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Wanted: ‘Extinct or Alive’

Forrest Galante is an American biologist and conservationist. But he has been called many names, like “international adventurer” and “parachute scientist”. The adventurer part is self-explanatory but a scientist who parachutes? It is a critique of what he does, which is to go to a foreign country or some isolated forest, and with the help of his own staff and crew tap local resources, document wildlife there, collect specimens, and then leave.

But isn’t that what all other sciences do—from history to anthropology, from botany to zoology?

Without foregoing that critique, it cannot be denied that Forrest Galante, as the host of Extinct or Alive, brings into our living rooms a new way of looking at conservation and wildlife.

The premise is simple, which is to look for animals deemed extinct; the process, excruciatingly difficult and dangerous. The program has a simple aim: find that animal feared to be gone, take a photograph or video of it, and the mission is accomplished. For scientific purposes, a specimen is taken from the animal, which presupposes that Forrest has indeed not only captured the animal but touched it for a considerable time.

In the episodes I watched, these elements are apparent: the personality of this scientist; the bewildering location; and the discovery that all animals—and all plants—are crucial to the life of our planet. Those elements make up the big picture. The details—the small pictures—are intriguingly breathtaking.

Was it my luck that the first episode I saw was a search for the Malagasy hippopotamus? Known as Malagasy dwarf hippopotamus, the animal lived on the island of Madagascar. Before Forrest ventured into this quest for the animal, there was only a fossil record suggesting that the dwarf hippo existed until some 1,000 years ago.

In the Season 2 of Extinct or Alive, Forrest Galante travels with another scientist, to several forested areas of Madagascar. As they explore the place, they pass by the most unusual landscapes and witness the alarming deforestation of the areas. The aridity of the land gives them hope that where there is water, the hippo must be there. Finding a murky pond, Forrest uses a device in the form of a synthetic hippo head and submerges it in the water. Nothing happens. They go to another spot and feel with their hands a muddy area. There they pull out a non-fossilized skull of the Malagasy dwarf hippo, which turns out to be less than 200 years old. The disclosure does not end there, for the biologists believe the animal may even be living up to this day. And I am hooked on this novel exploit!

The next episode, also from Season 2, takes me to the island of Borneo.

Considered to be the third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia, Borneo’s proximity to the Philippines should interest us Filipinos about its wildlife conservation and diversity. Here in this episode, we see the persistence and the courage of Forrest. Whether it is staged for the camera, his logic and systematic inquiry into the wildlife is nothing short of amazing. In Borneo, Forrest is about to embark on a search for the Miller’s grizzled langur. The monkey, which is noted for its white beard and sideburns, is said to have lived in Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of Borneo. Declared extinct for a long time, it was rediscovered in 2011 and was not seen again.

There are findings showing how in 2012, the Miller’s grizzled langur was photographed by other primatologists. Forrest’s version, however, gives us a ringside view of how to track an animal that can be easily dismissed as long vanished. Knowing that the monkey is an arboreal animal, which means it inhabits trees, Forrest harnesses himself up a tall tree and waits for hours to see if that monkey would show himself.

Going to another part of the forest, Forrest and the crew simulate a leafy covering and hide there while the biologist plays the sound or call of the langur, or leaf monkey. This sound gets a response and the whole team goes crazy. Searching for the source of the sound yields no result.

The team goes deeper into the forest. Following a forest guard’s instruction, they try to locate waterfalls flowing into a sepan, a waterhole with minerals. They do not see any grizzled langur but they place at strategic points cameras hoping to capture images of the elusive primate. Those devices would be collected the next day.

Indeed, on the next day, Forrest goes back into the area and collects all the cameras. Short of cinematic, the biologist ensconces himself on a porch with his laptop and what looks like a mug of beer. He starts to view the camera now attached to his computer. And there, drinking from the sepan is what looks like a monkey, his neck graced by white hair. His excitement palpable, Forrest waits for the monkey to turn around. It takes a while for the small monkey to move his head up from the water source. Then as if teasing us, it raises its head, turns toward the camera and all we hear is Forrest shouting at the discovery. The Miller’s grizzled langur is extant, not extinct! The team is ecstatic. We are filled with joy. We are part of this discovery.

There are more “discoveries”, some of them contentious and controversial.  At this point though, there is an important lesson we can get from this program. One is that the disappearance or extinction of animals has greatly something to do with their habitat disappearing, or going extinct as well. This documentary is fun but cautionary.

Extinct or Alive is a documentary TV program produced for Animal Planet by Hot Snakes Media of New York City. Credited as directors are Thomas Backer and Patrick DeLuca.

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