Environmental films that turn the lens on wildlife beyond national parks

  • Manta rays in the Indian Ocean, wolves and other wildlife from Pune’s grassland, and muggers in Goa’s estuaries were the subjects of three diverse environmental films released in 2020.
  • Collectively, the films address conservation issues, habitat threats, wildlife trafficking, and human-wildlife interactions beyond the boundaries of protected areas.
  • There’s wildlife closer to us than we often perceive. Environmental films can raise awareness and act as a catalyst for on-ground change.
  • The three films were part of the All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF) that ran online between December 5 and 20, 2020.

A wolf standing at the edge of a grassy hill gazes at a mosaic of buildings and farms on the sprawling Pune city’s outskirts. This visual is the last frame of the 32-minute film, Treasures of Grasslands, which documents the unprotected Saswad grasslands and their creatures in Maharashtra.

It’s probably difficult to imagine wolves in the vicinity of one of the country’s largest cities. For the documentary makers, the aim was to capture the public’s imagination and convey that wildlife exists much closer to us than we perceive. Milind Raut, who produced and shot for the documentary, said, “We are blessed with this habitat just 30-40 km from the city. We wanted to raise awareness about its biodiversity.”

After a chance sighting of the Indian wolf in Saswad in 2009, Raut, a business developer by profession, and fellow nature enthusiasts outside the field of filmmaking visited the landscape for about a decade to document it over the seasons. The film, a result of their weekend trips, showcases the vast grasslands morphing from brown to green across seasons, teeming with resident or migratory wildlife year-round. Several lesser-known wildlife, such as striped hyena, Bengal fox, chinkara, fan-throated lizard, Montagu’s harriers, and sand grouse are the film’s stars.

Indian wolves in Pune's unprotected Saswad grasslands. Still from the environmental film 'Treasures of Grasslands.'
Indian wolves in Pune’s unprotected Saswad grasslands. Still from the documentary ‘Treasures of Grasslands.’

Grasslands, which don’t look like forests, are a neglected habitat and are often classified as ‘wastelands’ in India. The categorisation makes them vulnerable to changes brought on by industrialisation, construction, irrigation, plantations, and so on. The Saswad grasslands bear ever-increasing signs of these activities.

In Maharashtra, over 15 percent of the state’s land area of scrub, grassland, and grazing land is categorised as “wasteland,” and only one percent of the area is under protection. But it has been observed that a large portion of these semi-arid unprotected landscapes – areas outside national parks and sanctuaries – in western Maharashtra house carnivores such as wolves, hyenas, leopards that share space with humans. The Saswad grasslands, too, as the film depicts, is a habitat critical for wildlife and the pastoral Dhangar community.

The documentary was one of 33 films shown at the All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF) that ran online between December 5 and 20, 2020. The films from 16 countries included topics such as natural history, human-wildlife interactions, natural resources, social-environmental issues.

Read more: Wild canids and striped hyenas can conserve a diversity of habitats in India, says study

A film’s attempt to protect a large marine species

Another film on the list, Peng Yu Sai, traced the illegal trade in dried manta ray gill plates from India to China. The gill plates are used in traditional Chinese medicine without known scientific evidence and are a valued commodity in Asian dried‐seafood markets. The investigative documentary addresses the conservation issue of this enigmatic marine species.

To put into perspective, the filmmakers document around 200 kilograms of confiscated gill plates at the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur, which would have been obtained from about 50-100 individual animals.

Globally, all species of manta rays are listed under Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which includes species that need control and monitoring of international trade for their survival. But in India, the family Mobulidae that includes manta and mobula rays are not protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and are caught without regulation. While the meat is sold cheap in local markets, the gill plates are trafficked in the international market at a high price.

The film pushes for the protection of manta and mobula rays under Indian law and to create awareness of the transnational trade pipeline. Nitye Sood, the film’s director, and cinematographer told Mongabay-India, “Our aim for the film right from the start was to get the animal listed under the Wildlife Protection Act.”

Presenter and director, Malaika Vaz swims with manta rays. Still from the investigative documentary, ‘Peng Yu Sai.’

The idea for the film struck when its presenter and director, Malaika Vaz, was shown ‘flat sharks’ at a coastal village in Andhra Pradesh. On further investigation, Vaz and Sood uncovered the trade pipeline from India’s oceans to trucks on the Indo-Myanmar border to the markets and bowls in Hong Kong and Guangzhou in China.

Mobulid fisheries are concentrated in the Indian Ocean. India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka accounted for 90 percent of the world’s manta catch, mostly caught for gill plates. Targeted and bycatch fishing of the species, coupled with the fact that manta rays bear an average of only one pup in two-three years, the numbers have crashed across the world.

But very little is known about these marine animals that glide the open seas and do not remain within the boundaries of marine protected areas.

The filmmakers partnered with WildAid and Wildlife Trust of India to create baseline data on the number of manta rays being caught across landing sites in all coastal states as well as the Andaman and Lakshadweep islands. “We often come to know what’s in our country’s muddy and choppy waters based on what is caught in the nets,” said Sood. Their next step is to create a policy recommendation and submit it to the relevant government institutions.

Shores of Silence inspired us,” added Sood. The Green Oscar-winning documentary from 2000 displayed the first-ever visuals of whale sharks being slaughtered on western India’s shores. The film proved to be a catalyst and moved the government to bring the world’s largest fish under India’s Wildlife Protection Act.

Rita Banerji, leading environmental filmmaker, assistant director, and camera person for the film, said, “Nowadays, young filmmakers are not just leaving their film at the screening level, but really working towards using it for policy change, for protection of the species or habitats or giving voice to the communities.”

Peng Yu Sai won awards at national and international film festivals and is scheduled to be screened at other film festivals. The film will be released globally in 2021. Milind and his team have shown Treasures of Grasslands at various festivals and corporates too. They now plan to translate it to Marathi and show it in the neighbouring villages that share space with the animals in Saswad.

A film and a prayer for the crocodiles of Goa

A far cry from the vast grasslands and oceans are Goa’s narrow estuaries, that form the backdrop of Mannge Thapnee, an 11-minute film shown at ALT EFF.

Olivia D’Cruz, filmmaker and animator, explained that Mannge, the Konkani word for crocodile, thapnee, which means ‘to build,’ is a festival celebrated by some members of the fishing and agricultural communities during the first new moon every year.

Sculptures of the crocodile are built with mangrove silt and worshipped on the estuary bank to mark the commencement of the paddy harvesting season and seek protection from the reptile during livelihood activities.

D’Cruz was aware of freshwater crocodiles or muggers in Goa’s rivers, creeks, and estuaries, but heard about the culture associated with it when she started working on her self-funded graduation film. She saw the tradition as an ecological practice since it involves the coming together of a community and a vulnerable species.

A freshwater crocodile or mugger in the estuaries of Goa. Still from 'Mannge Thapnee.'
A freshwater crocodile or mugger in the estuaries of Goa. Still from ‘Mannge Thapnee.’

Her film uses a combination of live-action and stop motion animation and features a mechanical creature, a caretaker of a seed collection trying to revive and germinate seeds in a post-apocalyptic world. The film is presented as a diptych – one frame shows the mugger’s estuarine habitat and the ritual, and the other shows a world that has lost those.

“In the film, I describe the possibility of losing all these, the animal, the small-scale fishing community, the habitat, and the ritual itself. By combining fiction with documentary, our effects on the natural world can become more apparent and space is created to imagine alternative futures,” said D’Cruz, who plans to further explore the docu-fiction style along with the topic of ecology in her future projects. “Using animation in the film allows me to bring non-human perspectives into the query, and keeps the film playful.”

Read more: Cultural beliefs protect snakes in the dwindling sacred groves of southwestern India

Power of the medium

Banerji feels that while funding and distribution continue to be a problem for environmental documentary films, especially when it comes to lesser-known species and issues, there’s more accessibility to equipment, courses, and people. She emphasised the importance of looking around in one’s immediate surroundings to understand and document environmental issues. “Human-wildlife conflict issues are prevalent across the country. Insect populations are crashing all over. Also, it can get very expensive to shoot in protected areas.”

However, Banerji, who runs The Green Hub, an initiative to empower youth in environmental education and social change through the visual medium, added that filmmaking is not just a “strong teaching tool, but also a self-learning tool (for the filmmaker). “An observant filmmaker will see the links between the disappearance of a frog and the collapse of an ecosystem.”

An incident during the making of Peng Yu Sai highlighted the impact of environmental films. The Divisional Forest Officer who intercepted contraband on the Indo-Myanmar border sensed something strange. He identified some of the goods being exported under the garb of dried seafood products as manta ray gills. The forest officer’s awareness was courtesy of another documentary, Racing Extinction, that covered species extinction issues. Moreover, the seizure at the Myanmar border helped Vaz and Sood connect the dots in the international network of wildlife trafficking.

Having observed Saswad grasslands for over a decade, Raut said an unsustainable “human ecosystem” has emerged in the grasslands. The habitats are vanishing due to the expansion of farms, real estate, and tree plantation projects. A sequence in the film lit by the halogen lights around a poultry farm illuminates the wide trenches dug on the grassland that degrade the habitat. A troop of carnivores, wolves, hyenas, and foxes descend at the site to feed on the discarded poultry waste.

“With humans, come dogs. They scavenge the food the wild animals feed on and increase the risk of disease transmission. They attack the predator and its prey base too,” observed Raut. “They are one of the biggest threats to wildlife here.” The film bears witness to dogs attempting an attack on wolf pups and also preying on an Indian gazelle.

To expand on their first attempt at filmmaking, Raut and the team plan to make more short films, focussing on one grassland species in each. They hope that their films serve as documentation of the creatures and the habitat for the infrastructure projects that come up in the landscape.

Read more: Oh My Gaur! Living alongside the Indian bison that’s moving out of forests


Banner image: A still from the investigative documentary, Peng Yu Sai.

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