Planet Earth II branded ‘disaster for nature’

False sense of security: One species of plant or animal goes extinct every ten minutes. © BBC.

David Attenborough’s latest wildlife documentary dazzled Britain last year. But his show has been attacked for being complacent about the state of our planet. Is this a fair criticism?

At eight o’clock on the night of Sunday November 6th one in every five people in Britain sat down to watch the first episode of Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II. Viewers were treated to footage of a pride of hungry lions chasing a giraffe. We saw a swarm of several billion locusts devour the countryside of Madagascar.

Attenborough’s programmes are wildly popular with almost everyone: the series achieved viewing figures among 16 to 34 year-olds which topped the X-Factor.

But Martin Hughes-Games, presenter of Springwatch, blasted Planet Earth II and its predecessors as being ‘disasters for the world’s wildlife’.

Writing in The Guardian, he praised the show’s ‘marvellous commentary’ and ‘brilliant execution’, but characterised it as ‘pure entertainment’, and its beguiling footage as at odds with the perilous state of the natural world. Seeing endangered species like tigers and snow leopards roaming free gives the impression that nature is a ‘utopia’, he wrote.

The world’s population of vertebrates has more than halved since 1970. The rate of extinction is thought to be one thousand times higher because of human intervention.

Many of the animals featured in the documentary are under threat. The first segment of episode one featured a pygmy sloth endemic to one island off the coast of Panama: there are just 80 left. Last month the giraffe became listed as a vulnerable species; but Hughes-Games chides: ‘no hint of the continuing disaster is allowed to shatter the illusion’.

The makers of such programmes argue their shows need spectacle to appeal to the masses: once the audience’s interest is piqued, they will be motivated to take part in active conservation.

And Hughes-Games’s article drew many to Attenborough’s defence. One wildlife journalist, James Common, praised the series for mentioning climate change and habitat loss in a way that was neither ‘preachy nor tedious’.

Different planets

The criticisms are nonsense, say Planet Earth II’s fierce defenders. The series was not made for other naturalists, but for ordinary people who do not want a long, doom-mongering lecture on the evils of humanity. The best way to educate people about this subject is to entertain, inform, and finally leave the viewer with a powerful parting message. Attenborough, as usual, did this spectacularly well.

Nature programmes are entertaining, but there is no evidence that their popularity leads to greater public awareness of the plight of wildlife. Sadly, people watch these shows, enjoy them, and then forget about them the next day. Makers of nature documentaries should use their platform to shake us out of our complacency. The future of many rare species may depend on it.

You Decide

  1. Was Planet Earth II a ‘disaster for nature’?
  2. Should broadcasters ever sacrifice popularity for educational value when making television programmes?

Activities

  1. Hughes-Games proposes a ‘conservation tax’ among natural history commissioners on TV channels. It would insist that ‘a fifth of natural history commissions are significantly conservation-oriented’. Write 500 words on whether you think this is a good idea.
  2. Research one endangered species and write to the makers of a new wildlife documentary explaining why you think they should feature it in their upcoming series.

Some People Say...

“Human indifference is the greatest force for evil in the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not very interested in conservation. Why does this matter?
Remember that conservation does matter: humans rely on nature: without it we cannot survive. But this issue goes beyond the question of conservation: it is about whether television shows should prioritise education or entertainment. Can the right balance be struck?
It’s quite depressing hearing about species going extinct.
Yes, it can be. Reports warning of devastation and destruction frequently hit the headlines, and with good reason: tens of thousands of plants and animals go extinct every year. But there are also many examples of how conservation has worked. For example, one World Wildlife Fund study in September found that the number of tigers in the wild has risen by 20% in the last six years.

Word Watch

One in every five people
12.26 million people watched the first episode of Planet Earth II.
Sir David Attenborough
Planet Earth II is expected to be the great naturalist’s last series. Now 90 years-old, he first gained fame through his Life series, which first aired in 1979.
Madagascar
The fourth largest island in the world. It broke away from the east coast of Africa 135 million years ago, and as a result the majority of its species are found nowhere else in the world.
More than halved
According to research by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London.
Rate of extinction
The vast majority of animals which become extinct do so primarily because of humanity. But some species simply do die out without our intervention: for example, at the background or normal rate of extinction one species of bird will go extinct about every 400 years.
Parting message
The final episode of Planet Earth II ends with Attenborough on top of the Shard in London, saying that ‘it is our responsibility to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth.’

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