SAVING WILDLIFE - PART ONE - PUMA
Having been passionate about wildlife since childhood, it seemed natural to want to help it flourish, so once I'd achieved my goal of becoming a wildlife film-maker, it was a no brainer to try to benefit the animals I was lucky enough to make films about for broadcasters around the world.
Three programmes stand out as examples of how television can directly help wildlife, the local people and their rural economies. One on Snow Leopards in the Himalayas was a success, a film about Newfoundland's fishing industry very moving and one about Pumas in the Andes Mountains of Patagonia a life saver for those big cats.
Yes, I know the common attitude is that ‘it’s only television and all the programmes are rubbish’ but no-one can deny that the many BBC films with David Attenborough are wonderful and have not only entertained but educated us about wildlife around the world and the increasing challenges that so many species now face. Global warming is a threat to us all and Sir David is making us increasingly aware that we need to act and we need to act now.
I’ve been privileged to contribute to several of David’s films and though the three examples I’ll tell you about were my own productions and less 'important', they did directly benefit the local wildlife in ways that make me proud.
“PUMA - LION OF THE ANDES”
Heading into the mountains in Southern Chile in 1993 to try to make a film about pumas for National Geographic TV and the BBC was a daunting task, not only because they had never been filmed before but because they were persecuted relentlessly by the local gauchos for killing sheep.
These big cats are notoriously shy everywhere, so much so that the world’s leading authority on them, who goes by the wonderful name of Maurice Hornocker only saw them four times during his eight years of study in North America. Up in the Rockies they are called cougars or mountain lions and in South America by the native name puma, meaning ‘strong and powerful'.
I was camping out in the glorious wilds of the Torres del Paine National Park but despite the protection this Unesco site provided for wildlife, the gauchos would come into the park and kill the pumas to protect their sheep, then claim the bounties from their estancia owners.
My sole companion and assistant Donaldo McIver, himself a gaucho from Argentina, found the early stages of our two year quest really difficult, for the big cats would flee at the mere hint of a human presence. Finding out where the cats might be and how to creep around without being seen was a steep learning curve and after our first few weeks we had only a few sightings and hardly any worthwhile film.
Failure wasn’t an option, so I decided to try to concentrate on one particular young female we'd located. She seemed slightly less scared than all the others and playing on the theory that ‘curiosity killed the cat’, I started a game of cat and mouse to try to habituate her to my presence … and no prizes for guessing who was playing the mouse. Progress was slow but after about four months she allowed me to walk in the mountains with her, even sleeping just a few metres away from my camera. Being trusted by a big cat that is normally terrified of humans is as good as life gets for a wildlife film-maker.
Sadly, her life hung by a thread, for one day two of the local gauchos illegally entered the National Park on horseback. They were armed with rifles and fifteen assorted dogs to hunt and kill pumas and judging by the blood and spent cartridge cases in several caves, they were successful. Our cat we called Penny disappeared and we sat on a mountain side fearing the worst, tearfully accepting that if she was dead, our dream of success was over.
The park authorities called the police, including a firearm specialist from Santiago to analyse the spent cartridge cases but no gaucho would be fool enough to leave out the gun that killed the pumas, so there was no prosecution.
Luckily, Penny had survived the onslaught and after our two weeks of desperate searching, she reappeared in her regular haunts and though more nervous, we were once again in business. Fearing that our film was threatened, Donny and I decided to bribe the leading gaucho in the hope he would leave our precious cat alive until the film was finished. So armed with armfuls of pesos, my assistant Donny’s experience as a gaucho and speaking their language, he was able to negotiate a stay of execution and Penny was left alive. So, to cut a long story short, after 250 days out in the wilds with my cat, spread over two and a half years, the film was completed and went on to win numerous awards.However, the real success achieved by this film was the way it attracted the attention of broadcasters from around the world and many film crews followed my tracks to make films about the cats. Torres del Paine became a mecca for photographers and wildlife film-makers and this publicity of the park’s wildlife and beauty has attracted thousands of tourists and their dollars.
This sounds like bad news for shy cats but as the money flowed in to the rural economy, the estancia owners realised that pumas were worth a lot more than sheep so stopped shooting the cats and set up lodging for wildlife tourists instead. The dollars flowed in, the number of pumas increased and they slowly became more habituated to humans which allowed great film and pictures to be taken.
I'm told by friends who visit the park regularly that the pumas have thrived ever since and everyone is happy, though I’m not so sure that guanacos, their main prey will share my enthusiasm.
However, they too have benefited from the more relaxed estancia owners and all the parks wildlife has increased too, so this is good example of how a ‘mere’ television film can directly save wildlife.
Snow Leopards in the Himalayas and the benefits our film and BBC ones made for these charasmatic cats and the local economy will follow when I've finished preparing our marsh for the imminent spawning of our frogs.
The pics of our Penny the Puma are by my friend and ace photographer Laurie Campbell who joined Donaldo and I for a couple of weeks and who owns the copyright. Thank you Laurie.