Photograph by Georgie Hollidge
Adrian Seymour specializes in putting himself in other people’s shoes … or paws. Studying the ecology of carnivores in the rainforest, he thinks like a desperate civet running out of territory. As a documentary filmmaker, he thinks like an indigenous tribesperson struggling to make ends meet. He hopes to use these dual interests to double his impact on conservation efforts throughout the world.
Seymour’s fascination with the wild began early. As a boy, he crammed his bedroom full of houseplants to re-create a jungle (his mother drew the line when he proposed covering the floor with dirt). Be careful what you wish for. Today, whether following carnivores on the forest floor or filming eagles in the treetops, he’s learned that rain-soaked clothes, infected feet, and aggressive insects come with the territory. “Ants have built nests in my videotapes, leeches are a daily routine, and I’ve come face to face with a king cobra,” he recalls. “You head into the jungle with a GPS and what passes for a map, hiking up hills, down ravines, across rivers. By sunset you’re wet, muddy, tired, and ready to crawl in your hammock. It’s an amazing adventure and I do it because I love it, but sometimes I’m just happy to get back to base camp and have a shower.”
His wildlife research tracks the population dynamics of the Malay civet, a small rainforest carnivore in Indonesia. “In a broad way, top predators like these are a barometer of what’s happening in the whole ecosystem,” he explains. “If their population numbers, behavior, or physical condition change, it can indicate larger problems. From a civet-eye view, life is competitive and tough. Every time habitat is encroached, I see a ripple effect of dispersing animals. When one is displaced, it puts new pressure on all the others to hang onto their territory.”
The pressures he explores aren’t limited to civets. Many films he produces tackle thorny human issues linked to conservation. “When the developed world puts pressure on developing countries to preserve natural resources, the first reaction from local communities is often, ‘We’re just trying to get ahead. You guys have already chopped down all of your forests, so stop giving us a hard time about it.’ That’s why the purpose of my films is not to preach, but to look at things from the local point of view, in the local language. I try to show them it’s in their best interest to keep the environment intact. Don’t do it for ‘us,’ or for some esoteric reason; do it because it makes good old-fashioned economic sense.”
One such film explores whether a sugar plantation in Kenya will lead to opportunity or disaster. “A community was on the verge of turning over land they’d lived on for generations,” Seymour notes. “We filmed a community on the other side of the country who already had their land developed for sugar cane. The film investigated how much good had really resulted and exposed the ensuing human cost of development—food scarcity, a culture of debt, and displacement of thousands of landowners.” The film was broadcast on national TV throughout Kenya and via road shows in remote areas. “This was a conservation problem involving not only ecology, but [also] real people,” he stresses. “In this case I felt the local audience was equally, if not more important, than an international one.”
Another film exposed pressures even more primal: a mother protecting her young. The documentary took Seymour into Venezuela’s treetops for 21 weeks to follow a nesting harpy eagle. For Seymour, the saga of motherly love was anything but. The powerful harpy eagle—which has razor-sharp, five-inch talons—is the world’s largest bird of prey. “The nest was about 70 feet high,” he describes. “Climbing up and down to our arboreal camera platform, and then into the nesting tree itself, incurred the mother’s wrath. I gained a very personal insight into how she hunts. Every time she hit me, it was completely from my blind side. She had precise knowledge of my field of vision and knew exactly when to strike. She was dead silent like an owl and very fast. It was overwhelming, like being hit by a baseball bat … very impressive.”
His eagle-eye documentary proved a perfect opportunity to blend his art with his science. “Since filming something like this takes such a long time, you record hours and hours of behavior. The science side of me said with all this data, why not analyze it? So as I reviewed the tapes, I used a stopwatch and notepad to count, note, and measure behavioral events.” In the end, the mother bird starred in both a BBC film and a scientific paper.
For Seymour, everything from new films to new research and scientific expeditions is on the horizon. Steamy rainforests and fragile coral reefs beckon, but so does his desk top. “I’m sorting through and organizing years of tracking and recapture data from my civet fieldwork.” Whether pouring through numbers or peering through a camera lens, Seymour brings to life both the science and the stories of conservation.
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National Geographic launches the Terra Watt prize, which will award grants to projects that expand energy access.
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Hear an interview with Seymour on National Geographic Weekend.
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