That’s not a jungle

Last night I watched the episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth II on jungles, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and it’s provoked me into a rant. Now I’m well aware that any criticism, even indirect, of Sir David is likely to stir a backlash, so I’ll get the disclaimers in early. TV nature documentaries serve a number of functions, of which the most important is to entertain. In this regard the series is an undoubted success. The spectacular footage of the natural world is dazzling, and will inspire a new generation of naturalists, ecologists and taxonomists.

Nevertheless, there is another function, which is to inform and educate. The balance between the two is difficult to strike; the dry tones of an academic lecture would hardly boost viewing figures, and this is no place to be showing data. It is still important, however, to convey the correct impression, and in this the choice of terminology and manner of presentation are crucial. Hence my great discomfort at the use of the word ‘jungle’. At the end I’ll explain why this matters to those of us who care about forests.

junglebook

The Jungle Book is another example of conflation of distinct biotas. Ostensibly set in India, but there is nowhere on earth (outside a zoo) where you will find this combination of species. Also, look how sparse the canopy cover is.

What is a jungle? There is no accepted vegetation type known as ‘jungle’, and you won’t find it used in the scientific literature. The whole episode of Planet Earth II was in some doubt about what the term ought to mean. Segments switched from tropical rain forests — and Sir David frequently talked as if this was the accepted definition of ‘jungle’ — to dry forests, igapo*, and subtropical forests. By the end it was clear that the producers felt the word ‘jungle’ to be defined in popular imagination as ‘place with lots of big trees’.

Perhaps that is what most people have in mind when you say ‘jungle’, and it’s consistent with the dictionary definition, although the word also applies to such disparate entities as a musical genre and the former refugee camp in Calais. The irony is that the original derivation was quite different. The Hindi word jangal could be applied to any uncultivated ground or wasteland, encompassing everything from forests to deserts. Going further back, the Sakskrit jangala refers to an arid area with sparse trees. Of course the meanings of words drift through time and with their transfer between cultures, but this only reinforces my point that the word jungle can mean many things to different people. This leads onto my second gripe.

There is no such thing as ‘the jungle’, in the same way as there is no single thing called ‘the’ tropical rain forest. Every tropical forest is as different from one another as they are from any temperate forest. This point is the main message of Corlett & Primack’s excellent and strongly-recommended book Tropical Rain Forests, which itself only reinforces the lessons of earlier books by the late Tim Whitmore and Peter Richards, and I could go back further. We’ve known this for centuries.

Now in fairness to Sir David, he does use the plural ‘jungles’, but many of the segments failed to even mention the locations where filming had taken place. This serves to obfuscate and trick the unwary viewer into believing that all these species can be found together in some common, unitary habitat. The three photos below come from forests in Africa, Australia and Malaysia. Though they are all recognisably forests (call them jungles if you like), the similarity is superficial, and there is unlikely to be any single species of plant or animal in common among them.

Why does this matter? Perhaps at this point you’re thinking that I’m an academic pedant, preciously guarding the intellectual high-ground against any incursions from enjoyable, popular culture. You’d be right. But there’s a serious motive behind my rant, which is that the conflation of so many habitats and biomes around the world diminishes the importance of their diversity, variety and local particularity. As part of the segment on indri, Sir David noted the rapid rate of deforestation in Madagascar. But one rain forest is not the same as another. The loss of a hectare of rain forest in the Philippines will lead to the loss of a completely different set of species than one in the Western Ghats or the Brazilian coastal forest. Each biome has its own distinct composition and threats. By blurring forests into a composite, we lose the appreciation of the value that any single one has in particular.

The audience of this series includes viewers in countries around the world. The real work of conservation takes place on the ground, in the places that host all this diversity. One of the challenges of environmental education and outreach is to get people to care about the diversity on their doorstep. By making forests more abstract, they become more distant and less relevant, even whilst appearing in your living room. It matters to say where particular species are found, because they can provoke interest and pride in the host nations whose citizens have the greatest power to ensure their ongoing survival. It’s not just any forest — it’s your forest.

What should we do? If you’ve been inspired by Planet Earth II — and I’m sure that many have — then take it as an entry to learning more about the enormous diversity within and between forests around the world, and what makes the forests in your own area so special. If you’re an educator, at whatever level, then use the brilliant BBC materials as a starting point. Then tell your students about how much more diverse, ingenious and spectacular nature is than even the most high-definition TV screen can ever convey, and to go out and see it for themselves.


* Thanks to fellow forest ecologist Sophie Fauset, who corrected my initial post, in which I’d called it varzea. Extra pedant points to her!

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11 thoughts on “That’s not a jungle

  1. Simon Tarr

    So, I’ve been having a think about your post on the way from from work. I agree with everything you say above but would also like to add a few (rambling) thoughts of my own.

    I’m an avid documentary watcher. It doesn’t matter what the subject is (although I have limits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-N_r4JVhXo) I’ll generally watch it. What I’ve noticed from watching physics/cosmology documentaries in particular is that I come away having felt like I’ve learnt some actual *hard* science. When I watch a nature documentary, whether it’s made by the BBC, PBS or ABC, I feel that I’ve mainly watched some (admittedly interesting) animals and a subset of their behaviours. I haven’t learnt much, if anything, about the wider ecology of that species, ecosystem or habitat. I’d like to make it very clear that I’m in no way taking a swipe at animal behaviour- it’s a fascinating topic in its own right but I do feel there’s so much more to biology/ecology that documentary filmmakers aren’t exploiting*.

    An exception to the above point is this documentary I found last week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00zv8w8/the-truth-about-lions-1-the-social-cat

    What was fascinating about this wasn’t the footage of the animals themselves but about the theories and hypotheses regarding how and why sociality may have evolved in lions. It was so much more than your regular natural history documentary from the BBC- it rather took me surprise! I’d encourage anyone reading this to watch it.

    I suppose my point is this; I’d like to see more documentaries that don’t just state that competition is a powerful force in nature (like yesterday evening’s Planet Earth episode) but actually take some time to explain how we think competition really plays out in nature (maybe the differences between inter- and intraspecific competition would be a good starting point?). Competition is just one facet of course. You could easily extent this to disease, predation, parasitism etc etc etc. Perhaps the reason no one does this is because it will reveal how little ecologists actually know (ahem!)….but I think it would be worth a shot. I think a deeper understanding of biology and ecology is really important in 2016 and beyond and I’m not sure that natural history documentaries in their current form convey this**.

    * I should probably point out that my avid documentary watching habits and the fact that I’m an ecology PhD student will leave me rather biased in this regard. Perhaps I have selective hearing during some documentaries as I already know about certain topics, so fail to see that they’re novel and exciting to many others.

    ** Entirely possible I’ve missed many of these more in-depth nature documentaries.

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Simon, I broadly agree with you, and have raised this with TV producers in the past. It’s something of an annoyance to me that in ecology the science is reduced to pure spectacle, which gives the viewer little insight into the process behind it. I think we do understand a large amount about how the natural world is organised, and why animals have evolved particular behaviours. Some shows have tried to move beyond this, but always by means of showing individual species as oddities (e.g. Weird Nature) rather than providing a coherent overview. There appears to be a large gap in the market!

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      1. Simon Tarr

        I was being rather flippant when mentioned how little we know. I agree we do understand a lot about the organisation of nature- especially if you were to turn this into a nature documentary. Sounds like you ought to hassle a few more producers!

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  2. Manu Saunders

    Great post. Popular media producers often think they need to dumb down complexity to make it accessible to a broader audience – I think this approach backfires. Part of learning a science is learning the language!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Manu! I wonder whether physicists or geologists also complain about the depth of coverage of their own fields. We are, I suppose, lucky that natural history occupies prime-time slots in TV schedules, so we shouldn’t moan too much. Maybe there’s room to do both?

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  3. jeffollerton

    Good post Markus and a point well made. I’d add another vegetation type to the list of those covered by the programme – montane evergreen forest, the only place you’d find sword-billed hummingbird.

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  4. Pingback: Tarzan on Ecosystem Services – Ecology is not a dirty word

  5. Sean McCann

    I though the same thing watching the “Jungle” episode. Particularly galling is the cute with jaguars, toucans, then all the sudden a leaf-tailed gecko…
    BTW, say hi to Sophie for me, we met at Nouragues in 2012!

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  6. Billy Burton

    Great post! I agree with your points entirely. What are your thoughts on the controversial criticsm of Planet Earth II that came to light last week? As opposed to the detail of the documentary, it’s the overall ‘type’ and content of the documentary that has been challenged. I did a blog on it here- http://wp.me/p6pJA1-ya .

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      My opinion is similar to your own: the article was deliberately provocative, but he did have a point. By focussing only on supposedly pristine habitats, these documentaries give a false impression of both the accessibility and extent of intact natural systems. It also serves to implicitly devalue the majority of habitats across the planet, which are impacted by humans to varying degrees, but still have enormous value. While Attenborough no doubt inspired many to study the natural world, this focus has led to a bias towards chasing after ‘wild’ nature rather than taking advantage of the things on our doorstep. It can be hard to persuade students that novel or urban ecosystems are just as valid areas for research, and probably more important, than remote preserves.

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      1. jeffollerton

        One of the things that irritated me about the series was that reference to conservation issues was very patchy and unbalanced. So, for example, lots of concern about deforestation in “Jungles” [sic] but no mention at all (that I heard) of loss of habitat in “Grasslands”, a far more threatened habitat.

        Regarding your last point, Markus, I was quite impressed with the last episode on urban habitats, so perhaps this will foster some change in that regard. Though we don’t have a lot of monkeys in British cities 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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