Surviving the Extreme Earth's Natural Wonders


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Surviving the Extreme

Series looking at places where nature is visible at its most primal, most powerful and most extraordinarily beautiful.


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There are some places on Earth...

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..that simply take your breath away.

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Lush tropical forests.

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Spectacular islands.

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Soaring mountain ranges.

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Or frozen polar worlds.

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And for the people who call these extraordinary places home...

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..survival requires skill...

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..ingenuity....

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-Look there.

-..and bravery.

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Some natural wonders are simply the most extreme places on the planet

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to live.

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In the greatest mountain range in the world,

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a herder must guide his yaks down a treacherous gorge to get to their

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summer pastures.

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Deep in the Amazon Rainforest an indigenous tribe must learn how

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to save their beautiful home from the threat of fire.

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While in the Arctic,

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a grandmother must slip below the sea ice

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to collect food for her family.

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This is the story of these wonders...

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..and of the people...

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..fighting to survive...

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..and even thrive...

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..in these astonishing places.

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The Himalayas, perhaps the most iconic natural wonder of them all.

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It's the greatest mountain range on earth,

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home to the world's highest peak, Mount Everest.

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Formed around 50 million years ago,

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this is one of the youngest ranges on the planet.

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And it's still growing by around 1cm every year.

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The District of Mustang sits high in the Nepalese Himalayas.

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The thin air and extreme terrain make this a harsh place to live.

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And for the herders who call these mountains home,

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yaks are the key to survival.

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49-year-old Thokmay looks after a herd of 200 yaks.

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He is halfway through the spring migration,

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moving the herd from winter to summer pastures.

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Tomorrow, they face the most dangerous part of the journey...

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..getting the herd down a treacherous 700m near-vertical pass.

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Along with his sister-in-law and a small group of fellow herders,

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Thokmay spends all winter high in the mountains

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in sheltered grazing grounds.

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But now it's spring, and with many of the female yaks pregnant

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and food supplies running low, they need to reach fresh pastures

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as quickly as possible.

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That means a gruelling 27 mile trek down 1,500 metres of some of

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the Himalaya's most extreme mountain terrain.

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They are halfway through this year's migration.

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Everyone is exhausted and supplies are running dangerously low.

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And now there's another problem.

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The unpredictable weather meant the

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yaks mated later than usual this year.

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Now they're calving halfway through the migration.

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Thokmay can hardly remember this ever happening before.

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Now calves, some just a day old,

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are having to brave this gruelling journey.

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And tomorrow, they face the biggest challenge of all...

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..the pass.

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The only alternative is a lengthy detour...

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..that could kill half the herd.

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Tomorrow, Thokmay is putting everything he's got on the line.

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Early morning.

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The herders are preparing for their big descent.

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But before they set off, there's some important business to take care of.

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HE CHANTS

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The puja.

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Thokmay carefully unrolls a prayer flag...

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..and stretches it out across the entrance to the gorge

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they're about to enter.

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By marking the gorge with these flags, and offering up prayers,

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he hopes to be blessed with strength and ultimately a safe passage.

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HE CHANTS

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Prayers over,

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time for a leap of faith.

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The first yaks begin to head down the top of the pass.

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It's narrow and very steep...

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..and the ground is incredibly unstable.

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Some of the yaks are reluctant to make the dissent.

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With a little persuasion, Uttam gets them moving down.

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But now a bank of dense fog is closing in.

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Finally, after two hours, all the yaks are through the most dangerous

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part of the gorge.

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But it's taken its toll on some of the herd.

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One of the calves is badly injured.

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But yaks are so valuable, leaving it to die is unthinkable.

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It will have to be carried for the remainder of the journey.

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And they still have to negotiate their way across several miles

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of rough terrain.

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It takes a further three days...

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..of hard trekking.

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But, finally, home is in sight.

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The long migration is over for this year.

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For Uttam,

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it's an emotional reunion after six months away from her young son.

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While the herd enjoy the summer grazing...

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.. Thokmay enjoys some home comforts with his wife and daughter.

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It might be slow, but change is coming to these mountains.

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Thokmay will have to deal with new challenges

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on these gruelling migrations

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if he and his family are to continue living here.

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But in some natural wonders, it's not new challenges,

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but ancient skills that are helping people to survive.

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The Canadian Arctic.

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An extraordinary natural wonder that makes up almost 40%

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of Canada's entire landmass.

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This coastal landscape is frozen solid for over half the year.

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In winter, temperatures average -20 degrees Celsius.

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But, unbelievably, people live here.

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63-year-old Minnie has lived in the remote village of Kangiqsujuaq

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all her life.

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Survival for this community of 700 still means getting most

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of their food from the land.

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And in winter, Minnie knows exactly where to look for it.

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Tomorrow, she's going to show her granddaughter Eva how to find

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a delicacy that is only available for a few days a year.

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But it's very dangerous.

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7am.

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Minnie and her sister Siassie are up early...

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..and heading out onto the sea ice with Eva.

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This is something the women of Kangiqsujuaq

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have done for generations.

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And now, Eva is joining them.

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They are now ten miles out on the frozen sea.

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It might look like there's nothing here, but Minnie knows otherwise.

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It's March, and the spring tides are at their most extreme.

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High and low tides can be up to 60% greater than normal.

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For Minnie, it's the extreme low tide

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that will provide her opportunity.

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As the tide goes out, the frozen sea ice drops by over 15m...

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..and underneath, the sea bed is now fully exposed.

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It's here that Minnie will find her secret larder.

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But it's a race against time.

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The women have just 45 minutes to dig a hole through six feet

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of solid ice...

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..and head under before the tide turns and re-floods the sea bed.

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They're through.

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But with tonnes of constantly shifting ice down there,

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they need to make sure it's safe before they go in.

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They need to look elsewhere.

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But the clock is ticking.

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This one is good.

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But the tide will be back in less than half an hour.

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They need to move fast.

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There are few places on Earth

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where you can walk under the sea like this.

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But this is a perilous place to be.

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The ice above them is no longer supported by sea water...

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..and is extremely unstable.

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The risk of it collapsing at any moment is high.

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But for Minnie, it's worth it.

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She has found the prize she's after.

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Mussels.

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Thousands of them.

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It's a seafood bonanza,

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but Minnie knows how dangerous it is.

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They've been under for 20 minutes,

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and these sea caves will start to re-flood any minute now.

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It's time to go.

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But this is the most dangerous moment for the women.

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As the tide begins to refill these caves with water,

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its movement shifts the huge ice blocks sitting above their heads.

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The risk is that the hole they've entered by closes as the ice moves,

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leaving them trapped underneath.

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They've made it. Just.

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The sea reclaims its secret larder.

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For these mussel gatherers, this dangerous hunt is worth it...

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..and Eva has learned some important skills

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that will last her a lifetime.

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Gathering food like this is a centuries-old tradition

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that provides remote communities like Minnie's with free food.

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But the climate is changing in this natural wonder.

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Change is coming for the Inuit people.

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But, for the time being at least, ancient skills help them to survive.

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But some natural wonders have already changed so much...

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..it's having a devastating impact on the people who live there,

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and the very wonder itself.

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The Amazon basin,

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home to the largest rainforest on Earth.

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Over 380 billion trees...

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..covering around a third of South America's entire landmass.

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A unique natural wonder,

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home to a dizzying array of plants, animals, and insects.

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And where new species are still being discovered.

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But now, large areas of this rainforest are being destroyed...

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..by fire.

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It is the height of the fire season and hundreds are burning

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across the Amazon.

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Edimar Dos Santos Abreu is the chief of the Alianca fire brigade.

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He and a team of just eight firefighters are responsible

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for protecting a part of Brazil's Mato Grosso region.

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It's a huge area, the size of England and Wales.

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Most the of fires they deal with are set by farmers clearing land.

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These fires often rage out of control.

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The fires are now endangering the Xingu National Park.

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Much of this region is made up of virgin rainforest.

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Today, Edimar and his team are flying into the Xingu.

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They're working with a tribe whose very existence is now threatened

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by the fires.

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The Kamaiura are one of 14 indigenous groups who live here.

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They rely on the forest for everything...

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..from the material they use to build their houses

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to the food they eat.

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But now the fires are putting their livelihood at risk...

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..and they don't know how to control them.

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As Edimar flies over the area,

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the sheer scale of the problem is all too clear.

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Deforestation has become so widespread,

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it's upset the delicate microclimate.

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Without the dense canopy of trees,

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humidity across the region has dropped dramatically

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and the ground is now tinderbox dry.

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The Kamaiura have always used fire

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to clear small patches of forest for their crops.

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But now, they spiral out of control.

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Edimar has come to help them.

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Edimar and his team are training the Kamaiura to be firefighters.

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And it's not long before they are all called into action.

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A fire is sweeping through the forest just a few miles away.

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If the wind changes direction, it could threaten the village.

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With the ground this dry, the fire will spread rapidly.

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They create a fire break, clearing a line of land of any

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combustible material.

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This barrier is a simple,

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but effective way of stopping a fire in its tracks.

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It takes several hours...

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..but they eventually manage to get the blaze under control.

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The Kamaiura need to pick up these important firefighting

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skills, and quickly.

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Mato Grosso's fires are getting steadily worse

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with each passing year.

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And as Edimar leaves the Kamaiura,

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a call comes in that another fire has taken hold,

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200 miles away...

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..and it's massive.

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Ten square miles of rainforest is ablaze.

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By the time Edimar and his team are on site,

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it's been burning for 12 hours.

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The sheer scale of the task facing this small team is daunting.

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They can't hope to put a fire this big out,

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but they might be able to stop it from spreading any further.

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They must create a fire break, only this time on a much bigger scale.

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By daybreak, one section of the fire is finally under control.

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The team have managed to stop it spreading any further.

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They have now been working for 14 hours straight.

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But during the height of the fire season, this is a normal shift.

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The rate of change in the forests of the Amazon is sobering...

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..and traditional communities will have to learn new skills if they are

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to continue to live here.

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In one natural wonder, people have done just that...

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..by using technology and learning new skills to survive

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in an area that once supported little life.

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Australia, and in Queensland,

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a natural wonder five times the size of Britain.

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Part of the outback, a huge, unbroken expanse of wilderness.

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One of the planet's great semiarid landscapes.

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Scorched by temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius.

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Only the hardiest species can survive in this searing heat.

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But, in recent years, thanks to technology,

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a new use has been found for this harsh landscape.

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Supersized cattle farms.

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Around 10 million beef cattle roam the outback here.

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But to survive in this hostile terrain,

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the cattle need a huge area to graze across.

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Vegetation is sparse and they must cover enormous distances

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in search of food and water.

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As a result, the cattle farms are vast.

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Rounding up all the animals for market is a massive task,

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and it takes a very special kind of cowboy.

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One that can fly a helicopter.

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But it's dangerous work.

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A lot of unfortunate accidents happen where the pilots

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don't go home to their families,

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and, yeah, we do see a lot of them every season.

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24-year-old Chris is an outback rancher born and bred.

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He has worked as a cowboy since he was 15 years old.

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I've always loved the bush and just the way of life that's out here.

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Still the last frontier in some areas that isn't so developed

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and your job's not your nine to five, it's your life.

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But last year, Chris switched from horses...

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..to a helicopter.

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And today he's facing his biggest test yet...

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..rounding up over 300 head of cattle

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and driving them across the bush to their holding pens ready for market.

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As a rookie, he's mentored by senior heli-musterer Les Payne.

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When we get out there, just follow me around for a while,

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and I'll show you from the air the areas we're going to work.

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Yeah, no worries. Sounds good.

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But in the heli-mustering business, there's little room for error.

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-Good to go?

-Yeah, go on.

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I think it's dangerous in a lot of ways.

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You know, if someone makes a mistake, it comes up pretty quickly.

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There's not much margin for error.

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Do you see where we've got to go up there?

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Yeah, I think I see the dust.

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The first challenge is finding the cattle.

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I've got a view up on this range here.

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Good to go.

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Chris needs to drive the cattle out from under the trees

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and into the open,

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so he performs a manoeuvre most pilots would never normally attempt...

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..dropping from 600m to around 10m in a matter of seconds.

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He's aiming to spook the cattle and flush them out from among the trees.

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-How you doing, mate?

-Yeah, going all right.

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By flying this low and slow,

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heli-musterers put themselves in what they call the dead man's curve.

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It's a risky place to be.

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Being at that height, you've got a lot less time to react to obstacles.

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If something goes wrong, you could be on the ground in just

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a matter of seconds.

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Within a couple of hours,

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they've forced a big herd into the open bush.

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But the day is wearing on.

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There's still five miles to cover

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if they're to reach the holding pen before nightfall.

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They are now joined by a ground support team.

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But as a key part of the muster, Chris and Les must make sure

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the herd are held together and guided home.

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You've got to be a good stop man and understand what's happening.

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The cattle, the landscape - you've got to be able to read that.

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They are making good progress,

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but standing between them and the holding pen is a final obstacle,

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one feared by every heli-musterer.

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Water.

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-Do you see where we got to go up there?

-Yeah, I think I see that water.

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Water is a real hazard.

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At this height, spray is whipped up by the rotary blades

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and could easily be sucked into the fuel intake.

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That would bring Chris's helicopter down instantly.

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When you're above water, and the fact that the water is moving,

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it can disorient pilots.

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And unfortunately, some people can end up diving into the water or

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striking a bit of the water.

0:39:050:39:06

-All good?

-Yeah, no worries here.

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Chris needs to stay this low to keep the herd moving.

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But it's working.

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Bit slow to get going with all that water spreading,

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they're all over the show.

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Finally, they get all the herd safely across the water.

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After hours of flying in gruelling 40 degree heat,

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Chris and Les have made it to the holding pens.

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With heli-muster pilots dying every season in the Australian outback,

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Chris knows that he's chosen a very dangerous way to make a living.

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But, in a landscape this big, it's simply the only way to farm.

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The risks do stack up against you. It makes it quite dangerous.

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You can be quite vulnerable at times,

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but, at the end of the day, a 500 cow is not worth a 250,000 machine.

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Whether or not you have modern technology at your fingertips,

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surviving in some of Earth's natural wonders means adapting

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to rapidly changing environments.

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And that includes spotting a new opportunity in one of the most

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unlikely places.

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The Siberian tundra,

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a natural wonder shaped by the winds and glaciers of the last Ice Age.

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It stretches over a million square miles across northern Russia.

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And Yakutia, in the eastern corner of this region,

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is one of its most remote parts.

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In winter, it's a permanently frozen wilderness...

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..blasted by Arctic winds where almost nothing survives.

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But, in summer, this landscape is completely transformed.

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The frozen tundra becomes a vast, colourful heathland...

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..and the landscape is peppered with a magnificent tapestry

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of lakes and pools.

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Anton lives in Moscow...

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..but he was born and raised in this wilderness.

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Every summer, he returns and reunites with old friends...

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..to search for buried treasure.

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Mammoth tusks.

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But finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

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Anton and the team have been here for a week,

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living almost entirely off the land.

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They've been scouring vast areas of this tundra

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looking for mammoth tusks.

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But the season is now coming to an end

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as the Siberian winter approaches.

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The key to their search is a layer of frozen subsoil

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known as permafrost.

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Stretching up to 1,500 metres down,

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it has existed for thousands of years.

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But, in recent times,

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rising temperatures have meant that more and more of it is thawing

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in the summer months.

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And the remains of mammoths that have been buried deep

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in the permafrost for thousands of years are now being exposed,

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including their tusks.

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With the sale of ivory banned across much of the world,

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mammoth-tusk hunting is controversial.

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Many believe it encourages the global trade in ivory.

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But the reality is, Anton's search is legal.

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There's a lot of ivory out there...

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..somewhere.

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Early morning...

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..and after a quick breakfast,

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the mammoth hunters begin their search.

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They start by looking along the banks of the river,

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beneath the permafrost layers.

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Anton hopes that the melting permafrost may have exposed tusks

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or caused them to collapse into the bank.

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Before long, one of the team spots something on the river bank.

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The team carefully excavate the area.

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It's a mammoth tusk, and a decent-sized one.

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But it's not in good condition.

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Mammoth tusks come in three grades,

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determined by how well-preserved the ivory is.

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This is grade three, the lowest quality.

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It's still worth around 2,000...

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..but to make this trip worthwhile,

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Anton needs to collect at least 30 times this amount.

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And as mammoth remains are often found in groups,

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he's confident they'll find more here.

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He decides to adopt a different approach.

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Diving.

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He wants to check in the deeper parts of the river.

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As the river banks erode,

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Anton knows that tusks are sometimes exposed and fall into the water.

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Diving in fast-flowing water chilled by freezing blocks of permafrost

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is tough work.

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Anton tries to sort through the silt, feeling for a tusk.

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But, with almost zero visibility, conditions today are terrible.

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After three hours in the freezing water, and nothing to show for it,

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they call off the search.

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Back to plan A.

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Just downstream, they spot something poking out of the water.

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This time, it looks like it has freshly fallen from the permafrost.

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The quality looks excellent.

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It's not as big as the tusk they found previously,

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but if it's confirmed to be grade one,

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it'll be worth around 5,000.

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They need to find far more like this to make the trip worthwhile.

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Much of this ivory is carved and sold in China.

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But although the Chinese have recently banned the sale of elephant ivory...

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..the trade in mammoth ivory remains legal.

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Life in many of Earth's natural wonders is changing faster

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than ever before.

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And in order to survive, people are having to adapt.

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For some, it means developing new skills

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to deal with very new problems.

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While for others it means passing on ancient skills

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to put food on the table.

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But as these natural wonders continue to change,

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there is little doubt that people will need as much ingenuity, skill,

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and courage as ever

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if they are to go on living in these extraordinary places they call home.

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The team who headed out to the Canadian Arctic to capture the lives

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of the Inuit mussel hunters, knew they would face a lot of challenges.

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The trip was planned to coincide with the spring tides

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that are the key to the hunt.

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They would be at their most extreme in a few days' time.

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But the first challenge the team faced was adapting to Arctic

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winter conditions.

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Just moving around is an issue here.

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I'm still in one piece!

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HE CHUCKLES

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LAUGHTER

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The weather is unpredictable and progress is painfully slow.

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Visibility is pretty, pretty poor today.

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I want to try and get a reveal shot of the town.

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The team are here for just a few days.

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If conditions remain this bad, they'll have no chance of getting

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out on the sea ice to film the sequence they've come to capture.

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I can't really see any definition at the moment.

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This is a white frame.

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They need to hope for better weather tomorrow.

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Mussel harvest day...

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Oh, we can go though, it's fine. You guys can go.

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..and the weather is perfect.

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The crew follow the women out into the bay, ahead of low tide.

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It'll be at its lowest in just two hours.

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The team must first find a safe spot to head under the ice.

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Whilst the women dig their hole,

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the crew need a parallel one so they can capture all the action

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from below.

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I hope it's strong.

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Despite the fixer's reassuring words,

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it's very unstable under the ice pack,

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and only two of the crew can go under.

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The series director and cameraman will be on their own.

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The tide is now fully out...

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..and the clock is ticking.

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We've just headed under for about half an hour, 45 minutes maybe,

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to shoot the sequence that we need.

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It's very cramped in here, everybody is kind of stooping down,

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it's not unlike potholing.

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They have a very short window to get all the action

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before the tide returns.

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But as soon as they're in, Will has a problem.

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Just got in, what we're trying to do is to acclimatise the camera.

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So we've been wrapping the cameras in heat warmers so they

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don't steam up, cos outside is -20, in here's four.

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We've got big condensation problems, so we're trying to find a position

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-where we're not dripping, so we've got a nice dry bit here.

-23 minutes.

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They need to start filming.

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I'm coming in here.

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As the women start collecting mussels...

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..the cramped and slippery conditions

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make it hard for everyone.

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-Whoa, you all right? You OK?

-Yes.

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How much time do they think we have?

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I'm slightly worried about the time.

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The women head deeper into the caves and Will has to follow them.

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Switch lenses, Will!

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Russell has to shout his directions to him, which creates a problem.

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I have signal again, I'm rolling.

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Minnie was telling me off there for shouting because,

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when you shout, it reverberates against the ice wall and makes

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the ice pack quite unstable.

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Which is obviously bad news, so lesson learned.

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With the water coming in fast, it's time to leave.

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Come on, Will, let's go.

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OK, guys, for safety we're going to come out here. Can you help me out?

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Whoo!

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Will is the last one out.

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That was absolutely mental.

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It's flat-out crawling in water with the ice against your head.

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Eva took me down some mad narrow chambers.

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She is one brave woman.

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Absolutely amazing.

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Everybody is soaking wet, so the plan now is to leg it home

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and get some... Get some dry clothes

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and some hot tea inside us.

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What a great session.

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It's been tough work,

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but the Earth's Natural Wonders team have managed to capture

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a food-harvesting tradition...

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..that is practised in few other places on the planet.

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Next time...

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In many natural wonders...

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..it's animals that can make the difference between life...

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..and death,

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as people struggle to survive in some of the planet's

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most extraordinary places.

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Earth's Natural Wonders are parts of the natural world that nature has carved on such a scale, that they beggar belief - vast mountain ranges, impenetrable rainforests and dazzling tropical islands. Places where nature is visible at its most primal, most powerful, and most extraordinarily beautiful. Survival for human beings can be an incredible challenge.

The Natural Wonders are epic in scale: often rugged, possessing an awe-inspiring beauty. But the factors that create these stunning landscapes, can also present enormous challenges for the people who call them home. The extremes of nature encountered in many of Earth's natural wonders, can threaten human survival, or make human lives extraordinarily demanding. Yet human beings have devised remarkable ways to survive and even thrive in many of these places. Now these Natural Wonders are undergo all sorts of changes, and human survival techniques must also evolve

In the high Himalaya, yak-herder Thokmay Lowa and his small group steer his herd through one of the region's extreme mountain passes. For several months of the year, these herders live isolated lives away from their families, before returning in spring to the summer pastures. Their journey is fraught with hazards, as the terrain they must cross is highly treacherous. With baby yaks being born later than usual this year, some are only a day old when they must tackle the pass.

In the Canadian Arctic, traditional Inuit communities still forage for much of their food. 63-year-old Minnie Nappaaluk and her granddaughter Eva embark on one of the most hazardous expeditions for food - the mussel harvest. Winters here are so extreme the surface of the sea freezes, and when the spring tides go out, the sea ice is suspended above the seabed. Just as Inuit women have done for centuries, Minnie and Eva cut a hole through the sea ice and venture below this shifting, dangerous ice-layer to collect their bounty.

Some Natural Wonders are threatened as never before - nowhere more so than the Brazilian Amazon. In the Mato Grosso, as a result of deforestation, the region's microclimate has changed. Now fires rage out of control in the dry season. Not only do these destroy wild habitats - they also threaten the very existence of the indigenous peoples still living traditional lives in the rainforest. Now, one project aims to tackle these blazes by teaching indigenous peoples how to effectively fight the fires. It's a daunting and dangerous task, but the continuance of their traditional way of life depends upon it.

In the blistering Australian Outback, cattle ranching requires a lot of space. The only way to efficiently round up the herds on these vast farms is through the use of helicopter cowboys like Chris Weyand. It's a dangerous job - he must fly low and slowly over difficult terrain, and every year some pilots are killed. But thanks to the efforts of people like Chris, farming on this scale in the Outback is now possible.

Deep in the Siberian interior, survival is tough. But climate change is opening up a new niche for the human inhabitants of this region - mammoth tusk collection. The tusks have been locked in the Siberian Permafrost for thousands of years, but as the climate changes and the permafrost starts to melt more each summer, it is giving up this unexpected bounty. These tusks are made of ivory, and can sell for thousands of dollars. It is a controversial activity - conservationists argue that it encourages the ivory trade. But for now at least this is a legal pursuit.