“Earth: A New Wild” blows away cuteness standards, presents uplifting and serious conversation

How many baby pandas does it take to make a conservation film a success?

Two? Four? Nine?

Hedging their bets, PBS, National Geographic and Passion Planet went with… 14!

In their upcoming series, Earth: A New Wild, viewers will get to ogle fourteen baby pandas, as Conservation International Executive Vice President Dr. M. Sanjayan guides them on a journey exploring the intrinsic nature of humanity’s role in nature. Filmmakers for Conservation was at a sneak peak of the upcoming series screened at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. – the five-part film promises to bring optimism to the conservation conversation to living rooms all over the country.

Dr. Sanjayan said he wanted to work on this series – and call it The New Wild – to remove the distinction between the natural and the human worlds. “We humans are part of nature,” he said, “and when you realize that, we realize saving nature is saving ourselves.” He said in certain areas it was impossible to film wildlife without getting humans in the frame, and he hopes by telling the story of how humans are part of nature – not separated from it – viewers will learn, “Just how much we need each other to survive.”

Filming over 5 years in 29 countries and 45 locations, the producers decided to separate the films based on habitats, with episodes covering “Home,” “Plains,” “Forests,” “Oceans,” and “Fresh Water.” The first episode explores “Home,” establishing the series arc that humans share our home with nature – and it goes big, with Dr. Sanjayan’s visit to the breeding center of the Bifengxia Panda Base in Wolong, China. Researchers there have determined when females are most fertile as part of their efforts to re-wild the iconic species, and after resisting the concentrated power of such adorable panda delight, witnessing the baker’s dozen of black and white babies roll around on the floor, Dr. Sanjayan dons a panda suit himself, as he witnesses the first-ever release of a captive-bred panda into the wild.

Breeders take care of giant panda cubs inside a crib at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, September 23, 2013. Fourteen new joiners to the 128-giant-panda-family at the base were shown to the public on Monday, according to local media. REUTERS/China Daily

Breeders take care of giant panda cubs inside a crib at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, September 23, 2013. Fourteen new joiners to the 128-giant-panda-family at the base were shown to the public on Monday, according to local media. REUTERS/China Daily

Along with Zhang Xiang’s historic amble, Dr. Sanjayan visits Dr. Jane Goodall in Tanzania, where new chimpanzees have entered the Gombe National Park, thanks to community initiatives to connect fragmented habitat by subsidizing border trees. But now the villagers report chimps have taken infants from their homes, highlighting the difficulty of life in the shared wild.

The “Plains” episode introduces the theories of Rhodesian-born biologist Allan Savory, about the need to restore to the plains the millions of herd animals who once kept them healthy. Dr. Sanjayan visits the Russian steppes, where the proboscises of saiga antelope once roamed with more snouts than the wildebeest of the African savannahs. With their floppy schnozzes warming the frigid air, the saiga roam, eating and dispersing 100 plant species. After the fall of the Soviet Union, poachers ravaged the herds from numbering two million down to 20,000, hunting their horns for traditional Chinese medicine. A boom in irrigated agriculture has also led to their home pastures in Kalmykia to become the first manmade desert in Europe, as 80% of the arid region has lost plant coverage. Dr. Sanjayan tries to show that hope abounds, meeting researchers who are tracking the saiga’s numbers, and finding ways to protect them from poachers.

The “Plains” episode also offers the most bizarre human-wildlife interaction, as Dr. Sanjayan travels to northern Scandinavia, where the Sami people were possibly the first to domesticate herd animals. Those who still live the traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle, follow their herds of reindeer throughout the winter. The males can get very aggressive in the rutting season, however, and after the autumn battle for females they are so exhausted that nine in ten will perish in the following winter. Well… ancestral knowledge was quick to incorporate anatomy into the equation, and Dr. Sanjayan’s Sami hosts invite him to participate in the traditional cure:

The Sami call their modified male reindeer the “Gentlemen of the Tundra,” as they spend the winter helping the females dig through the snow for those last remaining morsels to munch…

Dr. Sanjayan kept the “Forests” episode under wraps, but FFC did catch glimpses of the final “Oceans,” and “Fresh Water” films, in which Dr. Sanjayan goes fishing in the mangrove nurseries of Florida for pregnant and newborn lemon sharks, and then kayaks the Colorado River to its end with photographer Peter McBride, where the mighty river painfully dies in the dusts of Mexico’s Sonora Desert. Although Mexico receives less and less of the Colorado’s life-force, not far from the dried-up wetlands it once watered Dr. Sanjayan and McBride fly over the Cienaga wetlands, where 40,000 acres of new life has sprung from farm water run-off somewhere upstream. Dr. Sanjayan points out nature’s resiliency: as one door closes, another opens.

Earth: A New Wild will air on PBS starting on Wednesday, February 4, at 9/8c PM. Now that you’re warned of the carnage of cuteness of 14 baby pandas, enjoy the programming, and let us know what you think!

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