Of all the hours that went into making Planet Earth II, it is the final episode “Cities” — which makes its North American debut this weekend on BBC America — which drew the most attention when it aired in the UK last December, and small wonder.
The finale is not just a summing-up of all that has come before. It takes on the thorny issue of where the planet goes from here, as wild animals evolve and adapt — with varying degrees of success — to the world’s sprawling and ever-growing urban areas.
No spoilers here. One of the special joys in watching Planet Earth is being surprised by those unexpected moments that evoke awe, majesty and, in many cases, an almost childlike sense of wonder. Nature is full of mysteries, after all. For every answer, new questions are almost certain to emerge.
The issue of how wildlife can adapt to big cities has been tackled before, most notably in National Geographic’s 2015 documentary program Urban Jungle. This is the first time the Planet Earth team have tackled it head-on, though, after almost 20 hours of often breath-taking filmmaking.
That’s worth noting because if Sir David Attenborough and his team of filmmakers have faced one criticism over the years, it’s that, for all Planet Earth’s celebration of nature at its most pure and pristine, it has pointedly avoided the ways in which human beings have affected what remains of the natural world, whether through climate change or unchecked population growth and our increasingly unsustainable lifestyles.
Evolution is not so much about survival of the fittest as it is about adaptability to ever-changing surroundings, so a close-up look at how wild animals find new ways to survive when living in close proximity to large numbers of people is ideally suited to a program with the ambition and scope of Planet Earth, and a fitting way to end the series.
Veteran National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, who followed leopards hunting by night in the centre of Mumbai and who has just concluded a multi-year photographic survey of wild jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal region (a National Geographic magazine feature and feature-length nature documentary are in the works), shared his experience of photographing leopards — an unpredictable and potentially deadly predator — withjournalists from the Television Critics Association at a gathering in Beverly Hills, Calif. several years ago, while promoting Urban Jungle.
Coincidentally, one of Winter’s most famous photographs — of a wild mountain lion, dubbed “P22” by local biologists, living in the Hollywood Hills, the giant “Hollywood” sign lit up in the background — was taken at night using a trap camera, just a short drive from the very Beverly Hills hotel where Winter was meeting journalists.
“The leopards in Mumbai are absolutely incredible,” Winter recalled. “They come out when it gets dark. People live right on the edge of the park. I was there, and saw it with my own eyes. People would do their walking, exercising, walk their dogs like we do in parks, and, boom, the sun goes down, and the habitat changes. It's then the leopards' area, and they co-exist without really any major problems.
“The ecosystem changes once the sun goes down. People came up to us, wanted to know, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told them and showed them some of the footage and images we were getting. They had lived there for ten years and didn’t even know the leopards were there, as close as from me to you, and yet have zero problems with them. A guy got up in the middle of the night one night, looked out his windows, and for the first time in ten years, he sees this leopard on a bridge. They are happy about it, too.They want to live with these animals because they don’t find that there’s any conflict.”
There are more mountain lions in the coastal Los Angeles area than people might suppose, Winter added. “There’s a healthy population of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Recreational Area, between, like, Sunset and a little further north. There are probably 15 or 20 cats in all.”
Mountain lions are just as secretive around people as leopards. P22 is native to Griffith Park, site of the famous Griffith Observatory.
“In all the months I spent in Griffith Park, I never met anybody who saw the mountain lion,” Winter said. “I never saw the mountain lion there. They don’t want to be seen, and they have plenty to eat there. So they’re comfortable.”
Wild animals getting along with people pre-supposes there aren’t any idiots — of the human kind — who will mess things up, Winter admitted.
“The mountain lion doesn’t want to be seen. That’s the bottom line. The leopard is the most adaptable cat in the world, as far as I’m concerned. They are secretive, and they don’t want any interaction. But as far as the idiot part goes, that’s, well . . . who knows?”