Keith David narrates Africa's Lost Eden, a fifty-one minute documentary made by National Geographic that follows the efforts of conservationists in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa. The documentary sets the stage by filling us in on the area's past as we learn how a long war and rampant poaching have lead to the decimation of this once thriving and abundant source of wild life. Where elephants, zebras, buffalo and hippos once congregated en masse, mankind's toll left dozens where once there were thousands. Since the park is now a protected area, efforts are underway to restore Gorongosa to its former glory but poaching is still a problem and there just aren't enough of certain species in the area for natural breeding to successfully repopulate.
From there we follow a park ranger whose job is to protect the animals that still live in the area and to work with conservationists who are willing to help bring animals into the area in hopes that they'll stay. We travel thirteen hundred kilometers with a group who bring a full grown, fifty year old bull elephant into the park in hopes that he'll acclimate himself to the area and stay, but before you know it he's off towards a nearby village. The villagers state quite plainly that they'll kill him if he comes near them, and so the rangers have to retrieve him, sedate him, and bring him back to the park on a flatbed. Tragically, he doesn't make it. The rangers knew that the drug could potentially kill him, but they had to risk it because the villagers definitely would kill him. The gamble didn't work, but that doesn't mean they won't try again when they can.
Not so surprisingly, crocodiles still flourish in the area. They're clever camouflage skills and tendency to react in rather hostile manners has more or less kept them away from the ravages of the war and from the poachers. They lurk in shallow waters and feed on the plentiful supply of catfish who in turn feed upon the small fish. This food chain is in danger, however, as the nutrients that the hippos and elephants once brought to the water are the same nutrients that feed those smaller fish. If the smaller fish don't eat, the cat fish don't eat and if the cat fish don't eat, the crocodiles don't eat. It's all very interconnected and just goes to show how fragile an ecosystem can really be.
The documentary ends on a more positive note, as the rangers successfully transport a family of hippopotamus' to the area and then learn that the full grown female is pregnant. They know that they have a lot of work ahead of them and that it won't be easy, but at least there's hope for the area.
Africa's Lost Eden is not only beautifully shot, making great use of the wide open plains and lush waterways in the area, but it's also quite moving. The scene where the rangers lose the elephant is truly sad and more than a bit emotional, as is the ending, where you can't help but hope that these creatures will be able to build back what they once had. The interviews with those involved with the movement make it very clear how tough their work is, but it's obvious that they find it rewarding enough to keep at it despite the dangers inherent in such activity. Of course, we don't know how it will all wind up (a follow up film would be quite welcome, actually) but just learning about the history of the area and the problems if faces is interesting enough. Fans of nature documentaries should enjoy this, as it's very interesting stuff, but those who want some nice eye candy should appreciate it too. It does feel like it could and should have been a fair bit longer than its short running time, but aside from that, National Geographic has crafted an excellent and eye opening documentary.
Africa's Lost Eden debuts on Blu-ray in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen VC-1 encoded 1080i high definition transfer that is unfortunately a bit inconsistent. There are shots here, such as the close ups of the baby crocodiles, that are amazingly detailed and textured and full of lush, gorgeous color and then there are shots that look soft and flat. As such, the quality of the picture varies quite a bit from scene to scene. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad and most of the footage does look very nice but there are shots that do stick out and that you will notice are not quite on par with the rest of the presentation. That said, the disc is at least a well authored one. Despite the fact that the picture is 1080i, there weren't any noticeable interlacing issues noticeable during playback and the feature's short running time ensures that there aren't any compression artifact issues. There's no obvious edge enhancement or digital noise reduction and generally the image is pretty decent.
The sole audio option on this release is a standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, with optional subtitles provided in English only. No lossless track is offered, unfortunately. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion or with odd level fluctuations, and the track is well encoded, but this is primarily narration based so don't expect continuous surround activity. The rear channels do kick in nicely here and there, generally when the animals we're following get busy with whatever activity takes up their time, but this is certainly a more relaxed track than it could have been. Keith David's classy narration sounds good and there aren't any problems here, but the mix is a bit underwhelming.
National Geographic has included a fifty minute bonus documentary entitled Stalking Leopards which follows the beautiful spotted cats as they do what they need to do to survive. The focus here is on their hunting tactics, hence the title, but we get a good look at how they live. It's rather interesting, but it doesn't get into all that much detail. Aside from that, there are trailers for three other National Geographic releases, menus and chapter selection. All of the supplemental material on this release is in standard definition, unfortunately (Stalking Leopards probably would have looked really nice in high definition, but unless it gets re-released, we'll never know for sure).
The presentation isn't quite perfect and the extra documentary would have been nicer if it were in high definition, but Africa's Lost Eden is touching, at times fairly shocking, and beautifully shot. The conservationist message is presented plainly and matter-of-factly but never feels heavy handed, while the footage of the terrain and the animals that inhabit it can often times be quite breathtaking. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.