March 17, 2011
Source: The West Australian
Nature documentaries have long revealed the mysteries of Earth's animal population to armchair adventurers at home, but the most successful species is often overlooked. Among all species on Earth, only humans have managed to establish a toehold in every habitat on the planet, no matter how inhospitable.
It is this tenacity, courage and ingenuity that inspired Human Planet, the latest blockbuster documentary series from BBC Earth.
Human Planet executive producer Brian Leith says the scope of the eight-part series was "mind boggling".
Camera crews travelled to 75 locations from the freezing Arctic to remote jungles and big cities and recorded never-before-seen stories of people surviving in some of the harshest environments imaginable.
While Leith is reluctant to reveal the cost of the documentary series, he says similar projects can cost around £1 million ($1.6m) a televised hour.
Each episode focuses on a particular habitat and reveals how people have created astonishing solutions in the face of extreme adversity.
Many of the stories required the crews to revisit the locations at different times of the year to capture the ways people adapted to the changing seasons.
"We are the only creature to adapt to every habitat on Earth and we wanted to get right in with some people doing amazing things," Leith says.
"There was a test for every potential sequence in the series. It had to be about an interesting, remarkable meeting point of man and nature and once you apply that sort of lens to stories you end up with an incredible sequence of stories around the world.
"We were lucky enough to have the time and budget to film many of them but there are a few that are disappearing."
Leith says an important conclusion to the series is that humans are used to talking about endangered species but need to realise that human cultures and the relationship between man and nature are endangered too.
"There were several examples of stories where there were stories of things that simply did not happen any more," Leith says. "On the west coast of Africa, up until about 10 or 15 years ago, there were stories of people who fished collaboratively with dolphins, where the dolphins would herd the fish in to the fishermen and the fishermen would reward the dolphin with some of the fish.
"We went out to Africa to film that and simply found that it had disappeared. The fish were no longer there in sufficient numbers, the people had lost the relationship with dolphins, and so it was sad to think it had been lost."
While some moments were lost, others were captured on film for the first time.
Among the extraordinary sequences is a nail-biting foray under Arctic sea ice with mussel foragers and footage of a "lost" tribe deep in the Amazon rainforest who had never had contact with modern society.
The image of red-painted tribesmen pointing spears and aiming a bow and arrow at the distant helicopter was snapped up by international media and highlighted how much more humans had to discover about themselves.
Other magical moments include following an Inuit family as they hunt narwhals using traditional methods, seeing Masai hunters steal a kill from a lion pride and coming across a woman breastfeeding a monkey.
Even Australian cattle stations, which use helicopters to muster thousands of cattle in the remote outback, come under the spotlight.
For a species that has become used to watching itself through the lens of so-called reality television, Leith says the uncompromising approach of Human Planet has already touched a nerve with UK audiences.
"We are not making a political point, we are just showing things as they are," Leith says. "We never end up judging them and I think that is the most refreshing and eye-opening experience."