Animal Conservation

“Tigre Gente” director embarks on a boat chase with jaguar poachers while filming documentary

Elizabeth Unger is no stranger to the wilderness. The National Geographic explorer and filmmaker has literally visited every continent in the world, but as she spoke with Salon via email about her first feature film, “Tiger Gente”, you could hear the wonder in her voice then. that she remembered the experience.

“I vividly remember my cinematographer Edward Roqueta and I spent weeks on the edge of Madidi National Park in a little jungle inn – sharing a room as we were absolutely broke – while waiting. let something exciting happen, ”Unger recalls. . “We spent a tremendous amount of time with the rangers. When we filmed them on patrol inside the park, we camped with them on the riverbed under a magnificent spectacle of stars.”

She described Madidi National Park – a national park in Bolivia’s upper Amazon basin, known for its biodiversity and one of the largest protected areas in the world – as “one of the most breathtaking places in the world. the planet “.

“Living the life of the rangers in this beautiful region with my cinematographer, who is a good friend of mine, is something I will never forget,” Unger told Salon.

Yet in this vital and beautiful slice of nature there is also ugliness. In “Tigre Gente”, Unger tells the story of the illegal jaguar trade that threatens to destroy the charismatic Bolivian animal and chronicles individual efforts to thwart it. They meet frightening resistance, including a heart-wrenching showdown on a boat. The stories of Marcos Uzquiano, director of Madidi Park, and Hong Kong journalist Laurel Chor, sometimes seem to come out of a novel rather than real life.

In the post-“Tiger King” era, it’s important to remember that big cats continue to be stalked and otherwise endangered by humans for reasons that would seem silly if the consequences weren’t so tragic. . “Tigre Gente” has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 11.

I interviewed Unger about jaguar conservation, Western misconceptions about the wildlife trade, and the mysterious “aura” of these majestic big cats; as always, this interview has been edited slightly for clarity and context.

What inspired you to make this documentary?

In 2009, I volunteered at a wildlife refuge in Bolivia to help rehabilitate jaguars and other wild cats victims of the illegal wildlife trade. This experience stuck with me and I was ultimately inspired to work on a project on wildlife trafficking in South America, especially since most of the media articles focused on elephant poaching and African rhinos. When I learned of this new jaguar trade for the Chinese market from Bolivian contacts in 2015, I knew from my wildlife experience that no one in the conservation world was really talking about it. I decided that a creative project, like a documentary, could make as much (if not more) of a difference than an academic article on the subject. I started learning on my own to direct and produce in 2015, and now, six years later, the film is finally making its debut.

Were there ever times when you felt physically unsafe while filming?

Yes. The boat chase scene in the movie was actually filmed by me and it was a very, very risky moment for the rangers and myself. These types of lawsuits are not common. When the poachers tried to ram the engine of the ranger boat, we could easily have capsized and washed away in the river. The poachers were also about to attack us and since the rangers are not allowed to be armed this would have created an extremely dangerous scenario. Unfortunately, in these situations the rangers can only trust their words – the only weapon they have to combat illegal activity in the park.

What is your personal perspective on the subjects of your documentary?

Marcos [Uzquiano, director of the Madidi Park] and Laurier [Cho, a journalist] are two of the most awesome people I have met in my life, for very different reasons.

Marcos grew up just outside Madidi National Park in a rural community. He was the major of his high school class and eventually rose through the ranks to become the director of the park. He is extremely passionate and determined to protect his home, Madidi, from any vested interests that seek to exploit him, at all costs. He risks his life every day doing his job. Marcos is a real hero.

Laurel is someone I know from the National Geographic Explorer community because we are both beneficiaries. Not only is Laurel a legitimate tough guy and someone I consider fearless, she’s extremely intelligent. She speaks four languages ​​(Cantonese, English, French and Mandarin) and is currently pursuing a Masters program at Oxford. Laurel is a serious journalist who is not afraid to tackle difficult issues, even at risk for herself and her family in Hong Kong. I greatly admire.

What did you learn about jaguars as animals – their personalities, so to speak – by making this film?

Our team didn’t have the chance to see a jaguar in the wild – it’s rare – but when we filmed jaguars at a wildlife sanctuary in Brazil, being so close to them in that capacity was a amazing experience. They really are such powerful creatures that you can feel it emanating from them when you are nearby. Even the baby jaguars we filmed were compelling in that sense – they’re a force you just can’t look away from. For me, jaguars are infinitely curious and intelligent. Their gaze pierces you. And I wanted to honor that intensity and power in this film.

What have you learned about the Chinese wildlife trade? What is your opinion on this?

There are a lot of Western misconceptions about the Chinese wildlife trade that we were hoping to counter with this film. On the one hand, there is a big misconception that most Chinese want these types of illegal wildlife products, which is just not true. China is a country of over a billion people, and unfortunately, even if an extremely small fraction of the population is actively seeking to purchase these coins, it will have a huge impact.

During this film, I learned about Chinese culture and tradition regarding wildlife consumerism. The Chinese demand does not come from wanting to kill wildlife in order to destroy and consume it. It really comes from a place of respect and appreciation for these animals, that by consuming or using a product of their body, they are honoring that animal. The problem, however, is the amount of misinformation on the demand side regarding how these wildlife products are obtained. Some Chinese believe, as you saw in the movie, that these animals die naturally and their parts are harvested so as not to be lost. Some just aren’t informed and honestly don’t think about asking these kinds of questions. In the film, we bring up the concept of eating beef versus jaguar trafficking. In the West, eating beef is commonplace, regardless of the devastating negative effects it has on the environment. Jaguar trafficking is also devastating to the environment, but if Chinese consumers don’t understand it, it will be difficult to curb demand, as will Westerners who eat beef several times a day. Cultural norms are different and in order to move forward we need to better understand the mentality behind the demand for these kinds of products.

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