Wildlife presenter Chris Morgan is most at home in the wild. It would not be unusual to find him crouched before the camera at an Alaskan vantage point, quietly reassuring viewers that his proximity to the approaching grizzly bear is in fact safe – as long as everyone follows behavioural protocol.
Today however, during this on-screen encounter, the vast backdrop of the Alaskan tundra has been substituted for the four walls where Chris does his thinking and where ideas for his next documentary are kindled. Annotated maps cover the walls. Survival equipment, a reminder of the adventures that lay in wait, line the shelves.
Chris has just returned from the Chiquibul Forest of Belize – a place, he says, that is ‘so layered and vivid, it can often be exhausting’. He’s been navigating the dense tropical heat with the assistance of local conservation outfit Friends for Conservation and Development, producing the third series of his podcast, The WILD with Chris Morgan. The first episode saw Chris go in search of the scarlet macaw, a resplendent bird whose numbers are declining due to the demands of the illegal pet trade. Episode two will see him embark on a mosquito-ridden quest through the undergrowth to track jaguars. He shows me a picture of a fresh jaguar print, its imprint on the forest floor so fresh that it is only just beginning to fill with the run-off from the canopy above. I’ll need to wait until the episode comes out to hear the outcome. But the anticipation, we agree, can often dwarf the encounter.
A man with this much survival equipment and a penchant for large carnivores might give the impression of a thrill-seeker. But I encounter a man more inspired by the subtleties of the natural world: its ability to cut through the complications of human society and unite people.
Q: What was it like to be in the tropical, rainforest environment of Belize?
CM: There was so much going on in Belize that your mind wanders away from the heat. There’s a special kind of focus when you’re tracking a jaguar in the Chiquibul Forest, dripping with sweat, mosquitoes and insects biting you. When I found my first jaguar tracks, it was breath-taking. I remember piecing together the moment, thinking: “it’s around here somewhere, where has it come from? Where is it going? Is it looking at us?” I think as people we see nature, but sometimes it is very mysterious and unknown. Somewhere underneath the human veneer, we are still hairless apes, connected to that primal instinct.
Q: Belize has a good reputation for environmental stewardship. Did you get a sense for why that might be, and do you think there’s anything that other countries could emulate?
CM: I think it is because Belizean people feel close to nature. And that’s not meant to sound vague. People are born into it; it’s in their DNA and their belief system. About half of the population live below the global poverty line and so have come to depend on nature for their livelihoods, and to respect it.
The Belizeans also have this easy-going, Caribbean kind of warmth to them. They were very open and relaxed about sharing the conservation stories that give them pride in their country. Many of the Belizean communities that I encountered when making The WILD had interesting perspectives on the rights of animals and wildlife. For them, the flow of nature and species helps tourism-based businesses to thrive, so there is a deep-rooted respect for its value.
We have to find common ground for nature between belief systems and different human voices. I’m just getting involved with a campaign urging the United Nations Human Rights Council to adopt a healthy planet as a basic human right. If we can’t look at the planet as a basic right for every human, surely there’s something wrong with our approach.
Q: Some of your most popular and successful documentaries have focused on large, charismatic species. Why do you think that is?
CM: I often think that if you can’t convince someone to protect a forest, whether it’s in India or Washington State, maybe you can convince them to protect tigers or bears. Focusing on these charismatic species and their needs can be an effective means of garnering support for conservation.
Q: Naturally then, a lot of your documentaries take place in remote locations of wilderness or semi-wilderness. This year, many nature-lovers have been unable to visit these kind of places; things have slowed down, and lots of people have described appreciating the nature on their doorsteps. Does that give you any encouragement?
CM: I think our whole psychology is changing through Covid-19. People have started to realise that it’s something that can happen all over again, and that if we don’t improve our relationship with nature then this is a test for the next virus to come. To me it’s kind of crazy that it’s taken something like a pandemic in the year 2021 to educate people about our dependency on nature.
However, I’d like to think that when we get through this period, the world will be a kinder and more empathetic place. Being optimistic, something like Covid-19 just might jolt us into that mindset where we empathise more with each other, and with animals. Then again, human beings do have famously short memories!
Q: Nature conservation and environmentalism can sometimes draw criticism for having a myopic approach. Do you think people are aware that there are a diversity of perspectives when it comes to critical conservation issues?
I think some are more aware than others. Some storytellers ignore that fact and just blaze through – there’s a place for that sometimes, and then there’s also a place for the more neutral storytelling approach.
We did a short film called Grizzly Bears: Wanted? and we went microphone in hand to all stakeholder groups: ranchers, tree-hugging environmentalists, children, business-owners, and what we found was that the majority of people support nature’s comeback and want grizzly bears and mountain lion numbers to grow. The minority of those who don’t are usually a lot louder than the ones who do. It is a delicate balance between hearing a diversity of opinion, and lending too much voice to ill-informed, vocal minorities rallying over non-science and non-facts.
Q: Do you think there’s a particular skill to seeing nature?
CM: I think everyone has some sense for it. It’s a sense that’s stronger for those who have managed to keep it in the modern world; for others it’s been chipped away at by society, or expectations of normal life. We all have an innate capacity for wonder and discovery, and I think finding things in nature can take us back to these moments of curiosity that for many are locked somewhere in the childhood experience. That sort of gets whittled out as we’re rounded into a civilised human being, ready for society.
I do think you can really learn it though. That’s what motivates me: helping others to have these edifying experiences in nature. It’s amazing to see the societal version of a person melt away to a more primal version of what’s underneath. So in that sense you can learn how to see and experience nature, as it’s something that is in all of us.