Bellingham ecologist makes bear documentary to save wild places
KIE RELYEA - THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Bellingham ecologist Chris Morgan is taking his BMW motorcycle on a journey to four continents in search of the world's endangered bears - an epic adventure being made into a feature-length documentary called "Beartrek."
The goal isn't just to show the bears in their habitat, stunning as the wild coast of Katmai, Alaska, and the rainforest canopy of Borneo, Malaysia, may be when shot in high definition.
The idea is to raise money for conservation efforts by selling audiences on why wild bears in wild places should matter to people, to spin an entertaining tale that will do for conservation what Al Gore did for climate change in "An Inconvenient Truth."
"They represent these wild places that we all need. Where you've got bears, you've got fresh water, you've got clean air, you've got intact forest and ecosystems," Morgan said one day over coffee. "They need those things, and so do we."
"Beartrek," which is still being shot, follows Morgan and his motorcycle to seven locations in Canada, Alaska, Peru, India, Borneo and Mongolia. In addition to Morgan, who also narrates the film, the featured stars will be giant brown bears in Alaska, polar bear cubs in Canada and Alaska, sloth bears in India, sun bears in Borneo, elusive Andean bears in Peru, and brown bears in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia.
INSPIRED BY SCIENCE
Morgan grew up in England and had plans, early on, to become a graphic designer.When he was 18, the outdoors lover came to New Hampshire to teach kids at a summer camp how to fish. And that was where a bear biologist's presentation sent his life in a new direction."I was transfixed. I had no idea you could do that kind of thing in life," he said.
Morgan would go on to become an ecologist specializing in bears and, over the years, he would work on each of the four continents where bears existed.
"Everywhere I went, I could see biologists who were struggling to do this important work with limited funds and limited exposure," Morgan said. Locally, he's known for the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, which he started some six years ago to educate the public about the dwindling number of grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
Morgan said there are probably about 10 grizzlies remaining within 10,000 square miles in the Cascades. Those square miles were designated as a grizzly bear recovery zone in 1991.
"So they're practically the walking dead," he said. "They are highly endangered, one of the rarest populations of mammals in North America."
As Morgan continued his own work, he mulled over the idea of supporting the other scientists he'd met as well as using his particular talent for making people "hyped and inspired by our wild places." Morgan landed on the idea of doing that through bears, iconic creatures who are in peril. Five out of the world's eight species are at risk.
"Bears capture people's imagination like no other creatures," he said. "People love them or loathe them, but they're seldom indifferent about them."
SAVING BEARS BY ENTERTAINING PEOPLE
Morgan hatched the idea for "Beartrek" over a beer with Joe Pontecorvo, a Seattle-based wildlife filmmaker and producer. They met in Alaska while Morgan was guiding a group of people to see brown bears, also known as grizzlies, and Pontecorvo was filming bears for PBS.
Pontecorvo said he needed to do more for conservation, and while nature films were good for "spectacle," not enough was being done to protect the planet.
He and Morgan also wanted to tell the good news about existing efforts.
"I always say we all know the sky is falling when it comes to the environment, but there are also some really good ways to prop up the sky," Morgan explained.
"We can change the course of events." And do it in a way that draws gearheads and environmentalists into theaters, "not just the already converted," Pontecorvo said.
That's where Morgan's motorcycle comes in. He and Pontecorvo figured that a story about a guy riding his BMW through the back roads into the wild would appeal to adventurers out there, even if they're not green.
"Beartrek" also is a wildlife documentary meant to entertain along the lines of "March of the Penguins" and "Winged Migration." And like those films, Morgan and other conservationists who started the venture hope to release "Beartrek" in theaters as well as DVD, TV, the Internet, and any medium that will spread the message.
Pontecorvo also sees "Beartrek" as a new model for conservation in that its profits will be sunk into bear conservation. Existing conservation efforts and the scientists behind them already are getting help, even though the documentary isn't finished. "They couldn't wait," Pontecorvo said.
Some $25,000 to $30,000 worth of materials and aid, including cash, already have gone to biologists working to save bears. "It doesn't have to be an awful lot of money. It goes so far in the places where they need it most," Morgan said.
The overall project is being handled by Wildlife Media, a nonprofit started in September 2007 to manage "Beartrek" and the goal of raising $2 million, with half of that going directly to bear projects around the world, including those featured in the film.
Bear and motorcycle enthusiasts don't have to wait until the film is finished to see Morgan and Pontecorvo's beautiful handiwork. A 20-minute demo reel of their venture to Alaska and Borneo already is being used to raise private dollars for the documentary and conservation projects.
"Beartrek" opens with sweeping views of the rugged Katmai coast in Alaska, where giant brown bears, or grizzlies, gather in big numbers each year.
"These bears start life the weight of a squirrel and end life the weight of a car," Morgan narrates, as bears run around a stream and snatch salmon from the water.
These are the largest, most impressive bears in the world, living in one of the most intact ecosystems, Morgan said in a separate interview. They can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds and are capable of consuming 30,000 calories a day.
Contrast that with the second part of the demo, where Morgan travels to Borneo in search of the sun bear - the smallest bear species in the most diverse place in Asia. A big sun bear weighs 100 pounds.
There, Morgan rides his motorcycle into a rainforest being logged - 50 percent has been lost in the past 20 years - make way for palm-oil plantations that stretch for mile after mile. Palm oil is found in many everyday products, from ice cream to cosmetics. It's also a bio fuel, and the world's hunger for it is destroying the habitat for sun bears and other wildlife.
In Borneo, Morgan meets up with Siew Te Wong, a biologist trying to save the bears, including an orphaned sun bear club named "Chera," which means "bright" in Malay.
Pontecorvo recorded Chera, then 10 months old, being released from a cage and playing, first hesitantly then with abandon.
"It was the most amazing thing to watch," the filmmaker said.
Morgan is raising money to go on the next shoot in Peru, home to the most ancient bear species on the planet - the threatened Andean bear, so rarely seen that biologists don't know how many still exist. The Peru shoot will cost about $95,000, and a little over half has been raised. The hoped-for theatrical release date for "Beartrek" is 2010.
"What we want to do is make conservation a social norm," he said. "I know that sounds like a huge goal, and it is."
Reach KIE RELYEA at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2234.
TO LEARN MORE
• Additional information about "Beartrek" and Wildlife Media, including how to make a tax-deductible donation to the making of the feature-length film and bear conservation efforts, is available online at wildlifemedia.org.
• Find Grizzly Bear Outreach Project at bearinfo.org.
• More on Joe Pontecorvo, the wildlife filmmaker who's shooting "Beartrek," at joepontecorvo.com.
Watch a 20-minute short of "Beartrek"