The Waorani live in harmony with the rain forest in Ecuador even as oil companies destroy it. But while the tribesmen exist in isolated family groups, new evidence suggests their predecessors built thriving cities – some as large as 60,000 people— without disrupting the Amazon’s fragile balance.
These native South Americans are among the many people and places profiled in “Earth: A New Wild,” a miniseries premiering Wednesday on PBS. Created by conservation scientist M. Sanjayan, the documentary shows how people across the world are learning to improve the land and protect wildlife where they live. In each episode’s opening, Sanjayan says, “The wilds of planet Earth are spectacular, yet one species is always framed out of the picture… us.”
Few wilderness areas are truly untouched, and by putting humans back in the picture, Sanjayan, who has doctorate in biology from UC Santa Cruz, points the way toward a more sustainable future. Yet much of his inspiration comes from the past.
In the case of the ancient civilization in Ecuador, the natives made the forest soil more fertile by burning household waste in pits. And when the Maasai introduced herding animals to the Serengeti thousands of years ago, they enabled grass to thrive on the plains.
“Certain grasslands work better when you have stomping hooves and chomping mouths,” Sanjayan explains. “Grass is a very unusual plant; it has to have disturbance, otherwise it will get dried up or colonized by trees.”
Montana cattle ranchers have taken this to heart, and the Great Plains are making a comeback because cowboys there have learned to make their herds move as if predators are harassing them – resulting in restored habitats of birds such as the curlew and the sage grouse.
The Maasai, whom Sanjayan describes as “the oldest cowboys on Earth,” use modern technology to safely coexist with lions once regarded as deadly foes. Now under Maasai protection, the endangered big cats are making a comeback.
Addressing charges that his fun show resembles ratings-hungry commercial TV programming, Sanjayan jokes that sometimes he inevitably finds himself surrounded by baby pandas.
“The No. 1 rule is you’ve got to make something people want to watch. One of the great challenges of environmental filmmaking is we’ve forgotten that,” he says.
Could his good news lull viewers into believing current environmental efforts are enough? Sanjayan acknowledges the danger, but hopes his series inspires people to have healthier relationships with their natural surroundings.
“I don’t know any pessimist who’s changed the world,” he says.
IF YOU WATCH
Earth: A New Wild
When: 9 p.m. Feb. 4
Where: KQED Channel 9