Unlike many nature documentaries, new National Geographic series Hostile Planet will not "sugarcoat or sanitise" how ruthless Mother Nature can be, says host Bear Grylls.
The famous British survivalist says some of the resilient creatures featured on the show, which spotlights how species adapt to the most extreme environments on Earth, put his survival skills to shame. In doing so, it will remind viewers "that nature is brutal, tough and unforgiving", he adds.
What sets (this series) apart "is that so many of the stories are so heartbreaking", says the 44-year-old star of survival show Man Vs Wild (2006 to 2011).
"As a kid, I used to be glued to so many of the natural-history shows like Planet Earth and The Blue Planet, but it was always a kind of spectacle of, 'Wow, this is beautiful.' But we're showing life really on the edges – not just the spectacular, beautiful stuff, but also how hard it is for many animals to survive."
And the toughest survivors are often the ones people do not even think about.
"Where they don't have strength or speed, they're resourceful and clever. We're seeing seals communicating to battle sharks. We're seeing polar bears learning to hunt whales. We're seeing jaguars learning to hunt in the water for crocodiles.
"That is what, for me, is so exciting about Hostile Planet. It's refreshing and is rebooting a genre we all grew up loving and taking it to another level."
One example is its depiction of the young of the Thomson's gazelle – "little baby gazelles in the grasslands, where something like 50% of them don't last longer than an hour because they're surrounded by hyenas". And yet, some of them do. "But how? Seeing it from that angle was mesmerising."
The series will also introduce some lesser-known animals to audiences, as well as never-before-seen footage of more famous ones. Grylls' favourite animal on the show, the African hunting dog, is an instance of a lesser-known animal.
"People don't know about them, but they are, technically, the most efficient hunters on the planet, just in the way they communicate and work in groups and tire their prey over many, many miles – ruthlessly, crudely. So I have great admiration and respect for them."
Another highlight is rare footage of a snow leopard hunting, which, "if we'd done nothing else, sets it above every other natural-history show done", Grylls says.
The show will also highlight how some environments are becoming more extreme because of climate change and other factors.
Says executive producer Tom Hugh-Jones: "A lot of wildlife shows have been almost timeless, but what National Geographic challenged us to do in each story was say: 'What's the change and how is the challenge different for the animals today?' For animals living in the most extreme corners of the Earth, it's getting tougher."
Grylls' own experience navigating hostile environments gave him an intimate understanding of what these species endure.
His biggest takeaway from the series was "realising how connected we all are – that what it takes for humans to survive, the qualities that matter, like determination, courage and resourcefulness, are exactly the same in the animal kingdom".
He adds admiringly: "These guys, they are real masters of it – and it's not always the ones with the biggest muscles or the fastest legs."
'Hostile Planet' airs every Wednesday at 9pm on National Geographic (Astro Ch 553).
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