A field biologist turned photographer, National Geographic Explorer Ronan Donovan traversed the high Arctic on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in order to document the daily lives of a family of Arctic wolves. In Nat Geo WILD’s three-part special Kingdom of the White Wolf, for which Donovan served as host, co-executive producer and cameraman, the wild Arctic wolves are shown in their natural state, searching for sustenance, playing and bonding. In a terrain so far north that human interaction is negligible, the matriarchal white wolves freely hunt and raise their families. Unaware and unafraid of the dangers posed by humans, the wolf pack allow Donovan to passively observe them and tell their story. Donovan talks to TV Real Weekly about what inspired him to imbed himself inside the white wolves’ world, how climate change could wreak havoc within it and what he hopes viewers can learn about the essential value of predators like wolves—who are not too dissimilar from humans’ beloved domestic dogs—to the ecosystem and wildlife’s wellbeing.
TV REAL: What drew you to follow the white wolves in the Arctic? And how did that journey turn into a three-part special for Nat Geo WILD?
DONOVAN: I had spent a year and a half trying to tell the story of wild wolves at Yellowstone. Ultimately failing at that, I really felt that I wanted to tell a more complete and honest story about wolves in the wild. The only place to do that is this one island in northern Canada. The wolves in Yellowstone are shy; they’re so hard to track around the park. I would only catch a glimpse of them. I never saw them at rest, never saw them play, never saw them really socialize much. There’s this amazing place, way up at the Arctic Circle near the North Pole, where wolves have never had a reason to fear humans. You get unparalleled access to their lives. I wanted to do a magazine story for National Geographic. That was my angle after becoming a photographer after being a biologist for years. My editor at the magazine said, Well, I would love to do a story about these Arctic wolves but we don’t have the budget for this. Television, on the other hand, across the hall, they might. That’s how the conversation started. For me, it was a means to an end to be able to do a magazine story for National Geographic, and then it snowballed into a three-part series for Nat Geo WILD.
TV REAL: What led you to move more towards visual storytelling about wildlife?
DONOVAN: I spent eight years as a biologist, collecting data, contributing to academic papers and realizing that while we need science and we need that education to make decisions, a lot of public policy and national policy is made from public opinion rather than hardcore science. I think we’re all in the midst of dealing with that now, in light of the current administration. So, I transitioned five years ago into communicating science with storytelling. Pretty similar work, I feel, to what I did as a biologist. I’m observing behavior in wildlife; I’m telling the story, but I’m just taking pictures as my data as opposed to data sheets and databases. Now I just tell those stories at Nat Geo, and I feel like my skill set is better suited to that than just going down the hardcore science route.
TV REAL: Do you think that the wild wolves in Kingdom of the White Wolf, despite their many differences from domestic dogs, provide a good entry point for people—in terms of mobilizing empathy for wildlife—because of their similarities?
DONOVAN: Absolutely. Dogs and wolves are so similar in terms of their lineage. That’s obviously where we got domestic dogs from. I think they’re a perfect entry point for people to understand. Anybody that owns a dog—as I did growing up with two golden retrievers, which are pretty far from wolves in many ways. They’re the sweetest family dogs. The relationship I had with them as a small child in Vermont, exploring with them. They feel fear, love, excitement, happiness, all the things their wild relatives, the wolves, do. I think that wolves are a perfect entry point because people can relate to dogs and they interact with them. Once they just make that transitional step that these are the exact same intelligent, loving, caring, doting animals that dogs can be. That’s the same animal in the wild and it gets people to realize that these incredible, wild families exist. These lives, every day, are kind of this epic saga of survival and love for their family and problem-solving. I think a lot of it is pretty enviable, the way that wolves live.
TV REAL: As the effects of climate change continue to manifest, what’s ahead for the Arctic white wolves?
DONOVAN: It’s going to be challenging. One of the threats to the southern populations of Arctic wolves in the [Arctic Archipelago] are these rain-on-snow events that have been happening more frequently in the last 15 years, essentially where you have rain on top of snow and then it freezes into this impenetrable layer of ice, which blocks the grazers—the reindeer, caribou and the muskoxen—from getting to grass to keep strong through the winter. Fifty thousand muskoxen died in a single winter storm. I think it was in 2009. There are only a couple hundred thousand muskoxen in the entire world. And that’s the main resource for the wolves, the wild ones. That is a worry. You could have a single storm event and it could wipe out the entire prey base and change the entire ecosystem. The future of the wolves would be unknown. Another issue is the melting sea ice. Eventually, we could get to the point where there’s no more sea ice—or almost none—in winter. It will mean that these wolves are going to have challenges dispersing, which is obviously an issue for genetic viability.
TV REAL: Can you talk about one moment when you were up in the Arctic that had a particular impact on you?
DONOVAN: I remember traveling with the wolves, one of the first long trips that I went on. The adults took the pups away from the den to go and explore and hunt and we came across this stream—the wolves did, and I’m following them. It was maybe like 20-feet wide, but it was deep and I presumed it was the first encounter the pups—who were about 8 weeks old at that time—the first time they had ever seen a big body of water or had to try to cross it. All of the adults kind of figured out a way to get across—jumped across, swam across. The pups were stuck on the other side and they were whining and pacing and running back and forth. The adults were out of sight. They left. The pups couldn’t figure out what to do. And then one of the females—an adult female, who was a 2-year-old, who was kind of an older sister to the pups—she turned around and came back. She had one eye, so I named her One Eye. [Laughs] She was one of the sweetest with the pups; she was always doting on them. She came back on the other side of this little stream, calling to them, basically encouraging them. Eventually, the biggest male pup jumped in, made it across and the others followed. It was a really sweet moment to see how empathetic One Eye was being, making sure that the pups were comfortable and encouraged, and eventually shepherding them back to the rest of the pack.
TV REAL: What would you like viewers’ main takeaway to be from Kingdom of the White Wolf?
DONOVAN: I want them to realize that wolves are not these vicious killing machines that they’re often portrayed as in movies and popular culture. The snarling wolf is a really classic image that is in our pop culture, fairytales and the way we think of wolves. The reality is they are complex social mammals just like humans; they hunt, they have to succeed in the wild and raise their pups. And [that people] realize that they are also a benefit to the ecosystem. They control the grazers, which are their prey—the deer, the elk, the bison, the muskoxen—as is the case in the Arctic. Without the wolves, the system is out of balance and everything is unhealthier as a result. Yellowstone is a perfect example of how beneficial wolves have been in being brought back into the ecosystem. It was just kind of a reminder to people that animals, especially predators, have a really important role in the sustainability of the ecosystems.
TV REAL: Anything else you’d like to note?
DONOVAN: I hope people fall in love with One Eye like I did! [Laughs] Kingdom of the White Wolf premiered in the U.S. in August on Nat Geo WILD and began rolling out internationally in October.