In The Operatives, eco-warrior Pete Bethune leads a team of military elite (including a former U.S. Navy SEAL, former U.S. Marine and former U.S. Reconnaissance Marine), as they travel to the furthest parts of the world to expose those suspected of endangering our wildlife and environment. OHSOGRAY talked with Bethune, who some may remember from the dramatic showdown with Japanese whalers on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, about shining a light on the threats to our environment. Here is part one of the interview.

The Operatives airs Sundays at 10pm on Pivot.

After your experience on Whale Wars, were you hesitant to join another reality television program?

I guess, my work didn’t start in the sense of a reality show, like with Whale Wars, I was very lucky to be part of a pivotal period and the journey to stopping whaling in Antarctica. […] What happened after that was I end up in prison in Japan as part of my protest activity. They locked me up in a maximum security ward for 5 months. I had a lot time through that to go thinking about things, and thinking about what I wanted to do. Marine conservation, and conservation in general, had kind of gotten into my blood. I’ve got a way to get rid of it. I spent all my prison trying to think about what is the best way that I can contribute to conservation efforts around the world. One of the things I realized from Whale Wars is that TV is a very powerful medium in terms of influencing public opinion. So I decided to try and make a television show about conservation. But it’s a difficult subject to actually get on the main stream television networks.

I met with a Discovery Channel executive once and he said to me, “Pete, if I make a straight conservation show, the ratings will tank.” So that sort of the challenge we faced; how do you make a show that highlights these very important conservation issues, but also rates well. The idea that came from that was, what if you had a form of really capable former military guys who highly skilled guys, and you undertake generally difficult missions in conservation. So I put together the first mission…which was one to Namibia where we broke into a diamond mine and covertly filmed the clubbing of baby seals – inside this diamond mining facility. It became the pilot episode. It sort of made me realize there was a really good show to be had in this–to have these hard core guys who go out and do difficult missions that are not fake, we do genuinely get placed into some difficult situations on these missions. Go out and tell a story of what’s happening out there. The result, a few years later, was The Operatives.

Why do you think people are hesitant to watch a show about conservation? Do you think it’s because they feel overwhelmed and helpless when watching or do you think they just don’t to know about the various environmental problems?

It’s a combination of things. People only have a limited amount of spare time. We’re competing against something like–they might want to watch The Game of Thrones or they might want to watch The Walking Dead. There’s so many great shows out there competing for people’s time. For you to make a conservation show, in some ways you’re trying to compete against those shows. So if you just have a show that just has dreadful stories of horrible things happening around the globe, I wouldn’t watch it either. I think part of it is we’re competing against some very well-funded shows with really strong story lines, so you’ve got to compete against that. Then also, I think people are mostly kind of happy with their existence. They’re happy. They work 9 to 5, go home, watch telly for a couple hours, then they have their car payments…their mortgage payments…. Something like conservation might sort of suggest to them that hey, maybe we need to change or we should think about these other things. And for a lot of people, it doesn’t come so easily. So I think the reason a straight conservation show doesn’t rate very well, there’s multiple things that might make that happen. But it’s interesting where if you have a television show that has lots of fluffy animals, for example, it does rate. So look at the David Attenborough shows and how successful he’s been. He’s had extraordinary ratings on some of those shows. But as soon as it becomes a conservation show, it tends to change–so we’re very conscious on our show that we need to take people on this journey. At the end of that hour, I want people to think, “Man that was a really cool show. What I just watched.” In some ways, I consider it conservation by stealth. At the end of the show, I do want them to care about the forests in Indonesia that are all being burned down. But to do that I’ve had to take them on this journey.

People could actually make good decisions in their daily lives to help the situation in Indonesia by not purchasing products containing palm oil. So The Operatives may be able to provide some education that gives people a means to effectuate change.

In some ways, that’s where Pivot has been a great partner for us on the show. They’ve got this online portal called Take Part and they encourage people to sign petitions or take a pledge not to purchase palm oil, for example. I suggest most people have no idea how prevalent palm oil is through their every day life: in their foods, in their hand soaps, in their shampoos, and in their cosmetics. Your average American consumes a huge amount of palm oil each year, but most of them aren’t really aware of that. Take Part has been a fantastic partner in terms of taking an episode that we might make and then running some form of online petition or pledge or…trying to take it further and encouraging Americans to sort of get involved […] a good example was after the seal clubbing episode aired, Take Part ran a petition encouraging people to sign this thing and was asking for Namibia to stop the seal clubbing. We ended up, we combined it with a second petition, we had over 200,000 signatures. A couple months ago, I visited Namibia, handed this petition and it got presented to their Parliament. I’m not saying that on its own is enough to stop the Namibian government from halting the seal clubbing industry, but it certainly got their government talking about it. They had a press conference. We had every media organization in Namibia […] They are talking about it. For the first time, you’re seeing the government saying–well, we’re going to consider this. They saw there was like 140 different countries had signed that petition–people from 140 different countries. Stuff like that does matter to these governments. People have a role to play. I think Take Part and Pivot have been fantastic partners on the show for us in doing that.

There was a pretty big outrage this summer with the killing of Cecil the Lion. There were also reports of the disconnect between the perception of hunting endangered species outside of Zimbabwe versus within the country, where it can be allowed pursuant to a license. Do you see a disconnect between how local people see environmental problems and how they’re viewed in developed countries?

Absolutely. There’s a disconnect. We saw it in Indonesia and in the Philippines where we filmed series two. To take as an example, their treatment of animals is, in my mind, is quite disgraceful. But locally they don’t see an issue with it. In one example, there was a guy who was on a motor bike and he had forty chickens, all alive, and had them tied together in groups of six, and he would drag them three on each side of his handlebars – sort of hanging over, then another six beside that, and another six. And some were draped over the sort of bar down the middle that had their heads scraping on the ground. And he’s driving along with these things and he looks at me filming him and he has a laugh and points like his hand like a gun at me and sort of shoots. Their perception of animal rights, for example, is like disgraceful in my mind, but if I show any American that footage, some of them would actually vomit, it’s that bad. So there is a disconnect…well maybe it’s difference–what we would find acceptable and what other people would find acceptable. Part of our job is to say, hey, this is what’s happening in these countries; while a lot of local people might think it’s ok, if a lot of foreigners think that it’s not ok and the government can become aware of that, then you can start to hopefully make some inroads. There is this difference in what society will accept. Different countries and different demographics, if you like, that varies from place to place, country to country, culture to culture. I believe the West has a role to play in this. In the West, we’re not starving for food. Our struggles, when you compare them with say Africa and Asia, are struggles are pretty easy in many ways. It gives us time, to go thinking about and working on things like conservation, animal rights and these things. I believe we have a role in the West to go to these other countries and say, hey we’d like to come help you with this issue or that issue.

On example was the Philippines where we linked up–there’s a big industry in the Philippines where they smuggle sea turtle and pangolin out of Asia-sorry, out of the Philippines and over to China. But they didn’t have the local resource–the government was not really too committed to it…So we went in there and said, man this is quite an important issue, we’ll help you. We helped them with surveillance, we brought in some night vision and a whole lot of gear. Gathered enough evidence that allowed us to get a search warrant. It was really interesting, the actual guys who were doing the patrols, they care immensely about the loss of habitat, the loss of the pangolin, the loss of the sea turtles. But the average Filipino couldn’t care less. It’s just not on their radar. They’re busy trying to put food on their family’s table, to care about a sea turtle off shore is not really on their radar. So sometimes you’ll find these individuals within a country that are very passionate about it. Sometimes it might be an NGO, sometimes it’s a local government agency, so we try and partner with those organizations to help them out and hopefully tell a story about what’s happening to show the rest of the world what’s going on.