Attenborough — the man who really DID talk to the animals
The young naturalist fearlessly caught beasts from pythons to piranhas — and even kept a parrot alive by feeding it from his own mouth
NATURE ADVENTURES OF A YOUNG NATURALIST by David Attenborough (Two Roads) ROGER LEWIS
THE concept of an endangered species is comparatively recent. In 1962, a Hollywood film called Hatari! had John Wayne running a gamecatching farm in East Africa.
Racing across the savannah in a truck, whooping with exhilaration, Wayne and his cronies pursued rhinos, elephants, giraffes and wildebeest until the animals dropped from exhaustion. They were then trussed with ropes and sent by crate to the world’s zoos, to be exhibited as novelties.
Half a century ago, less thought was given to the horrors of captivity, nor to the encroachment of the human population upon natural habitats. It did not cross many people’s minds that the supply of what David Attenborough calls ‘romantic, rare and exciting’ wild creatures will one day run out.
It comes as a shock, I have to say, to discover that in his younger years Attenborough was not unlike the John Wayne character, though in fairness he is quick to state, in his preface, that ‘these days zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring ’em back alive. And quite right too’. So that’s all right then.
Nevertheless, flash back to the Fifties, when animal conservation hadn’t been thought of, and zoos, indistinguishable from circus freak shows, wanted to find species ‘that no other zoo had ever possessed. Attenborough, as a 26-yearold TV producer, came up with the idea of making programmes about the exotic expeditions, which would be entitled On Safari and Zoo Quest.
‘My plan was simple. The BBC and London Zoo should mount a joint animalcollecting expedition’ — so off he went in a khaki suit with 16mm black-andwhite film.
If we can set our 21stcentury moral qualms aside, Adventures Of A Young Naturalist is immensely colourful and dramatic. In British Guiana (now Guyana), ‘where rice fields and sugar plantations alternate with swamps and creeks’, Attenborough traps a caiman, one of the local crocodiles. ‘Glaring at us malevolently with yellow, unblinking eyes’, the animal then roared and thrashed, threatening to inflict ‘very serious injuries’ with its huge jaws and scaly tail. Attenborough encounters piranhas, with their ‘rows of triangular razor-edged teeth’, and massive, glistening pythons, which coil around their prey and squeeze and crush it to death, the ‘black tongue flickering in and out’.
He finds chameleons, scorpions, millipedes and hairy spiders as big as dinner plates.
Camping for weeks under paraffin lamps, or staying in seedy hotels, our intrepid hero finds himself sharing accommodation with whiskery rats, leeches and a vampire bat.
Vampires ‘shave a thin section of skin from their victim. Having made the wound, they will squat by it and lap up the exuding blood’.
Not only that, they also transmit the rabies virus. Discovering a vampire scuttling on the floor, resembling ‘some foul four-legged spider’, Attenborough flings his boot in
the direction of the shifting shape. If he also brandishes a crucifix and a bulb of garlic, he doesn’t mention this.
Wherever he goes on these jaunts, before long Attenborough gathers an impressive menagerie.
‘We had captured a giant anteater, a raucous macaw, a capuchin monkey’, or, in Borneo, ‘soon we had acquired quite a large collection — green lizards, squirrels, crested quails’.
He finds a three-toed sloth, hanging upside down from the jungle tendrils, which ‘stared at me with an expression of ineffable sadness’. There is also an outraged orangutan, ‘baring its teeth and squeaking angrily’. (I am on the side of the orangutan.)
The live trophies are shipped back to England by boat, supplied with 3,000 lbs of lettuce, 100lbs of cabbages, 400 lbs of bananas, and 48 pineapples.
It was no joke keeping a parrot chick alive. Attenborough had to chew its food and spit it directly into the bird’s beak. One animal the local authorities would not allow him to export was a Komodo dragon, but Attenborough was able to film the creature, and it had ‘never been seen on television before’.
Attenborough concealed himself in the jungle with his cameras, attracting the giant lizard with putrefying meat. ‘The line of his savage mouth curved upwards in a fixed sardonic grin,’ he recalls.
Attenborough’s first programmes began being broadcast in December 1954 and ‘my bosses were delighted’.
In many respects, however, this could be a book about the adventures of a young man at least 100 years earlier, during the reign of Queen Victoria.
DARING to go on dangerous journeys in rough seas and tidal races — ‘the ship reared and plunged as the next eddy sucked at the bows’ — could be from a Joseph Conrad or Jules Verne novel.
The locals Attenborough met are likewise much more remote from Western civilisation than could ever be found today. When I was in Borneo in 2001 the longhouses of the Iban and Dayaks were adorned with satellite dishes.
It is also the case that everywhere he went on the planet, the locals merrily aided the wildlife round-ups, converging on the BBC team ‘on bicycles, in rattling lorries and on foot, bearing a wide assortment of animals’. They were utterly amazed anyone was interested in obtaining these creatures for anything other than the pot.