Hosted by Barack Obama, Netflix Series Explores National Parks

Documentary series highlights natural spots and wildlife around the world.

guanacos in Chilean Patagonia
Guanacos in Chilean Patagonia.

"Our Great National Parks" / Netflix

There are hippos bodysurfing in Gabon and critically endangered lemurs leaping across huge chasms in western Madagascar. Mongooses fling giant snails at rocks in order to get meals and a newly discovered hammerhead worm in Indonesia turns inside out to devour its prey.

These wildlife scenes were captured over more than 1,500 days of filming for the new Netflix series, “Our Great National Parks.” Over three years, the production team launched 33 expeditions, exploring national parks in 10 countries on five continents.

The five-episode series is narrated by former President Barack Obama, who established and added protections for more than 550 million acres of public lands and waters in the U.S. That’s more than any other president in history.

Executive producer James Honeyborne and series producer Sophie Todd spoke to Treehugger about the idea behind the series, how they chose locations, and some of their favorite moments of filming.

Treehugger: Where did the idea for the program come from?

James Honeyborne: The formation of national parks has been one of the greatest global conservation success stories of the past century. We wanted to focus the series on the importance of these wild spaces, especially at a time when the pressures on wilderness and wildlife have never been greater.  

Sophie Todd: We wanted to create a series that celebrated the role that parks have played in conservation and to share just how important they have become. Nature exists now where we allow it—and protecting wild space is key to the health of our planet. Trees, plants, wildlife, and people are interconnected and the more we protect, the more we benefit. 

President Obama "Our Great National Parks"

"Our Great National Parks" / Netflix

How did you choose the parks you featured? Was it hard to limit your coverage to just a few?

Honeyborne: We deliberately chose regions that President Obama had personal connections to and ultimately chose the parks featured in each episode for the unique story they could tell. Patagonia is about the importance of rewilding and reconnecting, for example; Tsavo highlights the size of parks; Monterey presents a great example of people and parks thriving side-by-side; and Leuser is about the enduring importance of rainforests as hot spots for biodiversity. We selected locations on different continents because we wanted the series to reflect the global nature of this story.  

It was difficult to limit it to a few—there are over 4,000 national parks globally! 

Todd: We also wanted to reflect the diversity of national parks—they cover a huge variety of habitats including forest, grassland, desert, and mountains. We also included Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as protecting the oceans is just as key to our future—it’s 30 this year and even in that short time its creation has transformed the waters protected by it. 

elephants in "Our Great National Parks"
Elephants in Gunung Leuser, Indonesia.

"Our Great National Parks" / Netflix

What was the research and filming like for each park? Did you go in with general ideas of what you’d want to cover or did you find surprising gems?

Honeyborne: We worked closely with Park authorities, rangers, scientists, and local guides to create an authentic, immersive experience. We scripted and storyboarded each film, as we always do, but nature turned up a few surprises. We recorded new behaviors with sea otters (Monterey) and mongooses (Tsavo), for example, and discovered what’s believed to be a new species of hammerhead worm in Gunung Leuser.

Todd: Our teams included a lot of people from each country or area and they brought so much to our understanding of these places. We’ve tried to weave that knowledge and experience into each episode so that even if you never visit a national park, you can experience being there.

Von der Decken's sifaka lemur in western Madagascar
Von der Decken's sifaka lemur in western Madagascar.

"Our Great National Parks" / Netflix

What were some of your favorite moments?

Honeyborne: Hippos body surfing in the waves in Gabon. 

Todd: One of the most special moments for me was the epic journey of the Decken's sifaka (lemurs) across the razor-sharp, rocky interior of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in Madagascar. The pinnacles are razor-sharp with huge gaping chasms—the journey of this wonderful family to find food is both dramatic and heartwarming. 

How did President Obama get involved? Did he offer any input, either in choosing locations or in what you covered when you got somewhere?

Honeyborne: We connected with President Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground through Netflix. They suggested we partner given the ongoing work we’re doing with Wild Space productions. We also knew President Obama had protected more public lands and waters than any other U.S. president in history, so it seemed a very natural fit for us to work together in celebrating wilderness and wildlife by framing a series around national parks.  

We collaborated with the team at Higher Ground—from development through finishing the series—and many of the locations were chosen because of a personal connection to the president. 

Todd: The former president's autobiographies also informed our understanding, both in terms of the places that have been meaningful in his life and at the same time the origins of his personal connection to the natural world. 

Australia's Kakadu National Park
Australia's Kakadu National Park.

"Our Great National Parks" / Netflix

Did the former president share any stories of why the parks are so important to him personally and to his administration?

Honeyborne: He has a long track record of conservation during his administration. On a personal level, we know that he and Michelle Obama passed through Monterey on their honeymoon, where they were fortunate to see a whale breach. He was also born and spent the first years of his life in Hawaii, so that location is very personal to him. 

Were there any moments left on the cutting-room floor that you really wish you had room for?

Todd: There were certainly other parks I’d love to have included. There’s a wonderful world of national parks out there!

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