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Obama tells stories of animals all around the world in Netflix's 'Our National Parks'

A still from "Our Great National Parks." (Netflix)
A still from "Our Great National Parks." (Netflix)

The new Netflix docuseries “Our Great National Parks” takes viewers to national parks around the world, from the Chilean Patagonia to Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park — to the soothing narration of one of the show’s executive producers, former President Barack Obama.

Executive producer James Honeyborne says his UK-based production company Wild Space Productions connected with the Obama’s Higher Ground Productions through Netflix.

“We knew President Obama had protected more public lands and waters and any other U.S. president in history,” Honeyborne says. “So it just seemed a very natural fit for us to work together in celebrating wilderness and wildlife by framing a series around national parks.”

Watch on YouTube.

Many of the locations featured in the series were selected because of Obama’s personal connection to the parks, Honeyborne says.

Obama has called national parks “America’s best idea” — one that spread to countries around the world. Today, 15% of land and 8% of the world’s oceans are protected. For producer Sophie Todd, that’s a significant achievement.

One episode of the series tells the story of sloths that live in the Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. Algae grow on the sloth’s fur, along with 80 different microspecies. The fungus produced by the sloth’s fur could help humans fight cancer, malaria and antibiotic superbugs, as Obama explains in the series.

“There’s so many solutions within the rainforest and so much potential that we haven’t yet uncovered, and yet we’re losing these species at an exponential rate,” Todd says. “That’s why protecting national parks and creating more of them are so important.”

Interview Highlights

On how the team filmed the animals up close

Sophie Todd: “We have a whole range of new technology that’s at our fingertips, everything from the latest drones which allow us to be up in the air for longer and capture images. … We wouldn’t be able to physically walk there. But now, [drones allow] us to see the hippos taking to the surf and moving, using the currents to travel down the beach. And we also filmed some hippos in Tsavo using new underwater cameras. And it’s the housing that allows the camera to stay underwater and be submerged for longer, which means animals can be habituated to the camera and they just ignore them. Their life continues around the camera. And then after they’ve moved off after days, we can go back and pick the camera up and just see the underwater world that you’d never have the opportunity to see before. And it’s just wonderful to look at this material.”

James Honeyborne: “It’s so exciting to share the idea that as well, just because we’re staking out places with these cameras and these new technologies, we get to see things that haven’t actually been recorded before.”

On how long filming took and how many crews worked on the series

Todd: “We had 33 expeditions to 10 countries, five continents filming for over 1,500 days. But we also were working quite a lot with people in each country, which would allow us obviously to minimize air travel, but also helped us so much when the pandemic hit. … We were relying on people in-country and they were giving us such a unique and rare perspective of their national parks because, of course, to them, they’re their backyards. They’re the places that they’re the most connected to, and I hope that that comes through in the series, you just get that sense of really being in these places.”

On how national parks help scientists study animals

Honeyborne: “We’re still discovering so much all the time. And actually, a really good example of that is when we were filming in Gunung Leuser National Park and we wanted to film something called the hammerhead worm, which is a very small but fiercely predatory worm that lives on the forest floor. And the species we found turned out to be an entirely new species unknown to science. And you suddenly realize that everywhere you look in a place like a rainforest, there are still new discoveries to be made.

“And then if you just take one animal like the sloth, for example, and look into his fur, as we do in the first episode, you see that there’s this entire microcosm of life within that. It really is almost everywhere we look, we find new things. And I think that’s the excitement about working with scientists, but also sharing the things we find with them. When you find a new species or new behavior, it really is very exciting.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.