A Trying Endeavor
I was born in India, and grew up there. It was an idyllic childhood, and kindled my love of the natural world. As a boy, I remember travelling through jungles with my father. My father carefully explained to me how you catch an elephant. First, you look at the elephant through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, then pick it up with tweezers, and finally put it in a jam jar. Now, when my children ask me about my job, that is what I tell them. I think it is a fairly accurate description of what a natural history filmmaker does.
India doesn't make sense unless you understand the Himalayas. Without the Himalayas, India would be a desert. The Himalayas give India its life -- both naturally and spiritually.
Being brought up in the shadow of the Himalayas has had a profound affect upon me. I am drawn back year after year as if attached by elastic bands. The subcontinent casts a spell no other place on earth can equal.
When I heard about the Living Edens series, I knew immediately this was something I wanted to be involved with. Natural history filmmakers have done a lot for environmental awareness. There cannot be a person in the West unaware of acid rain, global warming, deforestation, habitat loss and the extinction of species. But there comes a point when such messages become counterproductive. Audiences are left feeling helpless. Conservation fatigue occurs. What I found so attractive about the Living Edens series was that it set out to celebrate the natural world. We need to be reminded of what we have, of what still exists, to be persuaded why it is worth saving.
If there is any country on Earth that qualifies as an Eden -- not just in part, but in its entirety -- I believe it is Bhutan. This tiny kingdom has the highest original forest cover of any nation. In less than 100 kilometers (60 miles), Bhutan rises 25,000 feet from the subtropical jungles of the south to the arctic cold of the high Himalayas. This extraordinary range of conditions, packed into such a small area, makes Bhutan very special. Combined with all these riches is an underlying conservation ethic, embedded deep in Bhutan's Buddhist culture and in the hearts and minds of the ordinary man and woman.
I had been lucky enough to travel through Bhutan, and had become good friends with one of the princesses of the royal family. Filming permissions are closely controlled, but with Princess Khendhum's support, we managed to get into places normally closed to all outsiders. When I asked if there was anything that I could do in return for all the help we had received, Princess Khendhum asked if I would bring out an old English sheepdog puppy. He is now huge and called Morgan after he Welsh farmer I bought him from. An old English sheep dog born in Wales, living in Bhutan. A very mixed-up dog, but very happy. Morgan has someone whose only duty in life is to comb his long coat. He probably thinks he died and went to heaven.
Bhutan presents some formidable logistical challenges to the traveler. It has only been open to tourists since the late 60s. You can count the number of roads fit for motoring on one hand. So when you travel off the main routes, you go on foot with ponies and yaks. After leaving the last road, it took nearly a week to trek to our first filming location in the northwest corner of the Kingdom. It is the most isolated place I have ever been.
Yaks have been described as "semi-domesticated" highland oxen. Semi-domesticated is stretching a point. One of the first things you learn is not to turn your back on a yak. They are the toughest animals I have ever encountered. I saw one fall off a cliff, roll 200 feet, get up, shake itself, and carry on. Even more astonishingly, the camera it was carrying in a Pelican Case still worked.
We spent some time camping with nomads. The hardness of their lives put any of our minor discomforts into perspective. We were filming during the monsoon, and it rained every day. Bhutan is one of the wettest places on the planet. When it rains, it really rains. The memory of dry clothes became increasingly distant, and by the time we got back to civilization and a hot shower, we all smelled like old yaks.
Bhutan is a magical place, and sometimes the line between fact and fiction gets a bit blurred. The natural and the mythic worlds exist side by side as easy neighbors.
We were filming black-necked cranes in central Bhutan. Each year, these birds leave the Tibetan plateau and fly south to winter in Bhutan. According to local belief, the birds are sacred, considered reincarnate beings that come back to our world to help other souls to enlightenment. When you discover that these cranes can live over 80 years -- twice the life expectancy of the average Bhutanese -- the reasons for the respect in which they are held make more sense.
Each year, I was told the cranes would arrive on exactly the same day and fly three times around the monastery that stands on a hill above their marsh -- always in a clockwise direction. The significance of this is that it is the ritual performed by every Buddhist pilgrim on arriving at a sacred place. To my astonishment, this is more or less what happened. The cranes arrived as foretold on a particular day and flew thrice around the ancient Gantey Gompa monastery, their arrival celebrated by the monks.
There is of course a rational explanation; the cranes' migration is fixed by the lunar calendar. The monastery, being the highest feature in the landscape, is the point they navigate by. But somehow, I preferred the Bhutanese explanation.
In the course of making the film, we tramped over the whole country. We crossed passes at over 18,000 feet, forded icy streams and negotiated glaciers. The altitude made life difficult. Everything becomes difficult. Chris, one of the cameramen, came down with mountain sickness, which can be very serious. Night was falling, and it was raining hard. The path behind us got washed away and we had no choice but to put up our tents. I woke Chris every hour to make sure he was okay and to give him diamox, a helpful medication. We had been to university together and went back a long way. His wife is a doctor, and had written up an emergency plan for various eventualities. For mountain sickness, she had written, "Descend immediately, or death will follow." It was a sleepless night. When morning came, Chris was fine. I was exhausted.
It is every producer's worst nightmare to have any serious accident on a shoot, let alone a fatality. But natural history filmmaking carries certain risks. The animals are not in cages, which of course is the point. They are wild. You are frequently a long way from anywhere, from any telephone or hospital. If things go wrong, they can go very badly wrong.
Our final shoot was in Manas, a national park on the southern border with India. I was in long grass with the cameraman Martin Saunders (arguably the most experienced wildlife cameraman working) and one of my closest Indian friends, Deb Roy, who I believe knows more about the ecology of India and the Himalayas than anyone else.
We were trying to film the very rare and very shy pygmy hog. What emerged from the grass instead was an enormous bull buffalo.
The pure blood Asiatic buffalo numbers only a few thousand remaining animals. It has the biggest horns of any animal alive. It stands over 6 feet at the shoulder and weighs in at well over a ton. It is also very aggressive. According to Hindhu mythology, the buffalo is the transport of Yamraj, the God of Death. They are very unpredictable and frightening creatures.
The bull charged. Martin and I had nowhere to run. The forest guard with us tried to load his rifle, but the bolt jammed. We froze behind the camera.
We will never know what would have happened if one of the mahouts -- the men who ride domestic elephants -- had not shouted a warning at that moment. The bull, which seemed to me to be coming straight for us in dreadful slow-motion, swung around and charged at the noise. The man was thrown high in the air and came down like a rag doll on the buffalo's back. The man was called Saurang Boro. He was the Head Mahout of Manas and had been in the jungles all of his life. His son was on a forestry elephant nearby. The elephant, a huge tusker, charged and drove off the buffalo, and again it came toward us, snorting with rage. Someone fired over its head and it galloped into the undergrowth. It had taken 30 seconds, but Saurang Boro was fatally injured and died of a hemorrhage in the hospital the next day. I felt devastated. We considered abandoning the shoot. But if we had abandoned it, Saurang Boro would have died for nothing.
Martin Saunders and I went back to his village with his body. The funeral was held the next day. We did what we could for the family and made sure they would be all right financially, having lost their father and breadwinner.
A year after Saurang's death, I went back to meet his widow. We sat by the banks of the river Bhramaputra as the sun set. Deb Roy translated. I gave Mrs. Boro a gravestone which had been made in Delhi (the family were in fact Christians like many other tribal peoples of the northeast). I brought out a wind-up radio and a videocassette of the film. We made sure she would have enough to live on and that her daughters could afford their weddings. It all seemed hopelessly inadequate.
The film "Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La" was dedicated to Saurang Boro, the
Head Mahout of Manas. No one will ever know, but I think Saurang Boro knew what would
happen when he shouted that warning -- a warning, which I believe, saved my life.