Header images courtesy of Kieran O'Donovan and Jamie McPherson (Silverback Films; Netflix)
Are you in desperate need of something more fulfilling to watch than Korean dramas and Love Island? How about something wild that will transport you (in spirit, at least) to the great outdoors?
We’re still lamenting the fact that cinematic gems such as the Planet Earth, Blue Planet, and Life docuseries have been taken off of Netflix Hong Kong, but it doesn’t mean we can’t still explore the wild places of the world from the safety of our couches. Here are the top 10 documentaries about nature and animals to watch on Netflix!
Yes, we’ve all already seen animals going about their lives on the telly or in zoos, but when night falls, things are less well-known. Under the cover of darkness, a whole new world of animal interactions occur while we sleep. This documentary does a good job of peeling back that veil of mystery, exploring how nocturnal creatures from bats to lions survive and thrive after the sun goes down.
Armed with technology far more sophisticated than just heat-sensitive infrared cameras, Night on Earth shows us an almost unrecognisable and alien landscape that animals inhabit, with the subjects drenched in unfamiliar light and colour saturation. The whole effect is quite haunting and otherworldly—definitely a step up from your bog-standard looks at animal life.
Thank god we’ve still got something left by David Attenborough on Netflix Hong Kong! The makers of Planet Earth and Blue Planet returned last year to take us through a range of different biological realms: from wolves living within Chernobyl’s forests to wildebeest migrations in Africa.
Instead of just focusing on animals like before, the eight-part series which took more than four years to shoot places a strong emphasis on how humans fit into Earth’s delicate ecosystem along with other animals. Visually stunning and entertaining, Our Planet was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards last year. If you’ve blasted through it and want more, there is also a behind-the-scenes film to get lost in.
Despite the Disney-sounding title, Naledi is a well-made little documentary about the eponymous elephant and the people who help her, as well as elephant conservation in general. Get sucked into the story of how caretakers struggle to look after Naledi and keep her alive after her mother dies from illness, leaving her orphaned and depressed.
If viewers haven’t yet gleaned from other documentaries that elephants are incredibly intelligent creatures, this film will hammer home the point. Emphasising their majestic and family-oriented natures, Naledi also highlights the importance of protecting this endangered species, with anecdotal showings of how efforts are being made.
Exotic jungle fowl really have some loony mating rituals, and though similar footage has been screened as part of other works before, Dancing with the Birds focuses on birds of paradise from New Guinea, each more elaborately feathered than the last, and how they act when they want to attract females.
Aside from their insane names—which makes us wonder what the people who made them up were inhaling—these horny birds put on an impeccably arresting show which really makes you marvel at all the things you didn’t know about in this world. We must admit we’re absolute suckers for watching brightly coloured feathery friends throw it back while Stephen Fry narrates the goings-on with an audible twinkle in his eye and big-band old-school jazz plays in the background.
Sharks are one of the most fascinating creatures in the sea—did you know that their skin is essentially made of “thousands of minute teeth coated with enamel”?—and this documentary produced with BBC Earth pays tribute to these top predators. Peek into the lives of a shark that is blind and has metabolism so slow that it can live for two centuries, the one shark species that can walk on land, and others that don’t even look anything like sharks at all.
Beautifully shot by a crew who went to great pains to capture these magnificent animals in all their natural glory, sometimes the shots get so up-close-and-personal that it sends a genuine thrill of terror down your spine.
Go on an adventure with Bear Grylls in this interactive show, where you get to decide what he does! Should Grylls cross that gorge by floating across on a log or swinging across on a vine? Where should he sleep at night: in a self-made shelter or under a rock? Should he risk eating the bug or the mushroom?
Some choices will lead to disaster, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether to play it safe or forego a bit of common sense for more risk and often a better pay off. (Personally, we like to try and kill Bear Grylls off.) Sure, it’s quite dramatised, but if regular documentaries aren’t immersive enough for you, then You vs Wild will do the trick.
This Oscar-nominated documentary tells the story of the people dedicating their lives to preserving the Virunga National Park and the mountain gorillas who reside it in—the last group of its kind in the world. Meanwhile there is a power struggle to control natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and this documentary’s investigation exposes how naturally bountiful sites such as Virunga become corrupted political battlegrounds. This definitely isn’t a feel-good film, but a compelling and important piece of investigative journalism that deserves to be seen.
Leonardo DiCaprio is the executive producer of this documentary which exposes the corruption that drives global ivory trafficking, unflinchingly bringing to light the horrors of elephant tusk poaching. The filmmakers went deep undercover as poachers to find out why and how the slaughter of African elephants remains such a prominent issue.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not really into elephants (what’s wrong with you though?); you won’t be able to walk away without some heartstring tugging and being filled with a sense of righteous indignation. It’s also films like these that make it clear how selfish and insidious human beings are.
James Balog’s terrifying time-lapsed footage of glacier damage in Chasing Ice had us channelling Greta Thunberg energy way back in 2012. He then returned to deal out another dose of climate anxiety in Chasing Coral, turning the focus onto our oceans. Carbon emissions and pesticide poisoning are just some of the environmental havoc being wreaked on coral reefs, resulting in irreversible bleaching and damage.
Global warming has tangible, quantifiable impacts, and some of the world’s most incredible natural wonders are part of the cost being paid. The documentary shows our reefs in breathtaking beauty—beautiful but incredibly sad—and it’s hard to look away or ignore the sobering call to consciousness.
This is the one title on this list that’s unlike the others, because Tiger King tells the story of Joe Exotic, a self-proclaimed “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet” who has amassed one of the largest collections of big cats in America. If you’re a documentary buff like us, you’ll recognise Exotic from Louis Theroux’s excellent documentary America’s Most Dangerous Pets back in 2011.
Exotic ends up embroiled in a murder-for-hire plot, and the whole thing is a crazy ride, a morally and ethically questionable mess, that makes for very compulsive watching—the way you can’t tear your gaze from a car crash, only here the car has crashed in slow motion into a military tank stuffed with explosives and both are careening into an active volcano. While the focus is not so much on the felines that live in Exotic’s menagerie, they still feature strongly in the storyline; something you’ll end up feeling sad about if you’ve a heart at all. Makes sense to watch something batshit to match the world at large right now!