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Tania Esteban chats about her role as a Digital Researcher for BBC’s Big Cats, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II

Tania Esteban behind the camera

I’m sure that, like me, Thursdays for many of my blog readers have meant one thing this January — Big Cats!

The BBC’s natural history programming has started 2018 on a high, with this exciting new series exploring the secret lives of wild cats. This past Tuesday viewers were treated to a rare insight into an international project that’s battling to bring the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and improving wild habitats.

I was fortunate enough to chat to Tania Esteban (whose work can be discovered at TRE Productions) about her work behind the scenes on the series, which involved researching, setting up shoots, storyboarding, and translating for the crew (Tania credits being bilingual as major advantage in securing her role on the project).

Listen to the full interview on the SoundCloud link below.

After discovering her film A Lion’s Tale through Twitter back in 2016 (it featured on my Top 5 ways to beat Blue Monday post in January 2017), I was incredibly excited to chat to Tania about the film; her first big steps into her career in documentary-making; and the amazing work she’s done with the BBC since completing her Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking…

Kate: ‘Big Cats’ was your first project for the BBC, what did you do for the series?

Tania: It was my first foray into the BBC because it was work experience. At the time I was editing A Lion’s Tale, which was good timing, so I applied for the BBC work experience pool. I thought; “I’ll just apply and see if I get it” — it’s usually quite tricky because so many people apply and I knew I may or may not get it. I was at university when I got the call and they said: “We’d love to do a quick interview with you if you’d like to do work experience”, and of course I said; “yeah, I’d love to!”

The reason why was mainly because I could speak Spanish and they sent me to Spain to do a recce of where they were going to film the Iberian lynx for the third episode, on the conservation element of it. So I was very excited because this was my dream project — I wish I could have worked on it for longer. But I spent a month and a half working on it; doing lots of research and getting to learn the ropes of production. We’d just learnt everything on the [Masters] course, so it was fresh in our minds and a good chance to see whether I could do this in the real world of work.

What did the work experience involve?

I helped the main researcher and assistant producer — the lovely Sara [Douglas]. We went out to Spain and actually flew into my home province — which was hilarious; I told the team that I could show them all the best tapas bars. I did a little bit of filming on an Osmo [a type of handheld camera] — so that’s kind of field notes and getting a general scope of the area so that the producer can look and think ‘right, we’re going to film here and we’d like to do this…”.

I did a lot of translating; liaising with the scientist and finding out key facts that would feature heavily in the story. It was my job to work around the language barrier and make them feel comfortable with the team and ask questions about where we could place the cameras and gain their trust — which I love doing, because I love talking to people. 

BBC big cats

What did you enjoy most about working on Big Cats?

I really enjoyed finding pure science, learning how to set up shoots and the storytelling element and thinking about different camera angles and story boards to help the production.

It was very high security and we had to put protective clothes on so we didn’t spread any disease to the animals and they hosed us down, because they’re critically endangered these lynx. And they’re so beautiful; very small animals. I’d never seen them before so that was very exciting. 

It was really inspiring for me actually, because I never realised how many passionate conservationists there are in Spain. I was quite blinded to that in a way because I’d grown up there, but I’d never really had the opportunity to meet any of these people, such as Miguel who features on the programme.

The conservation work is incredible and I’m very glad that — from the perspective of a half Spanish woman — the conservation work that the team is doing is now coming out and being seen. It was brilliant to see that and to start my BBC role and my work as a researcher on a programme that features big cats — as I was obsessed with big cats at that time, after working on my film ‘A Lion’s Tale’.

What’s it like behind the scenes? Did you learn things that weren’t in the final programme? 

Yes. You see all these things behind the scenes and you’ve got your team there; so you find out all of this knowledge and information that embellishes a sequence. And even if that doesn’t make the final cut, you still have that knowledge with you and you still have that bond that you’ve made with these people. I think it’s very important to keep up those relationships where ever you travel in the world, because you never know.

Like the connections you made during the production of A Lion’s Tale; the likes of Ian Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Will Travers. How did that come about and where did you get the idea for the film?

I was studying the Wildlife Filmmaking MA course in Bristol after completing my Zoology course. I’d know for so many years that I wanted to do this particular MA course; since I was 14 and I saw it advertised. So I planned all my A Levels and GCSEs to get to Bristol and do this course. So when I got it I was ecstatic! And as part of our final year projects we had to choose a story we were passionate about; I wasn’t too sure what that would be — I knew I really liked big cats, but wasn’t sure what the story would be. Then Ian Redmond came in [to the university] and gave an inspiration talk — as always. He was talking about vEcotourism and he said this one sentence — that it was the 50th anniversary since the Born Free film was made and I went; “that’s the story!”

A Lions Tale film poster

Click the image to watch A Lion’s Tale

How did you get to work on the filmmaking side?

I’d recently read how lions had declined by nearly 70% over 20 years, and it’s just terrible when you think about how their numbers have plummeted. People always think that lions are so numerous, and they’re really not anymore — so I thought that’s the connection. So I went up to Ian [Redmond] and said “I’m a huge fan and I’ve got this idea for a film I’d like to make with Born Free; could you maybe put me in touch with Will Travers and Virginia McKenna if they’d be interested. And that really got the ball rolling and I got in touch with Will. Will was absolutely incredible — and I’m such a huge fan of his, so I was terrified of meeting him — and of course Virginia has always been such a hero of mine; as I’m sure she is of yours, and many people. She’s got this incredible presence. I even did a presentation about her when I was at school; I was 10 years old and we had to talk about our biggest heroes, and I chose her.

Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’s met Virginia McKenna has said she has such a positive air about her, and she’s so passionate and she ‘does’. She’s an activist — she acts upon her word.

virginia mckenna at home

Virginia McKenna portrait by Tania Esteban

So once the ball was rolling, I spent six months setting up the shoot and liaising with them constantly and then doing all the storyboards, doing all the research; talking to Victor — who’s one of the rangers out in the Kenyan Born Free offices — and then crowd-funded it. It was just a bizarre, really incredible year of planning this dream shoot and I thought: “right, I’ve got 10 days to actually shoot it, just a tiny percentage of a production.”

Actually getting out there was incredible because I got to fulfil a childhood dream of filming a story about one of my absolute heroes and an animal that’s very dear to my heart.

A Lion's Tale film poster

When I started editing it, I want the piece to be very much a memoir of Born Free and of Virginia McKenna as well, because she has dedicated her whole life to conserving wildlife. And her son [Will] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. He never stops. He’s seriously incredible.

What was it like going to the 2016 ivory burn in Kenya for the film — to witness the biggest ever stockpile of ivory to be destroyed?

That was something that I was unsure as to whether it would come off. A lot of people asked “what’s the connection?” and I said “well, there is a connection”, at the very end — there was a different ending that I didn’t use, it’s a personal copy that I keep — it’s Virginia McKenna saying: “it’s not just about elephants and lions; it’s about the whole eco-system; it’s about the whole of nature — protecting it. It got me really emotional actually.

Being at the ivory burn was one of the most overwhelming, powerful things I’ve ever filmed. You’re so focussed as a camerawoman, thinking: “I’ve got to get this shot, and I’ve got to get that shot — I’ve got to get the president as he comes out to light the ivory, and I’ve got to roam around with my gimbal to try and get some of the shots of the rangers and the burning flames…” and then you look up and see this 50-tonne pile of ivory going up in flames. It was the smell actually, more than anything and you could hear the ivory crackling because bits of it were hollow — it was so powerful.

Tania Esteban film the 2016 Kenyan ivory burn

That’s why in the film I used Virginia’s voice, Will’s voice and Victor’s in the film, to narrate it. I wanted them to give a voice to all those people who had been working together to reach this moment. It’s all about emotion in the storytelling. That’s what I tell a lot of people — especially in conservation — because nobody wants to be lectured anymore. You’ve got to get them emotionally or visually arresting images to try and do these amazing people justice.

Just being there was amazing and I’m so grateful to Ian and Will and Virginia for giving me that opportunity to make a dream film.

Amazing! I know you’ve become a bit of a drone specialist; how has that come about?

Drones are amazing! I got started with them about 2 years ago when I saw a video on Vimeo that someone shot in Scotland on a Phantom 2 — a very old type of drone — and I just thought “god, it really does open up a whole new world!”. It was only then that it was beginning to get more commercial and anyone from the general public could start to buy consumer drones and give it a go. So I bought a secondhand one to see if I could actually fly it before I start taking it seriously — and it was terrible, the drone was quite terrible, but if you can fly a bad drone and a smaller one, then you don’t have to worry about the bigger ones.

I remember flying a drone over my house in Spain, and the mountains there have always inspired me, so just to see it from above and being able to take pictures was incredible — a whole new perspective. And that’s where it all started really. I realised it could add a whole new perspective to my storytelling. 

Tania Esteban holds a drone camera

I was at the BBC at the time and I thought: yes, I’m going to do this. It’s quite a lot of money, it costs quite a few thousand pounds to train yourself to get the license and get qualified, but I knew that it would perhaps open up more opportunities for me to go out on location and also to enhance my own videography and film work.

The conservation element of it is quite interesting, because you can use drones for aerial surveying — such as for monitoring orang-utan nests and tree distribution and species. In the forest it was incredible to pan up the trees that just go on and on, and it gives a good indication of the health of the forest when you see ferns on the trees, etc. And I’m always concerned about the welfare of the animals I’m filming — when I filmed elephants in the forest I didn’t get anywhere near them. So it’s exciting; you’ve got small drones like the Spark, which you can fit in your hand, and because of the size of it, the motors don’t make as much noise. That’s very exciting for wildlife filmmakers.

I recently went to Iceland, which is the most drone-able country — the way the landscape changes is like turning the pages of a children’s story book — and the new series I’m working on now heavily features a lot of drone work, so I’m going off to Canada very soon to go fly my drone. My first paid internal gig with my drone.

Exciting! And it’s always important to think about the welfare of the animals. So, tell me about your work on Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. What did you do for them?

That came about two months after I finished work experience on Big Cats and I’d finished editing A Lion’s Tale. The film came out at the start of November and at the end of November the BBC got in touch and said “would you like to do digital research for Planet Earth II?” Umm, yeah!

Digital research encompasses all the online aspects: all the video clips, all the behind the scenes pictures and all the social media clips and exclusives that people see online. And I was a part of the team that did all the different additional bits to support the Blue Planet II team. Which is probably why I was very active on social media about it, saying “check this out!” and all the random .gifs you probably saw about it.

Tania tweets about Blue Planet 2

We did some digital exclusives for Snapchat for America, which was interesting. My job was to look into all the archive which wasn’t used for Planet Earth, so I got to see all this amazing footage which wasn’t used on the main episodes and edit up clips for the digital platform.

We crafted these different stories with this incredible footage that wasn’t used on the series. Some of it was breath-taking, I hope its used for something in the future. 

For Blue Planet II I did the equivalent, but also got to do some additional interviews with some of the filmmakers involved and the conservationists — so that was good, as it meant I got to do some more camerawork.

I was so desperate then to move on to production — and I saw that Wild Metropolis was commissioned and so I came up with loads of story ideas and pitched it to the series producer and he said “ok, you can be one of our researchers” — which was great, as I could move on to production which was what I wanted, as it’s pure research. It’s been my favourite project to date. A lot of people don’t see these ‘mega cities’ from around the world as wildlife hotspots, but some of the stories we’ve found: wow! It’s coming out in October time, so keep an eye out for that!

What advice would you give to people who want to go into filmmaking and start a career like yours?

You have to be really passionate — and slightly crazy — about wildlife and natural history. I did the science route, zoology and I studied urban bat ecology for a year and did my dissertation on it and then I specialised in filmmaking, because that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t have to do that, I know plenty of people who didn’t, but I think it just gives you this filmic grammar if you specialise in filmmaking.

So yeah, just get out there, find your own stories — the world has opened up now, anyone can own a camera that shoots 4K now. Talk to people about their experiences, travel — it opens up a whole new perspective of your own life, as well as your career. Keep filming and get on social media. .

Tania with Victor and Born Free team after filming A Lion's Tale

Networking is about 60% of everything that we do. I also believe that if you can specialise in a certain area of wildlife filmmaking: gimbal work, long lens work, drone work, time-lapse, thermal — like you saw in Big Cats, the thermal imagery — there’s so many different niches that you can specialise in, I think you should go for it and pick one that you enjoy. I also believe in developing your own style; don’t just copy.

And always remember your roots; the reason you’re doing why your doing your filmmaking work — to make a difference, to inspire people, which is especially true of wildlife work

 

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Want to know more about wildlife filmmaking?

 

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New Year’s resolution: Tell tales by light

One of the best things about the Christmas period is vegging out in front of the television and catching up on the programmes you’ve been saving up for when you ‘get a moment’. For me, the list was expansive — and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that some of it will probably have to wait until next Christmas (it’s been a busy year for me!).

tales by light netflix title card

My Netflix marathon included the beautiful shot and incredibly inspiring docuseries; Tales by Light. Exploring the lives and work of renowned photographers, this series was originally made in partnership with National Geographic and Canon — and to say it is inspiring is an understatement.

Most gripping for me were the first two episodes of series 2, which featured ‘The Big Cat People‘; Angela and Jonathan Scott. Titled Sacred Nature, after the beautiful coffee table photography book the couple released last year, the episodes followed them through the Masaai Mara on their mission to photograph a female cheetah chasing down a kill. The episode also sees the pair revisiting the Marsh Pride from the famous Big Cat Week to photograph a relative of the poisoned lioness, Sienna, and Bella the leopard‘s granddaughter.

tales by light sacred nature on netflix

Watching the series has inspired me to pursue my interest in wildlife photography. Last year I attended a wildlife photography course at Woodbury Wetlands in London and each year I’m inspired by the incredible work on display at the Natural History Museum‘s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

So it feels like time to reignite a forgotten love and consider storytelling through photography as well as words.

I’ve always enjoyed capturing the expressions of wild animals, such as these beautiful cheetahs I photographed in South Africa, and I hope to highlight the conservation issues that animals face by better utilising photography as a medium to inspire. Sadly we end 2017 with calls for cheetahs to be listed as an endangered species, with fewer than 7,100 remaining in the wild. When I look back over these pictures, the thought of losing these beautiful creatures makes me feel genuinely heartbroken.

Photography is such a powerful tool for documenting rare and surprising animal encounters. Perhaps, unexpectedly, one of the rarest wildlife finds I’ve ever photographed is this Southern African hedgehog, pictured at Shamwari Game Reserve on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Spotted on a night drive and lifted into the beams of the Land Rover headlights, this little hedgehog was the first of its species to be seen in the reserve in around 10 years! Very little is known about the creatures in the wild.

As Jonathan Scott acknowledges in Tales by Light; photography is about capturing the perfect moment and for him, that means knowing where to be, which can take years of getting to know the area and understanding the animals being photographed. Possibly my favourite take away point from the episode is Angela Scott‘s statement that “photography is an extraordinary art because you can see these moments that only you see and you just want to share them and say ‘look at this, isn’t it beautiful? This is the world we live in.”

Bird photography by Kate on Conservation

Photography can also be a perfect way to highlight the difference between wild and captivity. Consider the fact that both the photo above and the one below show a bird sitting on a branch; but the use of light (soft sunlit silhouette compared with harsh spotlight in a aviary) help convey a sense of vast, open freedom compared with the impression of a shallow, flatter image to convey a sense of confinement.

Perhaps my favourite sequence of photos I’ve taken so far is the tale of this lonely elephant walking alongside the watering hole. To me the images represent a terrifying future — one where, if we do not act to secure a ban on the sale of ivory in the UK, we could see the last elephant of the species walks alone into extinction.

elephant resting in the sunTo end with good news, however, as 2017 ticked away, the historic Ivory Ban in China entered into force on the 31 December. All commercial sales and processing of elephant ivory are now illegal in China.

And as if to kickstart my motivation in learning more about wildlife photography, my photograph was picked up by BBC Earth and has received over 10,000 likes!

Happy new year and best blessings for 2018!

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Learn more about photography for conservation:

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Sides of a Horn – Guest post by teenage conservationist Bavukile Vilane

Following the release of the controversial new film ‘Trophy’ last month, guest blogger Bavukile Vilane offers his voice as an advocate of the film ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to deliver the real truth behind the opposing views on the rhino horn trade. Will it deliver where Trophy fell short?

Sides Of A Horn film art

The Rhino Movie: Sides of a Horn is based on actual events, the dramatic film details the rhino poaching epidemic from the perspective of the three characters most directly affected: the ranger, the poacher, and the rhino.

When I first saw a mini trailer for the film on social media when the Kickstarter campaign had just started I wanted to get involved. I emailed Toby Wosskow, (very great guy indeed) who is the film’s writer and director. I then got involved in raising awareness for the film and the Kickstarter campaign so that all the funds could be met for the making of the film. Together we accomplish great things, as conservationists, I believe the only way to overcome barriers is working together one step at a time.

Writer/Director Toby Wosskow meeting with royal family. Photo by Dino Benedetti – © 2017 Sides of a Horn

On Friday, 20th October, the narrative short film received full funding and is moving into pre-production. 235 passionate philanthropists and wildlife enthusiasts from around the world have contributed over $57,000, making Sides of a Horn the fifth highest funded short film of all time on Kickstarter. After sharing the build-up to success countlessly on social media, I was very happy when it became a success. I had wished I was done with school and fully working on the production myself because I love editing and producing videos etc.

The short film is set to begin filming on location in South Africa in early-2018, and a feature-length adaptation is to follow. It is the first film to present an unbiased narrative of South Africa’s rhino poaching war.

Writer/Director Toby Wosskow location scouting. Photo by Dino Benedetti - © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Writer/Director Toby Wosskow location scouting. Photo by Dino Benedetti – © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Wildlife crime is the world’s fourth largest illegal industry (behind drugs, human trafficking and the illicit trade in arms) , and it is at an all-time high. A single rhino horn can fetch up to $300,000 (U.S. dollars) on the black market in China and Vietnam. By weight, it is worth more than gold or cocaine, and the demand in the Far East is fueling a war on the ground in South Africa. The human death toll is rising, but it is the rhino that faces extinction.

Team with a rhino. Photo by Dino Benedetti - © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Team with a rhino. Photo by Dino Benedetti – © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Sides of a Horn will expose the social impact of the rhino horn trade in a similar way that Blood Diamond did for the diamond trade—humanizing those on the ground, creating awareness, and catalyzing positive change. The team of U.S. and South African filmmakers are partnering with influential conservationists and global organizations to release the film around the world with a direct call to action.

The project will be filmed in the townships impacted by the crisis and in the game reserves that combat poaching on a daily basis. Months of research, countless hours on the ground, and relationships with local community leaders aid the team in keeping authenticity at the forefront of the project.

Discover more about the Sides of a Horn project here.

 

Bavukile Vilane

Bavukile Vilane is a 16-year-old with big dreams for the future. “I want to change the world”, he tells me. “I have always been interested in many things and Software Engineering was something I was going in to. So why Conservation? Because I believe there can be conservation everywhere, even in Software Engineering! It all started after I watched the Blood Lions documentary which also featured My father, possibly the greatest role model for most of the things I do. After watching Blood Lions, I had to join their youth for lions as an Ambassador and moved on to joining The Roots and Shoots SA Institute by Dr Jane Goodall and later The Crash Kids Against Rhino Poaching. I still have many plans for conservation and the role I can play. It all starts somewhere though. This is my story and it is only just the introduction to a lot of great chapters that I want to complete. There’s a lot to be done and it is about time the youth acts… It is, of course, our future. I alone can make a difference, but only together can we bring real change.”

Bavukile has his own platform, Conservation In Heart, and YouTube series: ‘Conservation Life‘. Find out more by clicking here.

 

Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

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Trophy ‘shockumentary’: Does it really compare to Blackfish?

In 1900 there were 500,000 rhinos in the world. Today there are less than 30,000. This shocking statistic opens the controversial new documentary ‘Trophy‘ — and if there’s one thing that audiences can agree on, it’s that this represents a crisis for the species.

I imagine this divisive film, which serves primarily to promote the idea of legalising the trade in rhino horn, offers little else that can universally unite its viewers.

trophy film poster

There’s no doubt that the time is now to act to save this iconic species. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the momentum intensify when it comes to anti-poaching responses, debates and campaigns concerning rhinos and the horn trade.

Within moments of the film opening (to a scene of father and young son shooting dead a ‘trophy’ deer), we are introduced to South Africa’s most successful rhino breeder, John Hume. I’ve previously heard Mr Hume’s position on the rhinos horn trade at a debate I attended last year. The debate actually features briefly in the film (including a split-second shot of me, holding my pen to take notes for a blog post).

In 2016, John Hume’s rhino farm comprised of more than 1,400 of the animals — also making him first in-line for a huge profit, should the ban on international sale of horn be lifted. A cause he so passionately campaigns for.

“If he had an opinion to give to you, he would say ‘I’m very happy to sacrifice my horn in order to save my life’,” John states, simplifying a somewhat complex issue to a life vs. death scenario, rather than quality of life of a sentient being vs. compromised welfare standards owing to increased exploitation.

I think most people would agree that welfare standards surrounding large scale farming are far from satisfactory (think of the dairy industry) — when money is on the table, it seems that species survival matters only for the sake of profit for the owner, not to encourage an ecosystem to flourish via a natural life for the individual.

white rhinos born free foundations

Rhino by George Logan

Later in the film, John acknowledges that he has a protected stockpile of horns worth at least $16 million. His words echo round my head: “Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding and making money out of it. There’s not one.” And I can’t think of a single example. But nor can I think of a country whose environment and natural ecosystem hasn’t been drastically altered for the sake of farming.

Another familiar face on this documentary is ecologist Craig Packer, author of the book ‘Lions in the Balance‘. Packer, who chaired the debate last year in which I first encountered John Hume, explains the hunters’ desire to ‘collect’ the big five. That is to kill a lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and a rhino — the cost of legally hunting each of these species reflects how rare each animal is and Packer places the bill to shoot the rarest of these; the rhino, at $350,000. Significantly more than the next in line; elephants at $50,000.

african elephant in Shamwari

Safari Club International President, Joe Hosmer, claims the entire cost of an elephant hunt, which sold for $50,000, would go back into conservation. A wildly unsupported claim — as I discovered in my research for an earlier blog post about trophy hunting and canned lion hunting; the average percentage of hunting fees that make it back into conservation at the community level is more like 3%. For clarification, Safari Club International is an international organisation of hunters — not a jolly collective of tourist-ferrying safari guides; as it’s name might suggest.

At 32 minutes in, Trophy provides us with our first counter argument against the killing of animals for so-called conservation. Adam Roberts of Born Free USA examines the contradiction of Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting culture, whereby he hunted thousands of animals (reportedly 5,000 of which were mammals) and recorded each of his kills, whilst at the same time declaring national parks across the US. Roberts challenges the idea of cloaking the ‘sport’ in ideals of conservation and helping people, suggesting that the reality of the appeal is really in the rush of excitement that hunters feel when they put a bullet in something.

Ecologist Craig Packer expands on this argument: “A hunter was somebody who was willing to go out and spend three weeks walking around on foot tracking an elephant, tracking a lion, to shoot it to take home a trophy. There was a challenge, there was a sense of sport, but what has happened in the last 10 or 15 years has been a growing segment of the hunting demographic which are referred to as ‘the shooters’; the shooters may have to spend as much money as it takes to get a three-week permit, but if they can kill everything in the first two days, they’ll do it and they’ll fly home. It’s that mentality that really feeds the birth of the canned hunting industry… it’s not sport, it’s just killing.”

lion trophy born free foundations

Lion Trophy (c) Blood Lions

Having watched the point blank execution of a lion and a crocodile killed with a bullet to the head after first being injured and tied up; followed by scenes from a canned hunting lion farm and hunters posing with various kills with very little discussion and debate — and certainly no sense of a fair and balanced discussion about the ethics of such behaviour — I have to admit, it just felt rather perverse. But worse was to come as viewers bear witness to the slow, long drawn out death of a young African elephant, groaning through it’s last moments and requiring a shot to the chest at point blank to ‘finish the job’. These graphic scenes literally allow you to see the animal’s last breath.

Since the film’s release on 17th November, Born Free Foundation‘s President Will Travers OBE — who makes a brief appearance in the documentary — warns that the film, which was partly funded by the BBC, leaves viewers marooned in a no-man’s land without credible information on which to make up their minds on the highly-charged issues of trophy hunting and the dangers of promoting a legal international trade in rhino horn.

Kate on Conservation UK

Kate on Conservation

Travers said: “The film is peppered with assumptions and assertions about trophy hunting that are offered in an almost ‘fact-free’ environment. We are told (by a representative of America’s premier hunting organisation, Safari Club International) that ‘all the money [from trophy hunting] will go back into conservation’ with no evidence to back it up. Also that belief in the medical value of rhino horn ‘has been around for millions of years’. Neither is true.”

“In addition, the film presented almost no counter-argument or reliable data relating to the conservation ‘recipe’ of South African, John Hume, the most successful private rhino breeder on the planet, with 1,530 rhino to his name.”

“Mr Hume’s recipe is to breed rhino, cut off their horns and sell them — currently legal in South Africa but prohibited internationally. It is put forward by the film’s makers with almost no risk analysis, no alternative vision and no understanding of what would happen to the world’s 30,000 remaining wild rhino if his dream came true.”

Craig Packer, John Hume and Will Travers

John Hume, Craig Packer and Will Travers at the debate: ‘Should the trade in rhino horn be legalised?’

Born Free say they provided the film-makers with ample evidence drawn from history as to why legalising international rhino horn trade is likely to be a recipe for disaster. In 2008 the international community, despite the desperate pleas of Born Free and others, approved a ‘one-off’ sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory from South Africa and several other countries to Japan and China. Far from ‘satisfying consumer demand’, as the architects of this sale hoped, it fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching and illegal ivory trade.

The African elephant stronghold Tanzania, lost an average of 1,000 elephants a month, every month, for five years between 2009 and 2014. That’s 60,000 elephants. The poaching epidemic continues to this day with 20,000 elephants poached each year, tons of ivory being seized, and wildlife rangers and wardens — the elephants’ first line of defense — losing their lives. More than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been murdered in the last 10 years.

Mr Hume’s naive proposition, supported by pseudo-economics and a failure to understand risk, is likely to have the same impact

Trophy film poster 2

Does the human race really believe you have to kill something to save it? What a sorry, greedy world. My take away thoughts were that many of the people featured in this film stand to make a lot of money from rhino horn. Many of these hunters have a God-complex. Few of the filmmaker’s points are supported with any evidence. If you ARE expecting the next ‘Blackfish‘ when you watch this, you’ll be very disappointed.

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Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

Discover the documentary ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to be the first film to give an unbiased view of South Africa’s ​rhino poaching war from both sides

Want to read about the debate featuring John Hume and Will Travers?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Find out more about the work of Craig Packer:

Learn more about ‘Blackfish’

 

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Top 5 ways to beat ‘Blue Monday’…

Apparently today is the most depressing day of the year. Cold January Mondays, can be a miserable time as it is, without the thought that statistics are against us, as well as the rainy British weather.

I figured it would be a good time to escape the January blues and indulge in the beauty of nature, and some of the incredible conservation heroes working hard to secure a future for some of our planet’s rarest wildlife.

Here are a few of my top suggestions for getting through the day.

1. Try out Gorilla Safari VR

A free app for your phone or mobile device, Gorilla Safari VR was developed by vEcotourism.org and released by the Born Free Foundation over Christmas.

If you’ve not tried it yet, the app — available on Android and iOS — begins at Born Free Foundation’s headquarters in Surrey and takes users on an immersive adventure (either using a VR headset or as a 360-degree video experience on your device), to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Meet Eastern Lowland Gorilla patriarch, Chimanuka (star of BBC’s Gorilla Family & Me), and explore his native habitat with Ian Redmond OBE as your guide.

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I wrote an entire post on this app last month, so feel free to take a look back over that for a full introduction, or visit vEcotours website at: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/announcing-gorilla-safari-vr/

2. Watch A Lion’s Tale

The realm of Natural History film making is in a fantastic position at present. We finished 2016 on the high of the amazing Planet Earth II, with its ground-breaking footage and camera techniques; we’ve had a host of great wildlife shows presented by Gordon Buchanan, and currently you can catch the fascinating BBC series ‘Spy in the Wild‘ narrated by David Tenant. Spy in the Wild uses some impressive robotic animals fitted with hidden ‘spy cameras’ to film a very intimate and unusual look into the lives of a range of animals, from alligators and elephants to African wild dogs. 

But there are many other amazing Natural History films available that you won’t find from switching on your television. Independent filmmakers are posting some incredible results online, including ‘A Lion’s Tale‘ by Tania Esteban.

This film looks at the legacy of actress turned conservationist Virginia McKenna, who famously played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film ‘Born Free‘. Fifty years on, A Lion’s Tale attempts to look at what that legacy means among today’s wildlife conflicts, returning to Kenya (where Elsa the lioness was once released to roam free) to visit the Born Free team and the Kenya wildlife service rangers to explore their work on the frontline of conflict and education.

A Lion’s Tale saw its public release online this last weekend, catch it here:

For more info about the film: treproductions.co.uk/

Official webpage: taniaesteban.wixsite.com/alionstale

3. Explore ‘Speaking of Nature’ case studies 

Another impressive independent film project to have received its launch onto the World Wide Web is that of film maker Craig Redmond. His project ‘Speaking of Nature‘ was released on the 5th of January and has gradually been doing the rounds on social media.

I discovered it this weekend and spent an entire morning working my way through the six stories that comprise this project.

Each story focusses on a different conservationist; Badger Cull – Dominic Dyer, Badger Trust;  Primate Pet Trade – Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA; Hunting and Trapping of Migrating Birds – Fiona Burrows; Committee Against Bird Slaughter; Wildlife Crime – Mark Jones, Born Free Foundation; Industrial Fishing – Wietse van der Werf, The Black Fish; Gardeners of the Forest – Ian Redmond, Ape Alliance

There is a written introduction to each conservationist, exploring their role and the plight of each animal they work with (or rather, for the protection of) and video footage of two-part interviews with each chosen person.

Grab a cup of tea, nestle in and prepare to be inspired.

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For the full stories, visit: https://craigredmond.exposure.co/speaking-of-nature

4. Discover GreenWorldTV

Something to get excited about for 2017 — a brand new television channel dedicated entirely to wildlife and environmental news!
Although GreenWorldTV hasn’t quite ‘landed’ yet, it’s coming. And I for one, can’t wait.
GreenWorldTV will launch in 2017 as the UK’s very first conservation, animal rescue and investigative wildlife online TV Channel and intends to bring a selection of educational and truthful wildlife TV shows, films and shorts to the world. Stay tuned – the channel will launch at www.greenworldtv.com
Check out this trailer for an idea of things to come, and give yourself something to look forward to:

You can sign up to Green World TV YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfsRp0AAJQII4EIfZeVoeRw

5. Have flick through National Geographic Kids Magazine

Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here, because – as some of you will know – I recently started working for National Geographic KiDs magazine. Their February issue (on sale now), is the first issue I contributed to.
It’s a great little uplifting read – lots of fun for children, but also, I’ve found, it’s a nice easy read on an early morning commute.
Simple language, great photography; some fun and unusual facts about big cats and a really interesting feature on polar bears (do you know how big a polar bear’s paw is?).
Plus, it’s bright and colourful and easily digestible. Definitely the kind of thing that cheers me up in January!

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Visit www.ngkids.co.uk or pick up a copy in your local newsagents.

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Racing Extinction: The ultimate race against time…

Today, the force of nature documentary that is Racing Extinction gets its UK dvd release.

I know I’ve raved about Oscar-nominated Racing Extinction on this blog before, but I have a special attachment to it, having worked on the Discovery Education school resources to accompany the film, and therefore having been invited to the UK premiere.Racing Extinction dvdRacing Extinction takes a candid look at the threat of the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction, and the global warming conditions that are likely to ignite it.

By looking at the historical scientific evidence that caused the previous mass extinctions (including the most famous; the dinosaurs), film maker Louis Psihoyos (Director of The Cove) suggests that our planet’s current rise in temperature means we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

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By examining issues such as the carbon emissions of farming and city traffic, the environmental impact of overfishing and the negative change to the ocean’s acidity levels, Psihoyos sets about finding ways to reduce humans’ impact on the planet, and effectively slow down the clock that we started.

‘Better to light one candle than curse the darkness…’

Racing Extincition comes with a very important and empowering ethos — that by working together to make change, we can all play our part in reversing some of the damage and destruction our planet has faced.

It is perhaps this message of hope, and the practical suggestions that we can ‘StartWith1Thing’ to really make a difference, that has made the film so popular. After being aired on the Discovery Channel across the globe, Racing Extinction became the most watched documentary of the last three years!

racing extinction quoteI recently had the opportunity to deliver a whole school assembly on the #StartWith1Thing movement, joining with one of the partners of the film: the Born Free Foundation, to inspire the next generation of ‘wildlife warriors’.

Assembly Claires CourtOne of the things that makes me so passionate about the Racing Extinction film and movement at large, is the time and care it has taken in using the opportunity of the documentary release to educate.

There are many things that I, myself, discovered for the first time while watching and researching this film (I’ll avoid giving too much away here, though), and by helping to create school resources that fit into the secondary school level National Curriculum, I felt like Racing Extinction is really making a difference.

For those who are interested in how Discovery is using Racing Extinction in the classroom, an on-demand virtual field trip is available here:

Racing extinction virtual field tripThe hour-long lesson fleshes out some of the important and relevant issues raised in the film, and challenges students to consider three areas where they can make a change, by asking:

What do you consume?
What do you dispose?
How did you consume your energy?

Racing Extinction is available to buy or download here.

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Saving rhinos the Black Mambas’ way: Anneka Svenska interview

The Black Mambas are a nearly all-women anti-poaching unit created to protect the rhinos of the 400km² Balule Nature Reserve, and keep poachers out of the park.

Aside from the fact that the unit is made up almost entirely from women; the surprising thing about the Black Mambas is: they do it unarmed.

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Presenter, film maker and founder of Green World TV, Anneka Svenska last week released a 10-minute film of the Black Mambas and their work – having recently returned from South Africa with Producer Nigel Marven to create the documentary short on behalf of UK-based charity: Helping Rhinos.

Anneka Svenska dismantling snaresI’m a big supporter of independent films, having blogged for the St Albans Film Festival in the past (where I met Save Me videographer and camera man / editor of the official World Animal Day video 2015, Michael Dias) and interviewed fellow former Uni of Herts student Amanda Gardner, the Producer and Assistant Editor of the incredibly moving short documentary, The Elephant in Room. Despite her crazy week of interviews with The Daily Mail and BBC Radio 5 live, I caught up with Anneka to find out more…

“We want to inspire change all over the world in communities; to group together and stop the world’s wildlife head towards extinction.”

 

Where did the idea of filming with the Black Mambas come from?

Producer and Zoologist Nigel Marven and I were made aware of the work the Black Mambas do through supporting the charity Helping Rhinos. We did some research and realised that these ladies, despite being unarmed women have achieved some amazing things such as a 76% reduction in poaching in their reserve in just two years. It’s such a simple concept – employing poorer communities to take part in ranger projects. The Mambas simply have a visible presence, no weapons and this alone can deter poachers to choose not to poach in that area.

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What was the main motivation for the film?

To spread the word that anyone can make a change. With so much corruption throughout the world, not just in African countries, the wildlife is losing, as people are more interested in money than protecting the animals. However, small uprisings of people all over the world are happening. Not just the Black Mambas, but elsewhere too. We wanted to show that anyone could make a difference. We want to inspire change all over the world in communities to group together and stop the world’s wildlife head towards extinction.

What was the best part of filming?

It was meeting the rhino orphans. Bitter sweet as it is wrong that they have ever ended up in an orphanage to start with, but to bottle feed the babies was out of this world. My favourite part of the trip was hearing the beautiful sounds that rhinos make. It reminds me of the smaller Frankenstein out of Carry on Screaming. It is such a very sweet sound. You must try and look it up on YouTube just to hear it. I cried the first time I laid eyes on a rhino orphan.

Feeding baby rhino - the best experience

What was the worst part of filming?

Finding the snared buffalo and realising that it would have taken four weeks to die. These animals are adapted for drought conditions, so it must have suffered dreadfully. I was also told that some locals want to kill all of the wildlife, as they feel that it belongs to the white man and not theirs anymore, so it’s important that everyone feels that they are guardians of these animals. The Bush Baby programme, which the Black Mambas have started at local schools, is helping with this, by empowering and educating the children. Also The Black Mamba programme is allowing the communities to protect their native wildlife and feel part of the equation.

buffalo caught in snare the worst part of filming

“They walk with bravery and every day their lives are in danger from not just the poachers, but the wild animals they protect.”

I first heard about the Black Mambas last year, after reading an incredible piece about them in TIME Magazine (which I referenced in an earlier reflective blog post). Being a self-confessed advocate of school education, I was keen to question Anneka more about the education programmes that the Mambas are involved in, and whether TIME’s philosophy that: “They may not be able to stop poachers with pepper spray alone. But they can stop them with education” was one that could actually be realised…

Anneka in the classroom

How effective is education as a defence against poaching?

Many of the children are very poor and only eat at school. I was told that some of their families poach for bush meat to feed the families.

I think an effective defence would come from several things: you have to empower the children to protect the wildlife by making them feel that it’s theirs to protect. You have to educate them as to why the animals are so important to the future of the planet. Also, their culture is very different than the white settlers. It is very difficult to break tradition that has been in families for generations and many families have been moved off wildlife reservations for the animals, and this has caused resentment. You can only offer them employment in tourism and ranger programmes to make up for this. So education and employment needs to go hand in hand, with good leadership to wipe out any corruption.

Eventually as jobs are provided and Africa develops, the old ways will change anyway, as they have done in the UK and other countries. Africa is predicted to have a huge population increase and towns will expand and develop over the next 50 years – this means all ways of life will change anyhow. The importance of keeping land for the animals will become an even bigger priority.

Were any of your expectations or initial ideas about the Black Mambas challenged?

Yes, I didn’t realise that they were 100 per cent unarmed until I was out there. They are very vulnerable, but so very brave. They walk with bravery and every day their lives are in danger from not just the poachers, but also the wild animals they protect.

Siphiwe made a valid point that she is glad they are not armed, as many people she knows would use weapons incorrectly if given that power, so they are pure to the project if they remain unarmed.

Nigel Marven and Anneka Svenska with two of The Mambas

Nigel Marven and Anneka Svenska in the classroom with two of The Mambas

Finally, when and where can we see the documentary?

Its live now, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFBXNePubjg

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Many thanks to Anneka Svenska. Please check out this fantastic documentary and don’t forget to like and share!

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Racing Extinction preview screening: #Startwith1thing

Stepping under the blue lights of the entrance, a rising excitement that just a corridor away would be the preview of Racing Extinction; Discovery Network’s biggest global event.

This was a special one for me, having worked on the school resources that supplement the event as part of my role as a sub editor at Discovery Education — plus, it would bring together two of my biggest passions: my job and my campaign work for Born Free Foundation.

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Born Free Foundation were one of the partners of the film, along with familiar faces such as Tusk Trust and Save Me.

Coincidently, one of the first people I bumped into at the top of a staircase adjorned with beautiful photographs of endangered species (complemented by their population facts and figures for us all to reflect upon); was Born Free’s Policy Advisor (and head of the Badger Trust) Dom Dyer: a face I have come to be familiar with thanks to demonstrations against Taji Cove, fox hunting, canned lion hunting, and most recently; the Lion Aid event in memory of Cecil the lion.

A deep breath and on through the double doors to the main buzz of the evening; a room of invited guests, Discovery employees and various animal activists, charities and campaigners. There among the crowd stood my dear friend Will Travers (below), whose presence made arriving at such a prestigious event alone slightly less daunting. I’ve said it before, but the close-nit camaraderie among Born Free’s founders, patrons and supporters really is second to none.image

With little time to spare (my ill-prepared decision to walk to the venue from Baker Street Station — a near-on half an hour walk as it turn out — had seen to that); it was on to the main event. The screening of this highly-anticipated, four-years-in-the-making docufilm by director Louie Psihoyos whose work includes the Academy Award Winning documentary The Cove, which I’ve previously written about here.

I hadn’t realised before arrival, that journalist and Born Free supporter Kate Silverton would be hosting the event, which immediately took me back to last year’s Wild Night at the Movies: hosted by a then very pregnant Kate Silverton: this was the event that my subsequent blog post about had earned me an invitation to meet Will Travers for the first time — a serendipitous detail to this evening indeed!image

I don’t know how to possibly put into words the power of the film that Louie Psihoyos has created. It’s a must watch… a must act upon… call to arms kind of film.

I almost feel like we have a duty as part of the human race — or more accurately still, as part of planet Earth — to hear the message that this movie speaks.

With a bigger budget and a cable network’s backing behind him, former National Geographic journalist Psihoyos has taken all the dramatic journalistic investigating; emotional narrative and strong, intelligent ethos of The Cove and mixed in some brilliant visionary talent (in the form of well-documented Empire State Building illuminator and Obscura Digital Founder,Travis Threlkel, and eco-warrior Race Car Driver Leilani Münter) to create something pretty spectacular.

For those interested in joining in the Global Premiere of the film, save the date: 2nd December, where Discovery Channel will be screening the documentary across the globe in a special worldwide event!

After watching the film (which received a standing ovation from its audience), the night concluded with a special panel discussion with a panel that included director Louie Psihoyos himself, and Born Free Patron Dr Brian May.

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The resounding sentiments from this segment of the evening were Psihoyos’ promotion of the statement: It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness; taken directly from the film, and Brian May’s admission that Racing Extinction had done more than ignite a candle: it had flipped a switch within him.

“The message of hope is what’s important here” May concluded — and I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

“We have to change us before we can change the policy makers,” Psihoyos closed with, and I think that’s where Discovery’s initative #Startwith1thing really comes in.image

All present fundraising champions and ‘wildlife royalty’ made their #Startwith1thing pledge during the course of the evening, including former Springwatch favourite Bill Oddie (who I had the pleasure of meeting at an Angels for the Innocent fundraiser earlier in the year) — and I’ve already made mine (see below).

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What will yours be? If we all start with 1 thing, we could be the candles that light up the darkness!

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World Animal Day 2015 – bringing us all together!

I really love it when good charities, good ideas and good friends come together for a good cause. That’s exactly what’s happened in the lead up to World Animal Day on the 4th October.

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When TV presenter and Eden Channel blogger Anneka Svenska first told me about her idea for making the official music video for the day, I immediately thought of someone fit for the job…

A few months back I interviewed former videographer for Save Me, and St Albans Film Festival Finalist, Michael Dias, of Chiswell Studios. I knew from the videos he’d made with/for his father, entertainer Ricky Lopez – aka Elvis Smelvis (also interviewed) that he’d be the ideal person to make a music video with a difference!

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As Anneka‘s plans escalated, and she put out a call to gather as many animal suits as possible, I thought of my wonderful sponsor of my World of Wildlife exhibition — ZEBRA TM.

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Their mascot had caused quite a stir at the event’s opening evening, so a quick email, a visit to my family in Thetford, Norfolk and a stop by a the Charles Burrell Centre (from which ZEBRA TM operates – and my older brother manages) and I had a brilliant costume to put towards the cause!Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 11.35.51

With Anneka’s presence in the environmental world thanks to her Green World TV, Michael’s previous work including his videos for We Unite and the Badger Cull protest, and ZEBRA TM‘s role of working with various charities to fund raise — it seemed like a match made in heaven! Even my partner Nick Stephenson (who both sang at my art exhibition launch night, and then for my Cecil the lion post) played a part in delivering the suit to London on filming day! (Before I had the fun task of getting it home on the tube through rush hour!).

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Anneka has even organised for the Born Free Foundation‘s mascot to make the shoot, and most of the dancing animals were in fact people I’d met at various marches!

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Well done everyone on such a tremendous effort! The final result can be viewed below:

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We unite, we stand and fight!

In the age of information, where choice rules and diversity divides, finding and nurturing connections made over a mutual attitude towards a cause, is something worthy of a blog post – in my humble opinion.

I mentioned in a previous post that this year’s St Albans Film Festival was of particular interest to me, when I found not one, but two festival entries related to the Born Free Foundation.

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The first was Elephant in the Room, a short documentary that I was already familiar with (though nonetheless excited to find entered – and shortlisted – in my local film festival!), but the real surprise of the event was a call to arms, emotionally-charged protest song and music video documenting Born Free patron, and legendary guitarist, Brian May’s fight against the badger cull.

“It’s a salute to the 7,000 participants in the march,” filmmaker Michael Dias tells me.

Michael not only shot and edited the video – a runner up in this year’s film festival – but he also penned the ‘We Unite‘ song; which is performed by his crowd-gathering musician father, Ricky Lopez.

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The success of Michael’s protest march video (produced and edited at Chiswell Studios) saw him go on to become Brian May’s official videographer for his Save Me charity, while his father, Ricky, joined Brian May on stage at renowned music and wildlife celebration ‘Wildlife Rocks‘ at Guildford Cathedral.

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Talking to the pair, it’s clear to see the Save Me projects have been a labour of love, and one that fuses their music passions with a desire to publicly support causes that move them.

“We saw the badger cull on TV and wanted to do something,” they explain.

Michael joined the Save the Badger protesters in central London on the 1st June 2013 with camera in hand.

“I’d looked on BrianMay.com and Save Me and noticed there were no videos, so I put some of the footage together in the studio and sent it over.”

The final video was not only retweeted by Queen and May’s official Twitter pages, but it also made its way onto May’s official website.

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“I used the song from the badger cull animation that went viral in my first compilation reel,” Michael explains, “and he liked it a lot – so I offered to film more, free of charge, just to support the cause and raise awareness of what was going on concerning the controversial cull.”

From there, the idea for ‘We Unite‘ came into fruition.

I was lucky enough to hear a live performance of the song during my interview, and I can’t wait to see what the pair come up with next.

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…And for good measure — I couldn’t not put May’s viral ‘Save the Badger Badger Badger’ video on here somewhere (Note: it’s where the soundtrack to Chiswell Studios‘ first compilation of march footage came from).