NOVA: Nature's Fear Factor
Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS TV / On demand now with KPBS Passport!
“Nature's Fear Factor,” a one-hour NOVA special, spotlights how one of the most ambitious wildlife recovery efforts ever attempted is using fear of predators to rebalance an ecosystem that is coming back from the brink. In the decades since civil war ravaged Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park and wiped out more than 90% of its large mammals, recovery among species has been uneven. Some species have rebounded dramatically, others have not. And many of the plant eaters are acting in strange ways, going where they don’t typically go; eating what they don’t typically eat.
Scientists believe two critical elements are missing from the park: large predators and the fear they instill. Now, in an ambitious effort to scare prey back into their natural balance, head of Gorongosa’s predator program Paola Bouley and senior wildlife veterinarian Antonio “Tonecas” Paulo, are reintroducing fierce African wild dogs into the park.
Narrated by Michael C. Hall, the film features exclusive access to the Gorongosa Restoration Project, revealing how this monumental effort is providing a critical new home for the endangered wild dogs, helping restore one of Africa’s great national parks, and shedding new light on the role fear plays in wildlife ecosystems. It’s real-time field science that could well decide whether the Gorongosa ecosystem survives, or spirals out of control.
With long-term and exclusive access, “Nature’s Fear Factor” takes viewers inside the grand experiment of Gorongosa National Park, from the arrival of the wild dogs on a special charter flight, to their release into the wild and beyond.
Will they bond into a cohesive pack and reclaim a territory their species roamed many decades ago? Will they succumb to hidden dangers lurking in the park? And will their prey even know to be scared after decades of living the good life with no predators around?
The scientists are also concerned that the pack might leave the unfenced park and head into the surrounding communities. That’s a problem Gorongosa is already facing with elephants, which cross the river to feast on nutritious crops grown by the local farmers.
The park is using innovative solutions — including surprisingly effective beehive fences — to try and keep the elephants at bay, but they highlight the challenges of an effort of this scale. They’re creating the blueprints as they go, tapping into ecological knowledge from other places, and forging new ground in their understanding of complicated ecosystem dynamics.
“It's a living laboratory,” says Princeton University ecologist Robert Pringle, “ where we can bring our science out into the field and try to figure out the rules that ecosystems work by.”
So far, the recovery effort seems to be working. Despite a setback with a snake, the wild dogs are thriving, coursing across the landscape like waves of teeth, scaring up everything in their path. And the prey are taking notice, changing their behavior as they adapt to their carnivorous new neighbors.
In this dynamic landscape, predators, prey and scientists are all learning together, setting Gorongosa on a course for recovery, inspiring optimism for future predator reintroductions, and providing critical scientific insights for conservation efforts worldwide.
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A NOVA production by HHMI Tangled Bank Studios for GBH Boston. Edited by Emmanuel Mairesse. Produced and directed by David Murdock. Executive Producers for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios are Jared Lipworth and Sean B. Carroll. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH Boston.