Behind the Scenes of 'Earth a New Wild,' PBS's New Nature Show

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M. Sanjayan “parahawking” with a vulture in Nepal. M Sanjayan / PBS

Picture Planet Earth, the groundbreaking BBC nature show, but with people in it. That's sort of what PBS's new show Earth a New Wild is like: a documentary about the beautiful landscapes and creatures on this planet, including humans, and the myriad issues like climate change that will determine whether man and beast alike survive.

The inclusion of humans doesn't make it any less magnificent. In some ways, it makes it more exciting, as when show host M. Sanjayan furiously scrambles off a forest log to avoid encountering a charging wild panda. Or when the team interviews Bangladeshi villagers whose family members have been eaten by tigers. Of course these animals are beautiful, but they are also wild, and this is real life.

I sat down with Sanjayan, a conservation scientist and writer, to hear more about the show, which debuts Wednesday, February 4, at 9 p.m. EST. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How is Earth a New Wild different from other nature series?

I was blown away by Planet Earth, but if you watched it and weren't familiar with Earth, you might be a bit surprised to find more than 7 billion people [are] living here, in every corner of the planet.

I felt nature shows were in two camps: They either show nature as something sacred like the Sistine Chapel, or [involve] wrestling an animal and jumping on top of it. And neither reflected the reality of what humans do on the planet. So we wanted to do a new series that showed humans' role in nature, and not separate from nature.

What were some of the coolest moments you encountered during filming?

Seeing the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was something else. This sea has dried up in our lifetime. [Editor's note: It's now 90 percent smaller than it was 50 years ago.] In the late '60s, it produced 10,000 tons of fish per year. Now what's left is too salty to have fish in it. You can see huge abandoned ships, up to 30 meters long [100 feet], and it's another 150 kilometers [93 miles] to the water.

Lake Malawi [in Africa] was incredible, the diversity of fish there is off the charts, and yet there's a hidden killer in the lake that kills people in the tens of thousands. And you realize that saving those people involves saving the lake. The killer is schistosomiasis, spread by snails that have invaded the shallows.

I also went "para-hawking" with this guy who runs a vulture rescue. This is when you paraglide with a vulture [or hawk] that flies along next to you. You sort of integrate into the social lives of the vultures in the sky. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done.

In China we also got to see 14 baby pandas up close. That was special.

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Baby pandas in China are featured in “Earth a New Wild.” Ami Vitale

Did you have any close calls or really dangerous encounters?

There were lots of times you had to be really aware of what you were doing. We did a fair amount of things with sharks, sometimes even holding them. Another time a panda bear tried to bite me.

In the Sundarbans [mangrove forests in Bangladesh and India], we were in a place with genuine man-eating tigers. Nearly every week somebody is killed. We saw a tiger and filmed it, though we were fine. We also nearly got our plane stuck in the mud here, and it was a miracle we got it out of there before the high tide came.

Who were some of the most inspiring people or stories you came across?

I met a guy in Bangladesh whose father was killed by a tiger, while the two of them were cutting grass. He attacked the tiger, his dad died on his lap. Amazingly, though, now he's not bitter about [the animals], he's actually become a tiger conservationist. He realized that the tiger was just doing what tigers always do. And if it's gone, people will go into the forest and cut down the forest. [Editor's note: one reason that the Sundarbans are protected is due to the presence of endangered animals like tigers; they also serve as an obvious deterrent.]

That's a hero, to me.

What's the strangest or most surprising story you came across?

Reindeer were likely to be the first animal to be [semi-]domesticated. But you can't fully domesticate them, because then you'd have to feed and shelter them. So you semi-domesticate them by half-castrating them, and the way the native Sami people of Norway do that is with their teeth, destroying the testes but not removing them. I've witnessed this. This way the animals are less aggressive and less likely to fight and fragment the herd, but still have migratory instincts.

Describe the biggest challenge in shooting the series.

Pure logistics. So many crews, often working at the same time. Filming in really difficult places, in 29 different countries. One time we were at a remote atoll 1,000 miles south of Hawaii and a big storm blew in and disabled one of our ships.

There was also just many stories that were difficult to tell. Each episode involves four to five different narratives woven together.

What do you want people to get out of the show?

I want people to be blown away by the planet we live in. The one we actually live in. It's still spectacular, even with all our problems. I want people to fundamentally realize that we are part of nature—because if they realize that, they will realize that saving ourselves involves saving nature.