Endangered Species Handbook

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Films as Educational Aids

     Video involving endangered animals and plants is now of amazing quality and interest, an exciting trend.  Films on disappearing wildlife are no longer focused on zoo animals, but on animals in the wild.  This is extremely important in educating and motivating the public, as well as students, to preserve these vanishing treasures and their beautiful--but fragile--environments.  As wildlife films grow in popularity, filmmakers are tackling ever more unusual challenges to find extremely rare animals or remote habitats, spending years to obtain magnificent footage.  Some animals being captured on film have only just been described scientifically and have never before been filmed.  The results are sometimes dazzling, with imaginative presentation.  For the viewer and student, such fascinating subjects are not only educational, but provide a free trip to beautiful parts of the world where wildlife can be seen in natural habitats, exhibiting natural behavior not seen in zoo animals.  Many endangered animals inhabit magnificent landscapes, from alpine meadows framed by snowy mountains in New Zealand to remote rainforests in Brazil or Madagascar.  The best of these films have been made by cinematographers with a great deal of natural history knowledge or guidance, showing distinctive features of animals and plants, as well as threats to their survival and habitats.  To see a Harpy Eagle, the largest eagle in the world, at close range at its nest more than 100 feet above the forest floor, caring for chicks and arriving with prey as large as sloths, is an exciting spectacle that will also encourage the preservation of this endangered species.
     Some classic films combine information with an artistic eye and a narrative that provides viewers with a new perspective.  Among these are "Baobab: Portrait of a Tree;" "Korup--An African Rainforest;" "The Living Planet" series; "Among the Wild Chimpanzees;" "Reflections on Elephants;" and "The Private Life of Plants."  Such films provide eloquent and intelligent lessons that teach not only basic information about the habitats and species focused upon, but argue strongly in favor of their conservation.  Saving wild places and habitats is the most important tool in preventing extinctions, and these films make this clear.  Some films also show the tragic slaughter of rare animals and destruction of habitats, the better to call attention to why these activities must be stopped and to make real the plight of nature.  Lessons about biological diversity are an intrinsic part of many films as well, although this has often been more intimated than stressed openly.
     The viewer who sees the final product rarely imagines the hardships and imaginative use of technology that went into the film's production. "Wildfilm," a 1995 documentary (Partridge Film Ltd. and Television New Zealand Natural History Productions, shown on PBS), describes how natural history films are made, with many delightful encounters between filmmakers and animals.  It divulges many of the secrets used, such as a remote-controlled miniature helicopter equipped with a camera that provides aerial views of mountainous terrains and night filming of difficult subjects.  Difficulties included cameras freezing while filming Emperor Penguins at 60 degrees below zero F.  Technological advances now permit microphotography by film producers, such as Oxford Films, of natural worlds invisible to the naked eye.  Superb underwater photography is also capturing coral reef creatures and the fantastic animals that live in deep-sea habitats.  Another innovation is the approach used in IMAX films, projecting many cameras on giant screens, giving the viewer a dramatic sense of entering into the film.  They are shown at some 20 specialized theaters, most of which are in science museums.
     In some cases, filmmakers risk their lives to obtain their final products.  In 1993, one of the greatest wildlife and nature cinematographers, Dieter Plage, fell to his death from a film platform 150 feet up a tropical forest tree.  The dangers of this vocation also include attacks by wild animals, accidents, tropical diseases, and even clashes with local people.  Many of these filmmakers are dedicated conservationists, and their portrayals of wildlife contribute to conservation efforts.  Several organizations convene wildlife film festivals, awarding prizes in various categories, and occasionally, Academy Awards are presented to wildlife filmmakers.  Many of the reviews below give credit to the filmmakers, the best of whom must combine qualities from intellectual curiosity to artistry of presentation, along with physical endurance.
     Some filmmakers have been criticized in the past for staging dramatic scenes for wildlife movies, often harming or killing animals in the process. Such criticism was sometimes justified, and stricter permit regulations on the part of various countries have reduced some of the more flagrant examples of past abuses.  In other cases, filmmakers are witness to extreme suffering by animals because of accidents, disease or starvation.  Many national parks prohibit human intervention.  However, in some situations, people created the crises.
    One tragic case involved a group of Cheetahs in Namibia.  First, a Lion killed a “nanny,” or non-breeding female Cheetah, in this group, who helped watch the cubs; then the breeding female died soon after of anthrax.  Three of the five cubs quickly died of starvation, being too young to hunt alone, and the two surviving male cubs set out alone on the sunbaked desert.  One emaciated cub collapsed, while the other tried desperately and unsuccessfully to catch a Bat-eared Fox.  The weaker cub was filmed as it tried valiantly to raise itself from the ground when jackals arrived, who had sensed his condition.  Unable to remain standing, the cub's hindquarters gave way, and he fell to the ground, his eyes wild and unfocused.  The filmmakers, nose to the ground, recorded his death.
     Cheetahs are highly endangered and declining throughout their range, persecuted in southern Africa by ranchers whose careless management of livestock caused the deaths of a mother and her cubs.  Intervention in this case was warranted.  They could have easily captured the skeletally thin and weak Cheetah cubs.  There are two rescue centers in Namibia for these endangered and beleaguered wild cats.  This film, "Etosha, Africa's Untamed Wilderness," is part of Reader's Digest's Living Edens series, produced in 1997 by ABC/Kane Productions, and filmed by Adrian Warren and Justin Maguire.  A code of ethics for wildlife filmmakers should include interventions in such cases.
     Although more and more filmmakers are traveling to record the diversity of Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and other species-rich environments, too many films are still being made of large East African mammals, such as wildebeest and their predators.  Many fascinating areas have not been visited by cinematographers.  Rainforest birds, for example, are rarely filmed, with a few exceptions, nor are the endangered temperate forests of Australia or South America.  Many of the "hot spots" of biological diversity, such as Madagascar, Mauritius, New Zealand and southwestern India, have been the subjects of films, but other areas, including the Philippines, South Africa, New Caledonia, and the Ecuadorian highlands, have almost never been seen in nature films.  Yet these areas are teeming with extraordinary wildlife and plants that would fascinate viewers. 
     Rare trees and plants are also being ignored, to their detriment.  Many of the most unusual trees of the world, from the Monkeypod Tree of South America to the towering Kauris and their relatives of New Zealand, Australia and New Caledonia, are highly endangered, and visually stunning.  The latter are survivors of the supercontinent Gondwana, as are the rare protea flowering plants of South Africa.  Yet many of these plants are on the verge of extinction, being logged, overcollected or otherwise destroyed.  A film about these fragments that have lived on Earth for 100 million years or more, some pre-dating the dinosaurs, would be extremely interesting and important for their conservation by raising awareness of their plight.  The value of trees in producing oxygen, holding the soil in place, preventing floods and providing habitat for wildlife is of vital importance, yet the last of the old-growth forests, the richest in species of all forests, are being cleared for agriculture and wood products.  This subject--as well as the crucial role that invertebrates play in symbiotic relationships with plants, pollination and other ecological roles--needs far more attention from filmmakers.  Catastrophes such as floods and landslides are often the result of wetland filling and forest clearing, yet films on these subjects usually dwell on the sensational aspects, stressing the dramatic footage of houses and vehicles destroyed and survival stories.  Nature's great value to human society is not understood by the majority of people, and several fascinating books have been written to explain and even place a monetary value on natural ecosystems vs. the value of exploited natural resources.  Such studies would make fascinating films and provide logical arguments to oppose the constantly accelerating trend toward commercial exploitation and destruction of the environment worldwide.
     The value of films in providing a record of endangered species was made clear in the film, "Rain Forest," by the National Geographic Society.  The brilliant Golden Toads of Costa Rica, seen in their mating gatherings, disappeared a few years later and have not been seen since.  Video of the great African Elephant herds prior to the 1980s slaughters represents another example of wildlife spectacles that may never return because of the increase in human population and development of wildlife habitat.  As wilderness areas shrink, films should be made of these regions, both aerially and at ground level, to record these precious remnants of the entire planet as it once appeared, to argue for their protection and to inventory their native wildlife and plants.
     For many films, especially those shown on PBS, companion books and teaching guides that provide additional information have been written.  Books and articles on endangered species become all the more interesting and relevant after seeing films on the same subject.  By combining films and literature on endangered species, both students and the public in general can grasp the essentials of the major threats to endangered species and the many fascinating and unique species that are in imminent danger of disappearing.
     A learning program on Madagascar, for example, can be brought to life when seeing films of the delightful lemurs and other native wildlife, accompanied by books such as Ken Preston-Mafham's 1991 book, The Natural History of Madagascar, and other references on the subject in the Books and Publications section.  (See descriptions of Madagascar and its wildlife in the Madagascar and Other Islands chapter of this book.)  Many films on Madagascar and its wildlife are reviewed below.
     The last wilderness retreats of numerous endemic and rare species are in danger from logging, livestock and other exotic species, mining and other destruction.  Some are so breathtakingly beautiful that it is difficult to comprehend that for many people, these regions and their fragile wildlife and plants are without value or importance.  The majority of people on Earth are struggling to survive and do not understand that the loss of these places can affect them.  As ecosystems become unbalanced, food supplies are threatened by droughts, and poverty increases.  Much needs to be done to aid these people to live in harmony with nature and to provide them with financial aid.  Some of these films address these issues and provide solutions.  Films can be of great importance in teaching people around the world about the crises that are facing us as the last old-growth forests are cut down, and the loss of biological diversity, which stabilizes nature, will cause a myriad of other ecological disasters.  Films reviewed here show the complexity, beauty and majesty of many types of forests--cloud, temperate and tropical rain, and deciduous--and their importance in absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, as well as providing habitat for untold numbers of animals.  For nearly every ecological crisis now facing us, a film explains the problem--at least its basics--and, above all, illustrates what is being lost because of ignorance and greed.
     Films can also show the endearing sides of wildlife that touch the heart, the devotion of elephants for one another, the gentle affection between lemurs, chimpanzees and other animals.  Their intelligence, athleticism and other qualities can amaze the viewer.  Our compassion is aroused when we see films of animals dying in traps, harpooned, shot, orphaned or otherwise suffering.  The many films shown in North America about the Gray Wolf have inspired a public interest in the species' conservation and sparked a new ecotourism around the reintroduced wolves of Yellowstone National Park.  Although some people, primarily livestock ranchers, remain prejudiced against wolves, they have become a minority.  This contrasts dramatically with the situation in other parts of the world where wolves are being driven to extinction because of misunderstandings about their ecological importance and their supposed threats to humans and livestock.  Many films have shown the loyalty and devotion wolves display to one another, even at the risk of their lives. These qualities are the very ones esteemed in dogs, who were descended from wolves. 
     Without a film record of animal behavior, such as that of the wolf, the qualities described by observers and scientists might be treated with more skepticism, as they were in the past.  It is difficult, for example, for those who have portrayed the wolf as a vicious and dangerous animal, to maintain this view in the face of film documentation that provides a fact-based view.  For this reason, films can be a more powerful and influential educational tool than the written word.

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