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

Irish Daily Mail - - It’s Friday! -


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.


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