Saving Nature in a Human-Dominated World
April 28, 2015 | In a world of seven billion humans, can wild nature continue to exist? In this Wrigley Lecture, M. Sanjayan describes how the environmental movement has long been dominated by a Western philosophy that sees humans as separate from and detrimental to nature. While great strides have been made in the past few decades, most scientists will agree that conservation efforts are simply not keeping up with the vast scale of planetary change. Despite our best efforts, the conservation movement is failing.Related Events: Saving Nature in a Human-Dominated World
This presentation is brought you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley. Wrigley Lecture series, world renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.
Christopher Boone: Good evening everyone, and welcome to this very special event tonight. My name is Christopher Boone. I am the Dean of the School of Sustainability, which is a part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. The Wrigley speaker series is reserved for our boldest and most innovative thinkers, and certainly the speaker that we have tonight fits that category quite clearly. I know that many of you know this individual already, and we're all very eager to hear what he has to say.
Before we do that, I want to say a couple of things. First of all, I want to thank our partners here at the Arizona Science Center, who remind us to never stop wondering, so thank you very much for hosting this event. It is my pleasure now to introduce to you the Julie Ann Wrigley. Julie has been a great supporter of sustainability, conservation, and environmental issues for a very, very long time. Like our speaker tonight, she's been incredibly bold and innovative in her thinking, and also in her championing of the things that I know is very dear to many of us. So she'll begin by providing a few words of introduction of our speaker, so Julie please.
Julie Ann Wrigley: Excuse me while I organize my notes. I don't want to go too far astray. Good evening, and welcome to the Arizona Science Center. It isn't often that one gets to introduce a person with the qualifications and remarkable accomplishments of our keynote speaker tonight. Thus, it is a very special honor for me to do just that. This evening's Wrigley lecturer, Dr. M. Sanjayan is a global scientist, who specializes in conservation and improvements of human well being. Sanjayan, as he prefers to be called, is currently executive vice president and seer-- senior scientist for Conservation International.
I first met Sanjayan and when I was a member of the board of the Nature Conservancy. I was immediately impressed with his breadth of knowledge, his passion, and his commitment to helping people all over the planet better understand how their lives are inextricably linked to nature. To actualize his commitment at scale, Sanjayan and his research have been central to the production of numerous major television series, and he's been widely interviewed by news and entertainment programs. He has presented his research on conservation and nature in prestigious media outlets, such as BBC, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Showtime, the Today Show, and most recently, the remarkable PBS series called the EARTH A New Wild. And if you haven't seen it, I truly encourage you to.Sanjayan also recently launched Conservation International's critically acclaimed Nature is Speaking awareness campaign, that drives home the message, simply put, that people cannot live without nature, and they need nature to survive. Dr. Sanjayan holds a doctorate from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and is a member of the research faculty at the University of Montana. He's a senior adviser to the Clinton Global Initiative, a fellow at the Aspen Institute, and a member of the National Geographic Society's Explorers Council. His research has been published in world leading journals, including Science, Nature, and Conservation Biology, and also in popular magazines, such as Outside, Time, and Men's Journal. Beyond being amazed by the magnitude and impact of his accomplishments, I consider Sanjayan to be a personal friend and frankly, an inspiration. Please join me in welcoming Sanjayan as another very distinguished speaker in our weekly lecture series.
M. Sanjayan: Thank you so much. Thank you. These introductions are always so overwhelming, because half of it's not true, so you pick which half you want to believe. Thank you Dean Boone and Julie Wrigley for that wonderful introduction, and then for having me here. I know I've been asked to come here several times before by my friends, and we just never could make it happen, but I'm delighted to be here today.
The Sustainability Institute is truly a leading light in the world. It is so different and it really does attempt to be breathtaking in its scope, in its innovation, in its size, in the challenges that it really wants to tackle. And you can come here and really, within half an hour, meet faculty and students who are working on everything from how to make cows actually become carbon sinks, rather than carbon emitters, all the way to folks who are studying tourism, and the impacts of tourism on nature and society. So really, I wish I could spend more time here frankly, that's sort of my pitch. OK.
So on with the lecture, and we're going to do a Q&A later, which I hope this becomes a little bit more of a conversation, rather than as a one way thing. But I want to start with this picture, because this is one of the rarest mammals on the planet. It's not just a white rhino, but it's a northern white rhino. And now, there are only three of them left in Africa, three. There's only another four left in zoos, and they're really not breeding, they're beyond that. So this rhino was airlifted from the Czech Republic back to Africa, as a chance of trying to kickstart this pretty critically endangered, I mean beyond critically endangered, population.It probably isn't going to go into work, but I show you this picture because he has this poster child, if you will, of the ultimate sort of iconic species for conservation. But really, this picture actually kind of looks like this, because this is what it takes to keep this animal, and many black rhinos and the southern white rhinos, alive today You can't show the picture of that rhino without also showing the picture of this extraordinary effort that has to go into place, in order to keep it safe. Many people think that this is conservation in a sort of day-to-day work. But I want to argue that it really isn't. By the time you get here, it's almost too late, in this case it is too late.
This of course is the poster child that most of us know in terms of climate change, right? So you see polar bears, you can't really see polar bears anymore without immediately thinking climate change. But in reality in the world we live in today, this picture is probably a better representation of climate change, right? This is taken in Bangladesh and it kind of gives you a sense that the poster child for climate change really is us, it's not some critter living in a faraway place that we won't ever see. It's right here, it's in Arizona, it's in California, it's in Mexico, it's absolutely in Bangladesh, it's in Florida. It's virtually in every place I travel to-- I can talk to people about the issue.
This is a painting of a lake in Uzbekistan, and when I was a little kid, it was the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, fourth largest Freshwater lake in the world. 10 thousand tons of fish were taken out of the lake every single year. It's a freshwater lake, it was gigantic in size, there's entire fleet of boats that were out there, and several cities that were built just around this commercial fishing enterprise that happened on this lake.
Today, the RLC actually looks like that. And those are the same boats that are lying there like rusting hulks of beached whales. And the water from this point, from where this photo was taken, which is where this boat picture is taken, to where the water is now is about 150 kilometers away. OK? And what's left of the water is so saline that no vertebrates live in it, so there's nothing beyond basically copepods and little crustaceans. No fish at all and that entire industry, an entire way of life is gone. And that happened on my watch, that happened in my lifetime, in many of your lifetimes, So that's sort of an astonishing thing to bear witness to.So the simple question is how we got there. How did we get to this place? By all accounts, the human species , by virtually any measure you can think of, is doing better today than we've ever done in the history of humanity, right?
Any measure you want to think of, you can basically show dramatic progress on virtually every continent, except maybe a few locations, but yet, we have done this at incredible price.
And one of my sort of thoughts about this is that part of it has to do with how we see the work that we do as conservationists, as environmentalists, use the term as broadly as you want, as sustainability advocates. When we think about nature, we think of this. And E.O. Wilson, who won a couple of Pulitzer prizes and is probably the smartest and most eloquent living biologist today. You know, he popularized these words, he didn't coin them, but he certainly popularized these words. Biodiversity, diversity of life on it.
And when I was a graduate student going to grad school, in Oregon and in Santa Cruz, these books came out and they really blew me away. And I bet some of you had these books in your library. And look at them, what E.O. Wilson saying? E.O. Wilson was saying, life is phenomenal. I learned today that a handful of soil has like 70,000 plus organisms within it. I mean, just the diversity of life is incredible.
And here it is like a cathedral, it's like the Sistine Chapel, and you can stand in awe, and you just go, oh my God, it's unbelievable, it's literally dripping with life. That's what the rain forests are, that's what coral reefs are, that's what the soil is. E.O. Wilson brought that magic to us, he made us open our eyes and realize that we are just a tiny, tiny, tiny part of that tapestry of life. We've only been here for a very, very, very short time, compared to all the other things that are going on there.
And this is hugely influential to me, this word, and this concept, and this idea, but there's something missing from this, right? There's something missing from it. You all know what it is. What is missing from it? People, right? So we aren't really seen in this picture. Here we are, the biggest architects of biodiversity, the biggest influences of biodiversity, basically since the sign a bacteria, right? Who introduced oxygen and made all oxygen living life possible.
And then there's us. I mean those are the two things that are made massive amounts of changes, in terms of life on Earth, in terms of the diversity of life. So we're influencers of biodiversity, we rely on biodiversity, we're part of biodiversity, and yet we're missing from the picture. And I think that has consequences, and I'm not by no means blaming this on E.O. Wilson, so please don't someone go tweet about this and start some gigantic war that I don't even want to be part of. What I'm saying is that, it's emblematic of how we see nature, emblematic about how we see our role in nature, and is the antithesis of what sustainability ultimately is all about, the separation.
If nature's out there, and not around us, and we're not part of it, then it's not in our interest to deal with it. It's someone else's problem to deal with it, and that's just not going to be enough. If we want is actually save the planet, with any resemblance of the life that it has, then we all need to be part of this game, it can't just be myself and a few of us, who actually sort of have it turned on.. We need everyone to be part of it.
And if you go to faraway places. This is in Yasuni National Park, and Yasuni lots of papers have said, It's in Ecuador, it's in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It's often considered to be the most biodiverse spot on the planet, terrestrial, and you can see why. It sort of has astonishing amounts of life. If you go into Yasuni, and then I did this, what do you find? You find people, who've been there for quite a long time. And that's the reality of life on Earth today. There's almost no place you can go to from the deepest oceans, to the Arctic polar ice caps, to the deserts, the rain forest, where the human influence cannot be readily observed, the signal is apparent it's there, it's obvious.
Now I say all this to you, because this is one of the reasons why I really made this big move to start working with Conservation International, which is the organization I represent today. And it's also the reason why I started making the films that I have started making, in the way that I'm making them, which are just a little bit different from what you would typically see when you see these films being made. I'm not going to talk a lot about conservation tasks, except during Q&A, I am going to have to answer questions there, but I'll just give you a quick snapshot of what Conservation International is all about.
So this is a 27 year-old organization. In a lot of ways, it was built on a venture model. It was built by a brilliant charismatic extraordinary individual by the name of Peter Seligmann and a few others, Russ Mittermeier and others, who basically said, look, we get it, we want to go save the world, and we're impatient for change. And now, this organization has amazingly grown. It works in about 27 countries around the world, has a staff of about 1,000 people, that gives you a sense of the size. Most of them are in far away places like Madagascar, and Liberia, and Suriname, and Indonesia, and Brazil, and. Places like that. But the key differentiator for Conservation International and what attracted me to it is its value proposition.
At the end of the day, if you take all of what the organization is about, and you distill it down to the very core, you can say that its mission in some ways-- and I'm paraphrasing a more common slogan, a more popular slogan, as this, simply put, it's save nature, live better. So in everything CI does, it tries to measure its impact, not just in terms of nature that it helps protect, but also in terms of human lives, and how it might change the trajectory of human lives. Because for us, that's the value proposition that we're trying to prove, with projects around the world, beacons in the hills if you like. Every day, that if you protect nature, you're not doing it just because you love nature, that's great if you do it for that reason, but really you're doing it because it's in your enlightened self interest. Ultimately, the cycle comes back to benefit you, your families, your kids, your communities, and the stronger we can make that message, and the more we can scale it up, the better off we all are.
Now CI works in really three ways. One is it works on governance, to try to put in place laws, rules, enforcement practices that foster this. For example with tuna fisheries in the Pacific, we work on that we work to try to get 16 nations to manage tuna responsibly. We work with sustainable production, we try to make sure that the things that you need, the water you need, the coffee you drink, the fish you eat, the oil palm that you don't know you're using are ultimately sustainably produced as possible.
So I'll give you a simple example. This week, we're celebrating with Starbucks virtually 100% sustainability on their coffee supply chain. 15 years ago, when we started working with Starbucks, is about 10%, 39 million tons.Now, it's about 390 million tons that Starbucks has moved into the sustainability model. And what does that mean? It means that they're not deforesting in order to grow coffee, which is incredible just that, but it also means that every farmer who participates in the program has to send their kids to school. It's our 100% compliance rule. That's amazing.
So again, we've given the benefits for the terms of people, but also in terms of nature. And the last thing is, we try to protect natural capital. What does that mean? It means the big parks, the big watersheds, the big fisheries that have these big direct impacts to people. So those are the three things CI does, governance, sustainable production, and protecting big chunks of nature that really have value and resonance to our lives. So that gives you a sense of the organizer, it gives you why I'm there, and maybe I can sum that up by showing you a short little film.
Oh, I should just sort of mention one quick thing. Sorry, you jumped to the film. Don't jump there, go back to my slide, please. He's very good there, and he did this whole thing about I'll watch your body language and cues and all that. Don't watch body language. I just wanted to say so, this is where we are. You can find us at conservation.org. If you have questions for me, you can always send me a question on Twitter. I do tend to answer them.
And then I want you to take a look when you go home at this series, called Nature is Speaking. What I'm going to do now, naturespeaking.org, is show you one video, which is a video we produced. We produced a whole series of these videos. I just want to show you one, because it takes what CI is ultimately about, it's philosophy, and brings it home in a pretty hard hitting way.
And I'm going to show you one of the films, and this one's called Mother Nature. And there's seven films in English and seven films in Chinese now, all narrated by interesting actors and actresses. And you can guess who the voice is for this film after it's played. Go ahead. Please. Thank you.
M. Sanjayan: So any guesses? Wow. You guys did the homework, so fantastic. So we released these in October, and we've had about two billion impressions, in terms of people talking about them and all that. We had no ad budget, so we have to sort of rely on friends and family, and folks like you, to pass the message along. So I do want you take that look at those videos, and I do want you to share them with other folks, and that's just the simple thing that you can do.
Some of them are really interesting, like on soil, others on rain forest, others on the ocean, there's one on water, and so on so forth. And I just got back from China, where we released seven films in Beijing, and the first week we got seven million views of the films. And we had them narrated by Chinese actors and actresses. And it really captured people's imagination, it was the number one topic on Weibo. which was, like in China everything is big, like numbers are all big, and to be number one on Weibo was kind of a big deal for us.
So that's what CI. is about. That one's kind of in your face, and makes you sit up and think and question things. But that reminder to people that you need nature for your own benefit, is really what this organization, and I think in some way sustainability, is all about.
So now, I want to switch a little bit, switch gears, and tell you about this film that I did, called EARTH The New Wild, that Julie so very kindly pitched in for me. And if any of you get it on iTunes or anything like that, please write a review, please, please, please. It really helps, because people watch things and then go do other things. It took me five years to make this film, and I wanted to do it, because I'd done probably seven or eight documentaries before for Discovery Channel. I did Shark Week, right? I got to do Shark Week once. So I've done all of that and I was a little bit disappointed about what I've done.
played a small role in the famous documentary series Planet Earth. You'd seen that right? Many of you have seen that. It's amazing, it's gorgeous, incredible, but it misses one big thing, it misses humans. So you can watch that. If you're an alien and you got that DVD box set, and you watched and you thought wow, this looks good, I'm going to go visit this planet, you got in your spaceship and you flew here, he'd be in for a really big surprise.
Particularly if he showed up anywhere near Phoenix, you'd be in for a huge surprise. It'd like wait, where this all come from? This is never on the DVD, right? I want my money back. This would be the cruise trip that never worked out for you, right? It would be a huge disappointment, and I didn't want to do that.
For me, the story of nature is more interesting, it's more interesting and like it gets you when you realize the human element within it. So what we try to do, is we try to do Planet Earth, but with people in it. We switch the camera around and framed people into the picture, rather than framing them out of the picture. Because at the end of the day, once you do that and we start seeing ourselves as part of nature, then as I said before, the reasons for saving nature become in our own self interest, they become self evident.
So what I'm going to do is show you a few clips, I think five or six clips from EARTH The New Wild. And I'll give you a little intro to it. Now we talk about science in this film quite a lot. It's five hours. We went to 29 countries to film it.
My partners in making this was an amazing production company called Passion Pictures. They did Searching for Sugar Man, they did Restrepo, they did Man on Wire. They're really an amazing company.
National Geographic and PBS, who took a big, big leap of faith to do something like this. First of all, they're putting a presenter that looked like me. I mean, natural history presenters, let's be honest, are mostly older white guys. All right, let's just say that and get it out of the way. So having me on that was kind of a big deal, but they also let us take some risks. I'm like eternally grateful for that.
The shows broken up into home, oceans, plains, forests, and water. And I'm not going to show you a clip from each one, I'm just going to show you a few relevant or interesting clips. And the clips themselves are micro-edited within it, so sometimes it'll jump. You got to watch the whole thing to get it in full motion, right? I just wanted to make the point. But they do deal with big issues of conservation and science, but we almost never use the word conservation. I think I was banned from saying the word conservation, or frankly banned from saying the word biodiversity in the film, because we wanted to find a different way of explaining the same thing.
So the first clip you're going to see is how the series opens, it's the home episode. And we open it in China, with 1.2 billion people living there, that is whole in a lot of ways for the human race. And we wanted to open it there, and it's a story about pandas, but in this case it's really about captive breeding, and how much advancement we've made for this idea of captive breeding. And as I said, each segment I show you will have another principle, which
I'll explain very briefly. So let's see that first opening and take it from there.
The wilds of planet Earth are spectacular. Yet one species is always framed out of the picture. Us. I'm Doctor M. Sanjayan. As a scientist and conservationist, I've dedicated the past 25 years of my life to studying and protecting the wildlife I love.
Hold on, buddy. [LAUGH]
Now, my mission is to tell you an untold story, where we humans are not separate from nature, we are part of it. I'm going to the frontiers of where man and animals meet, and here I'm discovering just how much we need each other to survive.
This is a place where elephants police rain forests, and man-eating tigers actually protect a nation of millions. Even the most unlikely creatures are crucial to our survival. This is the future where humans and wildlife are adapting and thriving side by side.
There it is.
Our home is changing.
Now, there's a new kind of wild.
EARTH A New Wild was made possible in part by a generous grant from the Anne Ray Charitable Trust and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
The Min Mountains in China are home to one of the most famous animals on Earth, and one of the rarest. Here, an exciting future is taking shape, one that shows how sharing a home with wild neighbors brings benefits for both them and us. And that's what my journey is all about.
This is just ideal panda habitat, I mean, this is what pandas live for. We're about 8,000, 9,000 feet up, and you've got this great bamboo forest, and you've got this huge overstory of old growth trees.
While everything here may look wild, it's not. This young giant panda is the product of a multi-million dollar project designed to turn these animals to the wild. It's part of a brand new science called rewilding. Only recently has this dream become a real possibility. For decades, even breeding pandas was almost impossible. But now it seems, they have cracked it.
Can I get near these guys?
These 14 babies are the result of millions of dollars worth of research.
I don't even dare touch one.
In facilities right here, they've painstakingly studied wild behavior to figure out when the female becomes most fertile, and a combining this with cutting edge fertility treatment.
For most of the world, breeding pandas in captivity is the real challenge, but it turns out that these guys here in China have really cracked that code.
But breeding pandas is only half the challenge.
It's not how to get them to breed that's the hard part anymore, the hard part is how do you get them to go back into the wild.
But how do you get a captive animal, that's almost become a cuddly toy, to rediscover its wild instincts and survive in their true home? That's the real challenge now. It's a epic undertaking, that even makes breeding pandas look like child's play. And graduation day is almost here. Two years of relentless work, massive investments, it's all about to pay off.
I'm going to be here for a truly historic moment, to see the first captive born female panda in history go back into the wild.
M. Sanjayan: The hardest thing about this show is to get people to stop and actually start watching it. And I was very reluctant to actually do this panda story, because I thought, look it's so iconic, it's pandas for God's sake. Come on, I'm a serious scientist, I want to be taken seriously. But I will tell you that when you go there, it doesn't matter who you are. You could be head of the Sustainable Institute, and they put a baby panda there and they're like, oh baby panda. It's crazy, it's like magic. They do something directly in your brain, like some primitive part of your brain just starts firing, and there you have it.
So anyway, so that it starts you off in this journey, and from there we switch. You can see it cut a little bit, and that's because how we cut it to you. But it then switches and goes to Jane Goodall in Africa, and we go into Bangladesh, then we go to do Vultures in India, et cetera, et cetera. So it's a bait and switch a little bit.
OK, so the next story I want to show you a little bit about is from the ocean episode, and it's a very short clip. There is very famous scientist by the name of Jeremy Jackson. And Jeremy Jackson is at Scripps University, he's a marine scientist. He introduced us to this concept of shifting baselines. And what Jeremy said was, you have no idea how productive the oceans once were.
What you think is like natural and restoring it back to nature, that's only like you're playing in this little piece of it. It used to be really like this, and what it used to look like was unimaginable, and unimaginably productive, and it's because of the way these oceans work. And so, he coined this word, or he coined this phrase shifting baseline, as a way of us sort of forgetting what it actually used to be like. And sort of every generation now has shifted the baseline to what they think is natural, and what they think is normal, but it ain't, it's so far removed from what it used to be. So we're going to see like just a couple minutes of Jeremy Jackson, and then from there, right after that, the next clip is so Jeremy says it's shifting baseline, let's try and go to a place that actually is about as productive as it can be. So we go to the most remote atoll in the Pacific, place called Palmyra, to look at the density of sharks.
And we talk about this thing called top-down regulation, where these sharks play a big role in regulating the food web, if you will. And then from there we talk about this really great new science that's going on in marine science, which I think is one of the most exciting things that's happening in marine biology, which is our ability finally to actually figure out where fish go. That was always the holy grail, we know fish were, because we can catch up, but we don't know where they go. And finally, because of incredible technological innovations that we have today, on a grand scale, we can figure out where fish are heading to. So those are three quick little clips, so maybe we can see them sort of in sequence one after another. Thank you.
If you fell off this 100 years ago, it would be a very high probability of a shark attack. And there would have been 500 six foot sharks swimming around, swimming around, that would not be a really cool place to jump into the water.
Dr. Jeremy Jackson is considered one of the world's leading ocean scientists. He has spent his life analyzing data that reveals the full story of our human relationship with the sea. Over a cold beer, Jackson tells me there's one factor that really stands out in explaining what changed our oceans, overfishing. And to convince me, he's brought along an unusual bit of evidence.
For these, there are a series of pictures that started out from the work--
Photographs taken right here in Florida, across the decades, showing sports fishermen with their catch. Same dock, same season, same ocean, but very different fish.
I mean, there's just no way that one can misinterpret what's happened here, which is that we've eaten all of these, and then we've eaten all of these, and now all we have left is these. So these are just emblematic of a panoply of gigantic creatures that used to live here.
So once upon a time, the oceans had monsters, today it's down to shrimp.
Today, it's down to shrimp, and clams, and squid, and whatever, and that is what's going on in the ocean today.
Kydd Pollock is a marine scientist, who uses this very simple method to figure out just how many sharks there all.
And they are now extending all the way back there. Torpedo up, torpedo up, torpedo up.
Oh my God. Oh my god. You cannot believe what I'm seeing. The dozens, and dozens, and dozens.
In less than a minute, we're completely surrounded.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. And that shark went off the camera just now.
Looking at the mass of sharks, you question how they can be enough fish to feed all these mouths. It's like seeing more lions than wildebeests on the African plains. For me as a biologist, that's like changing the rules. But it turns out in the ocean, the food chain works differently. Predators drive a fast breeding cog of smaller fish. Smaller fish that reproduce so quickly, that it allows for a larger mass of predators than prey.
It's a hungry ocean. Just the sheer weight of all these sharks, they have to eat.
So basically, all the little fish in the ocean around here have to be reproducing fast in order to feed all these hungry mouths.
Everything's being eaten, so everything is forced to reproduce younger, grow faster, recruit faster, and that's that machine that's just driving this top level weight of all these sharks.
What's been discovered on Palmyra turns the textbook understanding of the predator prey system on its head.
What's surprising to me about place is that, it's kind of like a topsy turvy world. Look, any place I've ever been to, the Serengeti, on the plains of Montana, you see predator prey systems. And they look like the classic triangle that you all know. I mean, basically you've got loads and loads of little things that eat grass, and then you've got some predators that keep things essentially in check.
When you come out here with scientists that are discovering is this part of the pyramid is completely different. It's more like this. That's completely changed our understanding about how these oceans work. So instead of a triangle, now you have something that looks more like this. And these little guys now have to work much, much harder, and cycle through, and reproduce just about as fast as they can, in order to feed all those hungry mouths. It's kind of like be or be eaten and everything out there looks hungry.
This tuna fishing boat is homing in on its target. It's been sailing for weeks off the coast of Papua New Guinea to find it. These yellowfin tuna are crossing the Pacific ocean. Some tuna will travel 12,000 miles in a year. Unlike most fish, they're warm blooded, which enables them to get more heat to their muscle, and generate more power and speed, making them one of the ocean's top predators.
Today, they're just aren't that many populations of migrating tuna left on Earth. These fishermen are heading right into a huge school.
You might think this is the tuna's last gasp, but this is just a brief trip into our strange human world. These tuna aren't being killed, but fitted with a tracking device, and then released to continue their migration.
We've been, uh, taking fish everywhere from Indonesia, Philippines in the west, through to Hawaii, [INAUDIBLE] Marshall Islands in the east. Since we started in 2006, almost 400,000 fish have been tagged, 65,000 of which have been recaptured so far, that's about 7 to 8%, and of course more is still coming in.
This tuna tagging is part of a global effort to understand the movement of ocean predators. Scientists have tagged tens of thousands. They've gathered 300,000 day's worth of data and counting. Individual animals can now have their profiles followed globally. It's like a Facebook for fish. These predators also reveal where the other fish, their prey, congregate. All this data builds a remarkable living map of the ocean, to help us pinpoint the parts that matter most.
M. Sanjayan: We do kind of film that in a little bit different from typical documentaries, so when you see that scene with Jeremy Jackson, you take the time to watch the foam come off that beer, you feel the heat from the keys. When we filmed the tuna, you have that wonderful scene where you're seeing it from the tuna's point of view, coming into our alien world, and then going back into that water. And that's all those elements that we try to bring to make an environmental documentary really feel cinematic in some ways, to feel really inclusive in some ways.
OK. Now from this series of clips, I want to take you to the other side of the world, to Malawi, to one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It's an East African Rift Valley lake called Lake Malawi. It's very, very, very deep,
1,000 feet plus, thousands of feet deep. And Lake Malawi's really unusual, as scientists know, because it has the highest diversity of freshwater fish on the planet, 800 plus species of freshwater fish, half of them are still unnamed.
More fish there than the coral triangle of Indonesia, and they're freshwater fish. And virtually all the fish in Lake Malawi belong to one group of fish called cichlids. The fish that you see in a dentist's office. If you ever go to your dentist or your optometrist, they got a tank there with a bunch of rocks and a bunch of fish, they're cichlids they tend to be cichlids. Don't ask me why, dentists love them. Must tell you this in dental school, when you get an office, get some cichlids.
But one of the cool things about cichlids is they're mouth breeders. They keep the eggs in the mouth, they keep the babies in their mouth, sometimes it's the male, sometimes it's the female. They have unusual parental care, and they have incredible behavior. They build sand castles to attract mates. They do all sorts of amazing, I could go on and on about cichlids.
But the reason why the story was so interesting is, so you ask so I get why you don't want to kill all the fish, but what is it to do with us, what happens if you don't sustainably fish? And in this case in Lake Malawi, the lack of sustainable fisheries really has helped create a health epidemic amongst the people who live on the lake shore. And a scientist by the name of Jay Stauffer, you'll see a little bit of him here, kind of reveals this link between the fish and the health of the people. And again, it's an abbreviated story that we sort of rushed into six or seven minute clips. So can we run the Lake Malawi Monkey Bay clip please.
My personal favorite is a fish who builds sand castles.
Just incredible arena has been build by a fish. And there he is. That's a bower builder. That's the guy who makes this incredible bower which is basically a stadium for him to do just one thing, and that is display to a female.
The bigger your stadium, the bigger your arena, or bower, the more likely it is that a female will find you attractive. There's something in there, I guess. It's just like California.
My fingers being nibbled by little cichlids. Look at this. This is amazing, I'm looking at this construction fish on one side, and then I'm having a manicure on the other side.
The evolution of cichlids in Lake Malawi is one of the great wonders of the natural world. And for humans, these cichlids also provide food and income. Fishermen here feed an estimated 20 million people with their catch. And one cichlid in particular keeps the lake free from disease a fact we only discovered the hard way.
In the 1980s, two deadly epidemics devastated this freshwater paradise. First, world health experts noticed that HIV spread faster here than anywhere else. They then discovered this was because the lake shore had suddenly been infested by bilharzia The disease bilharzia is caused by a parasitic fluke, that swims in the water and burrow through human skin. It breeds in your liver, damaging organs, and introduces blood into your urine. And this makes people with bilharzia more likely to contract HIV. The sudden appearance of bilharzia was a mystery, until a university professor studying fish made a key discovery. Jay Stauffer was observing cichlids when the epidemic struck.
In 1988, family members got it, I got it, and most of my crew contracted bilharzia from swimming just in the open waters.
Jay had learned that the bilharzia flukes were carried by a freshwater snail that has invaded shallow water.
This little guy controls the fate of many tens of thousands of people who live around this lake. When this snail becomes predominant, so does bilharzia.
But where had this snail come from? The answer involves a cichlid with the rather special diet.
Look, look, look look, look, look, look, look there's a pair of them. A female and a male. And that's the fish that I'm after. That's a placodon and this fish might hold the key to saving the people from this lake.
Placodon has jaws designed to crack open snail shells. And by patrolling the shallows in large numbers, it kept the shoreline snail free. Before the 1980s, fishermen rarely fished for placodon, because the real bounty laid in deep water. But then famines in Africa drove them to fish so hard, that deep water stocks collapsed. Desperate, fisherman turned to the shallows, and placodon were swept up in their nets.
When I first started diving in 1983, you couldn't snorkel or put a face mask on in shallow water and not see a placodon. Now, you really have to work to placodon at all.
Without the snail eating fish, the snails and bilharzia spread like wildfire.
Do the folks here know about these snail-eating fish?
They-- these people know about the snail-eating fishes, but the point is, you make the decision, do I go to bed tonight hungry, or maybe catch a disease eight weeks from now. Hunger is a driving , force a powerful force.
The situation here is critical, but least now we know how to make it better. The village has a plan to build fish farms, so that people don't have to fish the shallows, and hopefully placodon can recover.
If we can save the fish in this lake, then the people here will be healthier. And that's story can be told about nature everywhere. Give nature a helping hand and people will benefit from it.
M. Sanjayan: --because it's such an astonishing story of how bilharzia is related to HIV transmission, and it all starts with this fish. Save the fish, you save the people. We all had to get treated for bilharzia when we came back, just so you know. You Basically catch it the minute you get in that lake for any length of time. And you can easily treat bilharzia, it's basically a deworming tablet that you'd end up taking. But the problem is that you can't just give those tablets to the local population, because they'll get infected within two weeks, and so it just goes over and over again. So many of the people, 90% plus of the village population, has bilharzia. And that's sort of just the way it's going to be until they either stop going into the water, which doesn't really happen, or they help the lake shores recover.
There's also one episode where I came closest to dying, but it wasn't because of bilharzia. It was because the equipment that I was wearing malfunctioned at the bottom of that lake, and it sent me ricocheting down to the bottom. The face mask that I was wearing is a really unusual mask, where you can speak, but it's not the usual kind that you can speak, you can actually see my full face. It's got a plate, and that's really unusual. And carbon dioxide builds up as you're talking or doing any activities, so you have to flash it every 40 seconds, 30 seconds or so with air. Forget to flush, you'll fall asleep and die. Now, I had a safety guy kept tapping every few seconds, just off camera, to make sure that I didn't forget to do this.
But what happened was, you have something called a BC, a buoyancy compensator that keeps you up and down. It blew on one of the last dives I was doing, when I was at the bottom. And what I realized when it blows is that I'm already negatively buoyant in that water, because it's freshwater. And I've got all this equipment, like radios, two tanks, this huge mask, et cetera, et cetera.
So I started plummeting down into the depths, and there's no weight belt to remove, because you didn't have a weight belt, because you don't need extra weight. So, it was sort of a very interesting moment there, where he had to come over and kind of hold on to me. Of course you could swim to stay in the water column, or to go up, but the more you swam, the more you had to flush, which means your air at the end of a dive was just going du, du, du du, du. And you're like, ahh.
Anyway so, all of that looks like fun and games, but interesting things happen along the way. All right, the next clip I'm going to show you has a lot of relevance here. And it's about the Colorado River, but I'm actually going to start just a little bit in the Aral Sea, so you get a glimpse of that Aral Sea, because it's such an extraordinary place to go to Uzbekistan. We had to go undercover and film it very quietly, because you don't like a lot of attention there.
And then we switch to the Colorado River. And what I did with a guy named Pete McBride, who some of you might know, he's a great photographer and a friend. We actually go from the Grand Canyon, sorry from Glen Canyon Dam, all the way to the Sea of Cortez. It's a two week journey we do, and you see that fully in the film. Here, I'm not going to show you the whole thing. I'm only going to show you two clips of at, the beginning, when we're at the dam, and at the very end, when we run out of the Colorado river. And you'll see that, and I think this story obviously have a lot of relevance here. And. It's from the water episode.
What remains of the lake lies a hundred miles from here. The Aral Sea was half the size of England. A fleet of fishing ships hauled around 10,000 tons of fish from its waters every year. The story begins in the 1970s, when Soviet engineers cut off the rivers for cotton.
So less water coming in and the sun beating down, the sea begins to evaporate. As the lake begins to drop, all the plants on the lake shore now start to die. Without that resistance, the wind just howls across this landscape.
The wind increases evaporation, and that means the lake level drops even faster, it exposes the lake bed, and leaves behind crust of salt. This salt is now picked up by the wind, and that poisons the soil and the plants up to 500 kilometers away from here.
And things keep getting worse. The shrinking lake causes the climate to shift, winters get colder, and the summers even hotter.
The Aral Sea is now in a death spiral. Less water, more salt, more wind. From this nightmare, there really can't be any recovery.
The amount of water lost in just 40 years is simply staggering.
The water level is here now, but when I was born, it would've been way above my head, six stories about my head.
We won't be able to recover that freshwater anytime soon. Nor are we likely to ever see the hundreds of species of fish, birds, and mammals that vanished, some for all time. The lesson that I'm taking home is this, if we cut off the natural pulse of water across the land, watch out, because changes can be sudden and irreversible. But surely, nothing like this could happen in the wealthiest nation on Earth. Or could it?
The Colorado River has been dubbed the American Nile. Our ingenious management of this water supports an estimated 36 million people in the driest part of North America. Cities like Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles all depends on the Colorado. But like the Aral Sean, could we be pushing the Colorado towards a tipping point? To answer that, I plan to follow the river from the Grand Canyon to Mexico's Sea of Cortez. About halfway down the river, the Glen Canyon Dam is just one of over 20 major dams on the Colorado. Giant projects like this allow us to be in charge of the pulse of water, instead of nature.
Let's go up here little bit and take a look. I'm dying to see over the edge of this thing.
Peter McBride, author and photographer, has spent the last four years studying the story of the Colorado.
I'm inclined to say, it's a long, long way down there.
Pretty sure it's over 700 feet at the drop right here.
He's going to guide me down the river to the ocean.
When I first started looking at this river, I didn't know what became of it. And nobody seems to know what happens downstream. Everybody only worries about their water and upstream, but I've met engineers that have worked on major projects on this river, and they have no idea what happens at the end of the river.
Look at that. That looks like a real end to me. Wow. That's water from the Grand Canyon, and it's like watching little baby sea turtles going to the sea right now. i mean, it is just trying so hard. It's never going to make it, I mean, it's got, how far has it got, hundred miles?
It's got a hundred miles to go. That just not going to get us there.
As planned, we're going to follow the river's old path to the Sea of Cortez. Water or no water.
This was once the largest desert estuary in North America. This is it.
This is a story about choice. We fed a nation, but at a price. A century ago, this was a wetland nearly twice the size of the state Rhode Island. It was home to countless birds, mammals, even jaguars hunted here. A community of 20,000 Native Americans fished and hunted in this delta. All of it has dried up and vanished.
And what shocks me the most is that, like most people, I didn't even that this was the choice I making.
If Grand Canyon dried up, people come on unglued. There would be outrage. Yet, those same people have no idea that this is the same river that we're standing on right here. I mean, this is the exact same river, and part of me makes me little like outraged to a degree, like how did we get to this point? The Colorado River flowed to the sea for six million years, and not a single drop of it has reached the sea since the late '90s, not a drop of it.
On our watch.
On our watch.
It is genuinely hot down here. It is baking.
What happened here is depressing.
I'm just hot, man. I can't even think straight.
I'm going to collapse.
But there is hope. Just when I think I can't take anymore walking, Pete's friend Will comes to the rescue.
Is that him?
He takes us on a magical journey. Because hidden in the middle of this dry delta, lies an emerald jewel.
Wow, look at that.
A forgotten wetland called La Cienga de Santa Clara.
Like all of a sudden, I feel like I'm on top of Everglades. I haven't seen that much water since the Grand Canyon.
This is what this whole area would have looked like a hundred years ago or--
Wow, look at the birds down there.
La Cienga is 40,000 acres of magnificent wetlands. But what is most amazing about this place, is how it got here. La Cienga is an accident. In the 1970s, the agricultural industry to the north needed somewhere to pump water that was too salty and chemical ridden for crops.
M. Sanjayan: So we're going to take our break there, so that we can get some questions, in. But that gives you a sense, and you've got to figure out what the accident was, and find out what the hopeful story about the Colorado is, which is the next story that goes on. But I think Anna's going to moderate us, right? So we'll a few questions and see where we go with that. But hopefully, this inspires you to actually go see the series, and then sort of learn about it a little bit more.
Do I need anything? No.
Ann Kinzig: No, you don't need anything. I need this to be turned on, but I'll just shout loudly in the meantime. If you have questions, write them down on your handy dandy little card, and send them that way. This is not helpful. So and we'll have time, well I was totally didn't have to do a darn thing, that they would do it all for me. We'll have time for one or two questions. OK. so we'll take about 10 minutes.
M. Sanjayan: You've got it.
Ann Kinzig: OK, terrific. Have a seat.
M. Sanjayan: OK.
Ann Kinzig: And Lauren is going to magically send the cards to me.
M. Sanjayan: OK.
Ann Kinzig: So the meantime, let me start with this question. Having just watched a lot of these clips--
M. Sanjayan: Right.
Ann Kinzig: Which resulted in, yes-- no, no, we're not taking questions by hand. If you have a question, write it down on your card, and send it that way. OK. Terrific.
You spent hundreds of hours in front of the camera, or behind the scenes, and we got five hours of film.
M. Sanjayan: Yeah.
Ann Kinzig: And it was wonderful, it was great. But what was either the most catastrophic, besides nearly dying at the bottom of the lake, or embarrassing thing that happened either on or off camera.
M. Sanjayan: There's a lot of stuff that happens that's pretty embarrassing, but you as a presenter, you get over it very quickly. If you do stuff on TV with any regularity, you have to be really OK with knowing that the people you're working with are professionals. So If you trust your crew, you trust your camera, you trust your producer, then that sort of comes naturally to you. I mean honestly, that I can't actually come up with one embarrassing thing, but I can assure you that this is commonplace really all the time.
Most the time, it happens because you're really kind of in a grumpy mood to begin with. It looks like I'm having a lot of fun in these things, but you're really not. And the reason is, because as the host, as the person in front of the camera, you're the lowest on the totem pole of importance, right? Because you're like nobody on the set. They wait for the light, they wait for the sound, they wait for the camera, they wait for the wildlife, they wait for everything.
And then they're like OK, go, you just saw the shark, now react. And it's like, and then do it again, but with more feeling this time kind of thing. And so you feel used in the whole thing, and so you rebel, you sort of like I'm not doing it that way, or I need my coffee, so there's sort of this constant tug of war that goes on. Now of course when this comes out, no one remembers anyone else who's on the show. We had a whole team with me out there, you just remember me. We got charged by elephants, we were properly scared when we were tracking man-eating tigers in Bangladesh, we were in the dark with lions several times, but really the traveling is what gets you.
Being on bo-- oh I'll tell you the most embarrassing moment. So in the forest episode, I get to meet our almost first contact tribe called the Waorani . And the Waorani were only met by outsiders in my lifetime. And we go spend two, three weeks with them. And there are other groups Waorani that even right now, like last year, killed outsiders. And they've never been contacted, and they're right in that same area.
So I'm with this community, they were wonderful, they were amazing, we have all our kit and equipment, they walk out naked with a blow pipe and a machete, and they're completely fine. But they're naked, but they wear string around their waist. And one of the things they did to me at the very end of my trip, is they made one of these strings. Their old grandmother, her name is [INAUDIBLE], she's 83 years old, she made this string, and she puts it on me.
And she shows me how to properly use it, which involves tucking, and I'll just leave it at that. And it obviously never made it on screen, that was pretty incredibly embarrassing.
Ann Kinzig: Terrific. The questions are pouring in now and I'm having to sort. You're a serious scientist, and I've also been told you're an introvert, hard to see right now, and you could correct me on that. And you've made this journey to movie star. Tell us something about why, because most scientists want to sit in the lab, they want to write their papers, we're not great communicators, so tell me something about that personal journey for you.
M. Sanjayan: Well, I am an introvert. And the way you distinguish that is that I would much prefer speaking to one person in the corner of a room for the whole evening, rather than cocktails and receptions are just sort of my bane of my existence. It's really hard for me to sort of make small talk, it's just difficult. I like reading, I spend most of my time at home reading, cooking. I fly fish, bird watch, these are really solitary things.
So I am an introvert that way, but a lot of people who made transitions to being good speakers and comedians are often introverts, actors are often introverts. So for me, it's like putting on a armor. When I come on stage, I'm not like I'm saying I'm faking it up here, but I am putting on sort of like a Superman cape and you come onstage and you kind of project. And then when you're done, you're completely exhausted and you're drained from it, right?
I didn't plan on doing anything in the public eye. I was a decent storyteller, but I was extraordinarily, painfully shy as a kid. I got bullied all the time, I was sent to boarding school in England for a year when my parents were living in
Sudan, and it was like Hogwarts without the nice owls. I mean it was really bad. And I was treated to say I was ill treated is not actually a stretch of the imagination, so I was painfully shy about all this.
I got my PhD at Santa Cruz, and my project which I was initially trying to work on, which was about cheetahs in Africa, failed after two years, because of funding issues between the US government and the government in [INAUDIBLE], nothing to do with my project. But I was sent back to the US and I didn't have a project, so I started working on gophers, which are like agricultural pests, like they were on campus and people would pay me to go and catch them. And you become really good at making what you're doing sound really exciting, when you're forced to go from cheetahs, like the fastest land mammal on Earth, I had a Land Rover for God's sake, to working in the soil in Central Valley of California, digging out these things that Caddy Shack was made on.
So you become a very good storyteller, you're forced to just sort of couch science in this time. Believe it or not, it really was training for me. And my PhD project got reported in the local and even the Sentinel and the Sacramento Bee. They put a front page photo of a gopher on the front page of the newspaper. And my parents have this hanging on their wall, and I still look at that when I go to their house, and I'm like, that was kind of amazing that we conned this paper into putting a gopher onto their front cover.
So that was always with me. I never thought I would do television, it was never my interest. Discovery Channel came and asked me to help them with some research, I said yes. Then they said, do you mind if we take a little video of you, sure. Would you like to be in front, huh, never thought I'd do that. OK.
So I got this contract, I was 29 years old, and I was ecstatic, I was going to be a star. Here I have a Discovery Channel contract. And think about this, 10, 12 years ago, that was a big deal, right? A really big deal, Discovery Channel, me. I mean for Asians, if you're not a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, then being a movie star was as good. This is validation, this was vindication. So we went to India, we did this film called Atlas India. It was unbelievable, mega thing, I was going to be famous, all of my problems were going to be solved.
And guess what? It got killed. It never aired, it never aired. Nothing to do with me, I wasn't that horrible. But it was like Discovery was like a revolving door then. The woman that was running it left and the whole thing fell apart.
And it was crushing, it was like the biggest disappointment. Here one moment you're this, and you already did, they paid me, they even paid me. And I thought that it, that was my moment of glory, it was gone.
So that helped me deal with disappointment, and one of the things that I really have learned in life, in sort of the work I do, is I don't celebrate my successes that much, and that allows me not to dwell in my failures. I've spent very little time talking to you about all the projects that didn't work, except from a learning perspective. But it doesn't really upset me, because somehow that fail I thought I'd never get a chance again, and low and behold, someone who saw some back scene footage from the BBC put me on screen, and then the rest was kind of history. I've done a lot of shows since then.
Ann Kinzig: We only have another minute or two, but this is-- no that was great. This is a question from a student.
M. Sanjayan: Yeah.
Ann Kinzig: So if you could just give a minutes worth of advice. It's in a sense, how can students prepare to get involved in projects or organizations like Conservation International, to do what you're doing, not maybe the movie star part, but to get involved in conservation.
M. Sanjayan: Right, OK. Very, very good question. So the most important thing if you're a student in this audience is don't wait till you graduate. Don't wait till you graduate. By then, it's too late. In some ways, because I mean it's never too late, but by then, do this while you're in school, whether you're a grad student or undergrad. I did that.
And what you want to do is, if you're studying biology say, which is what I did, then try and get involved with organizations and institutions that aren't focusing on biology. And if you're working on social sciences, then try to get involved with organizations that work in art. If you're an artist, then try to get involved with organizations that work in economics. When you're young and you're just coming out of school, the breadth of knowledge is really important, that's what makes you stand up for all the other superstars that are coming out as well. So try, as much as you can, to get hands-on working experience, internships, volunteer, even getting involved with, become a member of it, engage in the conversation with things unlike yourself.
So when I was a grad student, I was studying biology, for two summers in a row, I went and became an intern at the World Bank. And that was extraordinary, extraordinary experience for me. And I had to do it that way, because I was a foreign student at the time and you couldn't get paid in many places legally except for things like the World Bank, which you could get paid for to do that work. But that's what I would say you are to do.
The other thing is, find a local conversational organizer near you and get engaged there. That's easy, you literally walk in the door and say I'll help. But also work on things that are far away from you. I mean, one of the challenges CI has, Conservation International, we work in faraway geographies. But go to our website, there are ways to get engaged there. Get actively involved in things like nature speaking if you're creative, because your voice is important in getting that voice out there early on, and training yourself is really important. Don't wait till you're ready for the job. OK.
Ann Kinzig: Well I want to thank three folks. I want to thank you, the audience, for coming. Julie for sponsoring this event. But most importantly, Sanjayan for an extraordinary talk. Thank you.
M. Sanjayan: Thank you so much. Thank you And now, I'm going to take these. I'm going to take your questions and if I get a chance, I'll post the answers on Facebook or Twitter, so you can see those answers. So thank you again, thank you. Thank you.
This presentation is brought you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability for educational and noncommercial use only.