I’m being outsmarted by a vertebrate with a brain about as big as a hangnail.
— Jeff Corwin, on trying to capture a day gecko
As Anderson Cooper describes it, Bangkok’s “infamous” Jatuchak market resembles “many markets scattered throughout Thailand, but behind the bustle are dark secrets.” The camera pans from a slightly high angle, emphasizing the crowds, vendors’ booths, and general grayness of the scene. Sellers and shoppers alike are poor, surviving day to day, seemingly unmoved by the fact that a CNN news team has landed in their midst. Cooper means to uncover those “dark secrets,” of course. In this case, the focus is the illegal traffic in rare and endangered wildlife and the context is Planet in Peril, a four-hour investigation of the changing global environment.
The term “global” works in multiple ways here, marking the broad extent of deleterious effects, as well as the vital interconnectedness of a range of problems. Submitting that most modifications result from human activity, including population growth and unsustainable consumption of resources, crews led by Cooper, Sanjay Gupta, and Animal Planet celebrity Jeff Corwin travel to far corners — from Southeast Asia to North America to China — in order to show the connections among pollution, poverty, and wildlife extinction. Cooper and Corwin’s Thailand segment features conservationist Steve Galster, cofounder of Wildlife Alliance, who observes the dire truth, that species are becoming extinct at 1,000 times the natural rate, owing to loss of habitat and poaching.
Cooper and Corwin accompany local police as they mount what looks to be a massive raid on illegal activities. Armed with weapons and information gathered by an undercover agent, who has spotted cages full of scarce tortoises from Madagascar and South American marmosets (these sell for some $2,000 a piece, a lot of money in this area of the world). The outcome is somewhat anti-climactic. It begins as a typical Cooper-style adventure: he and Corwin ride in trucks with the uniformed officers, their faces forward to the wind, their gazes steadfast and bold. They are journalists on a mission, meaning to uncover hard truths and indict wrongdoers. (Corwin takes a few moments in voice-over to re-explain the mission that Cooper has already laid out.) But at the market, which is “like a labyrinth,” they learn the vendors have been tipped off (“Savvy dealers,” narrates Cooper, “are closing their doors”). While this doesn’t make for conventionally thrilling TV — no one’s arrested or hauled away in handcuffs — the broader points are clear enough. First, this underground business is well organized and well connected (with officials who are also in need of income). And second, when CNN rolls into town, it’s not exactly a secret.
Still, the intrepid reporters spend the documentary riding along with cops and researchers. Corwin explicates the crisis: “You can judge the health of a society,” he intones, “by looking at the environment around it, and as we, as a global community, allow ourselves to unsustainably pillage the natural world, it’s the next generation that’ll pay the price.” The cost is illustrated vividly in Planet in Peril, CNN’s first report shot in high definition; the photography of wildlife and terrains, from jungles to mountainsides to impoverished neighborhoods, is breathtaking.
Corwin travels with Conservation International‘s Russ Mittermeier on a brief, if arduous, quest on Madagascar (“a place where 90% of the wildlife can be found nowhere else on earth”). As usual, Corwin gives himself over to the excitement of the moment: he and Mittermeier are “trailblazing through the Andasibe Rainforest,” while also chastened by the fact they are In “one of the poorest countries in the world, where more than 70% population lives below the poverty line.” The program’s focus being the threat to wildlife, It doesn’t dig into economic frameworks (the exploitation of developing nations by rich ones, for instance), but makes a simple-seeming plea for defending the environment. The team comes across what Corwin describes as “the payoff,” a look at “the very unusual, mysterious and rare species of lemur, the black sifaka,” never before captured on video. It’s a magnificent and adorable creature, and so makes an emotional appeal to viewers as to what’s at stake in these many and multiplying extinctions.
Such appeals characterize the program’s approach. If its science is generalized and its arguments broad, its examples are poignant and particular. Cooper looks into a successful species recovery, that of the gray wolf in Yellowstone Park. Glossing over the history of the species’ near eradication — by a U.S. government campaign, aided by fearful citizens with weapons — Cooper and Doug Smith, head of the recovery project in initiated in 1995, go on to show “the effect one species can have on an entire ecosystem,” as elks and beavers, songbirds and willow trees have all been helped by the predator’s reintroduction.
Animals aren’t the only creatures in peril in Planet in Peril. In the second episode, which premieres Wednesday, 24 October, Dr. Gupta points out that the consumption of endangered wildlife can be unhealthy as well as expensive. While he makes something of a spectacle of visiting a restaurant in China that features exotic dishes like tiger paw and tiger penis, Gupta’s medical point concerns TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). The segment focuses on the production of bear bile is brutal (it’s extracted from the animals through a painful process using steel catheters), but implies that the effects of TCM are not always beneficial (details are left unexamined here).
Pollution makes an easier, more obvious target. After he interviews a Chinese woman who lost her husband to colon cancer (she blames the “brown and red water” and asserts, prompted by an especially silly question, that she does indeed miss her husband), then pursues the cause. Again, the CNN crew makes its way into a situation that is plainly transformed by its intrusion. Gupta and camera head into a mine director’s office, determined to make him confess to polluting China’s Hengshui River, making it red and brown and full of carcinogens. The director looks taken aback as Gupta enters, glancing at the camera uncomfortably. Gupta describes the scene in terms that seem borrowed from the Michael Moore playbook: “At first he refused to answer our questions, but we persisted.” The answers he gives are mostly vague, until he’s asked whether he would eat food irrigated by the river or drink its water. His “Of course not!” serves as the interview’s ostensible gotcha moment, but it’s hardly revelatory.
Despite such simplifications and shortcuts, Planet in Peril is a remarkably wide-reaching program. It points the way toward more in-depth investigations and above all, insists on the interconnections among ecosystems and human activities. As populations and individuals strive to survive and/or exploit their environments, a larger framework is always influencing and influenced by our daily choices.