Film and the extinction of species

How many of you know that the African Penguin, also known as the Jackass Penguin (probably because their loud cries sound a bit like a donkey), could be heading for extinction?

Catchlight, a broadcasting and media production company closely affiliated with Twenty-Two Media was recently commissioned by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums to document a new initiative being undertaken by the association to focus attention on key indicator species that are a representative and are scientifically telling of the overall state of endangered species globally.

From the outset the crew involved realised that tackling such topics would also highlight a number of politically loaded issues at stake. The first day of the shoot, involved covering an international conference in Cape Town with representatives from various interest groups and organisations where not everyone felt comfortable discussing the veracity of what’s at stake on camera and the crew was promptly asked to leave the room.

So what’s all the fuss about? Over the course of the week that followed, the crew learnt that the African Penguin serves as an indicator species to the general health and balance of the marine and coastal ecology of Southern Africa. Over the past century their numbers have seen a drastic decline due to various causes, of which the immediate assumption of global warming did not make the top of the list! Factors such as guano scraping, encroachment on their habitat, harvesting of eggs and dwindling fish stock have caused the African Penguin numbers to plummet to a mere 2,5% of what they were at a 100 years ago. Meaning if the African Penguin as the indicator is in trouble, then there must be many other species unknown to the general public that are also in trouble.

The crew interviewed and documented the work done by a handful of very dedicated individuals. What struck me was the level of dedication these conservationists display in the battle of survival for the penguins, often with very little reward apart from the knowledge that they are saving animals from extinction. Without people like them, many species would by now have disappeared off the face of the planet.

Besides visiting the two colonies at Boulders Beach and Stony Point in the Western Cape, where tourist access to the penguins are controlled, our most interesting day of filming was definitely the trip to Dyer Island near Gansbaai. Deon Geldenhuys of CapeNature took us four landlubbers on an adrenalin-fueled boat ride to the island, which now is a protected reserve off-limits to the general public. Thousands of cormorants, gannets and penguins breed on the island, with the only human footprint being the remaining structures from earlier guano scraping operations that now house Deon and his small team. We filmed the impressive sight of the small, flat island crowded with nesting birds. Deon showed us how they gather penguin chicks, instinctively abandoned by their parents mainly due to a lack of food, to be shipped back and raised at SANCCOB, a leading non-profit marine conservation. He explained how they are forced to selectively cull seals from the nearby colony that have developed a taste for penguin meat. He also explained the major impact the guano scraping of a bygone era had on disrupting one of the last remaining natural breeding grounds for the African Penguin.

As a filmmaker I don’t often think how important a medium like film has become in the fight against both public and institutional ignorance about the state of our environment. In the end our work, where we gathered valuable documentary footage for client will be invaluable when they return to the US to promote the cause of the African Penguin.

This experience has certainly given me a new perspective on the continuing battle for survival of so many species and the individuals fighting for them. I trust that our small contribution through the skills that we have will do good in assuring the preservation of one more species.