Documentary

Wildscreen ’16: Attenborough’s message of peril and hope

What becomes quite clear when seeing Sir David Attenborough speak in person is how profound a storyteller he is, as engaging and enthralling in real life as he is on ...
October 14, 2016

What becomes quite clear when seeing Sir David Attenborough speak in person is how profound a storyteller he is, as engaging and enthralling in real life as he is on camera. His passion for wildlife and conservation is just as obvious and contagious when witnessed in the flesh. Maybe more so. It’s clearly undiminished by his decades-long career, which spans over a half a century.

It’s easy to see why the man, who, for many, is the absolute personification of natural history (certainly its voice), is as his fellow naturalist and BBC presenter Chris Packham put it during a sit down with Attenborough at the Wildscreen Festival Oct. 13, probably the world’s greatest living broadcaster. One can’t help but savor seeing Attenborough reminisce about his many experiences fighting for conservation and bringing awareness to the natural world, of which his love and knowledge is unassailable.

One also can’t help but feel somewhat sad, however, knowing that this living legend can’t possibly keep doing what he does forever. But for now, we listen.

“I seriously think that wildlife programming and filmmaking and television is of crucial importance for the future of the world. If the natural world is in peril, we are in peril. [People] should be aware of that.” Sir David Attenborough

In his 90th year, Attenborough took to the stage in front of a packed house at Bristol University Student Union’s Anson Rooms for a candid, wide-ranging conversation on conservation with Packham, a good part of which was retrospective.

Covering off many highlights from his long, illustrious globetrotting career, the chat began with a topic that likely first propelled many natural historians along the path towards their chosen profession: dinosaurs. Attenborough discussed the discovery of fossils from a new, 200 million-year-old ichthyosaur species  — they were prehistoric marine reptiles — on southern England’s Jurassic Coast. He’s making a new program about the discovery with the BBC called Attenborough and the Giant Sea Dragon, which is set to air sometime in 2017. Fossils are a great gateway to learning about nature, he said, as he recalled the number of them he had collected as a boy.

Moving from early history to modern history, the talk also covered the early days of the conservation movement in the 1950s and ’60s when Attenborough’s career as a naturalist hit its stride as he started exploring the world collecting animals for zoos. Looking back on that now he feels odd about it, he said. It was around that time that he began to realize the needed to focus on conservation, a time when mankind’s affect on the environment was beginning to be more broadly questioned and observed, and when his peer, renowned naturalist and conservation pioneer (and co-founder of the Wildscreen Festival) Sir Peter Scott, co-founded the World Wildlife Fund. At that time, said Attenborough, Scott’s strategy for saving endangered animals was focused on taking single endangered species into captivity, and it wasn’t until that started to happen that it dawned on people that humanity could be so devastating on the natural world.

“It was a very valuable thing for the conservation movement to focus its attention on one particular species that was going to be endangered,” he said. “A lot of the public imagination was captured by doing that. But actually they were just tokens, they were just flagships for a bigger disaster that was on the way. And it was that that eventually began to seep through into the public consciousness that we aren’t talking about just an oddball bird that nobody particularly cares about, but actually destroying whole ecosystems.”

The discussion also showcased  highlights of some of Attenborough’s most memorable encounters with endangered species. There was Lonesome George, the last known individual of the Pinta Island turtle subspecies, and once regarded as the rarest creature in the world. He died in June 24, 2012.

And there was Attenborough’s legendary encounter with a family of Ugandan mountain gorillas whilst discussing the opposable thumb and the importance in primate evolution of the grip. It’s a scene that’s become one of if not the most widely recognized and celebrated natural history moments to have been caught on camera. It was an experience Attenborough said wouldn’t have been possible without conservation activist Diane Fossey, whose methods, he noted, were violent at times, and a weakness in her conservation efforts. At one point, there was also a clip shown that featured a positively beaming Attenborough spying his first blue whale in 76 years, an animal that has very recently been brought back from the brink of extinction, and was the focus of BBC and PBS’ recent Big Blue Live event. 

Then, inevitably, the talk turned to the future and the issues facing conservation today. Covering topics like climate change, overpopulation, deforestation, and urbanization, Attenborough proposed that it’s increasingly incumbent on people to understand what nature does, how it impacts us, especially as more move into cities and increasingly lose contact with the wild world and its species. The planet’s ecosystems are the most important place to focus conservation efforts, he said, as the world’s environmental straits become more dire.

“It is the ecosystems that we must save. That is the basic target that you have to go for if you are really going to talk about conservation. And, of course, in the end those ecosystems will join up if we are successful, so that we begin to realize that that little blue ball in the blackness of space is one ecosystem. It’s called the world and it’s in our hands.”

“It is the ecosystems that we must save. That is the basic target that you have to go for if you are really going to talk about conservation. And, of course, in the end those ecosystems will join up if we are successful, so that we begin to realize that that little blue ball in the blackness of space is one ecosystem. It’s called the world and it’s in our hands.”

Attenborough did acknowledge though, that with increasing signs of the seriousness of the threat posed by man-made climate change, it is easy to get depressed, admitting that he sometimes feels that way himself. But people need to take heart and a slightly longer view. He believes that if the world can get together and come up with technological solutions to a lot of the problems that we face, notably about energy production, that it could be possible in 10 years to produce renewable energy at a price that undercuts carbon-based fuels.

“I hope that humanity will come to its senses in a global way to handle these problems, and I believe that can be done. I believe it is being done,” he said.

Festivals like Wildscreen, he said, are an example of what people are and can do to affect change, adding that natural history programming has a crucial part to play in preserving the planet’s future.

“I seriously think that wildlife programming and filmmaking and television is of crucial importance for the future of the world. If the natural world is in peril, we are in peril. [People] should be aware of that. It’s only when the human population is brought to deal with this problem that we are facing now that there will be salvation. And one of the keys to that is what you dear people from this festival are doing. There is an important value in understanding the way the natural world works and that’s what our films can do. That’s why it’s important that what all of us are doing should be seen on the networks of the world.”

He added that natural history filmmakers are privileged to spend time in the natural world, and it’s their obligation to show it truthfully to other people who aren’t as lucky.

Attenborough closed on a point of hope — proof of what people around the world can do when they come together to solve an environmental issue. When the British Antarctic Survey realized that there was a hole growing in the ozone layer, scientists around the world acted together. They identified the problem, CFCs, legislation was passed, the hole is now healing, and the world, for a moment, was saved.

“It can be done, and its must be done,” he said.

But before Attenborough finally left the stage to raucous applause, Peckham presented him with a small token, an intervertebral disc from the spine of the endangered fin whale, which he found on a beach in Orkney.

“I thought to myself, where had that whale been, what had that whale seen before it met its end on a beach in Orkney,” said Peckham of the token.

A fitting gift given from the natural world to a man who has represented it so well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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