A group of Rhesus macaques in Jaipur, India.
The BBC America documentary series Planet Earth II has taken us from jungles to deserts, from mountains to grasslands, and its finale episode is the most powerful yet. Airing this Saturday, “Cities” is all about how animals and humans have come to live side-by-side, whether it’s mutually beneficial or a one-sided adaptation.
Vulture spoke to producer Dr. Fredi Devas, a wildlife filmmaker whose pedigree includes a Ph.D. on Chacma baboons in Namibia and working on Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor, about making the “Cities” episode, racing through the streets of Jaipur to film monkey raids, and the “very, very alarming” threats facing the natural world.
Let’s talk monkeys. The langur battle in Jodhpur looked intense.
It took nine months to get our permits just to film in India. The alpha male tends to hold onto his troop of females for around two and a half years, so we have a decent amount of time to film these series. I was in touch with the scientists and we went out there at the time, roughly around two and a half years into his tenure of the group. Of course, sometimes they lose a troop after a year and a half, sometimes it’s three and a half years. There’s huge variations. But we were very, very lucky that there was a huge amount of pressure from the bachelor males at that very time we ended up in the area.
How did you get the shots of them on the roof?
We have to gamble. Then the key thing is to allow yourself enough time to be able to capture the behavior. At the start of each day, we’d knock on someone’s door before dawn and ask if we could go up onto their rooftop, up near where the langurs were sleeping in the tree. Then the langurs would come down and we’d track them. Sometimes, they could be so fast during these chases we’d have to run down five stories through someone’s house, run along the trees and look up. Then, try and get an idea of where they were heading and go knock on someone’s door to ask, “Please, please, please, can we run up through the stairs? All through your living room, your bedrooms, everything, and come onto your roof?” It was amazing how generous people were.
These monkeys seem so used to humans. How did you make sure you didn’t get in the way of their normal behaviors?
On any wildlife shoot, you have to try and assess what impact you’re having. The moment you’re influencing your behavior, then you’re not getting the footage that you want to get. In certain wilderness settings that can mean that you spend a lot of time habituating the animals so that they ignore you before you capture the shots you need. But these city monkeys especially didn’t bat an eyelid at all at us.
What about the macaques in Jaipur that raid the markets everyday?
There’s one house there that has been squatted [in] by a group of macaques for the last five years. It had people in there before, but they just couldn’t handle the macaques! They moved out and the macaques moved in. They own a piece of the real estate! We were able to see them go to the food market. They do the same tricks each day, so you get an idea of what’s likely to happen and get your cameras in place.
I love that the shopkeepers are just used to them at this point.
It’s something I asked the shopkeepers about a lot. It’s really, really strange. Sometimes they’re okay with it and other times they’re shooing them away. It must be quite confusing for the monkeys, as well. The langurs are just treated beautifully by people. They’re very regal in the way they accept food, whereas the macaques are a bit more gnarly. Store owners get bitten by them every now and again. Then they each go and pay for rabies shots, which are expensive. There is a real threat there!
In next week’s behind-the-scenes special, there’s a bit about how you rigged the cameras to fly alongside the monkeys. How did that work?
We’re mainly working around one troop that was squatting in a house. Then they would take a regular path in the morning to the market. Once we understood their path, we were able to pick off where we were going to rig the cable dolly. Then it was just a question of asking the homeowners if they were okay with us attaching the cables and making sure it was safe and wouldn’t fall on anyone.
We were just able to fly the camera along. In other habitats, people are using drones more and more. But the concerns of flying a drone with a very heavy camera in a really highly dense urban environment wasn’t comfortable. There are risk involved and it would be terrible if something went wrong. The cable dolly is really secure.
Was there a particularly hard moment to watch or capture?
Filming the fight between the alpha male and the bachelor male was very challenging. It was physically demanding running up and down stairs, running alongside streets, trying to keep up with them and get the shot.
It doesn’t always work out to be so mutually beneficial. What about those baby turtles?
It is tough. I felt it was very important to have the turtle sequence in the film because the film was mainly about looking at those really surprising examples of the animals that are overcoming the challenge of living in urban environments. They’re not just surviving. Some of them are really thriving.
But to make a film just with that in it would be really naïve. The turtles were really emblematic for all the species that have suffered enormously because of urban development and urban sprawl. Normally in wildlife, if things are happening to animals then the rule is that you don’t get involved. I thought it was very different for the turtle hatchlings because it’s human life that has caused the problem. And so, every single turtle hatchling that was filmed in that sequence was collected and released back into the sea. We worked really closely with a conservation organization and they’ve got a handful of volunteers that work tirelessly through the night. We were able to document what was happening to the turtles and the moment we’d get our shot then it would be, “Okay, great. Now let’s collect the before…”
Before they’re squished.
The only thing was, when you’re looking at when [the] crabs met the turtle hatchlings, that’s a natural phenomenon.
Those guys didn’t make it. How long did this take from start to finish?
It’s coming up to four years of working on it. Four years to make one hour of TV.
Let’s say another Planet Earth comes out in ten years. What would you like to see in it?
That’s really difficult to answer. There are things like the stabilization rate getting better, the cameras getting smaller, the low-light cameras getting better so you can film under moonlight and starlight. But what we’re looking at in the next ten years is just potentially very devastating for the natural world. Just looking at the speed at which forests are being cut down, it’s very, very alarming.