In the digital age, film can be a powerful tool. For many, it took the image of a polar bear scrabbling across the melting ice in David Attenborough’s Planet Earth documentary to bring home the issue of climate change. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that a large chunk of modern conservationism is being fought via television screens and computer monitors.
It is something that the Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) clearly took on board when it recently announced that it was partnering with UK wildlife conservation charity Wildscreen. But do films and pictures really help? Speaking to Wildscreen’s chief executive Harriet Nimmo, the answer is a definite yes. In fact, she is quick to pose a question of her own: ‘How do you grab people’s attention? How do you make them care?’ she asks me. This is the mission statement of Wildscreen, making people care. ‘Our whole purpose,’ she explains, ‘is to use the power of film and photography to promote a better understanding of the natural world.’
Conservation is as much a battle for hearts and minds, it seems, and for 25 years Wildscreen has brought rare and unseen wildlife images into the public domain through its collections, projects and international film festival, and more recently via its website.
It’s true, though, we don’t really believe a thing is happening until we see it with our own eyes. Films and pictures do this. It’s something that becomes all too apparent when Harriet directs me to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) website and its infamous Red List (www.iucnredlist.org). To be on this list is not a good thing – red is not the colour of safety. Scouring its 41,415-name register of plants and creatures in varying degrees of extinction across the world, its statistics and threat ratings do little to evoke a feeling of urgency. ‘We’re helping to bring these lists to life,’ Harriet tells me. It is something of a Freudian slip, but possibly true.
Wildscreen are ploughing through the Red List, gathering images, research and film footage from across the world via picture libraries, film-makers, conservationists, enthusiasts – everything and everyone. Harriet calls it ‘a global, digital Noah’s Ark’ and its innumerable film clips and photographs can all be viewed for free online at its website (wwww.arkive.org).
ARKive proves where the real battleground in modern conservationism is being fought: in the imagination, through books, films, magazines, television and now the internet. ‘In order to care, you have to know,’ Harriet explains. ‘A documentary may only be shown once or twice perhaps, but these images can be viewed over and over again.’
The website gets around 20,000 hits a day – many of them schoolchildren, I’m told. This is perhaps the key significance. As well as the EAD contributing images, film and research to ARKive, Wildscreen will produce for them a range of educational brochures for distribution among local schools.
Speaking to Majid Al Mansouri, secretary general of EAD, it is clear where he sees the future of protecting the UAE’s wildlife lies. ‘Conservation and environmental awareness is a way of life,’ he explains, ‘one which we must instil in our youth early on to protect our planet.’
The whole partnership provides an environmental legacy based around wildlife film and documentary. As well as screening films at Abu Dhabi’s Middle East International Film Festival next month, Wildscreen are also helping to bring the best film-makers to the UAE to encourage local talent. It is a field in which the EAD were involved in recently when they documented the release of the endangered Arabian oryx from their captive breeding for TV.
Graham Hatherley, the British cameraman involved in the project, explains the power of wildlife and nature documentary as a force for change: ‘Wildlife films change the way that people feel about conservation. I think it’s no coincidence that since these films started to come on to our television screens in the last 30 years, at the same time, global awareness of conservation issues has increased as well. The two go hand in hand.’
As a boy, Graham was inspired by another Wildscreen patron, Sir David Attenborough, whose Life On Earth series he credits with stirring his own love of nature. When I speak to him, he is knee-deep in a sphagnum bog in Northern Scotland attempting to film dragonflies – a tricky prospect I‘m informed: ‘No sooner are they there than they’re gone again’ – but the difficulties in filming the oryx were just as tricky. The heat, the sun and the sand overheated, melted and jammed the camera equipment respectively. Then, when released, actually capturing the animals on film proved the next problem, and it meant relying heavily on the knowledge of the local rangers. So why do it? ‘I love working outside and I love the challenge of filming creatures that are difficult to approach. But most of us, if we’re honest, just do so because we love wildlife.’
However, it is more than just that, Graham reveals: ‘If you’re interested in a thing and you care about it, you quickly become aware that, if there are problems, you’ve got to do something about them. Wildlife films are a way to do this.’
Graham is living proof of the power these documentaries can have on people’s lives. He classes the oryx film as one of the most incredible experiences of his career. ‘When you see a whole herd of something that has been lost from a landscape for 40 years suddenly roaming across the most beautiful desert, it is a special moment,’ he tells me. Thanks to his and the EAD’s efforts, it was something everyone in the UAE could see.
It must be stressed that more than just film-making is being done to protect Abu Dhabi’s natural environment. Green energy projects, captive breeding, improved regulation and enforcement regarding the illegal hunting and trading of animals, and the establishing of protected areas and refuges are the key to securing the future of the UAE’s native wildlife. But as the EAD’s Majid Al Masouri explains: ‘Conservation is about education and creating awareness of how we can protect Mother Earth.’ And this is why the battleground to save our animal wildlife has moved into the digital age. ‘In order to care, you have to know,’ they say, and to know, all you need do now is simply point and click. The future is quite literally in our hands.
Visit www.wildscreen.org.uk for more information on Wildscreen and the ARKive project.