The giraffe and the poacher and me: why wildlife documentaries are putting people in the frame

Natural history documentaries have traditionally avoided knotty conservation issues. But they are changing.

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Stunning scenes of African wildlife and the lilting tones of David Attenborough – at first glance, this new BBC documentary sounds like predictably soothing sofa fare. Even the title is calming: Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants.

Yet this is no traditional, natural-world escapism. Instead, behind its story of an effort to conserve an endangered species, lies one of the world's most unsettling and overlooked conflicts.

The film’s central action takes place in Uganda, where a dozen park-rangers are tasked with wrestling a herd of giraffes to the ground, before roping them onto a rickety trailer, and shipping them down the Nile to a new home. Over a tonne of giraffe flailing within inches of human bodies makes for a nail-biting spectacle, but it is not the most troubling episode of the film – that scene takes place off-camera and is an all too human affair.

The grim sequence opens with the news that the film crew won’t be able to accompany that day’s search for giraffe, as the helicopter is out of spare seats. When the chopper makes an unexpectedly swift return, however, the conservation team, visibly shaken, can’t clamber out fast enough: “We basically flew over some guys with a bunch of cattle in the park, we saw two rifles point up and then we heard bang – we all thought the chopper had been hit”, says the team leader, “it’s just a bloody warzone out there; this is frickin crazy”.

It is believed that the shots were fired by a gang of AK-47 wielding poachers. Groups such as this are increasingly funded by international, criminal organisations and driven by China’s growing demand for rare animal parts. To date they are thought to be responsible not just for the continued decimation of the continent’s wildlife, but also for contributing to the deaths of over 1,000 local rangers. Within a year of this event, “a helicopter was shot down and the pilot killed by poachers in Tanzania”, Attenborough tells us.

Natural history documentaries have traditionally avoided such knotty issues. In fact they’ve often worked hard to preserve a romantic notion of wilderness by keeping troublesome farmers, tourists or conservationists firmly away from the lens. If humans do feature, it has largely been to provide commentary upon natural behaviour, or as adventurers ready to test themselves against a bigger, stronger or wetter animal “other”.

For director Tom Mustill, such narrow thinking made pitching conservation stories incredibly tough: “The thinking was that these boring environment tales would depress and lecture the audience and they'd turn off. This was very frustrating because dramatic and inspiring things were happening and we couldn't film them.”

Yet thankfully the story we tell about nature is changing, as BBC commissioner Roger Webb tells me: “There will always be an appetite for pure natural history shows, such as Planet Earth and Life Story,” he explains, but “having local voices telling us about their country is something that the Natural World strand is always looking to do more of. It’s the most authentic perspective you can get”.

The shift is also gaining momentum from new media: photos taken by Massai Kenyans can reach facebook audiences in seconds, while ambitious new players like Netflix have been able to plough money into traditionally risky subjects – trusting that their audiences will stick out the subtitles.

The result is more and more wildlife films that put people in the frame; Blackfish, Virunga, and Fish Fight, have all garnered huge audiences and multiple awards. And the trend looks set to continue, with the upcoming release of Impact, a new environmental series from Discovery, and the BBC’s My Congo.

According to WWF campaigns director, Colin Butfield, the development couldn’t be more welcome. The world’s demand for food, timber and exotic animals still undermines efforts to clamp down on illegal trade: “We’ve set targets for the international players but in many cases there just hasn’t been enough progress towards them; we’re no-where near responding at the level we ultimately need to.”

The speed with which such films about conservation are becoming mainstream, however, is giving many new hope. “Anything big, international and complex is going to take time, but I’m encouraged by the public’s growing understanding of how these issues involve us all”, says Butfield. “When this grows, suddenly governments and companies can find themselves capable of acting in a more responsible way.”

Giraffes, Africa's Gentle Giants airs at 8pm on Thursday on BBC2, or on iPlayer.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.