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Safari from home: Millions of viewers are visiting virtual zoos and parks

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on May 22, 2020 Published on May 22, 2020

Tête-à-tête with a jumbo: Live streams from the Djuma Private Game Reserve in South Africa bring a new adventure to your living room every day   -  IMAGE COURTESY: WILDEARTH

Live feeds and video uploads from zoos and forests around the world are clocking millions of views as people reconnect with nature virtually to escape the stress of lockdown

* Virtual wildlife tours are produced by zoos, national parks and nature channels

* The South Africa safaris are live streamed twice a day from cameras mounted atop open vehicles or on drones

* Three Indian zoos — in Patna, Chennai and Kolkata — have been putting out videos since the end of April

One morning last week, I saw a lion and her four cubs lounging on grass, even as someone explained how lions understand each other’s emotions by smelling their urine. Moments later, from the top of a moving open Jeep, I watched a herd of elephants emerging from a densely wooded area.

One of the elephants suddenly turned towards the vehicle and came close — I caught my breath as tension filled the air, but I really had nothing to fear. I was thousands of kilometres away, ensconced in the safety of my concrete home.

The live stream of the elephants, complete with a voice-over providing interesting insights into their wild ways, was from the Djuma Private Game Reserve in South Africa and produced by WildEarth, a nature video service that streams a live safari every day.

Millions of people locked down at home, and tired of the views from their balconies and windows, are flocking to these virtual wildlife tours produced by zoos, national parks and nature channels.

While pre-existing video services have seen a huge jump in viewership since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, zoos in India and abroad began live streaming to piggyback on the demand for such services. There’s everything on offer — from safaris to underwater feeds and from coral reefs to jellyfish swimming to instrumental music.

Wild indoors

The South Africa safaris are live streamed twice a day from cameras mounted atop open vehicles or on drones. The videos have seen an “unprecedented” five-fold increase in viewership since Covid-19 restrictions came into place, said Emily Wallington, co-founder of WildEarth, which is based in South Africa and hosts videos from Africa and North America.

People’s connect with nature has reduced at a time when they need it the most, Wallington said.

“Restoring the lost connection with nature, even virtually, is scientifically proven to have a strong healing effect and reduce stress and anxiety levels,” she said.

A landmark study in 2019 at the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK had found that spending 120 minutes each week in nature leads to better well-being and health. Studies in the last decade at the University of Waterloo in the UK and the University of Bern in Switzerland have also shown that even virtually simulated nature videos can lower stress levels, blood pressure and heart rates.

Shortly after the Indian lockdown was announced, Bengaluru-based counselling services organisation The Alternative Story sent out a list of nature videos to its newsletter subscribers. “A lot of our clients were sick of the indoors,” said Rashi Vidyasagar, director of communications. While people with depression are advised to spend time outdoors, this wasn’t possible or safe during the lockdown. Videos are one solution, she said. “Plus, most of those animals are adorable! That always helps with mental health.”

Psychologists have observed that the sense of awe, certainty and grounding inspired by nature also serves to lower the feelings of anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the ongoing pandemic.

I watched a hippopotamus lower itself gently into a pond against a backdrop of trees, and the sound of insects, birds and the breeze. This was on one of the six live feeds provided by Africam, a live video streaming service based in South Africa that has webcams set up in six different forests in the continent.

The lack of story or script made the video feel more real than TV shows and movies. It was heartening to see nothing happen.

Documentary website Explore.org hosts similar live streams of webcams set up around the world: Beaches, skies, forests and underwater in coral reef parks.

Perhaps the most accomplished videos are of jellyfish gliding underwater, with calming instrumental music playing in the background. This is one of the 10 popular live-feeds from Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, US. Since the aquarium closed in March, it has seen a five-fold increase in viewership for its videos such as the jellyfish tank, said Ken Peterson, senior communications strategist.

Immersive: Videos of jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California are hugely popular   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MICHAL PECHARDO/UNSPLASH

 

The aquarium has added live streams and created a series of guided meditations known as ‘MeditOcean’, besides producing live deep-sea chat shows in which visuals from the deep sea near the aquarium are accompanied by a voice-over from experts describing the different fish and marine animals appearing in the videos. “The ‘MeditOcean’ videos have been hugely popular because they do help relieve anxiety and stress,” Peterson said.

Inside Indian zoos

Three Indian zoos — in Patna, Chennai and Kolkata — have been putting out videos since the end of April. The first two have adopted an educational style with explanatory videos about animals and scenes from the enclosures at the zoo.

 

Since April 26, the Patna Zoo (Sanjay Gandhi Jaivik Udyan) has been releasing one TV-style episode a day on Facebook, covering one animal at a time. The episode on bears, aired on May 10, showed a pair at the zoo playing in water, climbing trees and nibbling on insects as a voice-over in Hindi described their size, weight, habitat and behaviour. Zoo director Amit Kumar appears in each video, giving nuggets of information on how the zoo cares for the animals featured. You get to learn, for instance, that the zoo has a veterinary team on standby exclusively to treat sambhar deer for injuries from antlers.

Bihar’s ark: Patna zoo’s Facebook feed familiarises viewers with a different animal each day   -  IMAGE COUTESY: PATNA ZOO

Perhaps the most extensive programme is from the Arignar Anna Zoo at Chennai, popularly known as Vandalur Zoo. It has since 2018 put out live streams from webcams set up inside its animal enclosures.

It is now also hosting a virtual summer camp for students. The seven-day programme features video footage of a different animal each day, with the zoo’s veterinary and wildlife biology experts providing the narration.

Students who complete the camp — which includes submitting evening homework — get a year-long free entry pass for the zoo after it reopens. There were 1,000 participants from across India and even Singapore and the UAE. Enthused by the response, the zoo is currently hosting the second round of the programme, while also exploring a version in Tamil.

The authorities hope the video programmes will get parents and others to donate money for the zoo’s upkeep. Much of its day-to-day expenditure is met out of ticket revenues, which have fallen to zero because of the lockdown. Summer is when the zoo gets maximum visitors, usually schoolchildren on vacation, and the video programmes are designed especially for them.

The West Bengal government has launched video streaming of the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata. Several videos have been uploaded, too, on its website since April, but these are no better than amateur mobile shots of some animals.

Welcome to earth: A newborn alligator stars on the Cincinnati Zoo’s daily Facebook live show Zoo Babies   -  IMAGE COURTESY: CINCINNATI ZOO

One video shows a newborn giraffe lying next to its mother while a zoo staff looks on. Another has a baby spotted deer, and yet another shows gharials. There is no narration. The videos are shaky, and filmed in vertical modes.

There appears to be little oversight. In one video, a baby elephant is prodded, seemingly by forest staff, to load it into a pickup van. The elephant looks starved and traumatised, with patches of missing hair on its body and chalk marks across its face and eyes. With no narration or explanation, it makes for a disturbing watch.

An official from Vandalur zoo explained that zoos that did not take up digitisation before the pandemic are struggling to produce quality content. Vandalur zoo already had a functioning video-streaming infrastructure, apart from a 24-hour video control room to monitor the enclosures.

This helped the zoo adapt to the virtual mode without too many hiccups. With the success of its video streams, the zoo plans to extend it beyond the lockdown. “We feel this is a way to connect to people in the country and the world,” the zoo official said.

Back in the African safari, the elephant that had suddenly turned and walked towards the Jeep now began to feel around the bonnet with its trunk.

The narrator, who was driving the Jeep, glanced slowly at the camera and back at the elephant, saying this had never happened before. There were a few tense moments of staring. Then the elephant’s eyes started to droop like a baby falling asleep. And just like that, it walked away. “How cool was that?” the narrator whispered.

Nihar Gokhale is an environment and development journalist

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Published on May 22, 2020
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