A herd of caribou streams from the tundra into the forest, seeking shelter from the approaching winter. They are not alone, a narrator’s voice tells us. Looking down at them through the eye of a camera somewhere in the sky above, we see low-slung shapes trotting after them, following their tracks in the snow. The familiar, husky voice pronounces: “Wolves.”
The latest nature documentary featuring David Attenborough comes with all the breathtaking scenes we have come to expect when we hear that voice, from wolves on the hunt to the feathered courtship dance of the western parotia.
But Our Planet has a different tone than previous docs narrated by the renowned broadcaster and naturalist. Shows such as Life on Earth, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, Planet Earth and The Blue Planet all came with warnings about the threats to the Earth’s riches from its dominant species. This time, the warnings take centre stage.
Attenborough turned 93 this week. With a boyish wonder that never seems to fade, the lanky Englishman with a shock of wind-blown hair has taken us to every corner of the globe. Now, with the clock running down, he wants to remind us what we have lost and what we stand to lose. “What we do in the next 20 years,” he says, “will determine the future for all life on Earth.”
This latest show could not be more timely. The threat from climate change, looming for a generation, has burst into the public mind as never before. A series of scientific reports, released one after another in an alarming chain, have hammered home how serious the threat is and how little time remains to avert it. Two new books paint a grim forecast for life on a warming planet. Students from Sweden to New Zealand have been staging climate strikes to deplore the failure of world governments to respond.
In Canada, we are just now the entering into a national debate about how to curb this country’s massive greenhouse gas emissions. The outcome could determine the winner of the coming federal election. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Ottawa has imposed a carbon tax in provinces that don’t have one of their own. Conservative politicians across much of the country are railing against it. It is the most important environmental debate in our history. It is one of the most important debates of any kind.
Our Planet shows us what is at stake. Now streaming on Netflix, the eight-part series was shot over four years in 50 countries with a crew of 600. Each episode takes us to a different zone, from forests to deserts to the high seas. Nature documentaries such as this have become better and better over the years, thanks to growing budgets and advances including drones, motion-triggered cameras and long-range zoom lenses. This may be the best yet.
We see the most incredible things. A cheetah races to catch stampeding wildebeest. A blue-whale mother caresses its immense baby, which is growing by three tons a month. A velvet worm, a species that has endured since the age of the dinosaurs, uses a sticky stream from “glue guns” on its head to immobilize its prey.
Thousands of spinner dolphins twist in the air like ice dancers. A fledgling Philippine eagle takes its first flight. An endangered Siberian tiger pads along a snow-covered ridge, so close we can hear it growl. This, Attenborough tells us, is the most intimate glimpse of this rare animal ever captured.
Many of these wonders are now at risk. There are but 600 Siberian tigers left. Ninety per cent of large open-sea hunters have disappeared. One hundred million sharks are killed every year to make shark-fin soup. Those caribou we see fleeing into the forest in Canada’s North have lost 70 per cent of their numbers in the past 20 years. “Their world, and all of our planet, is now changing fast,” Attenborough says.
Yet, although his voice is often grave, it is not despairing. The most important message in Our Planet is that, with help, the Earth can recover. Huge colonies of seabirds have returned to breed on the Pacific coast of South America since controls on overfishing were introduced. Millions head out to sea every day to feed on vast shoals of anchovies. Humpback whales have rebounded since a ban on commercial whaling. Attenborough tells us the assembly of feeding humpbacks we see on the screen is the biggest gathering of whales witnessed in a century.
Forests, too, are “almost unbelievably resilient.” To prove it, he takes us to, of all places, Chernobyl. Wildlife has returned to the exclusion zone emptied of humans by the Soviet nuclear disaster of 1986: foxes, rabbits, moose, deer. Even the region’s top predators have come back. There they are, moving gracefully along an abandoned road: “Wolves."
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