By Ed Struzik, Postmedia News
EDMONTON — Wood Buffalo National Park never gets more than a few hundred visitors each year.
So the folks at Parks Canada were somewhat surprised that a video clip shot there two years ago has gone viral since it was posted recently on YouTube. By Wednesday, nearly 1.7 million people had viewed it.
The clip was shot in 2009 by a BBC cameraman, who was flying over the park on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border when he spotted a pack of wolves chasing a herd of bison.
“What happened was a huge surprise to us,” says Canadian filmmaker Jeff Turner, who set things up for the BBC crew in Wood Buffalo. “I have filmed wolves chasing bison several times now, and spent months and months with them in the field over the past 15 years, and never have I ever seen anything like this.”
The wolves in the video were closing in on one of the smaller bison, but couldn’t quite bring it down.
Then a big bull came up from behind and butted the smaller bison, sending it head over hoofs onto the ground, where it had no chance of escaping.
The video leaves it up to the viewer to imagine what happened next.
Some thought the scene was staged. Others suspected it was a trick. Many felt that the bison that butt-ended the other animal acted selfishly or in a cruel way.
“I love animals,” said one of the few commentators who didn’t use foul language to describe what happened. “I feel like a such a bad person for smiling. I hope that video ain’t real.”
Turner, a veteran in the field of nature filmmaking, has no doubt we live in a world that has grown divorced from the realities of Mother Nature.
He also wonders whether websites such as YouTube are contributing to the problem.
“A place like YouTube, with its millions upon millions of videos; how do you value that? How do we put it into any sort of context? It’s especially hard with nature subjects if you have no direct experience with it yourself,” he says.
He agrees with University of Alberta historian Zac Robinson, who suggests that the editing of the video may have shaped some of the responses to the clip. But Turner says there is no denying the scene that unfolds is extraordinary, no matter how it is presented.
“It was a total fluke that it even happened. But it’s so unusual . . . that it was bound to catch people’s attention. The scene was cut before the wolves started ripping the bison apart. That makes it easier to laugh at, of course.”
Robinson isn’t so sure urbanites are more out of touch with the wilderness now than they were before.
“Are humans really divorced from this nature-in-its-rawest-form scene?” he asks. “I see human hands all over the set.
“These are managed bison and wolves in a national park. For all their well-meaning intents, that has a tremendous effect on predator/prey relationships, good and bad. And what about the filming of this scene? What influence did the film crew have in all of this?”
Scientist Lu Carbyn first started studying wolves and bison in Wood Buffalo National Park in 1978, when he was working with the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Now an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, he describes what was going on in the video in this way:
“These bison are running in a straight line as they almost always do when they are being chased by wolves in deep snow. I can only analyze what I see in the video; there could be other wolves chasing that bigger animal that comes along.
“What I do know from years of watching bison and wolves interacting is that the big bull is thinking of nothing else but escaping. He’s not sacrificing the smaller animal to the wolves so he can survive. He’s just running as fast as he can, and he knows that running off the beaten track into the deep snow is not going to do the trick. Unfortunately, the smaller animal was in the way.”
Said Stu MacMillan, Wood Buffalo’s manager of resource conservation: “It was nice to see so many people tune in to a scene that shows what does happen in Wood Buffalo on a regular basis, but disturbing to see how so many just didn’t get it.”
Like Turner and Robinson, Carbyn laments that so many people today seem to have so little understanding of nature.
“It’s not only because they are missing out on something very special and basic to our being,” he says. “It’s also because their indifference is making it increasingly difficult for those of us who care about the environment. Politicians who favour industrial development over conservation are coming to realize that there are not enough people out there who care enough to vote them out of office.”