Naturalists | Environment

Meet Mike Pandey, India’s Bear Grylls

Mike Pandey in Damparengpui Village, Mizoram

Mike Pandey in Damparengpui Village, Mizoram   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

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Film-maker Mike Pandey speaks about his new series ‘Explorer of Mystery Mountains’ on DD National and DD Arun Prabha, and why conservation in the Northeast is paramount

With his baritone, tall frame and ability to face the dangers of the wild, Mike Pandey is probably India’s answer to Bear Grylls. However, Mike, who saunters into jungles like we do malls, sporting his beret, did set the benchmark in wildlife filmmaking in the 1990s, with the documentary Earth Matters. He’s friends with Jane Goodall, and like her, can carry on a light-hearted conversation with an ape or two.

Raised in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park, Mike’s father worked in the forensic department of Scotland Yard in Kenya, and would often take him into the jungles. “Once I witnessed two silver back gorillas fighting and tearing at each other,” he recalls. Today, he works for its preservation with the locals. He is right now making a film on marsh lions in Kenya. His current project explores the rich biodiversity in India’s Northeast through a 13-part series Explorer of Mystery Mountains on DD National and DD Arun Prabha (newly launched Northeast channel) that will air in January. The hope is that this will lead to a conservation effort.

Mike believes that the region is home to varieties of herbs and shrubs that can be a big source of medicine for people across the country. “Foxtail millet is being revived in Nagaland. I savoured this gluten-free millet, in porridge a couple of times,” he says, talking about various delicacies from the area. “We ate the local rice, mostly sticky rice, beans, cauliflower and peeli dal as people have altered their diet a bit. The non-vegetarians kept their bellies full with fish cooked in banana leaves.”

Excerpts from an interview:

What kind of research study did you undertake before exploring the Northeast?

Dr. Chander Mohan, a professor working as an adviser at JNU, is our key resource person. He connects me with other scientists. Facts collected by our in-house research team get authenticated by the professor. For the past four years, we have been making a film on snow leopards only in Ladakh and Sikkim. It is one of the rarest and most endangered cats that is found in the Himalayan belt extending from Ladakh to Kazakistan. We also have researchers with experience in working for National Geographic.

What was the brief given to you by DD for the series?

The film should be awareness generating and empower people so that they can become partners in protection. So we are making the film by involving the people. When people’s lives improve they automatically get interested in chipping into conservation. Conservation cannot be done in isolation. So we are encouraging people to directly come forward to preserve their biodiversity and heritage. The locals have begun to realise the value of natural heritage like herbs, shrubs. Hunter-gathering communities have respect for nature and take only what they need. In Manipur, rare herbs are being protected. The old Chizami weave is being revived by Seno Tsuhah of North East Network.

Mike with Zakhuma, at the Dampa tiger Reserve

Mike with Zakhuma, at the Dampa tiger Reserve   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Would you say the Northeast is richer in biodiversity compared to other parts of India?

The North East is the home of one of the oldest, primordial jungles and diverse eco-systems in the world. Its diversity has no parallel. It has the largest number of rare ad endangered orchids found anywhere in the world. The rarest is Lady Slippers that became extinct but are now being revived by scientists and concerned citizens. If we need a stable world we need to protect our diversity. The medicines of the future will come from our forests. The world is tired of antibiotics, which cure one disease but give rise to other medical concerns. Medicines have to come from natural sources.

What kind of challenges did you encounter?

For this series, we faced financial constraints, yet did not compromise. We used drones where needed to capture the treasures of the impenetrable forest. Our locations were hazardous, very cold, but this is one of the most amazing places on the planet. We faced a lack of time while shooting inside sanctuaries. Those who run our forests should see us as scientists and not as tourists. Leeches in the forest mean that poachers are kept at bay. However when we had to film we had to be extra cautious. Leeches drop from the canopy of trees. So I wore special boots and socks soaked in salt. We converted our challenges into positives.

The falcons and gibbons
  • The tailless Hoolock Gibbon is the only ape in India, of which the crew discovered 13 families living near Jorhat in Assam. Its powerful arms are twice the size of its limbs, and while the gorilla is more powerful, the gibbon is the most powerful in the Himalayan region. The primate will be featured in episodes on Assam and Meghalaya.
  • Amur Falcons that come to Nagaland from Mongolia and go to South Africa, come in thousands. These smaller falcons feed on insects. Farmers have realised that these migratory birds are important for protecting their livelihood. These birds will be showcased in an episode on Nagaland.

Which part of shooting there was truly memorable?

On the way to Tawang Valley, we explored Eagle’s Nest. The place got its name as eagles make their nests in high altitudes. Bugun Liocichla (a bird species) is found in a 2 km patch of forest. The Begun people are so sensitive that they discontinued cultivation after they became aware that 100 rare birds are living there. They gave up their land to the government. Similarly in Assam to put an end to human-animal conflict, Pradip Bhuyan grew Napier grass and lure crops like banana plants to divert the attention of rampaging elephants. He discontinued rice cultivation. Earlier, pachyderms would destroy crops and kill members of the Karbi tribe. This year, a number of lives got saved and people thanked Pradip. In Sikkim, I loved to visit their kitchens and the way ladies sat on the floor. Home stays are affordable. A couple can stay for a day with all meals within ₹1,500.

Some would say tourism is the beginning of degrading the environment. Would you agree?

It is heartening that the Northeast is slowly opening up. One of the agendas of this project is that when tourists visit the Seven Sisters the economic status of locals improves. We are making this film in a way that the viewers in Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and other metros understand that the North East is an important part of India. They will get a feel of this rich biodiversity and if they believe in sustainability then they will definitely visit it. I agree that uncontrolled tourism can devastate any place and can even erode it. Commercialisation can change the demographics of any place. In Sikkim, there is restricted tourism. Like in Bhutan, only a certain number of tourists are allowed. Locals run their own taxis. Tourism is slowly being now controlled and monitored.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 6:29:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/mike-pandey-indias-bear-grylls/article30401081.ece

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