TV Review: National Geographic Great Migrations


Last night, I was a guest of the National Geographic Channel at the historic Saban Theater in Beverly Hills for the United States premiere of Great Migrations, which airs internationally on Sunday, November 7.

Great Migrations is a 7-part TV "event," paired with an issue of National Geographic magazine, a set of kids' books, iPhone apps, and so forth. The mini-series, narrated by Alec Baldwin, focuses on the movements of animals across the earth in an effort to find food, to mate, and to survive. The first hour, which was screened for us, featured the migration of the monarch butterfly from Mexico to northern Canada and back to Mexico, the movement of the zebras and wildebeest across the Serengeti, the annual trek of dinner-plate sized crabs from the jungles to the beaches of Christmas Island, and the annual meeting of the male and female sperm whales near the Azores.

The video footage, the script, and the soundtrack were all outstanding. While I wouldn't suggest that Alec Baldwin is necessarily the next David Attenborough, I found his narration pleasant. It wasn't overly dramatic, and his delivery of the few scattered jokes was effective in keeping the audience entertained. I can't wait to watch the remaining six hours of this mini-series when it airs, and I highly recommend it.

In general, with documentaries like this, I find that the depiction of the circle of life is a bit one-sided, and this series was, unfortunately, no different. While the struggle to avoid predators is key to survival for prey animals, such as the wildebeests, red crabs, and zebras included in the first hour of Great Migrations, little attention is paid to the struggle of the predators to find enough food. The audience was audibly disturbed by the footage of the crocodiles capturing the juvenile wildebeest, of the leopard chasing down the zebra, and of the yellow ants blinding and devouring the crab from the inside out. (And the disgust in the room was palpable as we watched the Serengeti vultures chowing down on the leftover wildebeest). And yet there was only one sentence in the entire hour of narration that gave the crocodiles' side of the story: that if they could capture and eat enough wildebeests as they crossed the river that day, then perhaps they might survive until the following year's wildebeest river crossing. It is of course possible that one or more of the subsequent six hours of Great Migrations gave more time to the predators' plight, but if they are similar to the first hour, then they more likely do not.

Given how disturbed the audience was at the sight of the wildebeest death and the zebra chase, I was particularly amused by the behavior of the majority of the audience at the reception following the screening. The fervor and excitement with which the human predators descended onto the freshly carved roast beef and turkey was alarmingly reminiscent of the leopard's full-speed zebra attack. The manner in which the flailing arms were grasping at the few remaining bits of food as the buffet trays emptied reminded me of the scavenging Serengeti vultures, clawing at the remains of the wildebeest carcass, each bird pushing away another. (The station filled with vegetable crudite was, unsurprisingly, deserted.) This doesn't reflect on the quality of the film, of course, but on the confused relationship that humans have when it comes to animals. We cringe at the thought of a crocodile hunting down a wildebeest, or of scavenger birds scarfing down the remains, but don't give a second thought to the prey animals that we regularly consume, and in far greater volume, I'd wager, than any of those crocs or leopards.

Documentary series like Great Migrations are important to science education and to nature conservancy, and in general they fulfill their function well. They inspire children and adults to care more for the world, and they leave us in awe of the biodiversity that surrounds us. But I think we need to do better; we need to increase awareness of where our own food comes from. I don't advocate vegetarianism, of course. Anyone who regularly follows me on twitter knows that I fully support the regular consumption of meat. But we could all probably use some reminders that humans are predators, just like the crocodiles and leopards of the Serengeti, and like the yellow ants of Christmas Island.

With respect to our food, I think a few important opportunities for conservation education were lost by the organizers of this event. I'm not sure what type of fish was used in the sushi at the reception (I think some kind of tuna, and perhaps salmon), but National Geographic could easily have put up signs on the buffet stating that all the sushi that was served came from sustainable fishing practices (of course, only if it truly WAS sustainable sushi). They could easily have handed out the handy sustainable seafood guides produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or included them in the schwag bags. Instead of having a "guess how many toy crabs are in the jar" contest, they could have had a "guess how many species have gone extinct in the last decade" contest.

National Geographic has a stated commitment to conservation and the preservation of biodiversity, and their films are a great testament to that (as is the donation envelope included in the schwag bag). Great Migrations is no exception, and I fully recommend it. But they could easily have done a bit more at the event itself to overtly promote this important agenda.

Keep your eye on this blog in the days leading up to the television premiere of Great Migrations on November 7, as I'll be sharing more video footage from the series with you, provided to me by the producers.


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Does anyone know what the music from the trailer is?

Er, are leopards informally known as jaguars, or were those two just typos? Because I'm pretty sure jaguars are native to the Americas, and are likely not feeding on zebras.

Just nitpicking--really looking forward to seeing this series!

By Tor Bertin (not verified) on 23 Oct 2010 #permalink

You're absolutely right. Good catch. Changed it to leopards (both are the genus Panthera, but different species).

Loved the juxtaposition of the audience's reaction to the wildebeest scene and the buffet table. I wonder how many people would flock to the roast beef if they saw how it got there.

You are saying that "the depiction of the circle of life is a bit one-sided". But, what about sperm whales? They are predators, even more, they are the biggest predators on earth. I don't see that anybody is disturbed when chunks of octopus emerge from the deep after mother sperm whale has ripped it apart...

OK. A 6 hr wild life documentary.
eh? What's the big deal?