VIDEO: Tracking Wild Camels in the Gobi Desert
Video: Tracking Wild Camels in the Gobi
Adventure chats wtih nature documentary filmmaker Huw Cordey about the nearly impossible task of tracking wild Bactrian camels in the Gobi.
Text by Ryan Bradley Photographs and video courtesy the BBC
Friday, April 20, 2007
Few animal species elude Huw Cordey, 41, a nature documentary filmmaker who has been working in the field for nearly half his life. So when he found out that he was to take a crew into the Gobi Desert to track camels for the groundbreaking BBC/Discovery series Planet Earth (BBC DVD on sale today), he was unruffled.
But this was the Gobi in upper-Mongolia, one of the most remote and unforgiving climates on Earth. And these wild Bactrian camels could run, and run, and run. After long weeks watching camel rears disappearing on the horizon, he finally had enough footage.
Cordey then took a team into the Carlsbad Caverns' legendary Lechuguilla Caves, some of the largest in North America, for another segment of the mega-documentary.
Adventure spoke to Cordey about some of the challenges of filming each segment. NGA: What was your assignment for the desert segment?
Cordey: The game of Planet Earth was to go places that were really unfamiliar or that hadn't been filmed before. Here was this enormous desert, the Gobi, that was very different to your ordinary desert because it has snow. It's home to this large mammal that virtually nobody knows about that it is about to go extinct.
NGA: How many are left?
Cordey: There's only about 800 left in the Mongolian Gobi and just a couple hundred on the Chinese side. These are actually the last wild camels in the world, because all other camels are domesticated. These animals must be some of the hardiest in the world: They can withstand extremes ranging from minus 25 [Celsius, minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit] to plus 40 [Celsius, 104 Fahrenheit]. Not many large mammals that can do that.
NGA: How long were you there?
Cordey: A month. Two months total for the cameraman. And we had only six filming opportunities.
NGA: Was the filming difficult?
Cordey: Well, it's an area the size of Holland, and we were the only people in it. The camels are incredibly sensitive, with an excellent sense of smell, remarkable eyesight, and amazing hearing. They can spot you from four kilometers [two miles] and run for unlimited number of kilometers in the opposite direction. Then we wouldn't see them for the rest of the day.
NGA: How do you keep your spirits up?
Cordey: When you're working in wildlife, it can be very taxing. You have to have a lot of resilience. But then you'll get these little snatches of luck when you think, Oh my God, this is amazing if it works out. And that drives you on a little bit further.
NGA: Just how extreme is the Gobi?
Cordey: Well, the snow sublimes, which means it can go from snow to vapor without the melt bit in between.
NGA: Switching gears to the Lechuguilla Caves—what are some of the problems faced when filming in a cave?
Cordey: One of the simple things people never think about is how difficult it is to get permission to film in some of these places. It took us two years to persuade park authorities to let us into this cave. They didn't want a whole film crew bumbling in there and destroying parts of the cave that are incredibly pristine. It's one of the best run places I've ever been, it's absolutely untouched and perfect [in parts].
NGA: And you actually lived in the caves while filming?
Cordey: To get the chambers we wanted to film required living underground for ten days. To get to the camp site we had to get through these squeezes, I remember getting through one of these points and the cave guide we were with said, "Okay if you had a serious accident now, we'd have to use dynamite to get you out because the restrictions are too narrow to allow a stretcher." It was quite easy to imagine yourself having a bad accident because you were mountaineering underground. Falling off one of these precipices didn't seem so far fetched.
NGA: How do you keep you sanity in total darkness?
Cordey: We all thought that was going to be difficult. Surprisingly, it was just such a novel experience and we were so busy that we barely thought about it. The lack of light didn't really affect our biorhythms. You need to be under [the surface] a lot longer than that. And we tried to eat at the same times, and sleep at the same times.
The darkness in Lechuguilla is even more disorientating than most. Because it has no wildlife, no air current, and no water running through it, so there's no sound, and no smell
when you turn out your light it's as if you are floating in space. It's only because Lechiguilla is the most remarkable cave in terms of decorations—stalactites and stalagmites—that keeps your sanity. I think if there was nothing to see you'd go crazy pretty quickly.
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