Wildlife biologist M. Sanjayan has an interesting analogy for traditional nature documentaries. "They show you this almost pornographic image of the planet," he says. "It's not even real. It's so beautiful and so unbelievable, and you never see a human being on it."
Sanjayan's new five-part PBS series, Earth: A New Wild, which he co-created and hosts, certainly features plenty of spectacular footage, but the truly jaw-dropping moments occur at the intersection — and interaction — of humans with the natural world. Deep in Brazil's Amazon rain forest, bare-chested Surui tribesmen use smartphones and laptops to compute the carbon credit value of the jungle, hopeful that the "natural capital" of their land can stave off exploitation and development. In Indonesia, members of the Elephant Flying Squad ride trained elephants around the Sumatran jungle to protect farmers from potentially fatal confrontations with other stampeding elephants — not only saving lives but also reducing crop damage by more than 90 percent. "I wanted to combine a blue-chip natural history documentary with people stories," Sanjayan says. "And do it in a way that would surprise the audience at every twist."
When Elephants Attack: This exclusive clip shows what it's like to live with wild elephants in your backyard. Earth: A New Wild premiers on February 4 on PBS.
Sanjayan, who is also a senior scientist for Conservation International teamed up with Passion Pictures, the production company behind a string of hit documentaries, including Restrepo and Searching for Sugar Man, to build complex narratives out of never-before-seen encounters with wildlife in more than two dozen countries. In an attempt to explore animals' notions of "home," he goes parasailing with vultures near Annapurna, helps a lemon shark give birth off the coast of Florida, cradles pandas at a Chinese research facility that retrains bears raised in captivity to survive in the wild, and joins an expedition into "the Intangible Zone" deep within Ecuador's rain forest, which many scientists believe to be the most biodiverse place on Earth.
All of which aims to reveal how the line has blurred between humans and nature — and why Sanjayan believes that's not necessarily a bad thing. "I want people to realize that we are a part of nature," says Sanjayan. "If you start thinking of us as part of the equation, then you realize that saving nature really becomes about saving ourselves."