‘Dynasties’ and lions — it’s not always good to be King.

Finally. The curtain is about to go up on Dynasties in the US, on BBC America (Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9E/8C, and subsequent weekends).

And while the audience is likely to be nowhere near as sizeable or far-reaching as that which watched Dynasties’ debut on BBC One in the UK last November, viewers in the most crowded, competitive media market in the world will finally be exposed to Dynasties’ tough, uncompromising look at the animal kingdom. (True to form, BBC America’s five episodes will air out of sequence with their original BBC broadcast; BBC America is opening with Lion (this weekend, on Jan. 19), followed by Chimpanzee (Jan. 26), Tiger (Feb. 2), Painted Wolf (Feb. 9) and finally Emperor (penguins, on Feb. 16).)

Dynasties, from many of the same producers and  filmmakers who brought you Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unique for two reasons.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

One, each episode revolves around a single animal family or clan and tells a tale of succession. Each hour-long episode focuses on a clan patriarch, or matriarch, as they fight for survival against a variety of threats, from the elements and climate change to human-wildlife conflict and —  shades of Shakespeare — murderous family members determined to usurp the throne and upset the natural order of things.

Secondly, each episode of Dynasties has a pointed environmental message, missing from many earlier David Attenborough-narrated nature programs, in which we learn that many of the threats facing the wild kingdom today are the result of our own actions, whether it’s contributing to climate change through our voracious consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources or, more directly, as in this weekend’s opening episode, Lion, pastoral herders in Kenya poison a pride of lions to stop the lions from preying on their cattle, a critical source of income in many impoverished local communities.

Camera crews, field biologists and anthropologists followed each family group — lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves (African wild dogs) in Zimbabwe and penguins in Antarctica, over a period of four years, and witnessed some remarkable, never-seen-before behaviour over that time. It is the first time so many different, disparate variety of animals have been followed so closely over such a long period of time in their own environment, and that alone sets Dynasties apart from the other Attenborough programs.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

It also means, inevitably, that countless hours of film footage didn’t make it into the final broadcast version. The filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes stories are compelling in their own right, and that’s one reason I’ve decided to share some of them here, each week, before that week’s episode airs.

That means starting with Simon Blakeney, self-described dad and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, who followed a pride of lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as part of the team that put together this weekend’s opener. (“Spent the last few years working on Dynasties with an amazing group of Lions,” Blakeney tweeted at @simon_blakeney. “All opinions my own!”)

Blakeney penned a handful of short essays about filming Lion, for BBC One’s main website when the series first aired, including a trenchant analysis of the perils facing Africa’s remaining wild lions today. (Little-known fact: Just 2,000 wild lions remain in Kenya, the land that made Born Free famous, but more sobering than that is the knowledge that Kenya, and the Maasai Mara, the northern extension of the world-renowned Serengeti ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining strongholds for wild lions left in the world. Period. End of story.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Naturally, Blakeney hopes the lions’ story doesn’t end there, and Dynasties is designed in part to shed further light on the lion’s plight, to an audience that might not otherwise realize just how perilous the situation is — as well as showing directly, day-by-day, how tough a lion’s life is, even at the best of times. One of Dynasties’ great strengths, as television and as mass  communication, is that it’s unflinching and uncompromising in its view. When a pack of two dozen hyenas decide to annihilate a young, inexperienced lion who’s wandered too far away from the safety of his pridemates, or an otherwise tough, self-confident lioness is forced to abandon her ailing, sickly cub, to move on with that same pride, Blakeney and his team of fellow filmmakers were there to record every moment — and a lot of that ends up on the screen, whether it’s painful to watch or not.

Some of the most memorable footage he got didn’t make it into the final cut, Blakeney admits. That’s just  one of the harsh realities of documentary filmmaking. An hour might sound like a long time — actually, each episode clocks in at just 48 minutes, give or take — but in a format where every second counts, four years of filming inevitably means a lot of compelling footage won’t see the light of day.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Decisions about what to leave in and take out invariably come down to subjective opinion and the vision to see a project through to its end, in a way that is coherent, disciplined, tightly focused and communicates something vital and important to the audience.

A personal favourite of Blakeney’s, in which lions exercise a peculiar habit of hunting wart hogs during those times of the year when their regular food source, the annual wildebeest migration, moves on to greener pastures — which is about six months of the year. (Lions are territorial, unlike some predators which simply follow the wildebeest across national borders from Kenya into Tanzania and back again, depending on the rains; lions stay where they are. Also, there are other lions, in other prides, with territories of their own, who will fight any intruder, great or small, to the death — literally — to protect their own.)©BBC/Natural History Unit

“The warthogs live out on the savannah and they’re very quick,” Blakeney posted on the BBC site. “They would outrun lions in a straight race. If they’re being chased, the warthogs will often bolt off into one of their many burrows, usually old aardvark burrows or similar. . . . This could involve a lot of digging. The cubs in particular weren’t very good at digging because they were smaller and not as strong as the adults. The warthogs would get pretty disgruntled and they’d scoop up big facefuls of mud with their snouts, and then chuck them at the lions as they were trying to dig them out.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

For all the hardship and tough times Dynasties’ lions went through, Blakeney had some fond memories, too. The filmmakers found themselves getting close, sometimes uncomfortably close, to their subjects, even thought they consciously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, for ethical reasons as well as reasons artistic. (It never ends well for a wild lion who becomes habituated to human contact, intentional or otherwise.)

“On another occasion, about nine months in, one of the adolescent males walked round the back of the Land Rover I was sitting in,” Blakeney recalled, “and just appeared right beside me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reached out and stroked his mane as he walked past. I was on the radio at the time, which had quite limited range, so I was sitting right at the edge of the seat and hadn’t seen him coming. I jumped out of my skin when he suddenly emerged on the open side of the car. It’s easy to forget how big they are until you are up that close.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

The picture facing Africa’s wild lions is concerning. The IUCN Red List of threatened species officially lists lions as “vulnerable,” which is to say their future is far from assured.

Small-scale conservation groups, such as the locally-organized Ewaso Lions group in Kenya’s northern, semi-arid Samburu district, are doing what they can to lessen human-wildlife conflict, but the issue is complex and the problems are many.

Dynasties, in its own small way, hopes to spread the message to as many ordinary, everyday people — people who will probably never be able to see a wild lion in their lifetimes — as possible. If for no other reason, that makes Lion worth watching.


Reasons to revisit Jane Goodall’s ‘Reason for Hope’ on International Book Lovers Day.

The Jane Goodall Institute shared a tweet early this morning, on Book Lovers Day, asking followers to name their favourite Goodall book.

The colouring book Me . . . Jane, an early primer for her students’ Roots and Shoots program, was always going to prove popular with children. 

In the troubled times in which we find ourselves, though, it was always likely to be her 1999 memoir Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey that was going to jump to the fore. Not so much a straight biography as an account of a spiritual epiphany, Reason for Hope is both an appeal to our better natures and shared words of advice about how anyone and everyone can find a reason to hope.

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 8.31.16 AM.png

The ground-breaking — if controversial — primatologist whose pioneering work with the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream, Tanzania in the early 1960s changed the way we look at our closest biological relatives has always been one to swim against the tide of mainstream thinking. Where many choose to see only darkness and destruction, Goodall has always preferred to find that glimmer of light at the end of a long, seemingly dark tunnel, however faint that light may be.

In Reason for Hope — a good book to revisit on International Book Lovers Day — and through her Institute (janegoodall.org), and throughout her periodic lecture tours around the world, she hits the same grace  notes, over and over again.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll figure them out on our own.

Goodall’s words:

The Human Brain.

“We have at last begun to understand and face up to the problems that threaten us and the survival of life on Earth as we know it. Surely we can use our problem-solving abilities, our brains, to find ways to live in harmony with nature. Many companies have begun ‘greening’ their operations, and millions of people worldwide are beginning to realize that each of us has a responsibility to the environment and our descendants. Everywhere I go, I see people making wiser choices, and more responsible ones." 



The Indomitable Human Spirit.

"My second reason for hope lies in the indomitable nature of the human spirit. There are so many people who have dreamed seemingly unattainable dreams and, because they never gave up, achieved their goals against all the odds, or blazed a path along which others could follow. The [2016] presidential election in the U.S. (was) one example. As I travel around the world I meet so many incredible and amazing human beings. They inspire me. They inspire those around them." 


The Resilience of Nature.

"My third reason for hope is the incredible resilience of nature. I have visited Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb that ended World War II. Scientists had predicted that nothing could grow there for at least 30 years. But, amazingly, greenery grew very quickly. One sapling actually managed to survive the bombing, and today it is a large tree, with great cracks and fissures, all black inside; but that tree still produces leaves. I carry one of those leaves with me as a powerful symbol of hope. I have seen such renewals time and again, including animal species brought back from the brink of extinction." 


The Determination of Today’s Young People.

"My final reason for hope lies in the tremendous energy, enthusiasm and commitment of young people around the world. As they find out about the environmental and social problems that are now part of their heritage, they want to right the wrongs. Of course they do -- they have a vested interest in this, for it will be their world tomorrow. They will be moving into leadership positions, into the workforce, becoming parents themselves. Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world. We should never underestimate the power of determined young people.

"I meet many young people with shining eyes who want to tell Dr. Jane what they've been doing, how they are making a difference in their communities. Whether it's something simple like recycling or collecting trash, something that requires a lot of effort, like restoring a wetland or a prairie, or whether it's raising money for the local dog shelter, they are a continual source of inspiration. 

“My greatest reason for hope is the spirit and determination of young people, once they know what the problems are and have the tools to take action. 

"So let’s move forward in this new millennium with hope, for without it all we can do is eat and drink the last of our resources as we watch our planet slowly die. Let’s have faith in ourselves, in our intellect, in our staunch spirit and in our young people. And let’s do the work that needs to be done, with love and compassion." 

©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

Goodall’s published works span six decades, from My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees (1969) through In the Shadow of Man (1971) to, more recently, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink (2009) and Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants (2013).

Her books have been published in 48 languages,.

It’s Reason for Hope, though, which is most pertinent today, on Book Lovers Day, in the second year of Our Lord, Trumplandia.

“Each one of us matters,” Goodall wrote in Reason for Hope. “(Each one of us) has a role to play, and makes a difference. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own lives, and above all, show respect and love for living things around us. . . . 

“It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behaviour.

“We have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behaviour of our own human species. . . . Environmental responsibility – for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is up to us to put things right.” 

How satellite technology is helping save the chimpanzee.

Fewer than 350,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild, down sharply from the two million believed to have roamed the rainforests of central Africa only a century ago.

These are estimates only, of course, but one doesn’t need a degree in earth science — or statistics — to know that habitat loss, illegal logging and the bushmeat trade are a continuing threat to one of humankind’s closest genetic relatives.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

What is less known — until now — is that a recent, unique collaboration between the Jane Goodall Institute and NASA is boosting knowledge of what’s happening and, more importantly, how and where it’s happening.

Behavioural scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other groups have being doing a credible job of tracking known family groups of chimpanzees, ever since Jane Goodall made her first visit to Tanzania’s Gombe region in 1960. Conservationists have mapped both chimpanzees’ territories — a family group’s immediate neighbhourhood — and their home ranges, the area chimpanzees roam outside their territories in their search for food, potential mates and other family groups.

In orbit, meanwhile, NASA has recorded the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute changes to the earth’s surface for the past 44 years. Some of the most technologically advanced satellites have been placed in orbit in just the past two years.

Until recently, conservation groups and NASA worked at cross purproses. Information was gathered, but not shared. Thanks to the Goodall Institute, a new program of cooperation now makes it possible for primate researchers to monitor the environmental effects of habitat loss on individual family groups on a day-by-day basis.

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

This is important to chimpanzees’ future survival in the wild because behavioural scientists can now predict with a degree of certainty which family groups will be affected by proposed development projects, and how. The shared information can also be used as evidence in court cases brought against illegal loggers and rogue mining operations.

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

The bad news is that habitat loss is visible from space. The good news is that, by knowing how, when and where and environmental destruction is taking place, law-enforcement agencies and regulators now have real, tangible information on which to act.

The Landsat series of satellites, a joint mission of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has been providing a continuous record of earth’s land use for more than four decades now. Images taken from orbit have been made available cost-free to the public: the Landsat program is a truly democratic, people-driven program.

“NASA satellite data helps us understand what it means to be a chimp by overlaying distribution of the habitat with chimpanzee behaviuor and ranging data," Lilian Pintea, vice-president of conservation science for the Goodall Institute, said in a statement for the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

Chimpanzees once lived in an uninterrupted belt of woodland rain forests from Lake Tanganyika westward through Uganda and the Congo Basin.

In the 1970s, little more than a decade after Goodall first arrived in the region, the forest started to be cut down.

Increased population growth, driven in part by rural poverty, has exacerbated forest clearing for farmland and charcoal production.

The Goodall Institute is using the Landsat images to convince villagers in the area that conservation is in their best interests.

Goodall, now in her 80s, is still active with her namesake institute, though her primary role is now focused on education, fundraising and lecture tours around the world. She still tries to return to Gombe once a year, though. She’s noticed a direct effect the Landsat program has had on local opinion.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

“It was exciting to see the impact of these images on the villagers,” Goodall said in a statement for the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

Villagers could identify landmarks and sacred places in the satellite imagery, she added.

“It was like a piece of reality dropped magically from the sky.”

If the chimpanzee is to be saved in the wild, it will require concerted efforts on the ground, not just from space.

For now, though, the satellite images are proving to be a game changer for improving local conservation efforts.