The Godfather of Nature

A lifetime of discovery for Sir David Attenborough keeps him fresh for the challenges ahead, and ensures his love affair with Africa continues, as msafiri finds out in an exclusive interview

Sir David Attenborough has long been a presenter of remarkable nature programmes. Celebrating his own diamond jubilee at the forefront of wildlife production this year, he was the first to broadcast a Western expedition in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the first to capture footage of the mythical Arctic narwhal for primetime television, even the first to walk with dinosaurs.

The renowned nature broadcaster, famed for his mellifluous tones, fronted, researched and produced the celebrated Life series, which became the benchmark for quality in wildlife filmmaking, and influenced a generation of documentary filmmakers. He went on to narrate and host The Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and Wildlife on One.

His most recent effort, however, the majestic Africa, brought the spritely 86-year-old back to the land he knows so well. A sumptuous, astounding, six-part series, it offered sweeping, glorious panoramas of the Kalahari, the majesty of the savannah and the sheer abundance of life surrounding the Cape of South Africa and Mozambique.
It was a trip primed with nostalgia for the godfather of the natural world, who made his first trip to Africa as a young documentary maker in the mid-1950s.

“I think the very first time I landed in Africa was 1954, in Sierra Leone,” he explains. “I’d never been to the tropics before. I’d never been to Africa before. In fact, I’d never been out of Europe before. I was simply blown sideways by what I saw, by the sheer abundance and variety of the natural world that was all around us in Africa. I was in love from that moment on, and it’s an adoration that’s failed to wane in nearly 60 years.”

Shot during 79 separate filming expeditions, visiting 27 different countries, carrying just under 50 tonnes of kit, using over 553 cameras and recording enough information to be stored on 21,000 regular DVDs, Africa was an intense labour of love for Attenborough, who resides in an Edwardian manor just outside London.

Naturally, a few issues with indigenous species occurred along the way. “The elephants will always entertain you. They are playful and only very rarely dangerous. A cameraman did find himself stuck up a tree for a few hours when one took offence at his presence, but, past that, they were lovely company,” Attenborough laughs.

“There was another episode when the wonderfully titled death stalker scorpion was found to be camping out in one of the film crew’s tent. This creature is poisonous and lives up to its name, but we all undertake our craft fully aware of the dangers, and we’re all passionate about what we do.”

Approaching his 87th birthday this year, Attenborough exhibits no signs of slowing down. If anything, he appears to be ramping up his commitments. With two additional series in 2013 – Natural Curiosities, which takes a probing look at the mechanics of species differentiation, and the more recent homage to Darwin’s home of evolution in Galapagos 3D – he has also ventured to the Great Wall of China to study fossils. Then it’s back to the Amazon for a series on the mechanics of spider webs.

Attenborough admits, though, that Africa is a continent that cannot be bettered for its sheer magnitude of life. And, even after several dozen trips, he remains astonished by new discoveries.

“Africa will never stop amazing us. I mean, a huge lake underneath the Kalahari, with fish present that are absolutely unique to that place. Then you’ve got the areas in which we have a lot more knowledge, and are using that knowledge to do fantastic things – the gorillas in Uganda, for instance. This is a place that has embraced ecotourism and the result has been a sharp increase in the mountain gorilla population – up 30% in the last decade. It’s very heartening. Rwanda and Congo are doing similar things; it’s very progressive and very clever.

“And although people ask me about the perils of climate change – and yes, that is a worry – I must be quick to remind them of these ‘wins’.  After all, when I first went to study the gorillas in the 1970s they were a species clinging to survival, hunted and exterminated at an alarming rate.”

While Attenborough has frequently travelled to the continent, he has rarely taken any leisure time there and plans to do so by the end of the year.

“It’s always work and go, go, go. I want to go to Africa for a few weeks and take it in, slowly. I want to see the stark sights and vistas of the Atlas Mountains to the north of the Sahara. They’re a wonderful part of the world.
“Politically some of Africa, the Atlas Mountains included, is in turmoil, and my fear is we hear about this too much and it clouds or disturbs our judgement of the area’s majesty. The media needs to celebrate Africa more – that’s what the series attempted to do, because it really is such an awe-inspiring place. You know, nature always stays sane and simple, no matter what we humans do.

“I also want to explore the mythical ‘tundra’ of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, and maybe back to the mysterious Kalahari Desert for an experience like no other. There is so much to see and do.”

So was there one particular experience that stood out for Sir David when filming Africa?

“I think the footage of me with the two-month-old blind rhino calf was most special. It’s not unknown for them to be born blind; it’s just a genetic weakness. This rhino would have very quickly fallen prey to a lion, but in the Kenya game reserve we could protect and nurture it. The staff there adopted it and bottle fed it, and I had some incredible time with this little chap. As you would expect, his sense of smell was very strong. And though in length he was almost my height, it was like a child in my arms – we really bonded. He made a noise like a baby would and I think of him to this day.”

While heartened about the positive environmental projects that are embracing Africa, Sir David is only too aware of the threats facing the continent, namely over-population.

“I have seen how increasing numbers of elephants can devastate their environment until, one year, when the rains fail on the already over-grazed land, they die in their hundreds. But we are human beings, and because of our intelligence and our ever-increasing skills and sophisticated technologies, we can avoid such brutalities. We maybe need to restate limitations over animal populations. It’s not difficult but it’s worth keeping an eye on.”

For the time being though, Attenborough is still blissfully basking in the afterglow of his African adventures, and eagerly anticipates his next expedition there. “Each and every trip I learn something new and exciting. There’s an abundance of discovery in Africa. The day I grow tired of the continent is the day I grow tired of life.”