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Our planet’s hu­man pop­u­la­tion is boom­ing, mak­ing the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment the fastest grow­ing habi­tat on Earth. An­i­mals liv­ing in or near cities have to cope with con­stant move­ment and change. Yet our bustling streets also of­fer rich boun­ties in the form of food, shel­ter and warmth.

For Planet Earth II, I spent al­most four years mak­ing a film on ur­ban wildlife. What ex­cited me so much was ex­plor­ing the sur­pris­ing new ways in which an­i­mals are over­com­ing the chal­lenges of liv­ing in hu­man habi­tats, carv­ing out a home in these alien worlds.


When we set out to film leop­ards in Mum­bai, In­dia, we were hop­ing to cap­ture them hunt­ing, but in the backs of our minds we were ques­tion­ing whether we would even see one. Film crews have tried be­fore and only cap­tured glimpses of this highly elu­sive cat. For any large car­ni­vore to sur­vive in the ur­ban jun­gle it has to keep to the shad­ows, and leop­ards are known for their stealth.

To give him the best chance of spot­ting a leop­ard, our cam­era­man Gor­don Buchanan was equipped with a ther­mal cam­era, which he used to scan the hori­zon for warm-blooded an­i­mals out at night. This area of Mum­bai does, in fact, have the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of leop­ards any­where in the world. Dur­ing the day, they sleep in a forested park. When night falls, they head into the streets to hunt for do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals (such as dogs and pigs) that make up a large pro­por­tion of their prey.

With the ther­mal cam­era and a good deal of luck, Gor­don was able to cap­ture re­mark­able footage of ur­ban leop­ards hunt­ing. But what amazed him most was to see just how close to peo­ple they roamed.

Hye­nas in Harar

When I heard about spotted hye­nas freely run­ning through the streets of Harar, Ethiopia, I couldn’t quite be­lieve it. The story goes that over 400 years ago, when the city walls were be­ing built, ‘hyena gates’ were in­cor­po­rated… not big enough to al­low in an op­pos­ing army, but just right for a hyena. Now, two hyena clans en­ter the city through these gates ev­ery sin­gle night in search of bones left out by the town butch­ers.

While walk­ing down a nar­row cob­bled street on my first night in the old town, I held my breath as eight hye­nas walked past me, brush­ing my leg. A few nights later I filmed the two dom­i­nant hyena clans fight­ing over ac­cess to the city. Over a hun­dred hye­nas were bat­tling around my feet, and some­how my fear had dis­ap­peared. The peace­ful pact be­tween hu­mans and hye­nas in this city was so ev­i­dent that I didn’t feel in danger.

I am told that in­side the city walls the hye­nas never at­tack peo­ple or live­stock. But why are they wel­comed here, when else­where on the planet they are vil­i­fied? It’s be­cause Harar’s in­hab­i­tants be­lieve that each time the hye­nas cackle they are gob­bling up a bad spirit in the street. It’s a truly re­mark­able ex­am­ple of how hu­mans and beasts can live along­side one an­other har­mo­niously.

Bower­bird Bling

Film­ing great bower­birds in Townsville, Australia, was a par­tic­u­larly en­joy­able en­deav­our. These are highly in­tel­li­gent birds, full of char­ac­ter and each with their own dis­tinct aes­thetic. For them, the city is a trea­sure chest of brightly coloured ob­jects that they can col­lect and dec­o­rate their bow­ers with. Their hope is that all this bling will im­press a fe­male.

We first had to find our char­ac­ter. We were look­ing for an old male (they can live to 25 years old), as these tend to have the most im­pres­sive bow­ers. They also tend to be the big­gest thieves! The birds pre­fer to steal from neigh­bour­ing bow­ers than search for their own ob­jects within the city. In­deed, bower-crime is higher in the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment than in the neigh­bour­ing coun­try­side. Per­haps there are just too many al­lur­ing ob­jects to ac­quire. These thieves are par­tic­u­larly keen on syn­thetic ob­jects be­cause they tend to hold their colour and do not per­ish in the sun­shine.

It’s amus­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing watching the birds spend two hours ev­ery day metic­u­lously re­ar­rang­ing the ob­jects in their bower. But the real en­ter­tain­ment be­gins when a fe­male ar­rives. Then, the bower en­trance be­comes the male’s stage, and his dance can be­gin.

Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mon­keys

It was a thrilling mo­ment pho­tograph­ing this fe­male Hanu­man lan­gur leap­ing with her baby across a six-me­tre gap, four storeys high, in Jodh­pur, In­dia. Each morn­ing, we watched a group of 15 bach­e­lor males pile in to the heart of the ‘blue city’ to chal­lenge the res­i­dent al­pha male for his ter­ri­tory. The al­pha would of­ten have to chase the bach­e­lors for over a mile across the rooftops. The rea­son that this area is so highly con­tested is be­cause it’s per­haps one of the best lan­gur ter­ri­to­ries in the world. Hin­dus as­so­ciate these pri­mates with the mon­key god Hanu­man, and re­vere them. In the tem­ple gar­dens, they’re given all the food they can eat. The al­pha male has sole mat­ing rights with the adult fe­males in his troop and, be­cause of their en­ergy-rich diet, they are more fer­tile than the Hanu­man lan­gurs found in neigh­bour­ing forests. What struck me on this shoot was just how gen­er­ous the In­dian peo­ple are to­wards wildlife liv­ing in their cities. The re­ward for them is be­ing sur­rounded by won­der­ful an­i­mals.

Crafty Rac­coons

Rac­coons are do­ing in­cred­i­bly well in North Amer­i­can cities. They are well adapted to find­ing food in the con­crete jun­gle, and by be­ing ac­tive at night they avoid con­tact with hu­mans. They can squeeze through small gaps, and have in­cred­i­bly dex­trous hands. They are also the per­fect size for ac­cess­ing rub­bish bins or open­ing shed doors. If you’re too big you are eas­ily no­ticed, and that’s why we see medium-sized scav­engers, such as rac­coons and foxes, do­ing so well in our cities.

For me, the most re­mark­able thing about ur­ban rac­coons is that they are bet­ter at solv­ing prob­lems than their coun­try cousins. A re­cent study showed that they are will­ing to in­vest more time in try­ing dif­fer­ent tech­niques to ac­cess food, per­haps be­cause the re­wards in the city can be so rich. The team saw this on the shoot when they ob­served a mother rac­coon come back for three nights in a row to try to get into a bird feeder filled with nuts. It was only on the third night that she suc­ceeded, but it was worth it!

Bird-Eat­ing Fish

It was a huge sur­prise to hear the story of a fish catch­ing and eat­ing a bird – it’s usu­ally the other way round! The wels cat­fish tends to feed on in­ver­te­brates and smaller fish, but in one place in Albi, in the south of France, it has de­vel­oped a taste for pi­geon.

Next to a 1,000-year-old bridge in this city is a ‘No fish­ing’ sign. For this rea­son, cat­fish are found in enor­mous num­bers, and they grow up to 2.4 me­tres in length. By the end of sum­mer, there are not many fish for left for them to eat. So, in the last 15 years, some of them have turned their at­ten­tion to catch­ing pi­geons in­stead.

As the pi­geons bathe, oil from their feath­ers starts to flow down­stream, and the cat­fish de­tect the smell. It’s an eerie sight see­ing this river mon­ster swim to­wards a group of birds splash­ing in the shal­lows. When a fish strikes, you can hear a loud suck­ing noise – rather like some­thing dis­ap­pear­ing up the vac­uum cleaner – as it slurps the bird into its mouth.

Op­por­tunist Geckos

The in­ven­tion of the in­can­des­cent light bulb just 140 years ago changed our night skies for­ever, and nowhere more so than in cities. For many an­i­mals, ar­ti­fi­cial light cre­ates con­fu­sion. Moths have evolved to nav­i­gate by fly­ing at a con­stant an­gle rel­a­tive to a dis­tant light source: the Moon. That’s why they’re of­ten found fly­ing round and round street lights. But one an­i­mal is tak­ing full ad­van­tage of these con­fused in­sects.

This tokay gecko was pho­tographed in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a great deal of light pol­lu­tion, with one of the bright­est night skies in the world. As the tokay gecko is a noc­tur­nal lizard, you wouldn’t imag­ine that its eyes could cope with such bright light, but their ver­ti­cal slit pupils al­low them to see in a far greater range of light con­di­tions we can. The tiny slit only lets in a small amount of light when un­der a bright bulb, but opens wide in the dark.

The other fea­ture that makes tokay geckos so well adapted to the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment is their phe­nom­e­nal grip. Each foot is lined with half a mil­lion mi­cro­scopic hairs, so tiny that they form a molec­u­lar bond with the sur­face, al­most like atomic-scale Vel­cro. Hav­ing evolved to walk on wet leaves in the rain­for­est, their feet stick well to metal and glass, mak­ing this lamp post an ideal place to dine!

As our cities grow, an­i­mals are hav­ing to carve out a niche in this most hu­man of habi­tats. Fredi Devas, pro­ducer of the ur­ban episode of Planet Earth II, spent four years get­ting to know these met­ro­pol­i­tan pi­o­neers

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