On an early morning in southern Chile’s rugged Laguna San Rafael National Park, a Netflix series film crew caught a rare and unusual sight: a kodkod wandering through the camp where they were eating breakfast. Kodkods are the smallest species of wild cats in the Americas; approximately the same size as a tiny house cat. They’re also incredibly uncommon to see in the wild, let alone film. While equally active both day and night, these spotted felines—known for their reddish-gray to dusky brown fur, bushy tail and big feet—are both secretive and solitary, generally spending their days hidden in dense forests away from predators, before venturing out under darkness. But since the bulk of visitors to Laguna San Rafael can view the park’s biggest attraction, San Rafael Glacier, via boat, they often never touch land, meaning kodkods here tend to find humans more of a curiosity than a danger.
You can see the kodkod, and other fascinating fauna, for yourself in Our Great National Parks, a new documentary series that premiered on Netflix, April 13, 2022. The five-part program delves into some of the world’s most wondrous national parks, the magnificent landscapes they encompass and the wildlife that thrives within them.
Our Great National Parks
Through breathtaking cinematography, the stories of surprising and unfamiliar creatures, and endlessly jaw-dropping scenery, Our Great National Parks captures exactly what makes these preserved natural treasures so amazing, not to mention unbelievably important—for everything from the wildlife that resides there to Earth’s ecosystem as a whole. “What began as a common desire to secure wilderness for people to enjoy,” says former U.S. President Barack Obama, referring to the global national park movement, “has become a worldwide movement to preserve these areas for future generations.”
Obama actually serves as an executive producer on the series. He’s also its narrator, taking viewers on a spectacular journey across five distinct continents to visit some of the world’s most remarkable national parks and see up close the incredible array of wildlife—from the lemurs of Madagascar to Costa Rica’s sloths, which have entire micro-kingdoms living in their fur—that calls these places home.
“The more isolated the national park,” says Obama, “the more unusual its creatures.”
Obama’s connection to the series makes perfect sense. During his eight-year tenure, the 44th president did more for conservation than any of his predecessors. According to a 2017 BBC article, “Mr. Obama has protected more natural habitat than any president in American history, exceeding the 290 million acres by the founder of US National Parks, Theodore Roosevelt.” Among his many accolades: protecting nearly 550 million acres of habitat, from Arctic tundra to coral reef; creating the two largest marine reserves on Earth (which included quadrupling the size of Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument) and the world’s second-largest desert reserve—made up of the more than 1.8-million-acre Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments; and adding 22 new parks to the U.S. national park system.
Looking at nature and its wild residents with humor, wonder, and optimism, each episode of the Our Great National Parks series delves into the extraordinary worlds that make up our preserved landscapes. Episode one, “A World of Wonder,” offers a general overview of the world’s national parks, including Japan’s Yakushima National Park—home to the rare Erabu flying fox—and northern Australia’s Kakadu National Park, habitat for thousands of saltwater crocodiles.
The next four episodes focus on a distinct location. There’s Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, a 5,308-square mile protected area (the largest in Kenya) teeming with elephants, rhinos, buffalo and other wildlife that live among savanna grasslands and alongside riverbeds. California’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a protected and extremely productive coastal environment that features vast kelp forests and one of the largest underwater canyons in North America, not to mention marine mammals ranging from orca whales to elephant seals. And the rich tropical rainforest of Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park, one of only two remaining habitats for the tree-dwelling Sumatran orangutans, and the only remaining home for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and the Sumatran rhinoceros—the smallest of the world’s living rhinos.
Our Great National Parks’ second episode puts the spotlight on Patagonia, the 409,500-square-mile pristine and wild region lining the southernmost tip of South America, stretching between Chile and Argentina. Chilean Patagonia is home to 24 unique national parks known for their dramatic Andean peaks, icy glaciers, emerald lakes and maze-like fjords. It’s also a Nat Hab favorite. Our 10-day Patagonia Wilderness & Wildlife Explorer takes a deep dive into the region’s diverse landscapes to track pumas, seek out orange-billed king penguins and scan the skies for Andean condors. We also pay a visit to the legendary Torres del Paine, one of Chilean Patagonia’s most iconic national parks, with its dramatic spires and wandering guanaco, an ancient ancestor of the domestic llama.
The series’ nearly hour-long episode showcases both the park and its wildlife residents as well, along with other unique Patagonia flora and fauna. There’s araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree, a type of Chilean pine that earned its nickname from 19th century English barrister Charles Austin, who said that climbing its “spiny, spiraling branches would be a puzzle even for a monkey.” In its branches lives wildlife like the slender-billed parakeet, and more than 70 insects found nowhere else on Earth. Other Patagonia inhabitants include the pudu, a small and stocky South American deer species that lives in the underbrush and thickets of the region’s temperate rainforests; and monito del monte, or “little monkey of the mountain,” a nocturnal mouse-like creature that’s not a monkey at all, but rather a marsupial.
The episode also explains how vast areas of Chilean Patagonia are being rewilded, a “return to nature” that allows land previously used for human activities such as ranching or farming to reestablish its natural balance. “Patagonia,” says Obama, “is redefining our idea of what national parks could be.”
If there’s one thread running through Our Great National Parks, it’s that if we don’t take steps to preserve and protect our parklands we will lose them, along with the diverse and distinct ecosystems they support.
Obama describes these national parks as “our shared birthright.” They “regulate our climate, clean our air, and purify our water,” he says. They also provide us places to restore ourselves and reconnect with nature, introduce us to unusual creatures and their extraordinary behaviors and are breeding grounds for scientific research. Through astounding imagery, facts and storytelling, Our Great National Parks exquisitely conveys just how enlightening, spectacular and worthwhile the natural wonders of our world really are.
“Give nature a chance and it will recover,” says Obama. “Chilean Patagonia is an inspiring example when we work together with nature and believe in the true value of our national parks.”