Wildlife special: Serenading the Sumatran Rhino and finding the real Abominable Snowman
You can talk about wildlife for hours with Emma Napper, the BBC Earth producer of shows such as Planet Earth II and the epic, Seven Worlds, One Planet.
For a sampler of what you can expect, jump straight to the parts on the singing Sumatran rhinos, and the real Abominable Snowmen.
We’re as yet trying to imagine spending time in a forest that has pretty much remained the same since the age of dinosaurs. Read on and be amazed!
What can you tell us about Asia?
Asia is the largest continent on Earth, covering one-third of the world’s surface.
It presents a lovely but massive challenge when it comes to finding stories, in the sense that you’ve got absolutely everything to choose from, from the jungles of Indonesia to the high Arctic in Russia.
What we wanted to focus on was how the animals coped with living in such vast landscapes.
Asia’s geological history is also a key part of the story. Around 30 million years ago, India crashed into the rest of Asia, causing the Himalayas to form, and changing the landscape entirely.
As a result, Asia today is a world of extremes. It has the hottest deserts, the highest mountains and all that stems from its geology.
We made a real effort to look at those different environments, and importantly, to find stories that have never been done before.
In addition, we wanted to show the impact that people are having on the environments, and the wildlife living there today, because that is a really important part of every continent’s story.
What was it like filming the golden snub-nosed monkeys in central China?
The high mountain ranges in central China are remote and, to date, have been largely inaccessible to film crews.
Yet, for hundreds of years, stories of the ‘Abominable Snowman’ have emanated from this region.
This is where the story of the Yeti comes from — some kind of strange, scary looking people that nobody knew anything about.
In actual fact, the Yeti is a golden snub-nosed monkey. They are absolutely incredible, because they spend a lot of their time walking upright, like we do, and the males have got ginormous feet.
They really do look like little people, and they’ve got the most phenomenal colours on them, with bright blue faces and golden coats.
The monkeys are a little bit of a holy grail for Sir David. It’s something that he had heard described in scientific papers in the early-1960s, but never had the opportunity to see.
So, it was really cool to be able to come back and show him that footage, because he was just blown away by how the monkeys looked, and how they survive — it goes well below zero much of the time, but they have these big, shaggy coats and they cuddle one another to stay warm.
The families are so bonded and reliant on each other, because without somebody to cuddle, the babies would die very quickly in the winter there. They were a joy to be able to film, and a joy to be able to show David.
Tell us about the Sumatran Rhino Serenade.
To me, the most important thing about making these films is where you see something in the natural world, and you can’t believe it’s true. That’s where the joy comes from.
One real highlight for me was our story about the Sumatran rhino. The jungles of Indonesia are rich and dense, and that means the animals there have a real problem finding each other.
I’ve been to lots of jungles before, and I was looking at the way animals talk to each other in the jungles when I came across this sound, which sounded like a whale.
I played it to the team and made everyone guess what it was. Nobody guessed right, but it turned out that it was a Sumatran rhino.
We went out to go and film these Sumatra rhinos, mostly because of their communication, but also because they are one of the rarest species on Earth.
They used to be widespread across southern Asia. The rhino we filmed was born in 2000, and at that point there were only 300 left. And now, the upper estimate is 70.
The lower estimate is 30. Their decline is because of a combination of poaching, and loss of habitat to timbre and palm oil production.
We filmed the Sumatran rhino in a protected area, which is the only place you can possibly see them.
All I had heard of the singing rhino was an old bit of sound footage that was recorded at a zoo in America.
There’s almost nothing known about why they do it, or the meaning of their vocalisations, other than that the females and the males use the song as a part of their way of meeting up.
So, I wasn’t sure what we were going to experience when we went in the field, but almost as soon as we got there and got out of the car, we could hear the female singing. It’s loud as well!
Let’s move to Australia...
Australia’s story across time is that it used to be attached to Antarctica. Then it split from Antarctica, and it has been moving north.
When it split from Antarctica, a raft of animals — marsupials, reptiles, birds — were separated off and marooned.
As a result, most of the animals in Australia are found nowhere else. It’s a continent of weirdos, beautiful animals, things you haven’t seen in other places.
What I loved at the beginning of this process is you ask a lot of people what lives in Australia and they’ll say kangaroos and koalas... and then they get stuck.
Yet, there’s an amazing array of animals that have been stranded there for millions and millions of years. Australia, over time, has been getting hotter and hotter.
When it separated from Antarctica, it was basically all forest. Now it’s almost all desert. That’s quite a story to tell in itself.
Can you tell us about the cassowaries?
The cassowary is Australia’s ostrich. It’s the world’s deadliest bird, and it lives in the deep jungle in the north of Australia, which is the oldest jungle on Earth.
That jungle was walked by dinosaurs and basically, when dinosaurs became extinct, cassowaries took their place. We filmed a cassowary, but they’re incredibly secretive and very hard to spot.
You don’t see them until you’ve stood next to them and then they get cross: you wouldn’t accidentally walk up to a lion, but you might accidentally walk up to cassowary.
The females stand about six feet tall, the males more like five feet, but they rear up above head height and they have claws on their feet that are longer than a velociraptor’s.
They can run upto 30 mph, jump five feet in the air, and they can swim. So, if you surprise them, you’re done for. That’s why they’re the world’s deadliest bird.
Two of our Australian cameramen staked out the forest for a long time until we worked out where this male cassowary was going to be.
We had to put out camera traps and do our own fieldwork, but we managed to film a male looking after his chicks in this forest.
I’ve wanted to film them for several years, and that forest is just quite a magical place for me — you’re literally looking at what dinosaurs would have seen.
How did drone technology help you make Seven Worlds, One Planet?
On Planet Earth II, we were using drones, but even three or four years ago, they were quite heavy-duty things.
Now the technology is so much better that we’re able to use the drones with almost all of the animals that we’ve filmed. It can make a big difference in the behaviour you can see.
In the Australia episode, for example, we filmed a shark aggregation that only happens every 15 years.
It’s sharks on a bait ball off the west coast of Australia on Ingle, and if you were filming that from the sea, you’d just see a hell of a lot of splashing around and some fins.
Get a drone up in the air and suddenly, you can see the shark’s tactics, what they’re doing and not only that, you can see that the bait ball at one point got up to something like 15 km.
We have shots of thousands of sharks all at once coming together, and to me that’s the magic of the drone.
Seven Worlds, One Planet premieres on 20 January at 8 pm on Sony BBC Earth.
— Team Indulge