I know this title of this post is a bromide– even a cliche– but I think it is in need of repeating every once in a while. It is always worth repeating when one watches nature documentaries.
I am a fan of nature documentaries. I’ve always loved them, and watching them has given me insights into all sorts of conservation issues.
However, I am fully aware that a lot of these documentaries are staged and contrived. The first time I learned about this unfortunate fact was when I learned the truth about Marty Stouffer. I loved the Wild America series, and it really troubled me that such things had happened. However, I’ve since gotten over it. What Marty Stouffer did wasn’t any worse than what I’ve seen recently.
The current craze for the channels that show wildlife documentaries is to do reality shows that mix in at least some elements of the nature documentary. The formula goes as follows: Get some half-assed Rambo or starry-eyed Farley Mowat wannabe and film him doing incredibly stupid things with animals.
Now, I distinctly remember watching a certain filmmaker’s nature documentaries. His documentaries almost always used captive animals, but he often compensated for that problem by focusing his attention on his relationship with the animals. As far as I am concerned, that is fine.
However, in 2003, I watched another documentary made by the same filmmaker. This one was about his attempt to create a wild population of tigers in South Africa. Now, never mind that releasing wild tigers into South Africa probably isn’t the best policy. After all, South Africa has its own endangered species. Such an effort would take away from efforts to conserve them. However, at one time, there were discussion about setting up game ranches in the Southwest and Texas to conserve lions and elephants.
Now, I can’t blame the good intentions inherit in such a plan. There have been some successes with these endeavors. In Arizona, a similar program turned captive-bred oryx into the deserts, where they lived as wild animals perfectly suited for wilds of their native habitat.
However, in the case of tigers, there are really bad problems with such a plan. Tigers are predators. They are born with predatory motor patterns and prey drive. However, they have to learn how to use them to kill prey. As far as I know, only one tiger has ever been released into the wild–“Tara,” a crossbred Amur/Bengal tiger that was raised by Billy Arjan Singh and trained to live in the wilds of Dudhwa National Park. It is possible that Tara actually polluted the gene pool of the pure Bengals living in that park, for tigers with Amur characteristics have been spotted in the park.
Now, this hybrid problem also affects the documentary in question. The only pure Bengal tigers in captivity are in India. India is not too keen on releasing its tigers to these sorts of projects.
So the filmmaker in question goes to Ontario, where he finds a zoo with lots of tigers. None are purebred. None are part of species survival plans, and at this zoo, there is trainer. This trainer offers to teach the filmmaker how to train tigers to “go wild.” (You may know this trainer from his other work. He thinks he’s the Farley Mowat of the lions. He’s likely to become Timothy Treadwell II.)
They then move a pair of tigers to South Africa, where they lease massive acreages to train their tigers. These tigers are not purebred or part of any species survival plan. Furthermore, they carry the white gene, which is much sought after in zoo tigers. However, that particular gene is not at all of any use to the tigers in the wild. Think about it– can you imagine a deer in a forest being stalked by a white glacier of a cat?
Now, the film goes like this: The trainer and the filmmaker procure game species, which they release into the tigers’ massive enclosure. The cats don’t know how to hunt them properly, but they soon learn to run the game into the fence, where they are more easily dispatched. Because these cats are inexpert hunters, they totally torture these game animals before they can place a proper kill-bite.
After the film is finished, the filmmaker takes his tigers to “wildlife preserve”– a for profit one. There he keeps them what amount to huge enclosures. The cats do not live in the wild.
However, we’ve all been sold the pup, for the documentary claims that he has created a wild population of tigers in South Africa. Of course, the cats aren’t wild. They do not have the actual skills to live in the wild. They aren’t of any recognized subspecies and are of no use to any survival plan breeding programs. They carry the white gene, which is not of any use to a wild tiger.
These facts don’t seem to trouble the filmmaker, who thinks that if he could get a private reserve with a “wild” white tiger living in it, it would be save the species. He also claims that free enterprise alone will save the tiger, because governments never work. Never mind that virtually all successful conservation programs have had to involve state action. Private enterprise might help some species– like crocodilians and maybe elephants–but most of these species need habitat protection and anti-poaching laws that are enforced. These things cannot be guaranteed by private enterprise alone.
In essence, the whole thing is a giant fraud, but it was good television– if you like watching tigers hunt in a very half-assed manner.
So after learning about this particular documentary, I’m no longer have anything negative to say about Marty Stouffer. At least he never tried a stunt like this one!