Predators, Films and Science: A Conversation with Dan Hunter

Nearly every ecologist across the world has, at one stage or another, had a moment in the field where they had the thought – “I wish I’d filmed that!” Or perhaps had David Attenborough’s voice going through their head whilst observing a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

For University of New South Wales ecologist and film-maker Daniel Hunter, science and film go hand in hand. He explains: “The interesting thing about science journal papers is that they’re basically a good film script in disguise. They have an introduction (or a hook), a body and a conclusion (or ending).” As Dan reiterates, the marriage of the two disciplines is perhaps even more true for ecologists: “We often work in places that people dream about as holiday destinations, carrying out fieldwork with beautiful critters and plants at the most spectacular times of the day. Why not take a camera and record some of this, record the sounds, record the animals, capture the scenes, the moments and share them?”

Ecologist and natural history filmmaker Dan Hunter. Photo: Ed Sloane

Ecologist and natural history filmmaker Dan Hunter. Photo: Ed Sloane

With what Dan refers to as a “growing disconnect between scientists and the public,” starting his PhD was the perfect opportunity to go about rectifying the problem. According to Dan, it’s a serious problem. He expands: “The ‘public’ make policy decisions and are the ones affected by research outcomes so we, as scientists, have an obligation to ensure that our research is communicated clearly and effectively… using multiple communication methods.”

Dan’s research focuses on the importance of apex predators, such as the dingo, in structuring ecosystems through the reduction in numbers of herbivores and smaller predators. Whilst Dan’s findings mirror what is being observed elsewhere in Australia, they are no less important. In fact, Dan’s observations from his study area in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area were the catalyst for his new film. It turns out that “the mere presence of dingoes benefits small and medium mammal abundance and vegetation complexity so strongly that I just had to share these findings as far and wide as possible,” he says.

Naturally, given Dan’s background as a natural history filmmaker, a documentary was the best way to do this. “Essentially it is a film about the role of predators, the decline of Australia’s mammals and rewilding,” says Dan. “The story explores the role of dingoes in forests…. However, dingoes are persecuted because of the threat they pose to livestock and, as a consequence, our native mammal species are losing out in areas where dingoes have become functionally extinct.”

Dan Hunter says predators are vital for maintaining balance in ecosystems such as this. Photo: Dan Hunter

Dan Hunter says predators are vital for maintaining balance in ecosystems such as this. Photo: Dan Hunter

Given the film is based on his research, the story fell together quite neatly: “The process of piecing it all together was very organic because it is about my research which is something I know intimately well.” However, there were some challenges: “The tricky part for me, was making sure that it did not detract from the key message and was a sound piece of science communication. That meant not using too much jargon, keeping a good rhythm and using cinematography to maintain the attention of viewers.”

Throughout the filming process, Dan was continually reminded of the dire state of Australia’s mammals and the ineffectiveness of a business-as-usual approach to threatened species conservation. “Our current management (mainly, poison baiting with 1080) is short-sighted, unsustainable and costly,” says Dan. “We need to consider restoring dingoes to functional densities to tackle foxes and cats and where this is untenable for farmers we need to explore the option of bringing in devils as a surrogate at the very least.”

For many ecologists, reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to mainland Australia (where it existed approximately 500 years ago) is not a new idea. “My supervisor and I discussed the idea of modelling Tasmanian Devil reintroduction to help mitigate some of the cat and fox carnage in forests,” he explains. “Although I don’t discuss the modelling in the film, I do go to Tasmania and interview some devil experts to get their thoughts on bringing devils back to the mainland.”

So, how can ecologists and other scientifically minded people convince policy makers to take a leap and return devils to the mainland? “Conduct quality research, disseminate the findings in a clear and effective way and begin the conversation,” says Dan. But unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that: “Farmers will want to know what the potential damage to their stock will be, conservationists will want to know if devils are going to do more bad then good, Tasmanians are going to want to be assured they will still have a tourism industry if they share their State emblem with Victoria and New South Wales. These are all legitimate concerns that scientists and others will need to address before any reintroduction takes place.”

However, Dan thinks we’re well on the way, explaining that “the first step is the hardest and I think we’re pretty close.”

Battle in the Bush premieres in Sydney in mid-June, with screenings in Melbourne and Geelong to follow soon after. Dan is on the lookout for venues to host screenings, so readers should get in touch if they can help. The film will also be available for purchase very soon.

All information related to Battle in the Bush can be found HERE and to read Wild Melbourne's review of the film, head HERE