‘Racing Extinction’ sounds the alarm for vanishing species

This 2014 photo provided by Discovery Channel shows Shawn Heinrichs with a manta ray in Lamakera from "Racing Extinction," in Indonesia. The film airs on Dec. 2, 2015, in more than 240 countries and territories in a single day. (David Doubilet/Discovery Channel via AP)
This 2014 photo provided by Discovery Channel shows Shawn Heinrichs with a manta ray in Lamakera from "Racing Extinction," in Indonesia. The film airs on Dec. 2, 2015, in more than 240 countries and territories in a single day. (David Doubilet/Discovery Channel via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Discovery Channel’s “Racing Extinction” debuts worldwide, the documentary’s creators will be looking for more than ratings and critical reaction. It’s action they’re after.

Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) says the film is intended as a call to arms to prevent a grim future for Earth and its steadily vanishing species.

“The loss of biodiversity will be unimaginably horrific for future generations if we don’t do something about it now,” Psihoyos said. “My intention in making the film is not just to create the awareness, but to create a campaign, a movement” that inspires change.

The film’s rollout matches Psihoyos’ ambitions for it.

“Racing Extinction,” airing 9 p.m. EST Wednesday in the United States and in local prime time in 200-plus countries and TV markets, required some 50 versions to accommodate varying languages and other needs, said Discovery documentaries chief John Hoffman.

“If we can’t stand up and say that we are a network that must tell stories about how we are putting the health of the planet at great risk, who else should?” he said.

Hoffman, at Discovery for a year after a long tenure at HBO shepherding well-regarded documentaries, says more such environmental programs are planned. He declined to put a price tag on “Racing Extinction,” which Discovery bought after its Sundance film festival screening earlier this year.

Its telecast coincides with this week’s United Nations conference in Paris on climate change. That’s one of the threats to life on land and sea that the film, paced like a thriller, explores with help from experts and activists.

One dire warning comes from Stuart Pimm, a Duke University professor of conservation ecology, who says that species are becoming extinct at a rate a thousand times faster than would happen naturally, without human influence.

“It’s like we’re living in the age of the dinosaurs, but we can do something about it,” Psihoyos says.

His 2009 documentary, “The Cove,” depicted how Japanese fishermen hunt dolphins for their meat, considered a delicacy. “Racing Extinction” paints with a much broader brush but retains a focus on the sea.

“The world can’t live with an unhealthy ocean. Plankton generates over half the oxygen we breathe,” but faces destruction from the increasing concentration of carbon in the planet’s waters, Psihoyos said in an interview earlier this year.

Rising levels of dissolved carbon dioxide are jeopardizing the survival of sea organisms including corals and shellfish and as a result could “substantially alter” ocean biodiversity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says in its description of climate change indicators.

In the Discovery film, an underwater photographer compares a photo taken of a barrier reef in 1960 to one that was shot in 1989, showing the once-beautiful area now gone “to hell,” as he puts it.

The outcome of other, more immediate human assaults on marine life are graphically illustrated, along with the efforts of those determined to document and expose them.

One sequence shows thousands of shark fins, especially valued for soup in Asia, spread across a rooftop at a Hong Kong warehouse. At another business, described by Psihoyos as the “Wal-Mart for the endangered species trade in Hong Kong,” a worker contends that every shark part is harvested and that no shark, contrary to claims by what he calls “greenies,” is left to die in the ocean.

That contrasts with underwater footage of a maimed shark off the coast of Indonesia, its fins sliced off and struggling to swim.

As disheartening as such images are, “Racing Extinction” manages to be exhilarating as well. One sequence offers breathtaking images of endangered animals projected onto landmark New York buildings made into theater screens for mass enlightenment.

A companion effort, #StartWith1Thing, is aimed at getting people to make a single change to help protect the world, said actor Fisher Stevens (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” ”The Blacklist”), a producer on “The Cove” and “Racing Extinction.”

“If you connect emotionally to the characters or species in the film, it’s going to affect you and make you question certain things you do in your life … even if it’s just not eating a hamburger or volunteering for a day” with an environmental group, he said.

A crucial step, he suggests, is realizing what confronts the planet and its inhabitants, humans included.

“Part of the big problem, and it’s the reason we make these movies, is that people don’t really know (the situation) or think it doesn’t affect them. But the truth is that everything is affecting them,” Stevens said.

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Online:

http://www.racingextinction.com

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Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/lynn-elber and she can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber

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