Sep 11

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.

Image result for blood island film

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.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of speakers!

Sep 4

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.

Visit the Wildscreen Festival website for more information and our full list of speakers!

 

Feb 15

The race to become crowned as the World’s Most Unloved Species was hotly contested, once again, this year with 19 nominated species in the running.  After 12 days of fierce competition, impassioned pitches and over 4,500 votes, the top 10 was announced on Valentine’s Day.

But slithering into first place… it’s the Galapagos racer!

Often demonised, the Galapagos racer shot to fame during the BBC’s 2016 series Planet Earth II.  They are one of a few endemic snakes found in the Galapagos and can grow to a maximum of 125 centimetres.  However, little is known about the Galapagos racer and there is even confusion over the number of species or subspecies of racer snakes found in the Galapagos.  The Galapagos racer is already locally extinct on Floreana Island and are threatened following the introduction of cats and pigs onto neighbouring islands which forage for their eggs.

All the nominated species are worthy winners, and were chosen as they are often overshadowed and overlooked by the more cute, handsome and (supposedly) interesting members of the natural world.  But which species pulled at the public’s heartstrings the most and made it into the top 10?  Here’s a quick rundown:

Wombling into second place, it’s the bare-nosed wombat.  Also known as the ‘common wombat’ this furry marsupial may no longer be as ‘common’ as its namesake suggests, as the population battles an increasing number of fatal road strikes and the deadly skin condition mange.

Flying into third, and in the highest place a bird has had in this contest, it’s the lappet-faced vulture.  Definitely not noted for their cuddly nature, these birds have been known to take on jackals to defend a carcass!

In fourth place we dive underneath the waves with the first shark to enter the top 10!  The shortfin mako is a speed machine, capable of reaching 35 kilometres an hour and even having the power to launch itself clear out of the water.

At number five we have the Asian elephant.  Despite having had a close relationship with man over the centuries these giants are facing a number of threats including poaching and habitat loss, and are often overlooked by their larger African relatives.

Hopping into the top 10 at number six is the common toad.  Firmly rooted in English folklore and culture this gardener’s friend is another species with an unfortunate name as populations have taken a dramatic downturn declining by 68% over the last 30 years.

The ‘lucky number seven’ spot is taken by the red squirrel.  However this iconic species is not so lucky, facing habitat fragmentations, disease and competition with the grey squirrel, introduced into the UK in the 1870s.

Coming up in eighth place is the aye-aye.  Not known for its dashing good looks, this primate has been considered an omen of bad luck resulting in persecution by the Malagasy people!

Looking fine at nine is the Copan brook frog.  The second amphibian in the top 10, this tiny frog could be easily hidden if it wasn’t for its bright, lime green colouration.

And last but by no means least, it’s the blue shark.  This sleek apex predator is instantly recognisable as it moves gracefully through the water however it is one of the most heavily fished sharks in the world, with an estimated 15-20 million caught every year.

To find out more about these species and the work being done to research and conserve them, visit the results page here.

Jul 30

Denise Spaan is the Field Station Coordinator and Conservation Education Manager for The Little Fireface Project which was set up to help protect the slow loris in Indonesia. We caught up with Denise to ask her more about this fascinating species and the important work being done to conserve it.

How did you get into science / conservation and what do you love most about the work you do? What are the challenges you face?

From a young age I have lived in many countries, including primate range countries such as Ivory Coast and Rwanda. It is there that I developed an interest in animals but was also faced with the reality of poverty. I saw conservation issues up close. At school I was very interested in biology and went on to study zoology as my undergraduate degree. When presented with the option of doing a placement year I jumped at the opportunity to study chimpanzees at a rescue centre in the Netherlands. Whilst there, I was introduced to the welfare issues associated with primate pets and gained an interest in wildlife trade. My final year module of Conservation Biology affirmed what I had seen when I was younger and made me want to become a conservationist. I went on to do a Masters degree at Oxford Brookes University in Primate Conservation. It is there that I developed the skills needed to become a conservationist and primate researcher. It was also there that I was introduced to the plight of the slow loris.

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Javan slow loris awareness © Wawan Tarniwan

What I love about the work I do is the versatility that it offers. I am involved in all aspects of the work that the Little Fireface Project does in Java. Seeing the children’s faces light up when we tell them what we have planned for them that day is extremely rewarding. What I love most is seeing them learn and seeing how, every week, they remember more about the slow loris. My nights in the forest with the lorises fill me with admiration and wonder. Learning about a species is one thing, but then seeing them in the wild is very special.

Challenges come in many forms. Some are small, such as the drinking water tank needing to be refilled (we manage to spill water every time), and others are larger challenges. Recently we found a civet trap on one of the paths used by the lorises. Lorises are very vulnerable to such traps and will get caught in them, and of course we are here to instil love for all the wild animals, meaning the civets too. At moments like that it is important to act fast, deactivate the trap, and think up an appropriate education programme. Within one week we had a volunteer draw some civet colouring pages and we went to talk to the farmers.

Why do you think Arkive is important?

Arkive is a wonderful reference tool for professionals, students, and everyday people with an interest in the world.  The information is presented in such a way that is more accessible to a broader audience. Scientists often struggle to present their data to the public so that it can be easily understood.  Arkive is a wonderful reference that presents solid scientific facts, beautiful photos, videos, and references.  This is a wonderful way to unite scientists and animal-lovers across the globe.

Javan slow loris

What can people do to help slow lorises?

Slow lorises are often made victims of their own cuteness. Because of their big eyes and soft fur, many people think that they would make a good pet. Many tourists are not aware of the critical state in which lorises exist. Therefore, one of the most important things anyone can do is not to buy a loris in an animal market. By buying a loris you endorse the trade and as most are wild-caught, you thereby endorse taking animals from the wild. Additionally, many lorises are used in the photo prop trade. Please don’t have your photo taken with a loris when on holiday in places like Thailand, or buy it thinking you can simply hand it over to a rescue centre – there is always a new one ready to take its place on the streets.

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Two bleached long tailed macaques in Jatinegara market in Jakarta. We perform regular market surveys of some of Java’s biggest wildlife markets.

Be a responsible consumer. Products that contain palm oil are some of the biggest contributors to loss of habitat, and therefore loss of species in Southeast Asia.  Many people know that this industry has a negative effect on orangutans, but numerous other species, including slow lorises, macaques, langurs, civets and leopards, suffer from this loss of habitat as well. Try and buy products with sustainable palm oil or without palm oil.

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Dendi Rustandi hanging up the first slow loris bridge in West Java to help young animals disperse safely © It’s A Wildlife

People can also support organisations like the Little Fireface Project that work to save lorises.  By visiting www.nocturama.org you can see exactly what our project is doing to protect these species.  We have an adoption programme for some of our study animals as well as a shop with project t-shirts and other items. Of course, donations are always appreciated.  These contributions make a vital difference to what we are able to do in the field to protect these species.

Denise Spaan in West Java, Indonesia

 

Jul 29

Denise Spaan is the Field Station Coordinator and Conservation Education Manager for The Little Fireface Project which was set up to help protect the slow loris in Indonesia. We caught up with Denise to ask her more about this fascinating species and the important work being done to conserve it.

Can you tell us a bit about The Little Fireface Project? Who are you and what do you do?

The Little Fireface Project (LFP), named after the Sundanese word for loris, is the world’s longest-running loris conservation project, starting in 1993 under the auspices of the Nocturnal Primate Research Group of Oxford Brookes University. Our research was highlighted in the award-winning 2012 film Jungle Gremlins of Java.  Little Fireface Project, or Proyek Muka Geni, is working to save the slow loris (locally known as ‘kukang,’ ‘muka geni’ or ‘oches’) through ecology, education and empowerment. We work in West Java, Indonesia, to collect ecological and behavioural data on one of the last remaining populations of Javan slow lorises. Also in West Java, we work with the local community and schools to promote awareness of slow lorises and the importance of conservation. Conservation requires a multi-faceted approach and we are working to do whatever we can to conserve these species!

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Denise Spaan giving a presentation regarding the work done by the Little Fireface Project in Tasikmalaya © Wawan Tarniwan

My name is Denise Spaan and I am the Field Station Coordinator and Conservation Education Manager for LFP’s field site in West Java. I am in charge of the day-to-day management of running a field station (e.g. finances, scheduling, etc.), organising volunteers and establishing education programmes within the schools surrounding the field site and the broader community. Additionally, I am doing research on the behavioural ecology and distribution of the Javan slow loris to help in reintroduction programmes. Moreover, I perform market surveys to assess the availability of slow lorises in animal markets across Java. As field station manager I find it important to be involved in all aspects of our work in West Java to help promote the conservation of the slow loris.

What makes slow lorises special and what are the issues they face?

Slow lorises are a unique group of primates found throughout South and Southeast Asia. They are small, nocturnal primates, and their vice-like grip, snake-like movements, shy nature and, most remarkably, their venomous bite, make them unique amongst the primates. To many people, they are undeniably adorable, whilst to others they are nature’s answer to over 100 diseases. Their slow movements make them easy prey to expert hunters who literally empty the forests of these shy primates, which are amongst the most common mammals seen in Asia’s illegal animal markets, but amongst the rarest spotted even in Asia’s best protected forests.

Javan slow loris Dali gauging on a gum tree © It's A Wildlife

Javan slow loris Dali gauging on a gum tree © It’s A Wildlife

What is The Little Fireface Project doing to protect slow lorises?

We aim to save lorises from extinction through learning more about their ecology and using this information to educate people, including law enforcement officers. We hope this will lead to empathy and empowerment, whereby people in countries where lorises exist will want to save them for themselves.

We study slow lorises at our field site in West Java. We fit our focal slow lorises with radio collars. A team of trackers and volunteers go out each night to follow them and record their behaviour. At the moment, we are interested in studying infant dispersal and the sleeping site preferences of slow lorises. This information is very important to help with the reintroduction of lorises from rescue centres.

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Denise Spaan and Dendi Rustandi performing behavioural observations on the slow lorises

Education is a vital part of our work. Every Saturday we go to the school near our field station to teach environmental education. We focus on teaching the children about lorises and other nocturnal animals in a fun and creative way. For example, we recently made dioramas with the children that featured a slow loris, a common palm civet and an owl in a night-time forest scene. At the end of the session our head tracker Dendi went around with a head torch fitted with a red filter. We use red filters in the forest during our observations and by letting them look into their dioramas through the red light, the children saw the forest as we see it at night. He then told the children how we observe the lorises. We try and connect the knowledge we gain from studying the lorises in the wild to the classroom sessions. Additionally, we have started running a weekly nature club session led by education volunteer Charlotte Young. The aim of the nature club is to educate the children about slow lorises in a creative way by taking them out into the forest. In the last lesson the children were taken to a beautiful stream and asked to draw it on a postcard, thereby seeing a familiar environment through new eyes. We attempt to connect all these activities with teachers in the UK through our Connecting Classrooms scheme via Education Through Expeditions.

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Children shining red light into their diorama with the same head torches we use in the field to get a glimpse into what it is like to observe slow lorises at night

Twice yearly, the Little Fireface Project hosts a village festival. In July we hosted the Loris Pride Days.  This was a week-long array of events (e.g. parade, football tournament, school visits) which aimed to promote our conservation message within the entire local community and ensure that everyone in our area knows how special lorises are and that they have a stake in the future of this species. Our next event will be a major talent show and fun fair, featuring our special loris mascots as the masters of ceremony!

The lorises around our field station are found in an agroforest or mosaic environment. They are found in and amongst farms and crop fields, and it is therefore really important not only to educate children but also adults. Slow lorises are extremely valuable for farmers as they are highly insectivorous and prey on the insect pests. We therefore visit farms and just through living with these people, we build rapport. We tell the farmers of the importance of lorises to their farms, and we also exchange information about our cultures! We provide many materials we believe will be useful in the day-to-day lives of people, but also hope that such items will build pride for the loris. For example, we hand out lovely loris bandanas, pins and calendars. We have also hosted a movie night featuring our very own movie ‘Don’t Let Me Vanish’, in which lorises are portrayed as forest protectors.

May 2014 - LFP - Williams - Merch Day - Great Pic

The Java team went to the local gas station to hand out flyers and calendars to help spread awareness

Find out more about The Little Fireface Project.

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