The Fight to Save Wild Animals: Disney's 'Born in China' Presents Rare Footage of Threatened Species
Capturing images of snow leopards is no easy task. On Tuesday, April 18, Roy Conli, producer of the Disneynature film "Born in China," explained this monumental task to the audience at ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks after a KCET Cinema Series screening of the film. "The snow leopard is, in fact, the most elusive animal on this planet," Conli said during a Q&A session led by Cinema Series host Pete Hammond.
In order to find the snow leopards, the crew had to travel to the Qinghai Plateau in western China. The plateau stands at 16,000 feet above sea level and it took the crew eight days to acclimate to that height. Moreover, they had to have oxygen and a medic available for the crew during the stay. "The snow leopard team lived in an uninsulated shack next to a monastery up on the Qinghai Plateau," Conli says. "They had one stove in the middle. They would leave before dawn and come back after dark every night."
The physical challenges of this shoot were daunting and so were the technical ones. Cinematographer Shane Moore has extensive experience covering the wild; you may have seen his work on "Deadliest Catch" or "Nature." He had to modify a drone to handle the thin air while capturing aerial shots of the plateau. Tracking the animals required some technical wizardry too. Moore used cameras with motion detectors to understand the patterns of the snow leopards. Despite that, it still took 90 days to get that first appearance of the snow leopard on camera. As that happened, his three-month visa was expiring and he had to leave the country before heading back to this remote part of China. "It was crazy," Conli tells the crowd. "By that time, Shane was really confident that we learned how the behavior of these animals would lead them into these places." The months of lying in wait for the big cats were worth it. In the end, the team not only captured footage of snow leopards, but also got something more rare. "It's the only footage in the world of snow leopard cubs in the wild," says Conli of the film.
Snow leopards are hard to spot. As "Born in China" notes, their spots help camouflage them against the rocks of the region. But, there's also not a lot of them. Snow leopards are an endangered species. That's partially why Conli, who also produced "Big Hero 6," got involved with this project. He's been a member of Snow Leopard Conservancy for many years.
"The snow leopards really are endangered, as all these animals are, by man and the encroachment of man into these regions," he explains. "As you saw in the film, they do graze on the plains in the higher altitudes now and, many times, what was happening was that shepherds were killing the snow leopards because they were attacking the flock. What the Snow Leopard Trust has done has helped in the sense that they will now pay for the downed animal so that the farmer, the shepherd doesn't lose profit from the death."
"Born in China" is a trip through several different terrain, with each adventure zooming in on the stories of specific animals over the course of several seasons. It took about three years to make the film, which was directed by Lu Chuan and features narration from John Krasinski, and follows the lives of snow leopards, pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys and chiru antelope.
The stories that "Born in China" presents are funny, dramatic and touching. They capture baby animals bonding with their mothers, slightly older ones discovering their abilities and developing their personalities. While the film doesn't delve deep into the peril that some of these animals face, their precarious situations are part of the backstory behind the movie.
As Hammond and Conli pointed out, "Born in China" and other Disneynature films follow in the tradition. Back in the mid-20th century, Disney's "True-Life Adventure" series of documentaries won multiple Academy Awards. With Disneynature, the films are tied to charitable projects. Previous releases have helped raise funds for land in Kenya where lions could freely roam and for a massive tree-planting endeavor around the Amazon. For "Born in China," which hits theaters on April 21, a portion of the ticket sales will go to the World Wildlife Fund specifically to benefit snow leopard and panda conservation efforts.
World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are between 4,080 and 6,590 snow leopards left in the wild. Right now, they are considered endangered. The group works on campaigns to help save these through outreach to local communities, anti-poaching efforts and environmental conservation projects.
In "Born in China," audiences get a glimpse of mother-child bonding amongst pandas. The film notes that pandas are solitary by nature, so this period is a particularly interesting stage of life for the animal. When pandas are able to climb trees on their own, they will leave mom for solo adventures. The adult panda will continue life on her own.
Pandas had long been considered an endangered species. World Wildlife Fund notes that the animal's biggest threats include poachers and the destruction of forests that provide the bounty of bamboo these animals need to survive.
The giant panda is actually WWF's mascot and the organization has worked extensively on efforts to protect both this animal and its habitat. Fortunately, there is good news in this regard. Last year, giant pandas finally made it off the endangered species list. They're still considered "vulnerable," but the situation for these large, beloved animals is much better than what it once was. National Geographic reports that panda numbers have been going up for two reasons. The first is a decline in poaching. The second is an increase in protected land for the animals. "They had a great year this year," says Conli. "Things are going well."
But, the snow leopard and the giant panda aren't the only animals in this film that have faced hard times. The golden snub-nosed monkey is listed as endangered on "The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species." A 2008 assessment notes that loss of its natural habitat has led to a population decrease that has been ongoing for several generations. Meanwhile, the chiru (also sometimes known as Tibetan antelope) was noted as "near threatened" in a 2016 assessment from IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. This, the report says, is due to the popularity of hunting these animals for their underfur during the late 20th century. The report further notes that population numbers have increased due to conservation efforts and regulations on use of the chiru's underfur, but that these protections should remain in place to keep the population growth steady.
In other words, there's no rest in the movement to help save wildlife. "We need to stay really, really vigilant with this," says Conli. "It's one of the things that I love about this [film], touching audiences of all ages because I want kids to understand that this precious resource, if we lose it, we lose it."
Listen to Roy Conli, producer of "Born in China," and KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond talk about the making of the film, below.