Animals & Wildlife Magazine

The Evolution of the Wildlife Documentary: Part Two

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

Following on from Wednesday’s look back at the early days of natural history television, today we’re going to take a look at the state of wildlife documentaries in recent years.

A relatively new breed of nature programme is that of the diary format. Starting in 1997, ‘Big Cat Diary’ was the first of its kind, documenting the lives of individual animals in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Each of the big cats is given a name, such as Half-Tail the leopard, and as their unique personalities and lifestyles are revealed throughout the series, an unprecedented link is developed between the animals and the viewer. The latest series was broadcast live over a 3-week period in 2008. The diary-style has proved very popular with audiences, spawning various spin-offs such as the Elephant Diaries (2005) and Orangutan Diary (2007).

Most recently, Channel 4 has shown a variety of excellently innovative natural history programmes, offering a fresh approach to the genre through investigative science. In 2009, the BAFTA award-winning ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ was first aired. This incredible series, dealing with a different creature every episode, shows experts performing dissections on some of nature’s largest and most interesting animals. Over two series, the team uncover the evolutionary secrets of everything from the elongated neck of a Rothschild giraffe to the detachable jaw of a Burmese Python. Such detailed and informative analysis is a refreshing alternative to the epic style that BBC documentaries have become renowned for, a nice reminder that good ideas don’t always rely on big budgets.

In another clever move away from the classic format, Channel 4 broadcast ‘Elephant: Life After Death’ in 2011. This fascinating investigation into the effects on a habitat when an elephant dies in the wild threw up a few interesting surprises. With a team of experts set-up close-by, led by biologist Simon Watt, the corpse of a young adult male African elephant was remotely observed using various cameras ready to capture the ensuing feast. The arguable highlight of the programme came early when a hungry hyena, looking for soft-tissue to eat, inserted his head into the elephant’s anus, scaring itself as its ferocious bite released a build-up of gas in its stomach. Although not for everyone, this somewhat gruesome programme offered an intriguing insight into an area of nature previously withheld from wildlife documentary audiences.

The wildlife documentary has come a long way since Muybridge’s first experiments with photography. Steady progress has brought us to an exciting point where innovation, technology and an unprecedented demand for entertainment are delivering a hugely varied array of wildlife television. It is hard to imagine an improvement on some of the most recent broadcasts, such as the spectacular HD footage of great white sharks on ‘Planet Earth’ (2006). However, with the rise of 3D film, it surely won’t be long before we are seeing these amazing hunters jumping through our screens.

By Alex Prior


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