Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison speak about the ardors
and exhilaration of the unknown…
It was 105 degrees as we neared the scientific campsite for six German and Swiss primatologists who, for months, had been nestled beneath the last few hundred hectares of forest that had been saved from fire in a remote, northwestern corner of Madagascar known as Sahamalaz.Two chartered flights, a fast moving and unstable boat, dusty 4-wheel hauls through tenuous outback, and then a trekking expedition got us to this extremely remote site in the jungle. It was October, and the cicada were erupting with a razor-sharp vibration that was all but deafening. And then Jane collapsed.
For 30 hours she would remain face down on the ground with extreme heat stroke, a potentially life-threatening malady even under the “best” of circumstances. But here, far from any possibility of medical evacuation, her condition was serious. Fair-skinned, and weeks of sleep-deprivation, had left her vulnerable. Now, the heat, humidity, and burning sun had all but knocked her out. She lay semi-comatose (or so it appeared to all of us standing over her, trying to decide what to do)…
But this was not the first time the “Hotspots” filming expedition had encountered adversity. Over three years in the making, dozens of incidents had occurred –as they always do when filming wildlife in difficult locations- that would, with hindsight, suggest that the whole endeavor is mad. But during the filming, there is usually too much happening to focus soberly on what is actually going on.
As it turned out, Jane awoke two days later, smiled at a wild rooster that was standing next to her, leapt up and carried on with the team into the surrounding dense thickets in search of a rare blue-eyed black lemur, which the film succeeded in recording for the first time in the wild. Male and female lemurs, for the most part, show a role reversal vis à vis most monkeys, where, among baboons, for example, the males are dominant. Here, in Madagascar, the females eat first. The lemurs come close and, to everyone’s amazement, it appears that they are living completely off those same cicada –at least in the month of October- which they are furiously leaping after in the trees.
Elsewhere, in an equally challenging outback, in northeastern Brazil, searching for the critically endangered Coimbra’s Titi monkey (Callicebus coimbrai) we encountered forest fragments on fire, where sugar cane plantation margins had been deliberately set ablaze. The fire could wipe out the last remaining habitat in this particular area for the Titi monkey and Michael’s first instinct was to try and put out the fire. Not likely. Jumping, stomping the ground did nothing more than induce smoke inhalation and another small emergency. The sadness of a denuded Mata Atlantica could not be more stark than here, in Sergipe State. The Atlantic Rain Forests of Brazil cover an area three times the size of California and once, it was all but untouched, with some of the highest biodiversity on Earth. Now that habitat possess less than 9% of its former biological glories, with both Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro –two of the largest megacities in the world- and other development having placed nearly 70% of Brazil’s massive population in direct conflict with previously pristine habitat.
Later, in southeastern Peru, heading up the normally compliant Tambopata River towards our destination, the globally significant Tambopata Parrot Research Center, one thing after another goes wrong. First, the water levels are treacherously low, and our outboard motor rotors continually slam into underwater logs, or sandbars. After 7 hours in a desperate maze, we are beached in the middle of the river, where the water is suddenly flowing at ferocious levels, coming off the Tropical Andes due West. Travis the cinematographer, is covered in thousands of chigger bites, while Chris, the audio guru, has been drenched in overflowing petroleum that has leaked throughout the bottom of our open boat. One of the three boats is lost for the night with its crew, on the far side of the half-mile wide river, while the rest of us drag the two useless boats to a safe haven for the night. Sleeping out on the gravel bar, aware of anacondas, jaguars, and bushmasters in our neck of the woods, we are delighted by the discovery of a small bottle of Peruvian wine, which –in absence of any bivouac gear- gets us through a freezing night.
And the next morning rewards us with a sighting of a Bolivian Titi monkey, discovered for the first time earlier in the year, but not on the Peruvian side as here. A new species, with new distribution. Such rewards make any and all adversities seem irrelevant.
That night, an added discovery: a Southern Bamboo rat, peeing on a tree. No one has ever managed to film this rare species, and it is the first time Mittermeier –in thirty years of coming to the Amazon- has ever seen one. It is after midnight and we are delirious with the joy of catching all of one minute of this remarkable creature on film. A rat that is trying to become a primate.
Rappelling into a cave in Sequoia National Park, the team, led by National Park Cave Specialist Joel Despain is hampered by humidity, such that the monitors and electronics of our macro-lenses malfunction, even while the camera seems to be recording remarkable new species, nine newly discovered invertebrates, including a remarkable minute pseudo-scorpion whose jaws account for more than 50% of its entire body. Thirty of these guys would fit onto a penny. But all the footage is lost. Travis Johnson, the all-enduring head cinematographer for the project, returns with Joel and this time we get it right: the footage in macro is incredible. As is the poison oak that has subsequently bloomed all over Michael’s body.
In Big Sur, we are privileged to film 11 California condors all once. There (were) 43. Now, following the devastating Big Sur fires in the Summer of 3008, two of those are gone, a chick having succumbed to the flames, and an adult gone missing. But thanks to Mr.Kelly Sorenson and team from the Ventana Wildlife Society, and Condor Re-Introduction Program, all the others have been saved.
In Santa Monica, California, working with a national park team involved in saving habitat for mountain lions, we learn that their telemetry data has indicated that one of the lions has crossed a ten-lane freeway 18 times in the past few months. How is that possible? Ray Sauvajot, Research Scientist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, shows us the exact underpass where the lion has been crossing. Now, it’s up to scientists and the public to inform lawmakers that underpasses are critical for wildlife, and that habitat connectivity is the only hope for threatened and endangered species in all of the 35 terrestriall biological hotspots on Earth, not least of which, Southern California.
The film’s expedition to Codfish Island, off the coast of Stewart Island has its own share of revelations, including an all-night trek up a storm blasted-mountain top. Two of the rarest penguins in the world show themselves –the Yellow Eyed. These gloriously beautiful birds nest far inland from the sea, the only penguins to do so. Their population status is currently dire, the causes of their decline a combination of immune system breakdown, disease, and, in some places, starvation. But the team has come to Codfish in search of an even rare beauty, New Zealand’s (and one of the world’s) most critically endangered parrot, the flightless Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). Co-Producer/cinematographer Haroldo Castro’s feet are mangled, but he is not complaining: the kakapo comes down a tree to greet the intrepid expedition, utterly unfazed by her sudden cinematic celebrity. She will live to be more than 100 years old.
Months later the ornithological world is astonished and grateful to hear the news: the 86 kakapo referenced in “Hotspots” have grown to a population of 93, following a fantastic breeding season (thanks to Italian scientist specializing in avifauna midwivery).
At the end of three years, on Rapa Nui (Isle de Pasqua, aka Easter Island), where nearly 100% of everything that once lived and was endemic has gone extinct (including even the native ants that were usurped by a bio-invasive ant arriving on the wood of a shipwrecked vessel) we film one of four remaining individual trees of the last endemic Toromiro tree, (Sophora toromiro, a member of the Leguminosae family). This one, standing four feet, is protected by the Chilean Navy and Forest Service and has given hope to the future ecologists on Easter Island who are already working hard to replant native species, and make the future of this spectacular island an ecological positive.
There are moments in the filming of endangered wildlife when all seems lost. Yet, the very hotspots concept has consolidated hope; hope that that 2.3% of the terrestrial earth which holds the vast majority of all biological diversity on earth can, must, and will be saved by those ungainly beasts in the garden of eden, ourselves.
On the very last day of filming, Russell and Cristina Mittermeier’s son Mickey, an irrepressible teenage prodigy with the same contagious conservation optimism (and remarkable knowledge) as his parents, sees something move at fifty yards. The film crew tries to catch him in action as he runs all around the giant sculptured Moais in a remote central part of the island, crawling on all fours through deep grass, finally catching his quarry with a gentle, well-trained touch: a skink, the only known native reptile left on Easter Island.
Mickey examines the gorgeous little creature with the same level of astonishment as if he’d just single-handedly won the World Series. Then he puts the skink back in the grass and watches it disappear.
“That made his year,” says his proud father...
FIRSTS WHILE FILMING
There are some significant firsts in the HOTSPOTS feature documentary:
- In Madagascar, the first filming of the Lepilemur sahamalazensis, or sportive lemur, as well as the first footage of the Blue Eyed Black Lemur (Sclater’s Lemur, Eulemur macaco flavifrons), one of two sub-species of the Black Lemur, and classified as Critically Endangered.
- Footage, from a cave in Madagascar, of a paleopropithecus skull and bone fragments, the extinct Giant Lemur. This Lemurian, much like a South American giant sloth, weighed over 50 pounds and is distinguished by the fact that it went extinct as recently as a thousand years ago.
- Footage of a new Titi monkey, discovered several months before in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park in the Upper Amazon, but here seen for the first time in Southeaster Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve.
- The first footage ever captured of a Southern Bamboo Rat (Kannabateomys amblyonyx) foraging and peeing sometime after midnight. This is a large rodent, the only member of the Kannabateomys genus, who appears to be trying to become a primate.
- Nine new invertebrate troglophiles and troglobites filmed in Sequoia National Park’s Clough Cave, with National Park Cave specialist, Joel Despain, including a Neochthonius pseudoscorpion. Clough is one of over 250 marble caves in the southern Sierra Nevada range.
- The first footage of one of the most endangered mammals in North America, the Pacific Pocket Mouse (Perognathus longimembris pacificus), a nocturnal, tiny granivore of the Heteromyidae family. Of the four known populations remaining, following its emergency listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as “endangered” in 1994, three are on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, where we filmed with CRES (Conservation And Research For Endangered Species) specialist, Dr. Debra Shier Girtner.