By John R. Platt
Tiger Shark Terror. Great White Shark Serial Killer Lives. Great Hammerhead Invasion. Australia's Deadliest Shark Attacks. These are just a few of the programs airing this week during Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week and NatGeo Wild's copycat, Sharkfest.
Undoubtedly, these programs will attract their usual massive ratings, but they may be guilty of the same kinds of film fakery that plagues many wildlife films, where the images on your screen don't tell a full or even truthful story. In the process, experts warn the films may actually send the wrong conservation message and harm endangered species.
"The term 'fakery' has many nuances to it," said Chris Palmer, founder of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, DC. Palmer shined a light on some of the worst aspects of wildlife filmmaking in his 2010 book and 2013 documentary "Shooting in the Wild." Shark Week, he said, typifies one of the most common aspects of film fakery, where producers create a mistaken impression in the audience's minds about what goes on in the wild.
"With Shark Week, people get to see sharks as being dangerous and man-eating because that's what gets ratings. The networks are looking for that male demographic, age 21 to 35, so they push sensational shots of sharks chomping down on people."
Palmer, who has won two Emmy Awards for his own wildlife films, believes that pushing this misinformation—that sharks are nothing but dangerous killing machines—can hurt conservation efforts.
"The wrong perception can lead to misperceptions and in the end, I think, hurt public policy toward these animals," he observed. "One has to wonder how that affects work that goes on at CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] and places like that where we try to get international protection for sharks. If the populace is thinking of sharks as dangerous, why would anyone save them? That makes it harder, I think, to do the right thing."
Real or fake?
Demonizing animals is just one of the many kinds of fakery tainting the wildlife filmmaking industry. Another kind of deception involves manipulating events to get the "right" shots on film. That might include leaving food out for animals, dosing a carcass with candy, drugging animals so they don't move or pushing them toward the camera. "The worst case is when you put predator and prey together to get photographs," Palmer said. Although this technique has been employed extensively in the past, he called it immoral: "You get these dramatic shots, but people don't see animals as they really are."
In other cases, what appears to be on camera isn't completely true, even if it may seem to be that way on the surface. Some films claim to follow the story of specific animals, although the footage is of multiple individuals edited together to tell a "real" story. In other films, discordant shots are edited together to depict something that could not be filmed in the wild. Sir David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series infamously mixed footage of polar bears in the wild with sequences shot in a zoo. This created a scandal a few years ago when viewers found out, and the Discovery Channel added a disclaimer when it brought the series to the U.S.
A more subtle kind of fakery can occur in the editing stages. Filmmakers might be in the field for months at a time, getting limited shots of their subjects every few weeks. But all too often those short shots can be edited together to make it seem as if they occurred in a very short sequence.
"The final film looks like there are a lot of these rare animals," Palmer said. "People watching it are saying to themselves, 'Well, golly, what's the problem? I was just watching this film, and I see hundreds of these chimps or these white-tipped oceanic sharks or whatever,' and then they don't realize that the film has been put together with very little footage because it's hard to find these animals."
The risk to wildlife
In addition to fakery, Palmer pointed out that the animals themselves are often endangered by filmmakers. "We get too close, we harass them, we're desperate to get the money shots," he said. "And we go in so close and bother them that some of the animals even get killed." Ethical codes for filmmakers should prevent this from happening, but they lack enforcement. "They set a marker, but if someone breaks them there is no one in the field to say, 'Don't do that,'" Palmer said.
Many filmmakers may find themselves placed under extreme corporate pressure to get dramatic footage of rare and endangered species. Because most crews contain just one or two people and no one is in the field watching, circumstances can lead to cutting corners. "No one's looking at you," Palmer said. "It's very easy to do things that no one would know about." He noted that there aren't any real metrics about this, because people don't admit it, but it happens: "The only time you hear the truth is at 2 a.m. after a few beers."
The public's role
The public can have a role in reducing film fakery, whether it's during Shark Week or on another wildlife program. "I would encourage people to be a little skeptical and ask questions," he said. "How did they get that shot? Is the animal being controlled? Did that animal come from a game farm where it was held under inhumane conditions? Especially for endangered species, how was it treated? Did the filmmakers keep their distance so the animal was undisturbed or was the animal harassed and chased down to get good footage?" Asking television networks these questions, he suggested, can lead to change: "All of these networks are sensitive. I think if the public speaks up, they will do a better job."
Although he expressed a lot of criticism for fakery, Palmer does think that wildlife filmmaking can have a very positive effect, even in cases where the narrative plays loose with a few facts to pull at heartstrings. "People who love the film may vote in a positive way for senators and congressmen who will vote in a more sustainable manner," he asserted. "That may be an example where fakery is, if you like, pro-conservation."
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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