Cities

Animals living in cities have to contend with the fastest changing environment on our planet. And yet peregrine falcons are thriving amongst the sky scrapers of New York. In winter a million starlings perform a spectacular aerial dance above Rome, and every night leopards come into the streets of Mumbai to hunt. There are 4 billion people now living in the urban environment. The langurs of Jodhpur are given a helping hand by man, while others have to fight for a piece of this real estate. The people of Harar share their streets with wild hyenas, but what space will we make for wildlife in the cities of the future?

Published: 29 October 2016

Animals living in cities have to contend with the fastest changing environment on our planet. And yet peregrine falcons are thriving amongst the sky scrapers of New York. In winter a million starlings perform a spectacular aerial dance above Rome, and every night leopards come into the streets of Mumbai to hunt. There are 4 billion people now living in the urban environment. The langurs of Jodhpur are given a helping hand by man, while others have to fight for a piece of this real estate. The people of Harar share their streets with wild hyenas, but what space will we make for wildlife in the cities of the future?

Big facts

  • The urban environment is the newest and fastest growing habitat on our planet. In the next decade, the urban environment is predicted to grow by nearly thirty percent.
  • This man made environment is far brighter, louder and busier than anywhere in the natural world.
  • Four billion people, more than half of the human population, now live in the urban environment, all animals that come here will have to overcome their fear of man.
  • It is in the urban environment that animals have to contend with the greatest change that is happening to the surface of our planet, but for the bold, this new world offers fresh territory to expand into.

Key characters and stories

Leopards; Mumbai, India

  • Mumbai has over 20 million people, but also a thriving population of leopards with the highest concentration of these cats anywhere on the planet.
  • Using the latest technology - infrared camera traps and thermal cameras, the team captured never seen before behaviour of Mumbai leopards using the cover of city noise and their stealth to hunt abundant domesticated animals, brought in to the city by man.
  • Leopards have attacked almost two hundred people in Mumbai the last twenty-five years.

Peregrine Falcons, New York, USA

It took nine months just to get permission for the team to film from the rooftops of skyscrapers and from a helicopter in the heart of New York City. The effort paid off and for the first time the team were able to capture a sequence of successful hunting behavior. This was also the first time that anyone has filmed aerials of the fastest bird in the world dropping from a height at speeds of over 300kph.

  • New York City has the highest concentration of nesting Peregrines in the world, they have made their homes in the city’s skyscrapers which perform the role of cliff edges, the traditional habitat for Peregrine Falcons.
  • City living can be advantageous for these well adapted birds, they are able to soar over the city with very little effort taking advantage of the updrafts from buildings and the warm air rising from the metal and glass for efficient flight.
  • Pigeons reside in the city all year round, a plentiful food source for the peregrines which means they do not need to migrate.
  • For this shoot, the Planet Earth II crew were helped by expert conservation biologists and documented their important work monitoring the local population of Peregrines.

Key characters and stories

Hyenas; Harar, Ethiopia

The filming team used the latest 4K low-light cameras. At times they were surrounded by over 100 fighting hyenas and at other times they were astonished at seeing small cats swipe at hyenas competing over scraps of meat. The difference in attitude between these hyenas inside and outside of the city walls is astounding.

  • Two hyena clans roam into the streets of Harar, Ethiopia, every night, and they have done so for the last 400 years. The clans fight outside the town to assess which is dominant in the city where they gain access to the bones left on the streets by the city’s butchers.
  • Spotted hyenas are the second largest land predator in Africa after the lion and throughout their range they are feared for their raids on towns where they have been known to pick off small children. But the inhabitants of Harar have decided to invite them in, believing that they consume the evil spirits every time they cackle. One family even chooses to hand feed these wild animals.

Starlings; Rome, Italy

  • The urban environment is on average several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside and in the sky above Rome during the winter month’s twilight hours, one can see a staggering one million starlings come to roost.
  • It is estimated that in a single day, over 10 tonnes of excrement rains down on this city, from starlings alone.
  • The aerial display of their murmurations are spectacular and have never been filmed so completely before.

Macaques; Jaipur, India

The camera team got truly immersive shots by using a state of the art stabilization rig to follow the troop as it made its daily commute to the market. Following them on foot, from vehicles and with the camera rigged to a cable dolly to travel with them as they navigated the rooftop world.

Langurs; Jodpur, India

  • Hanaman Langurs are revered and treated as religious deities. Residing within the temple gardens they have, over centuries, developed a special relationship that secures them a constant source of high energy food.
  • This high energy food source has done wonders for female fertility. These langurs will give birth to double the young of their forest counterparts – and their rich milk can support twins which would be almost impossible in their natural habitat.

Hyperlapse Cities

  • Rob Whitworth is an online sensation with his hyperlapse videos. He has done three sequences for this film, including hyperlapse journeys through the Hong Kong city lights and the building of a vertical forest.

Filming locations

Snow Leopards; Himalayas, Ladakh, India

  • The Planet Earth II sequence is the first time that four snow leopards have ever been filmed together. With as few as 3,500 snow leopards remaining in the wild, they are incredibly elusive and hard to film.
  • The camera traps used were reengineered to give better operating quality and to survive in the toughest field conditions; the highest camera trap was operating close to 5000 metres.

1. Catfish hunting pigeons - Albi, France
2. Starling murmurations - Rome, Italy
3. Turtle hatchlings - Barbados
4. City lights - Hong Kong
5. Peregrine falcons - New York, USA
6. Raccoons - Toronto, Canada
7. Hyenas - Harar, Ethiopia
8. Avatar city - Singapore
9. Macaques - Jaipur, India
10. Leopards - Mumbai, India
11. Langurs - Jodpur, India
12. Bower birds - Townsville, Australia

Stories from location

I worked on Frozen Planet and Wild Arabia before this, but shooting in the city is much harder than anywhere else. Normally if you’re filming in nature reserves, and you only need one permit for your entire shoot, but we were looking to access the rooftops of about 30 different skyscrapers in New York.

You also have to contend with people. Mostly people are great, but when you’re filming at night, you realise that some people are drunk and want to know what you’re doing around such dangerous animals. It’s all quite new territory for a wildlife filmmaker.

I’ve always found hyenas to be quite terrifying animals. In Harar in Ethiopia one night, we were surrounded by more than a hundred of them, fighting. They were fighting on the outskirts of town to see who’d gain access to the city. They’re the second-largest land predator in Africa after the lion.

They were extraordinary. There are two hyena clans who regularly use the city. To work out who gets access, they go to a place outside the city limits and have a fight. A piece of ground where they can meet up like the gangs in Westside Story and have it out. They really fight. You’ve got a hundred around you, running around your feet and legs en masse, turning on each other. You do think that if they turned on you, you’re gone. That’s it. If they decided that we were the problem, that would be that. But they don’t.

In other areas of Africa it’s relatively common to hear about a hyena taking a child, but they really do have a peaceful pact with the people of Harar. The people respect the hyenas, they think of them as religious entities, and this relationship has been going on for over 400 years. I spoke to a lady who had loads of goats on the outskirts of the city. She said that the hyenas walk through her smallholding every single night, and if the goats are still out then they will charge them off with their horns. Anywhere else in Africa, that would be the other way around. Somehow, this pact exists and it’s extraordinary.

Mumbai has the highest density of leopards in the world. There are around 35 living in quite a small forested area. They feed on deer and animals in that forest, but they also head out into the peripheries of the park at night and feed on domesticated animals like pigs and dogs. They also kill humans. What I find extraordinary is that they’ve been eating and killing people for decades, but the Indian people are still tolerant of them living there. I can’t think of another country where a relocation program would not have been put into place by now. Indian people are totally remarkable in their tolerance of allowing animals into their city. The relationship between animal and man – the acceptance, the tolerance, the compassion and just their ability to share a city with each other – made it stand out as a place that was completely inspiring.

Fredi Devas, Cities Episode Producer