Our Changing Planet has returned for a second year as presenters Liz Bonnin, Chris Packham, Steve Backshall, Gordon Buchanan, Ade Adepitan, and Ella Al-Shamahi venture across the globe to uncover the ecological issues threatening the planet. The BBC documentary series aims to track the rewards of efforts made by scientists, local conservationists, and people fighting to protect the planet and the species living on it at a critical time in Earth’s history.
For National Geographic Explorer, presenter, stand-up comedian, and palaeoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, this meant journeying to Cambodia to learn about the plight of the Mekong River’s disappearing sand. Used in industry, it’s been removed from the environment to an extent that’s affecting the river’s structural integrity, but data is now being gathered that could be pivotal in changing its fate.
The episode also sees Al-Shamahi journey off into the forest with a convoy of humans on motorbikes couriering Siamese crocodiles in baskets to a safe haven, and yes, it looks just as bonkers as it sounds.
In series one of Our Changing Planet, Al-Shamahi ventured to Cambodia's Cardamom Rainforest.
We caught up with Al-Shamahi to find out more about her experiences on the second series exploring the Mekong and meeting Siamese crocodiles.
How does it feel to be back on Our Changing Planet?
I think it's rare that you're involved with a really ambitious series, if that makes sense, because it's ambitious in terms of being a bank of seven-year commitments, but it's also ambitious in the sense that it's one of most important issues of our time. It feels amazing, but also like a lot of responsibility.
What can people expect from your episode?
It’s very easy for people to kind of shut down when they hear there’s an environmental series but let me tell you what I felt: I was like, wow, human ingenuity! When we put our minds to stuff it’s amazing [what we can achieve]. I was blown away by all the solutions that were clearly evident in the show. And they were just ingenious. It’s incredible to think that it’s just from the dedication of a few scientists and conservationists. So what if the governments took it on, what could that look like?
What was it like traveling with the Siamese crocodiles?
So, these things are just muscle. There was one or twice when I was helping to hold one down and there would be about four of five of us around the table, but if it blew out the wrong way more people would have to come in to hold it down. They’re just such incredible creatures.
When we released the crocodiles, they decided to put our hammocks up in the same place. You’ve got to know that Siamese crocodiles are not aggressive towards humans, any cases of them being aggressive towards humans is when they’ve irritated them. But that’s literally what we’ve done. We’ve imprisoned them, okay for their own good, but I was just very aware that we’ve really annoyed these guys and now we’re sleeping in their quarters.
What will you take away from this episode of Our Changing Planet?
I think for me, in Cambodia in particular, there’s two things. There's the animals and the conservation efforts, which are really endearing. It warms your heart. And then there's the other side of things, which is the real fear about the Mekong.
We’re very close to a tipping point on the Mekong, and for me it’s almost like an analogy for the environmental, conservation, and climate issues that are happening globally, because you need all the countries of the Mekong to get on board or the solutions just won’t work.
And that’s a lot like our planet, right? It's an important reminder for us that while individual responsibility is important, we would do well to spend a lot of our effort trying to push governments and corporations to change, because that's where the real power lies.
You can catch Our Changing Planet on BBC One this spring.