EARTH A New Wild

Editor’s note: EARTH A New Wild is airing Wednesdays in February on PBS in the U.S. and airing internationally in February on Nat Geo Wild. The series was produced by National Geographic Studios in association with Passion Planet.

Conservation is often billed as people vs. nature. But a new documentary argues that cohabiting with wildlife can actually be mutually beneficial. It features a poor farmer in Africa, to take one example, who turned part of his land into forest and ended up with much more productivity. 

The series EARTH A New Wild is hosted by conservation scientist M. Sanjayan, who takes viewers to 29 countries to show how animals and people can live more in balance.

National Geographic spoke with David Allen, the Emmy-winning executive producer of the series.

In the miniseries M. Sanjayan says, “Give nature a helping hand and people will benefit from it.” What does that mean?

We have got to realign our attitude to wilderness. The idea that there is nature out there and people are separate from it shouldn’t be part of our modern world anymore.

My own work making natural history films probably hasn’t helped because we’ve romanticized wilderness. Take the popular BBC series Planet Earth. If aliens had beamed that show to their planet and then come over to visit us, they’d be so horrified by the reality of what our world is like.

Nature and people are everywhere and are completely connected. There is nature out there that can be salvaged, but with us [staying] in the picture. So this film isn’t about the isolated little pockets of wilderness that are left. For example, we show how New York City is trying to regenerate its bay with oysters. That brings nature right into a large city.

Another theme in the miniseries is people and animals finding common ground, including the landowners in Missouri who shared some of their water to make a wildlife refuge, which attracted more than a million snow geese.

People have actually been finding common ground with nature for generations, but many people underestimate the value of the nature around them. For example, in the “Plains” episode we show how herders are an integral part of the landscape. In the “Forest” episode we show how people are beginning to understand the value of a tree. There are many other examples of people really needing nature.

Common ground is essential, but the question is whether we’re going to do it in a harmonious way that is good for people and nature or in a battle that is not going to help anyone.

The film presents an idea that may be counterintuitive to conservationists, that ranch animals that are threatened by predators are good for grasslands because they encourage plants to grow. You show a resurgence in biodiversity in Yellowstone National Park after wolves returned, and a spike in productivity on a Montana ranch after a cowboy started herding his cows as if predators were present, even though they aren’t.

It’s an incredibly controversial concept in some sense, but the idea that the plains evolved with giant herds of big Pleistocene animals that have since been largely taken out of the equation makes a lot of sense. The ecology is connected to the animals that graze the grasses.

The secret is not just to increase the size of your stock by ten times. It has to be a highly managed grazing system. You have to run your animals around as if they were driven by predators, so you never let them stand and graze in one place too long.

Still, any suggestion that domestic animals are good for conservation is a difficult thing to push because it’s counterintuitive to those who have long pointed to the perils of traditional overgrazing. Finding this out for himself over the course of making the film was part of Sanjayan’s journey, which also shows that he didn’t approach the project as a know-it-all.

In the film scientists say critically endangered species, from the black-footed ferret to the steppe antelope known as saiga, can bounce back if they get a just a little help.

The resilience of nature, given the chance, is enormous. Stories like the dramatic decline of the saiga [by 95 percent in the past ten years] are also terrifying demonstrations of how quickly nature can go down. But what we learned is how relatively little it takes many populations to recover.

For example, a lion population we filmed that lives alongside the Maasai in Kenya is thriving better than any other population. So there is a chance for resilience, especially if you aren’t too much of a purist for a perfect wilderness state. (Learn more about lions in Africa.)

I love how the location information for each part of the series appears on screen, how the words look like they’re sitting right in the landscape. How did you get the idea for that?

It came from watching the film Zombieland with my son. I thought it was cool, and that’s much easier to do now with recent technology.

Unlike some environment or nature documentaries, the overall tone of EARTH A New Wild is quite positive. Was that intentional?

We do deal with some really big issues, and we make some bold statements about how the planet is looking, such as the loss of the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea. But I don’t think doom and gloom works at all. There has to be a better way to captivate people and tell it like it is.