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Sony BBC Earth showcases a variety of shows—everything from fun science to human stories. Starting 22 April, the channel will air Hidden India—a series that discovers wildlife experiences in the country’s untouched areas. In a phone interview from London, Julian Hector, the show’s executive producer, speaks about the moments that encapsulate this series, such as filming a rare purple frog in the Western Ghats. The shoot happened over three years, wrapping up in 2016, before the controversy about another BBC documentary on the aggressive protection measures at the Kaziranga National Park broke out. Edited excerpts:
Tell us more about the ‘Hidden India’ series. The concept and processes behind it.
We love India. It has the most wonderful interactions between people and the natural world. India has a rich colour palette, deep natural history and symbolism (related to animals) within the people. Hidden India was both embracing that and trying to find those pockets where there is this sort of emptiness. That was the invitation—to find those pockets of natural world which are less seen by audiences.
India is full of extraordinary wildlife. People are quite familiar with the Asiatic rhino, for example, that lives in the North-East. They might have even heard of the lovely Asiatic lion. But your country is also full of interesting reptiles, amphibians and birds. We found ways of cutting down stories and keeping the light and atmosphere that you have in India. That is a lovely projection of India, but perhaps these are stories that people haven’t heard of.
If you think about all the shoots that made up the series, the material was collected over a three-year period. Some of it was specially shot, and other elements were shot for other series but were saved for this series. We also collaborated with a lot of our colleagues at the NHU (the BBC Natural History Unit).
Kaziranga has faced a lot of poaching-related issues. How difficult was it to get the necessary clearances and shoot there? How was the shooting experience elsewhere?
Kaziranga...it was relatively easy. We employed local people to help us have access to animals. The cameraman and director were up on the elephant’s back. We were looking for the Asiatic rhino, but while filming as we were looking around, we found fresh pug marks of tigers as well. It was an exciting shoot. It was a mysterious feeling. As we were out there looking for a rhino, we were being watched by one of your most charismatic predators. We also got close to a female (rhino) with a young calf, which is very unusual.
The lion shoots were interesting. For the first time there, we actually filmed a female hunt. That was very exciting because Asiatic lions are of great interest to people. I don’t think lions are something that the audience elsewhere in the world associates with India. In Rajasthan, we filmed a bird, the florican, which we hadn’t filmed before. One more thing about Kaziranga is that we filmed a pygmy hog there, which is very rare.
India is not alone in having the problem of poaching and trading of endangered species. These negative interactions between people and the wildlife can be seen in many parts of the world. India has its own challenges. We all had to work very carefully with the authorities, obtaining permits, and made sure we got good collaborators on the ground.
How did you ensure animals didn’t face any distress during the shooting?
The really important thing for us is to get the right fixers, which is the local people. We can’t do this any of this alone. A lot of preparations went on even before we left the UK. The second thing is liaising with local experts, wherever it’s relevant. They can be from the universities, national parks or charities. We try to hire local Indian camera men and women. In terms of reducing the risk to the animals, local knowledge is everything.
If I were to give you a moment that encapsulates the series: In the second episode, which is about India’s mountains, we did loads of filming in the Western Ghats. There’s an amphibian there called the purple frog. It spends 50 weeks of the year underground. When the rains come, they emerge. They are purple with big eyes. For me, that’s wonderful natural history, it’s hidden from view, and something that will surprise the audience.
What have you gauged about India’s flora and fauna? What is your view on how wildlife is managed?
Every part of the world has got scope for improvement. Of course, India has got its own challenges, with its large population and diverse landscape. Many of the animals you have in India are wanted for various reasons around the world, so there’s great pressure.
In India, with its people and range of religions, you embrace the natural world in your heritage. You see animals revered as gods in lots of symbolism. You see the nature of the natural world sort of brought into your life. I find that one of the most enriching elements of India. It’s your constant fight to protect the natural world. Our footprint has to be less and less.