Polar Bears – Edge of Existence

Last Wednsday I watched the 2 hour special documentary “Polar Bears – Edge of Existence”. The program was produced by Animal Planet and wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan. I was very excited about the program. Ever since Cathy and I spent 5 days photographing the polar bears in Churchill we have had a great interest in these massive carnivores of the north. In recent years Gordon Buchanan has become a bit of a celebrity filmmaker due to his daring exploits while filming dangerous animals close up.  One website referred to him as the Indiana Jones of wildlife filmmakers.

Buchanan’s stated intent was to integrate himself with a female polar bear and cubs and follow them for a year to learn more about the ways of the polar bear and about their struggles for survival. There is no question that Animal Planet spared little expense in funding this documentary. A ship and crew made several visits to Svalbard off the coast of Norway over the course of a year.

Checking Us Out

Okay, sometimes they get curious! ©2008 Mark Pemberton

One of the things that I have been taught over the years by wildlife photographers and naturalists is to keep your distance from the animal you are observing. The more invisible you are, the more likely you will capture authentic behaviors. One of the things that bothered me about “Edge of Existence” is that Buchanan appeared to intentionally provoke the polar bears at times. This was never more true than when they brought out the “ice cube”. The cube was a massive polycarbonate and steel enclosure that contained Buchanan. It’s only purpose was to lure a polar bear close up and film him as he attempted to extract the tasty morsel inside. Try as I might, I could not think of a valid scientific reason for using the “Cube”. And it certainly had nothing to do with integrating himself with Lyra and her cubs Miki and Luca. To see for yourself the encounter between Buchanan and the polar bear check out this YouTube video.

There is no question that polar bears are fascinating creatures and that Gordon Buchanan is an excellent filmmaker. The first time that we see Miki pop her head up out of the den is a real “aww” moment. The photography is good but we see very little polar bear behavior. And there seemed to be an excess of close up shots of Buchanan peering through the viewfinder of his camera offering up pithy comments in his Scottish brogue such as “Look at that one, aww, very, very cute”, “That is wonderful”, “Gosh” or “Incredible”. The film seemed to be as much about him as it was about polar bears.

At the current time there are no scheduled re-showings of “Edge” on Animal Planet. If you are interested in polar bears I highly encourage you to visit Polar Bears International at http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/. They have tons of detailed information available on their website.


Waiting ©2008 Mark Pemberton

Do Fences Really Make for Good Neighbors?

It is interesting that yesterday I was writing about the inventiveness of  a young Kenyan boy, and how his flashing light invention kept lions away from his families fenced in herd of cattle. Today I read a report published in the New York Times by James Gorman of a study by Dr. Craig Packer and 57 colleagues that concluded the best way to save the lions is to fence them in.

Joao Silva/The New York Times

There is no question that the lion population in Africa has taken quite a big hit. According to Dr. Packer lions in Africa have lost 75 percent of their range in the last 100 years, problems between people and lions have increased, and some populations suffer from genetic isolation. Panthera, a conservationist organization devoted to big cats, estimates that there are 30,000 lions in Africa today, down from 200,000 lions 100 years ago.

After 35 years of field research in the Serengeti plains, Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, has lost all patience with the romance of African wilderness. Fences, he says, are the only way to stop the precipitous and continuing decline in the number of African lions.

“Reality has to intrude,” he said. “Do you want to know the two most hated species in Africa, by a mile? Elephants and lions.” They destroy crops and livestock, he said, and sometimes, in the case of lions, actually eat people.

Dr. Packer’s goal is to save lions. Fencing them in, away from people and livestock, is the best way to do that, he believes, both for conservation and economics. He made that argument in a paper this month in Ecology Letters, along with 57 co-authors, including most of the top lion scientists and conservationists.

To be sure, not eveyone agrees with Dr. Packer that fencing is the best solution. it seems sad that things may come to this. Perhaps we need to get Richard Turere, the 13 year old Kenyan boy that I wrote about yesterday, involved and see If he can come up with a better solution.

The complete NY Times article can be found here.

One World Project

Welcome to our new blog. For some time now Cathy and I have been changing the focus of our photography. Our trips around the world have made us more aware of the changes that are happening to our planet. It is disappointing that everywhere we go we can see the negative consequences to our environment, wildlife and habitats brought about by man. However, we are still inspired about the great beauty that we see everyday and hopeful that things can improve. As a result, we have created what we call our “One World Project” whereby we will use our photography as a medium to document the inter-related nature of climate change, loss of habitat, poaching, etc. We have just One World, and we are the stewards of it.

There are many sources of information about doom and gloom scenarios of environmental destruction. Unfortunately, the consequence of such unrelenting bad news is that people become discouraged and “tune it out”. The subtitle of our One World Project is to “Inform and Inspire”. We hope to Inform by bringing the news from the environmental front in an easy to understand manner. But we also hope to Inspire people to see the beauty and magnificence that exists and to contribute to the causes of conservation and preservation.

Lion eating cape buffalo kill

Two lions devouring the carcass of a Cape Buffalo on the Masai Mara.

I would like to initiate this blog with a wonderful story that made the news a month ago. It is the story of a 13 year old Maasai boy, Richard Turere,  from Kenya. Despite his young age, Richard had the job of protecting his family’s herd of cattle. However, the many prides of lions in the area inevitably killed many of his herd. Richard hated lions as a result. In situations like this, many cattle owners will kill lions that they come across to protect their herd. In some cases entire prides have been killed or poisoned. It is a classic example of man’s encroachment into the territory of wild animals and the wild animal suffering the consequences of this loss of habitat.

Richard, however, was a smart young fellow. One evening when he was patrolling the area with a flashlight “I discovered that the lions were scared of the moving light.” This got him thinking and over the course of a few weeks he rigged up a series of flashing LEDs onto the poles of the cattle enclosure. The lights were connected to a switch box, car battery and a solar panel and were designed to flicker on and off in a way that simulated a person walking with a flashlight.

And it worked. Since Richard rigged up his “Lion Lights,” his family has not lost any livestock to the wild beasts. It is a small victory but an important one. Today there are about 2000 lions in Kenya, down from 15,000 only 10 years ago. We need many more people like Richard Turere to help preserve our wildlife.

To read the entire article about Richard’s invention click here.

Personal Experience

During our visit to Kenya in January of 2012 Cathy and I had a chance to briefly visit with the Maasai and learn a bit about their way of life. The village that we visited was filled with wonderful, open people. They raised primarily goats and some cattle. They were clearly good stewards of the land but had to worry about the constant presence of predators.

The following are a few of the photos that we took during our visit with the Maasai.

Maasai Village

Maasai woman with child and the family’s prized livestock.

Maasai Village

Cathy demonstrates the wonder of digital photography to Maasai children.