Saturday November 10, 2012
Insights from iconic wildlife documentary maker David Attenborough
By NILAKRISNA JAMES
David Attenborough draws on 60 years of filming in the wild to look ahead at what Man needs to do, to be a good planetary steward.
HAVING had the extraordinary privilege of spending a week with David Attenborough in October last year filming in Sabah for his BBC series Attenborough: 60 Years In The Wild, I realised why producer/director Miles Barton described this iconic wildlife presenter as “the master communicator”.
Everything Attenborough says is pure gold and I could not miss the opportunity to capture some of those brilliant observations which have made him an outstanding wildlife documentary maker.
Attenborough spent 60 years filming for BBC and this celebration of his life’s work explores six decades of natural history broadcasting and how science – and the world – have changed in that time.
Everywhere we went, Attenborough had fans clamouring for an autograph or a photo opportunity. He was unfazed by the attention and gracefully accepts that he may have had an enormous impact as one of the world’s most celebrated spokesmen for wildlife conservation.
We discussed the impact climate change may have had on conservation. He admitted that, despite many years of exposure to the subject matter, this is not something that he could professionally comment on.
“Climate change is a recent pre-occupation ... 60 years ago, nobody thought there was any problem about species expiration,” Attenborough explained. It would have been irresponsible of him, he said, to talk about climate change to his audience if he was not an expert in the field.
“I am not a climate scientist. I am a naturalist. I certainly talked about species conservation which is a clear-cut thing … those things you have straightforward facts about.”
With new species being discovered so often in our Malaysian rainforests, I asked Attenborough if there’ll be a never-ending desire to document these new discoveries. He explained that “the problem is not finding new species; the problem is finding a scientist who is significantly expert in that particular group who actually knows it is a new species.”
The big names in wildlife documentaries seem to have shifted their focus to document what Attenborough says are “new behaviours” rather than new species.
Barton certainly agreed with this, saying that rather than filming new things, they often filmed things in new ways and that their cameramen would often surprise local scientists with what they captured on film, shedding light on potentially new behaviour which could be critical to species survival and conservation.
By the same token, as new species evolve or are discovered, many more are becoming extinct. As a conservationist, Attenborough is well aware of the various theories that surround matters of species survival and extinction.
He is adamant that in as much as the orang utan and rhinoceros, for example, depend on our help directly, they are also dependent on us “not knocking down the environment in which they live” and believes strongly that the answer simply lies in looking after the environment.
Yet Attenborough laments the increasing human population, which he believes has trebled since he started documenting natural history. Addressing the needs of humans has taken priority over the needs of other species and human encroachment into spaces which could have been left for the wild is all too evident.
“They all want houses to live in, quite understandably, they all want food, they all want to educate their children … by and large, it’s all going to come from existing wild country,” Attenborough said. “Why make all these palm oil plantations? Because there is a huge appetite worldwide for what palm oil produces.”
Realising the sensitivity of arguing about personal choices of curtailing human population growth, Attenborough also believes that part of the answer in addressing this problem – which would indirectly allow wild country to survive human encroachment – is the need to raise the standard of living for women, allowing women to determine their choices and their primary roles in curbing human population growth.
As a feminist, I was astounded by his incredible foresight as he tells me: “The only source for hope that I can see is that wherever women are in charge of their lives and not men in charge of women’s lives, wherever that is the case, wherever women have education and are literate and have medical facilities … the birth rate falls, which is a very good reason why standard of living in other countries should be raised and why Europe should help in that process.”
Attenborough is not one to shy away from a controversial debate and I asked if Man being a more superior species would naturally be the fittest to survive at the expense of other species. He replied, “Only if you assume that human beings have no foresight.
“If they use foresight, they can see that their survival, which is what we’re talking about, depends upon healthy environments,” he explained. Does this assume that Man would be driven by conscience? Probably by self-interest, he replied.
The eco-tourism factor
We explored the issue of a nation’s economic self-interest and how eco-tourism could be both a mask for profits and a genuine goal towards conservation.
Attenborough believes strongly that had it not been for eco-tourists, many more species would have gone extinct. In his view, there needs to be a careful balance of economising visitor contact to the animals, allowing rehabilitative areas to flourish and determining wildlife tolerance to such human exposure, for eco-tourism to succeed.
“Eco-tourism is not just about making animals available to people. They require very careful, very skilled management and there’s a huge expertise in that. It isn’t just about putting a fence around and charging people a few dollars,” he added.
So what brought Attenborough to Borneo in the first place?
Perhaps the greatest insight into what foreign filmmakers find so fascinating about the Malaysian rainforests is Barton’s observation that Borneo simply has “fantastic animals and fantastic locations.”
Barton added: “There is also a mystique for the British audience. They still have an affection for Borneo. (It) means something. It means somewhere exotic and exciting.”
Attenborough concluded: “There are people who never see real wild creatures from dawn to dusk. Television can play a really crucial role in maintaining a contact and insight and understanding of the natural world.”
■ The writer is a lawyer, activist and former broadcast journalist.