Why I don’t watch ‘Nature’ on TV

The real beasts lurk elsewhere


It was the title of a nature show in National Geographic: Man vs Monster, that did it. The ‘monster’ in question here being the tiger; sorry, the man-eating tiger of the Sundarbans. I looked up the internet, researched, even switched on the television — a rare occurrence indeed, and not without reason — and discovered the other ‘monsters’ — spiders, serpents and bats. All, according to the highlights, are “bloodthirsty beasts, terrifying animals and creepy creatures.”

We focus, for now, on the Sundarbans tiger—close to the home, close to the heart. Also, this one seems to be a particular favourite — just two examples being a documentary titled Last Maneater: Killer Tigers of India, and the lead story of a prominent men’s lifestyle magazine (GQ) that went, ‘Tiger Trauma: Butchers of Bengal’.

The Sundarbans may have seen more episodes of man-eating than other tiger-range landscapes, but there is no substance to the myth that the Sundarbans tiger hunts out, kills and devours man as a matter of daily routine. If that were the case, we would see upwards of 2,000 to 3,000 people killed each year, given the population of tigers in the Sundarbans on both sides of the border. In an article, ‘The Myth of Sunderbans Maneaters’, author Jay Mazoomdaar points out that, “Contrary to its unpopular image, the Sunderbans tiger does not consider us food. In 23 years between 1984 and 2006, tigers killed 490 people in Bangladesh. At an annual average of 21 casualties, it is far below the number of deaths caused by snake or dog bites. Even road accidents claim lives more frequently.”

But these, evidently, do not make for good headlines or films. Who would want to see, or fund a film that shows the car as a manic killer on the road?

Why single out Man vs Monster though? This kind of eyeball grabbing sensational stuff — which we usually (and mistakenly) attribute to the vernacular Press — aimed at TRPs and ad revenues, has been the norm for years. It gained currency with the late ‘wildlife warrior’ Steve Irwin. Warrior, yes but certainly not for wildlife. Any positive conservation message the show purported to spread was lost as Irwin leaped on, grabbed, hauled and harassed animals. No one puts it better than Germaine Greer (The Guardian, 2006): “There was no habitat, no matter how fragile or finely balanced, that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder and amazement to the skies. There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle. Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress. Every snake badgered by Irwin was at a huge disadvantage, with only a single possible reaction to its terrifying situation, which was to strike. Easy enough to avoid, if you know what’s coming. Even my cat knew that much…”

There’s worse: And Discovery’s Yokon Men is right there at the bottom. One particular episode harps on the myth of the big, bad wolf as a “mean, ferocious animal that can tear a man apart real easy”, while another maligns the wolverine, not known-ever-to have even attempted to kill man. Writes Adam Welz in The Guardian, “All through Yokon Men we see predatory animals being killed: A leghold-trapped lynx is strangled to death with a wire noose, a grizzly bear is shot in the head, etcetera, and every time the producers use the techniques of the reality TV genre to convince us that the animals are man-woman-and-child killers which are best turned into fur coats.”

Here in India too, our national channel runs a show Wilderness Days. While I cannot claim to have seen all episodes, those on ‘man-eating’ leopards, and the Striped Terror of Sunderkhal’ (also a story in print) were particularly distasteful, and spoke — with an ample dose of drama — of man-eaters on the prowl for their next shikaar.

Such shows are not just dangerous in the way they portray animals, but are factually incorrect. Unfortunately, these fake thrills have a market. Steve Irwin had cult following while Yokon Men is one of the channel’s  top  prime time shows. Nature shows as we knew them (remember the classic innocence of the Life series or the strong conservation message of a film like The Land of the Tiger) appear to be as much endangered as the animals they portray,  save for a few remarkable exceptions like Planet Earth, or a favourite from India — SOS — Save Our Sholas. Most of what I came up with as I surfed the idiot box and the internet in pursuit of this story read like this: Man vs Wild, Man vs Monsters, Grandma vs Crocs (or was it t'nature' tvhe other way round?), Fierce Fighters, Demon Fish, Rattlesnake Republic, River Monster Unhooked etc. The promos are equally provocative: The other boy wonder Brady Barr adorns himself with snakes and alligators, while Animal Underworld has another macho idiot astride a crocodile. They are all invariably delivered in high-pitch, with enough drama to do a potboiler Bollywood flick proud.

Why have nature shows ceased to take us on a voyage of discovery, bringing into our sterile lives the wonders of nature? Where is the conservation message so urgently needed?  When did nature and wildlife cease to hold centre-stage, while the presenters have become the stars?

Should one lay the blame on Jaws? Four decades later, sharks are still to live down their evil repute, even though the annual number of human fatalities from shark attacks is barely four. Take a moment to consider that humans kill millions of sharks annually for the palate.

Certainly, Jaws and Crocodile Hunter played their part, but this calls for some reflection. Dismissing animals as ‘lesser beings’, maligning them, is intrinsic to us.

We called the ghastly December rape tragedy and other such horrific acts of sexual abuse ‘beastly’ with men ‘behaving like animals’, but does rape exist in the animal world? Are tigers — those secretive, powerful predators — blood thirsty? Well, they kill to survive, and no more. You could say the same for all carnivores. “Cruelty, for cruelty’s sake”, said pioneer conservationist FW Champion, “is a vice practised only by Homo sapiens and is totally unknown to wild creatures.”

All of us, and I hold myself equally responsible, love to write and narrate dramatic (and exaggerated) incidents from the forests. Of near escapes with death. Of being dangerously charged by tigers and elephants, knowing fully well that, had the animal intended real harm, we wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale. We destroy their habitats, slaughter and butcher them for ‘sport’ and commerce, torture them for entertainment and science and yet we call them beasts? And us, humane?

The shows are merely a reflection on us.

(Prerna Singh Bindra  is senior consultant, WCS India, and founder-director of ‘Bagh’. She is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife)

This article was first published in an edited form  in Oped, The Pioneer,

2 Responses to “Why I don’t watch ‘Nature’ on TV

  • Very Good article indeed. I think nature documentaries with good conservation message depends on the production company. Two above two documentaries that you have mentioned in your article are both produced by BBC. I have watched almost all nature documentaries filmed in India by BBC and never found any sensational stuff. Here are some of the BBC documentaries worth watching……Tiger Dynasty (about reintroduction of tigers in Sariska), Leopard: The 21st Century Cat (Man-Animal conflict in India), The Real Jungle Book Bear (first documentary on Sloth Bear), Lost land of The Tiger (Potential of Himalayan Tiger corridor), The Himalayas, etc. But, yes the overall surge of sensationalism in nature tv shows in recent years in worrying. In River Monster (Animal Planet) the presenter even branded the harmless Goonch Catfish in India as “Monster”. Probably, they did not find the Ganges River Shark (Critically Endangered, last captured more than a decade ago) and targeted the Goonch Catfish as “Bali ka Bakra” for their (Animal Planet’s) “Monster” expedition.

    • Thanks Pritam-you are right-yes BBC is good-most of what i have seen are excellents films, though i admit i have not seen all of those you mention..esp the sloth bear one -look forward to seeing that.

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