Lindsey Paretti’s debut film Blood Island has been nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: Emerging Talent and Shorts. This 12-minute film tells the story of chimpanzees in Liberia which were infected with hepatitis and underwent testing in order to ‘unlock the mysteries of human diseases’. The experiments lasted for three decades before ending in 2007, however the remaining chimps – raised in captivity and still infected – were transported to remote islands in the West African country. Blood Island tells the powerful story of the chimpanzees, their captors and the people still fighting to save them.
We spoke to Lindsey about how she found making her first film and the recognition it has received.
Blood Island is your first production as a filmmaker but you have previously worked for almost 10 years as a journalist. What made you decide to put down a pen and pick up a camera?!
I picked up a camera, an iPhone actually, while I was living and reporting in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution. There were days when thousands of people were out protesting but state TV channels were broadcasting footage of empty streets. A lot of times you could only find out what was really going on by being physically present at any event, and even then it was chaotic with so many conflicting agendas and narratives. I realised that I had to go back to the basics of a journalist as a witness. Video evidence seemed both the most accessible and least controvertible way to show what was happening. It’s still why I love film; films have the power to reach everyone regardless of language or background.
The story behind the chimps and their banishment to remote islands is shocking, how did you first hear about it and come up with the idea for the film?
Actually it was right here in Bristol. I was looking for an idea for my master’s film when I attended a conservation talk at Bristol Zoo. The topic of the talk had nothing to do with the chimps, but I just heard someone say “blood chimps” and “Liberia” toward the end and it immediately piqued my interest. When I got home and started researching the story I just kept unearthing more and more surprising layers.
We heard you only had 2 and a half days to film in Liberia! How did you find filming in the country and did you have to contend with any interesting situations or unexpected curveballs?
I was actually terrified during the entire planning and filming process that it might not come together. Working to tight deadlines as a journalist definitely helped me to get what I needed on location, but the humidity did play with the cameras and mics. The drone stopped working (we ended up just using it handheld for some of the shots). It certainly wasn’t ideal but in other ways I was really lucky, especially with how strong the human and chimp characters turned out to be.
How does it feel to not only have won a BAFTA for your debut film, but also have two nominations for the ‘Green Oscars’ of natural world storytelling?
Pretty surreal. I was a volunteer at the last Wildscreen when I was just starting my MA in Wildlife Filmmaking in Bristol. I absolutely loved it and it was amazing hearing from the best people in this craft about their work, but I had no idea then I’d be returning as a nominee. It’s wonderful being embraced by BAFTA and the wildlife film industry here in Bristol. I’m just taking it as a sign we should keep pushing for more environmental impact stories on screen.
We are running an environmental film competition with Earthwatch Europe for 14-17 year olds; what advice would you give to a budding wildlife filmmaker just starting out?
Judging by the work of the young natural history photographers I’ve seen I don’t think they need my advice! I guess I’d say everyone has a different path to follow so use your own strengths to pursue your passion. Be generous, share your skills and don’t be afraid to reach out to people for help. I think we could take inspiration from young people – at that age you think you can change the world. We’re all going to need some of that passion and conviction if we hope to make a difference.
You can find out more about this incredible story by watching the entire film below:
Lindsey Parietti will be speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year: join host, Emanuelle Biggi, as he meets Lindsey and other emerging storytellers to discover what drives them to use their work to inspire stewardship of our wild things and wild places.
Rise Of The Warrior Apes is the award-winning wildlife documentary and a Panda Award nominee at this year’s Wildscreen Festival. The film, by James Reed, tells the twenty-year story of the largest and most powerful chimpanzee society ever known. Through the extraordinary lives of four unique chimps we experience an intense political drama and bloody conflict in the African jungle. Using previously unseen footage, and witness testimony from the scientists who have observed and filmed them since 1993, the film reveals a story of unbreakable friendship, fierce rivalry and unparalleled ambition that gave rise to the warrior apes of Ngogo.
John Mitani, a primate behaviourist and university professor, is one of the scientists featured in Rise of the Warrior Apes. John has studied the chimpanzees of Ngogo for over 20 years, after his first visit in 1995, and shares with us some of his experience.
John Mitani, University of Michigan Professor, in the Ugandan forest, home to the Ngogo chimpanzee community
During your years studying primate behaviour, what separates the chimpanzees from the other primates groups you have studied?
I started my career 40 years ago studying the two Asian apes, gibbons and orangutans. Gibbons live in small, socially monogamous groups, and orangutans often roam the forest by themselves. This limits the number and types of social relationships they can form.
Chimpanzees are quite different as they live in relatively large groups, ranging anywhere from 20 to 200 individuals, called “communities.” Male chimpanzees live in their natal communities their entire lives and form strong long-lasting social bonds with each other reinforced through a variety of behaviors, including grooming, helping each other in fights, and sharing scarce and valuable resources such as meat obtained in hunts.
Beyond this chimps also display a suite of unusual behaviors not often found in other primates. These include the previously mentioned hunting vertebrate prey, tool-making and use, and quite shockingly, killing other chimpanzees.
What were you looking for when you first followed the Ngogo community?
I had been conducting fieldwork with chimpanzees at the Mahale Mountains National Park for several years prior to visiting Ngogo in 1995. I was working with one of the pioneers in the study of wild chimpanzees, the late Toshisada Nishida.
I had every intention of continuing to work with Nishida, as he was a mentor, colleague, and dear friend, who taught me the ways of wild chimpanzees. I wanted to come to Ngogo because it was in Kibale National Park, one of the world’s legendary primate field sites, established by another friend, Tom Struhsaker. I just wanted to see the place. But after only a few weeks at Ngogo, I realized that there was something very strange there. There were a lot of chimpanzees, and they were everywhere! As things turn out, there were well over 100 chimpanzees in the Ngogo community. This was an order of magnitude larger than any other chimpanzee community that had been described before.
So the first question to address was how did so many chimpanzees manage to live together? And by doing so, would they reveal secrets of their lives that had not been documented elsewhere?
The initial challenge of studying the Ngogo chimpanzees was that they were not used to human presence. They would run away every time we would encounter them, it took considerable time to habituate them so that we could follow and observe their behavior. In those early days there were times I wondered if habituating them was the best use of my time. In retrospect, though, it was fun, stimulating, and ultimately rewarding.
What is your favourite aspect of your research?
Behavioral research on chimpanzees has been, and always will be, an observational science. So I enjoy spending long periods following chimpanzees and watching what they do. Occasionally, patience pays off with an “aha” moment that leads to a new discovery.
But now, having studied wild chimpanzees for nearly 30 years, I relish some magical, almost spiritual-like moments that are hard to describe. Imagine this: I am out alone with a large party of chimpanzees. There is an abundance of food, and there are perhaps 40, 50, maybe even 60 chimpanzees together. And it’s a glorious, dry, sunlit day. The chimpanzees have settled down to rest and socialize. Everywhere I look, there are chimpanzees on the ground. A few adult males groom. Moms relax and begin to doze off as their kids start to play. Some of the youngsters wrestle, laughing noisily in the process. Others chase each other in small saplings and then drop to the ground with a thud. I have experienced countless times like this, and as I survey the scene, I am overcome with utter joy.
I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world, and I feel that I am the luckiest person on Earth. Moments like these may be the most important reason I continue to study chimpanzees at the ripe old age of 64!
“I am astonished that the chimps permit me to be a part of their world”
What has been your most surprising observation? We have been able to document many surprising findings based on our study of the Ngogo chimpanzees, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to decide which observation has been the most astonishing. One obvious candidate is the split that has recently occurred.
Toward the end of Rise of the Warrior Apes we allude to the fact that the Ngogo chimpanzee community had grown to an astronomical size, with over 200 individuals. Since 2015, and during 2016 while James Reed filmed part of the documentary, males from two subgroups started to fight with each other in the same way members from different communities do. Like many other animals, chimpanzees are territorial. For three years as this was happening, some males would continue to move back and forth between the two subgroups. This stopped earlier this year; males from both sides now show a clear allegiance to one group or the other.
The defining moment that signalled a split in the Ngogo chimpanzee community occurred earlier this year in January 2018 when males from one group killed a young adult male from the other group. Because chimps are territorial, intergroup encounters are hostile, but sometimes hostilities escalate to the point where someone falls victim.
Why did the initial split occur? That’s an issue we are currently grappling with now. It’s complicated as it involves, ecological, demographic, social, and genetic factors. It’s also a story that deserves a follow-up documentary! Stay tuned.
Why is your research important and what are the applications to what you have found?
Chimpanzees fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike, in part due to their evolutionary relationship with us. Along with their sister species, the bonobo, chimpanzees are humankind’s closest living relatives. We shared a common ancestor with them sometime between 6 to 8 million years ago. Because of this evolutionary relationship, we share many features in common with them, anatomically, genetically, and as I’ve alluded to before, even behaviorally. Our research on the Ngogo chimpanzees continues to shed new light on wild chimpanzee behavior, often in surprising ways that reduce the gap between them and us.
Chimpanzees are endangered everywhere they are found across the African continent. Sadly, research on them continues to show, time in and time out, that they are extremely vulnerable and at risk, with populations declining. Happily, the story from Ngogo is different and indicates that when living in specific ecological conditions, chimpanzees can live a very long time, thrive, and actually increase in numbers. We will have to identify areas similar to Ngogo and work hard to protect them and chimpanzees so that our children, our children’s children, and generations into the future continue to share this planet with these fascinating creatures.
“An increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them”
What impact to do you hope Rise of the Warrior Apes has upon the field of primate studies?
Primate field research is a small and esoteric discipline. Not many are lucky to be able to do what I do. If the discipline is to grow and thrive, we must educate the public about what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important. Knowledge is power, and an increased understanding of chimpanzees is likely lead to more interest in protecting and conserving them.
There are multiple ways to engage the person on the street to learn about chimpanzees and other primates. Films like Rise of the Warrior Apes are perhaps the best way to teach the public about these animals because wildlife documentaries attract broad attention from people worldwide. So my first hope is that the film will translate in greater understanding of chimpanzees. This is bound to help the study of primates for the reason mentioned above.
Rise of the Warrior Apes was made by James Reed, a brilliant young filmmaker and master storyteller. All the credit for the film goes to him and to the Ngogo chimps. The film has already received some critical acclaim, and my second hope is that this will provide more opportunities for James to do what he does best, namely make and direct extraordinary wildlife films that educate the public. In doing so, he will be able to contribute to primate and animal behavior studies and conservation in a significant way.
This sounds incredibly exciting, we look forward to seeing what is released next – thank you John for your time!
John Mitani, alongside James Reed, will speaking at Wildscreen Festival 2018, held in Bristol later this year. You’ll be able to hear more of his work with The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project and James’ experience filming this amazing community.
Readers of the ARKive blog may remember that last year we featured a guest blog introducing the fantastic Barren Isles Project, which is working towards creating Madagascar’s largest locally-managed marine area (LMMA) in the Barren Isles. Recently Olivier Raynaud, the Barren Isles Project Coordinator, got in touch let us know how the project is progressing.
Head down under the rain the whole morning, bailing water out of the pirogue as it crashes back in at once, one can’t help but reflect on how this mission hasn’t quite gone to plan…
We’d originally set out for a two-week mission covering all of the nine islands and eight coastal villages which make up the Barren Isles, but now, just 6 days in, we’re headed home early, and let’s face it; this particular consultation trip to the Barren Isles has been less than successful. Uncooperative equipment was daunting enough, but a patch of unexpected inclement weather added insult to injury, forcing us to abort the mission and scramble back to the mainland.
In contrast to this undeniably disappointing mission, overall project development is relatively stable and encouraging, as we work our way towards Madagascar’s largest locally-managed marine area (LMMA) in the Barren Isles. If there’s anywhere that warrants protection in Madagascar’s coastal waters, it’s the Barren Isles archipelago. When out on the islands, I never miss a chance to duck in for a snorkel, and am always rewarded with pristine coral reefs teeming with fish. Despite hosting hundreds of migrant fishers every year, fish populations remain relatively in tact here, as the fishers, mostly coming from Madagascar’s southwest coast, are here in search of high-value sharks and sea cucumbers. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is why we’re engaging with local and migrant fishing communities, before these reefs and fish go the way of many of the reefs of southwest Madagascar. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for local shark and sea cucumber populations, which are already largely fished out.
The Malagasy government now has in its possession all the paperwork required to establish an official Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Barren Isles. Throughout the creation process, and beyond all the legal and scientific requirements, we, as project promoter, have gone to great lengths to ensure transparent and constant communication between all stakeholders by gathering together, on a regular basis, all actors relevant to the Barren Isles conservation initiative.
Indeed, strong community support and collaboration between stakeholders are the only chance for the MPA to be a success, as it will depend on local communities to both create and enforce the rules and regulations, in partnership with government representatives and industrial sectors.
Stakeholder meeting on the establishment of the Barren Isles Marine Protected Areas, Antananarivo
For instance, when the initial outline for the MPA perimeter overlapped with industrial shrimp fishing grounds, back-to-back delimitation propositions were exchanged between traditional fishermen and the national industrial fishing lobby (Groupement des Aquaculteurs et Pêcheurs de Crevettes de Madagascar – GAPCM). The negotiations reached a win-win compromise, where a considerable portion of the ecosystem is to become off limits to trawlers, hence allowing the regeneration of stocks, and in turn increasing the productivity of adjacent fishing grounds.
This MPA protection status will regulate external and industrial threats to the local marine resources. It will also provide a legal framework for the broader LMMA approach, through which local issues (such as destructive fishing practices) will be addressed by elaborating and implementing a marine dina – a set of rules agreed on and enforced by the community.
It is precisely in order to finalize this dina with the fishing communities that we headed back off to the isles on our ill-fated trip.
Perimeter of the future Barren Isles Marine Protected Area
Though the mission got off to a good start, with weather forecasts predicting clear skies and smooth sailing, by the second day it was quite apparent that the weather was not going to cooperate much longer. An evening thunderstorm on Nosy Lava put a serious damper on the open-air outreach activities we had planned- a mix of showing environmental documentaries, giving updates on the MPA creation process and fielding questions from the community- sending everyone running for cover. A downpour the following day, as well as confirmation that our resupply pirogue bringing fresh water from the mainland would not be able to make the trip, made up our minds, and so on the third day we headed out early, while the sea was still calm and the skies relatively clear.
After the very first leg of the trip, and its occasional waves actually crashing in the boat, our generator had already drowned. A day spent drying – as far as sitting disassembled in the ambient dampness can be called drying – and it was back to life; hopes were high! All the Nosy Dondosy fishermen gathered round, and… as we pulled the starter rope, it snapped. The final blow. Bummer.
Back home, after a quick stop for a – not so well-deserved but nonetheless necessary – hot pizza and icy beer (funny thing about being on the islands during inclement weather is that the fishers can’t go fishing, so our dinners were limited to rice and beans), and nothing left to do but pull ourselves up by the boot straps, plan another trip and keep our fingers crossed that this crazy atypical weather finally moves on to bother someone else… Heads Up!
By Olivier Raynaud, Barren Isles Project Coordinator
Lost things usually turn up in the last place you expect to find them. Car keys behind the fridge. Glasses in a plant pot. But the last thing I expected to find in a rubbish bin in the Western Ghats of India was something last seen the year “The Empire Strikes Back” hit the big screen. Yet, as I slowly lifted the lid covering a small plastic bin in the kitchen of our retreat, I am not sure who was more surprised: me or the frog that started bouncing from wall to wall like a pinball.
And so it was that the Silent Valley tropical frog (Micrixalus thampii) was rediscovered after 30 years. It was an auspicious start to the ‘Lost! Amphibians of India’ campaign, inspired by the global Search for Lost Frogs and launched just two days earlier at the University of Delhi.
There is something especially rewarding about finding something you thought was lost. I always appreciate house keys a little more after they have been missing. And so it is with amphibians – finding species that we thought were gone provides a rare good news story and offers a second chance at survival. And why is it important? It is important because amphibians are at the forefront of a Sixth Great Extinction – the largest since the dinosaurs left our planet. It is an unprecedented opportunity to understand why some species survive while those around are disappearing. Knowledge of what makes a species resilient to the driving forces of extinction could help us stem the crisis and maintain our lifeline to a healthy future.
But as teams of scientists set out on an unprecedented collaborative global effort to search for lost species in August last year, I really didn’t know what to expect. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned that all teams would come back empty handed. The field reports started pouring in; so evocative and dripping with enthusiasm that I felt like I was right there with them, wading up streams and turning logs. I was transported from the high Andes of Chile to the dense jungles of Cameroon and Malaysia. It was exhilarating. I quickly became immersed in the thrill of the chase. The sense of anticipation was incredible, and the element of exploration ignited a childlike curiosity in the world around us. The passion from all the teams was contagious and inspiring.
And then there were moments of unadulterated joy. On Saturday 4th September I opened my inbox to find an email from N’Goran Koume, sent from a cybercafé in Danané, Ivory Coast. “Dear Robin, Yes, it is fantastic. The Mount Nimba reed frog has been found after 43 years!” I almost fell out of my chair. The excitement in the email was palpable. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
Although the successes were few and far between, each was like a generous shot of tequila (the good stuff).
Last seen in 1967, the Mount Nimba reed frog was found by researchers 2010 as part of the Search for Lost Frogs campaign.
I was also lucky enough to accompany teams of local and international herpetologists into the field to join the search. I clambered around steep hillsides in Colombia, drove through rivers to reach craggy peaks in Haiti, and came face-to-face with elephants in India. Long hours of searching for creatures that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to not be seen only strengthened my respect and admiration for the people that are dedicating their lives to understanding our planet and its fascinating inhabitants. I was bowled over by the dedication of local scientists and reminded that we should never underestimate the knowledge of local communities, who frequently steered search teams in the right direction.
Now that the Search For Lost Frogs has come to a close, it is time to reflect on what it means for amphibians and for us. The rediscoveries are significant. We are working with local partners in Ecuador toward the protection and monitoring of the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad that clings onto survival in one stream. Through the ‘Lost! Amphibians of India’ campaign we have forged partnerships and created a platform to catalyze conservation efforts in the forests of the Western Ghats, one of the richest and most threatened habitats on earth.
The Critically Endangered Rio Pescado stubfoot toad
But what about the species that were not found? More than nine out of ten of the species searched for did not turn up. Without wanting to sound like a Debbie Downer, it is a sobering reality that many of these species may be gone forever. They are sounding an alarm that the ecosystems upon which they, and we, depend for survival are sick. It is up to us – anyone who cares – to do something about it. Whether it is helping to protect the last home of the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad, or spreading the word about the amphibian extinction crisis and why we should care. While time is of the essence, with each rediscovery comes a reassurance that it is not too late. Let’s not wait until it is.
Despite the fact that human well-being is intrinsically linked to the natural world, our planet is still very much an unexplored place, and our knowledge of the world’s threatened species and habitats is often inadequate for effective conservation action.
In 2008, a team of leading scientists and conservationists began to tackle this problem by creating Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), with the aim of documenting and protecting our planet’s biodiversity.
After suffering dramatic declines, the Endangered hog deer now survives in small populations scattered across South and Southeast Asia.
GWC is founded on the principle that science-based decisions are crucial for the long-term protection of the world’s species and habitats. In collaboration with conservation organisations, universities, museums, government agencies, and especially local experts and organisations, GWC initiates conservation action in the most biologically important and threatened areas on the planet. The organisation’s scientists endeavor to use novel and innovative strategies to identify those habitats and species most in need of conservation.
“GWC and partners are actively pursuing wildlife and ecosystem conservation based upon sound science and collaborative efforts, with the knowledge that biodiversity conservation is fundamental to maintaining life on this planet, including humanity.” Wes Sechrest, Ph.D. Chief Scientist and CEO.
Rediscovering lost species
One of GWC’s inaugural missions was to conduct biodiversity surveys and identify priority sites for conservation in Southeast Asia, starting with southwest Cambodia, a biologically rich but poorly documented region. The Cambodia expedition produced many encouraging results, including the rediscovery of a population of hog deer long thought lost – one of only two populations in the whole of Southeast Asia – and the first records of the hairy-nosed otter – the world’s rarest otter – for the area. More recently, GWC has helped ARKive to develop and authenticate some of our species profiles.
The hairy-nosed otter, the world's rarest otter.
One of GWC’s largest undertakings to date has been ‘The Search for Lost Amphibians’ campaign in collaboration with the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group and Conservation International. Whilst searching across Africa, Latin America and Asia for 100 amphibian species deemed ‘lost’ due to their lack of recent sightings, GWC has so far helped rediscover three species and document three more entirely new species, including a possible new type of beaked toad now known as the Simpsons toad due to its startling resemblance to the villainous character Mr. Burns from the television series.
Interview with Wes Sechrest, Chief Scientist and founder of Global Wildlife Conservation
What is your background, and what motivated you to create GWC?
I am a conservation biologist by training, with an emphasis on combining academic research and applied conservation in endangered species and habitat conservation. My focus has been on identifying global priorities for biodiversity conservation and implementing crucial field work to promote on-the-ground conservation efforts. I founded GWC to support the incredible efforts of the best and brightest minds in conservation. My colleagues and I have formed a dynamic organisation that is strategically and operationally based upon the work of many influential past and present field scientists and conservationists. The core mission of biodiversity conservation is fundamental to all of our projects, with a strong emphasis on partnering with like-minded individuals and institutions across the world. GWC is a vehicle for action, a think tank that acts to conserve the most endangered species and ecosystems.
What have been GWC’s most important and rewarding findings so far?
GWC’s most important and rewarding finding is that there has been a massive gap in global conservation efforts, which GWC and partners have begun to fill. This entails promoting exploration, research, and on-the-ground conservation efforts with local institutions. We have ignited a global effort, strongly partnered with experts and institutions in critical countries such as India, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, and Cambodia, among others. GWC helps provide a launching platform to combine global efforts with field-based action, amplifying and expanding the possibilities in biodiversity conservation.
What projects is GWC planning now?
We have a suite of new conservation projects coming online, including initiatives in Central and South America to help protect the last remaining tracts of unique cloud forest. We are also partnering on a novel initiative to tackle conservation in the Caribbean, starting with the incredibly diverse Massif de la Hotte in Haiti. Additionally, the search for both ‘lost’ and new species continues, particularly in the tropics, where there remains much to discover and more to conserve. We are continuing the support of individuals and institutions that share GWC’s mission and values, which has helped to amplify conservation efforts in several countries over the last few years.
What role do you think films and photos have in promoting conservation?
Conservationists and scientists often have trouble communicating what they discover and see in the field, and images and film can go a long ways towards bringing increased knowledge to those who have not experienced time in a cloud forest, desert, or coral reef. To save species, we need to understand their habitats, behaviors, and threats. Without communication efforts, the decline of species can be nearly invisible to people, and making these potential losses visible is important to prevent long-term consequences to humanity and the planet. I have been thoroughly impressed by the efforts of ARKive in promoting and spreading conservation knowledge to people around the world.