Malaika Vaz has gotten up close to wild Asian lions, walked down jungle paths with the children of tiger poachers, and gone undercover in India, Hong Kong, and China to report on the illegal trafficking of manta rays.
These are only a few snapshots from a series of documentaries that Vaz, just 24 but an award-winning filmmaker, has created in the past five years to draw attention to the environment, endangered species, community-led conservation efforts, and wildlife trafficking for TV audiences worldwide.
“My films are inspired by my passion for the natural world but motivated by a sense of urgency.” Vaz tells SEEMA. “The diversity of life our planet supports is incredible, and we have to give the fight for planetary protection everything we’ve got – while we still can.”
“My favorite part of the filmmaking process is synthesizing the issue in all its complexity and then creating a film that can marry nuance with exciting storytelling, I absolutely love writing scripts, presenting on camera, directing a film, getting the story in the field, and working with my amazing team on putting it all together.”
Trailing Manta Traffickers
Vaz had both the beach and the forest practically in her yard as a kid in Goa, a state on the west coast of India. In exploring her natural surroundings while growing up, she ultimately became a PADI Dive Master, competitive windsurfer, Cessna pilot, and endurance horse rider.
She was first captivated by the intelligence and grace of the manta rays while scuba diving off the coast. She has swum with the manta and taken photos underwater of these huge but harmless sea creatures. When she later learned about the extent of illegal trafficking in manta parts, she decided to investigate using film.
A Jackson Wild Media Award winner, plus a nominee for a Green Emmy, the film “Peng Yu Sai” tells the tale of how some Indian fishermen slaughter mantas in large numbers, selling the carcasses at high prices. The manta parts are smuggled through criminal rings into Hong Kong and, ultimately, to China.
While manta ray meat is tough and lacking in taste, it is the gill plate that is prized. Peng yu sai translates from the Chinese into manta gill soup. The soup is regarded as a healthy delicacy by many in China, where it is touted as a remedy for everything from acne to lung conditions.
Actually, though, toxicology studies show that many manta gills contain high levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, etc., which can be hazardous to health.
“Illegal marine trafficking slips under the radar so often, which is why I chose to shine a light on it through my film,” Vaz told SEEMA. “It documents the illegal manta ray trade from fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean to the insurgency-hit Indo-Myanmar border to the final markets in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. … From posing as a seafood trader in Guangzhou and filming undercover in some incredibly hostile places to following the trade pipeline and meeting with trafficking kingpins at remote border towns – filming this documentary has been quite the adventure.”
As Vaz sees it, these and her other investigations demonstrate close links between wildlife trafficking and other criminal activities, including those involving drugs, arms sales, human trafficking. and even political insurgency and violence.
“I personally believe that we have to tackle the criminal syndicates trading in wild animals using the might of our police, legislative and armed forces – while also finding alternative means of employment for the smaller players in the system who are driven by circumstance,” she says.
Living With Big Cats
Many wild animals on land also face extinction. As part of a grant from the National Geographic Society, Vaz has presented and directed a TV series on community-driven “big cat” protection.
The series examines how humans are co-existing peacefully with Asiatic lions in and around Gir National Park, Bengal tigers from Ranthambore National Park, and leopards from Jawai, Rajasthan, even when the cats roam into human residential and farming areas.
While big cats can pose threats to humans, the animals have been victimized by people, too. Around Rathambore, gangs of poachers once nearly wiped out the Bengal tiger population, but it has bounced back since then.
Today, children there are enrolled in a program that shows them how to respect and co-exist with animals. Ex-poachers and their spouses are getting paid to create crafts at home, enabling them to sustain a living without resorting to violence.
In the film, Vaz takes a nature walk with the kids. A counselor teaches them bird calls and how to defend themselves peaceably if ever cornered by a tiger.
Meanwhile, village wildlife volunteers are shown how to capture poachers on video using camera traps that can be tripped in the stealth of night.
“While filming this series, I saw first-hand how local conservationists, tribes, and trained forest rangers have the potential to protect species and conserve habitat effectively, in ways that no outside non-profit or government entity could hope to do,” Vaz says.
But That’s Not All
Vaz is the co-founder and creative director of Untamed Planet, a production house specializing in documentary filmmaking about the natural world.
A National Geographic Explorer, she was named an Earthshot Prize Advocate for 2021 in a program founded by Prince William to encourage conservation action globally. She also collaborates with organizations like WildAid and the Wildlife Trust of India on wildlife trafficking investigations and conservation initiatives.
During the pandemic, she has taken part in a documentary for Al Jazeera’s global networks on how bats and pangolins also need habitat protection, to prevent transmission of diseases to people and well as to safeguard the animals from human illnesses.
Other projects she has completed include a film on elephant trafficking for young audiences, a documentary on migrant workers, and an eight-part Discovery Channel/Animal Planet India series on rare species such as the purple frog, red panda, Himalayan black bear, king cobra, and slender loris.
Vaz expects that, this year, Untamed Planet will film a couple of new films on wildlife conservation for broadcast.
“Besides this, we’re producing a new three-part series on how environment pollution disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities, with support from The National Geographic Society,” she says.
According to Vaz, “We’ll be filming in Mongolia, Bangladesh and India and diving into topics ranging from the fallouts of nuclear power, to the impact of fast fashion on river ecosystems, to how geopolitical factors exacerbate coal pollution in Asia and beyond. The series will be solutions-oriented, and it will cover some uncharted territory.”
A Media Network for the Environment?
What about further into the future?
“I’d like to scale up the work Untamed Planet does over the next decade and also start a new media network in ten to 15 years. My goal is to ensure that environmental storytelling is not relegated to the sidelines but is mainstreamed,” Vaz says.
“I’d also like to actively help more young women from around the world – especially from historically underrepresented communities like mine – to become filmmakers, presenters and storytellers,” she says. “I’m not sure how I’m going to do that yet, but it is something that I really care about.”
This story appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here
For more on environmental animal rights, check out this article on creatures big and small.