David Attenborough and platypus • pic: Humble Bee Films

Force of Nature

28th February 2014

Having just kicked off another series of 'Natural Curiosities' on UKTV channel Watch, it appears that Sir David Attenborough is still as passionate and interested as ever when it comes to investigating the natural world, as Al Gordon discovers…

The man who has been explaining the natural world to us since the early 1950s shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 87.

“Oh, the natural world is infinite for me,” he begins, with typical gusto. “No human being in half a dozen lifetimes could see all there is to see of the world. There is always something new.”

And that’s part of the philosophy that underpins the second series of 'David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities', produced by independent science and nature programme production company Humble Bee Films, in which the naturalist shines the spotlight on some intriguing evolutionary anomalies. Each episode links together animals who appear, at first glance, to be completely unrelated: the rhino and the hedgehog, for example, whose size and habitat are vastly different but who both hide behind seemingly impenetrable armoured coats, and the wood frog and the emperor penguin, which each survive in ludicrously cold conditions.

“Different species actually follow very similar rules of evolution, or reproduction, of the ways they raise their young,” Sir David explains in those deep and ever-mesmerising tones. “We can now link more of the animal kingdom than ever before, and see that actually, this is a kingdom that is so closely entwined.”

You might imagine that, after a 60-year career in which broadcasting and the natural world have been constantly woven together, there would be little left for the great explorer to unveil to us. Not so. There remain so many unanswered questions. “For many, there’s a history: how were they discovered? What are the myths and mysteries that surround them? There are aspects for one reason or another that we haven’t covered… remember, in the case of many of these incredible creatures we are still learning new things about them, even now in 2014.”

The appeal of many Attenborough’s previous programmes (think 'The Blue Planet', 'Planet Earth' and 'Life In The Undergrowth') has often derived from their exotic locations and fabulous camerawork – in fact, he’s been heard to say “People assume I do all the work. I keep having to tell them, it was the cameraman, not me” – but he points out that some of the most extraordinary and fascinating things can often be found right under your nose.

“There could hardly be a commoner creature – for anyone who has a garden – than a greenfly, and yet the female greenfly can produce young without a male, and while she is producing that young, that baby who is within her has already a baby developing; so you have three generations all at the same time. This is why greenfly can suddenly appear in your garden in tens of thousands.”

Ultimately though, it’s not the greenfly’s reproduction habits that concern Attenborough, it is our own. Increasingly he speaks out about what he calls the “frightening” number of human beings on the planet. So strongly does he feel about this that he is now a patron of the organisation Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Pop­ulation Trust). “Since I started making television programmes there are three times as many human beings on Earth - we’ve tripled in size,” he observes. “It isn’t necessarily a disaster, but what we need to do is to recognise what the problem is, so that we can look after the people who are born onto this planet.”

While he sees the problem clearly – “It’s very difficult to try to change the social reality that we are all getting on with living, with bringing up families, and trying to enjoy every day as much as we can; after all, there is no harm in that” – he doesn’t shy away from hard truths: “The reality is the planet is straining under the weight of what we expect it to do, and pretty soon we’re all going to need to get around the table and work out a way of preserving it, because this cannot go on forever. Population growth can devastate the natural world as well as our own, and the end result is always the same – failure to survive.”

It’s encouraging to hear that he thinks we’re gradually learning the lessons from what we see in animal environments, although he stresses that we need to learn quicker. “And you know, every time there is an economic crisis we can’t suddenly forget to look after our planet – that is generally what happens. We need to start thinking of it all as one big package.”

In his advanced years, it is a small miracle that Sir David still finds the energy and motivation to travel the world. His enthusiasm is undiminished but he is human too, of course, and the signs of needing a rest are real at times. After crisscrossing the globe (and always travelling economy; he’s known for not accepting airline upgrades unless his film crew get upgraded too) he returns to the peaceful serenity of his house in Richmond, where he’s looked after by his daughter, Susan.
“It is nice to drop anchor back home in Richmond, I do admit. Some of my trips take me away for a long time and I do feel the need to restore energy… Of course, when I am at home, I am next to the biggest slab of wildlife in London, the river, and Kew Gardens, which is the finest botanical garden in the world.”

Even away from the natural world, he is at home with it. And that passion, that commitment, probably more than anything else, are the biggest clue as to why Sir David Attenborough has truly transformed our understanding of the natural world.

David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities continues on Watch at 8pm on Tuesdays

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