Great Migrations – Sunday on NGC

As mentioned earlier, National Geographic is about to launch a new block-buster series called Great Migrations. This is a seven part series that will travel the world to record the stories of animals and their mass migrations. I have had the pleasure of seeing a pre-release version of the upcoming episode and I would like to give an indication of what you can expect.

When I first heard of this new series and the scope of the production, I knew it would be spectacular. The opening sequence shows salmon jumping, massed monarch butterflies, the skittering crabs of Christmas Island…and it all seemed familiar. Over the years, the BBC, National Geographic and other documentary producers have already shown these events. How would this documentary be different? I was concerned that this would be a rehash of the same material that the other documentaries have already covered – the well-known migrations of wildebeest and zebra that dominated the promotional material seemed to indicate this. Beyond the predictability, I was curious how NG would deal with the effects of climate change, human population growth and general environmental degradation.Would this series just be more ‘old hat’ or would it move into new territory and be a freshly portrayed documentary for a new generation? I was about to find out…

The first episode is called Born to Move, and it begins with the migrations that occur within Africa’s Great Rift Valley every year. Wildebeest (also known as ‘gnu’) and zebra on the annual circuit in search for food to nourish themselves and their newborn young. Over a million wildebeest and  200 000 zebras follow the rains, traveling over 1800 miles a year in search of fresh grazing. Like many documentaries before it, we see them crossing the Mara River where they are assailed by crocodiles, who have also migrated to intersect with the great herds. It tells of the predators and scavengers whose birth cycles coincide with the calving season of the wildebeest. It shows clearly how young gnu must quickly adapt to life on the move, or perish. As can be counted on by any production by National Geographic, the photography does not disappoint: we see superb footage of the events in the yearly cycle that dominates the lives of these pilgrims of the plains.

The first episode covers more than this great African migration. It also reveals the migrations of the Christmas Island land crabs, the amazing voyages of the massive sperm whales and the surging migrations of the monarch butterflies…yes, we have seen it all before, but it is good to be reminded of the grand natural spectacle the migrations are.

What I missed in this first episode is good science-based commentary, rather than the overblown, overly dramatic narration and music that  seems to drive many National Geographic documentaries. There is also an important element missing here. Where are the human influences? Why are these ancient migrations being shown isolated from the very real pressures that human kind is placing on them? For instance, how is poaching for the bush meat trade effecting populations, and will the new road planned for the Serengeti increase poaching pressure? I hope that future television episodes will deal with the reality of the effects of our blundering domination of the planet, and that the science behind our knowledge will be more clearly revealed.

Having said that, many of the deficiencies in the television documentary  are countered by material that is available online, in the November edition of National Geographic Magazine and in the companion book, Great Migrations. I urge anyone who in interested in the larger picture to seek out these sources for more in-depth information.

See Born to Run, this Sunday November 7 at 8 PM (MT)

Next Week on Great Migrations? The ‘Need to Breed‘.

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