Questioning the Golden Rule of Nature Documentaries: Don't Intervene.


If, like me, your experience with the wild comes mostly from the detached glow of a television screen, then you may not be such a stranger to the suffering that occurs in the natural world. There is plenty of imagery of buffalo dying slowly over a matter of weeks from the bite of a Komodo dragon, baby green turtles either stolen from the sand during their first breath of life or drowning under heavy surf, or desperate predators chasing down desperate prey across African savannas.

In the second episode of Netflix’s David Attenborough narrated documentary series Our Planet, we are confronted with this suffering in a particularly potent form. This episode features an abundance of footage showing walruses, driven by the shrinking sea ice, occupying overcrowded beaches, where being crushed to death by another walrus is a very real existential threat. The documentary transitions to scenes of walruses climbing steep cliffs, looking for somewhere to rest free from the threat of overcrowding. Perched on the high cliffs like mountain goats, these walruses, with poor vision and bodies not built for such heights, attempt to reunite with their peers in the water far, far below. Instead of a happy penguin-like slide into the ocean, the film crew documents walruses tumbling down the harsh, 80 ft, rocky cliff face, adding to a morbid pile at the water's edge. A few walruses can be seen still breathing, but unable to move.

Watching this scene is heart wrenching, to say the least. The documentary includes footage of a crew member in tears, mirroring the state of many viewers from their couch. However, as upsetting as this sort of documentary may be, after about an hour (by the time the taste of popcorn has left our mouths), we have recovered and are ready to sleep soundly that night. Despite the pain that we may have witnessed, we are comforted by the maxim that ‘humans should not intervene in nature’. Telling ourselves, ‘yes, there was suffering, but if we should not intervene, then there is no need to stress further about it’.

It feels to me though, that this maxim is becoming harder and harder to rationally apply, as pieces of the ‘natural’ world seems to be shrinking. Sure, these walruses are in an isolated part of the world in north eastern Russia and they may have never seen a human before, but their environment has certainly been altered by human impact. The invisible hand of our greenhouse gas emissions leading to a climate crisis has left the “naturalness” of their habitat tainted. In understanding our current and long history of impact upon nature, can we still sleep easy with our golden rule, ‘we should not intervene in nature’, coddling us?

Consider another example: In 2002, inside the perimeter of the Puckapunyal Australian Defence Force army base, there were at least 80,000 kangaroos living in one area, unable to migrate due to high manmade fences, deemed sustainable for a population only half the size. Many kangaroos were hungry, ill, and in agony, particularly so during drought. Kangaroo culling, in some situations, is seen as an important welfare intervention and an appropriate response to the suffering population. In this case, the Victorian state government issued a permit for the culling of 15,000 of these kangaroos. Combined with ‘natural’ deaths, this culling helped reduce the population to sustainable levels, leading to an increased level of welfare for the remaining population confined to the army base site.

In this scenario most of us can agree that some sort of intervention, if not culling perhaps fertility control, is important to maintain the welfare of these wild animals. We can agree on this because the situation is not a ‘natural’ one. After all, we fenced these animals in, we prevented them from migrating toward other food resources, and therefore we contributed to their suffering. It seems that our golden rule of non-intervention does not apply here, and this is because we understand that an army base overpopulated by kangaroos is not a ‘natural’ situation.

As our collective human impact on the world increases, the number of situations in which the belief that ‘humans should not intervene’ in the ‘natural’ order retains its integrity will shrink. Yes, much of nature may be finely tuned by millions of years of evolution and yes, meddling with this finely tuned instrument may lead to unforeseen negative outcomes. However, more and more that finely tuned instrument is being tampered with, or tainted, by humans. If not directly through policy interventions, through the gasses we emit, the forests we clear, and the mighty rivers we reduce to feeble streams, we are intervening.

If we are comfortable watching and forgetting things like walruses dying horrible deaths because we do not think we should intervene in the wild, maybe we should have a closer look at our role and reflect on the part we have played and will continue to play. The question of how to intervene is a difficult one, but I believe we must begin to consider it.

Tom Houlden