity of everyone involved in trying to protect or address the challenges that they are facing on an ever increasing basis.

Ella: And for me, it’s hopeful as well. It’s seeing all those tech that’s out there. And as Rosemary says, the ingenuity of people, because you realize that the solutions are mostly out there. It’s just a question of will, but it’s nice to see them.

What’s next?

Ella: What’s next? Well there’s a few more years of following stories, and I’m hoping that we go to see Mr Lao at some point in the future.

Rosemary: Our commissioners are approaching it in more than one way. For the first two years, we’ve looked at six different challenges, to sort of set up the issues. In future years, we may well be looking at a bigger solution or a bigger attempt in fewer areas. I know that we’re definitely looking at coral reefs as a special next year. But then we’re going back to look at one of the other locations, and that will depend on the stories that come out. Literally the world’s greatest coral scientists are all amassing, or have all amassed, this year in the Maldives and brought all of their technology and all of their science together to try and regrow reefs. And it’s a really, really big project. So I know that we’re going to be concentrating on that.

Steve Simpson and Jess Hodge diving with the Hammerhead Recorder

Something that is covered in more than one country, is the issue of dams. The Mekong has been dammed, the Amazon has been dammed, and there’s been struggles on the Pantanal. Each area is coming up with different things and we could all help each other, because knowledge is power, isn’t it.

Ella: It’s also hopeful. Across those years, I look at stories and go, oh, that’s hopeful! If we can get ourselves together, then there’s hope for this planet because the technology is all there.

With environmental stories and climate change stories, it’s really hard because they’re quite depressing. And I think what this series hopefully does is to bring stories that inspire you, as opposed to make you just feel like, oh my god, what’s the point?

And I think Rosemary, and her team have just done a really good job of that. You kind of walk away going, okay, all right, all right, all right. It inspires us to change.

Rosemary: Often, there is a sense of hopelessness and people just switch off. So what we’re trying to do is keep people engaged in the conversation by saying, you know, together, we can do something, even if it’s on a small scale of cleaning your local river, or on a large scale of giant tags for musk oxen. There are things we can all do if we work together.

Interviewed by Lydia Konig
Photographs by BBC Earth


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