In conversation with Sir David Attenborough


In January 2014, Sir David Attenborough talked to Travel Africa about his passion for Africa…  and his concerns for the future of its people, wildlife and natural heritage.

In 60 years as a broadcast journalist, Sir David Attenborough has embodied the BBC’s factual output and shaped our understanding of the natural world perhaps more than any other figure. In programmes such as Planet Earth and the celebrated Life series, Attenborough has personified Auntie’s remit to educate and inform. And today, even at 87, his enthusiasm for and love of the natural world shows no sign of abating.

But there’s one place he holds dearest:  “There’s an abundance of discovery in Africa,” he tells us. “The day I grow tired of the continent is the day I grow tired of life.”

It’s time to explore further…

When did you first visit Africa?
1954 – 60 years ago. We were on a trip to Sierra Leone to film the first Zoo Quest series. Back then the equipment we carried around was monstrous – we were so limited because there was so much weight to any expedition, and actually, it limited where we could go to a large extent. But, despite that, it was a revelation… such incredible animals and wildlife. I was enchanted by the place and the people.

Tell us about some of the species you’ve observed in Africa over the years? Is it ever dangerous getting up close to them?
Well, I do always come back to the wonder of elephants – they are the most unique of creatures and so intelligent. They know us humans and, for the most part, they like us – there is definitely a rapport.

That’s not to say they’re not dangerous: they most certainly are. We’ve been charged by a protective mother more than once, and when you look back you can recognise why it has happened. Did we get too close? Had we prolonged our stay? There will always be a reason.

Of course, you take the majesty of elephant, and the awe you feel for that, then compare it to arachnids and insects. It’s completely different and the relationship couldn’t be more separated, but those smaller creatures are every bit as fascinating. And finding a deathstalker in one of the film crew’s tents will always create a buzz around the campsite! We’ve encountered one or two of those over the years.

What are the moments you treasure most?
I always come to back to my time with the blind rhino calf when answering this question. This calf was only two months old and desperately helpless. If it had been left on the African savannah it would have been eaten, no doubt about it.  So instead he was taken to the game reserve so that he could be protected and nurtured. We spent some special time together and built up a real rapport, like you would do with a child.

I have also really enjoyed my time around baby lions. They are so playful and it is difficult to think how ferocious and fearsome they will grow to become, because in the early weeks they really are the most humorous of animals.

How severe is the threat to the survival of many of these animals?
Well, you know, we human beings get the blame for a lot, but we preserve so many of these wonderful creatures too! But there is nothing on earth doing as much to protect the natural world as we are. It’s about time and intelligence and technology, but we are so advanced now in knowing how these ecosystems and natural habitats work.

It upsets me to think how many species have been made extinct by our actions over the past few thousand years, but if there’s one way of trying to repair some of that damage then it’s by taking positive steps to look after the welfare of animals and plants in future. And you know, we are very good at that.

So in terms of preserving these species, are we winning or losing the battle?
Well, Africa will never stop amazing us. You’ve got areas in which we have a lot of knowledge, and we’re using that knowledge to do fantastic things – the gorillas in Uganda, for example. This is a place that has embraced ecotourism and the result has been a sharp increase in the mountain gorilla population – up 30 per cent in the last 10 years. Rwanda and Congo are doing similar things – it’s very progressive and very clever.

People ask me about the perils of climate change – and yes, of course, that is a worry – but I must be quick to remind them of the ‘wins’. That said, if we could do more to protect our marine environments then I would be much happier. The problem here is that so much is hidden; there is so much going wrong that we do not know about because, frankly, we still have so much to learn about the seas.

With areas such as the Great Barrier Reef – which I believe is the most miraculous place on earth – we are starting to learn and take action. But think of all the marine environments we know nothing about.

How do you think Africa is portrayed in the western media?
Politically, some of Africa, the Atlas Mountains for example, is in turmoil, and my fear is we hear about this too much and it clouds or disturbs our judgement of the continent’s majesty. The media needs to celebrate Africa more – that’s what nature documentaries on the BBC have attempted to do. You know, nature always stays sane and simple, no matter what we humans do.

But there’s still so much to explore. Me, I want to explore the mythical tundra of the Skeleton coast in Namibia. There is so much to see and do.

You have publicly stated your concerns about the pressures of population growth on our environment, and this is perhaps more relevant in Africa than anywhere else. Africa’s population is growing at a staggering rate and there is much talk about it being the next big economic powerhouse… but that doesn’t sound like good news for Africa’s wilderness and wild animals?
Since I started working on television, there are now three times as many human beings on earth. We have tripled in population size. And everybody – like you and me and everybody else on earth – wants houses to live in and schools and roads. Most of these things, of course, have to come from the natural world, so that means there’s less space for natural world.

This isn’t necessarily a disaster, but what we need to do is to recognise what the problem is, and then we can be a bit more sensible about how we encroach into the natural world. In a way, we need to do it more economically, so that, in equal measure, we can look after the people and animals born to this planet. We know that money makes the world go round, but it makes the natural world go round as well, as sad a fact as that may sound.

As far as the problem with Africa’s industrialisation, I wish I knew the answer – it’s a dreadful problem. The population growth rate in parts of Africa is very high, and everybody needs places to live. Of course, in the past, population growth has been similarly high, but the child mortality rate has also been high, which has counterbalanced things. And we, quite rightly, as humans, have done our best to reduce that mortality rate, but consequentially the population has risen, and it’s a major, major problem.

What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever been?
I don’t deliberately go to dangerous places but, okay, yes, you do sometimes find yourself in tricky situations. I’ve said it before but the greatest danger when you’re out in the field is from other humans – either you come face-to-face with a soldier who isn’t sure what you’re doing, or your safety is jeopardised by other people in your party who don’t respect the environment they’re in… the sort of people who get too close and spook animals – there’s a danger there.

But although I may have been charged by a rhino and an elephant or two, and yes, I may have had a few bites here and there, over the years I’ve learnt that if you get into trouble it’s usually your own fault. We can be careless in environments that are not our own, and that’s where the danger really comes from.

Westerners are convinced by the conservation argument, but Europeans aren’t living with the economic and social pressures of Africans. So what can be done to ensure that the protection of Africa’s natural heritage is an equal consideration in the discussions around household and policy makers’ tables across Africa?
The conservation projects are based around limiting the impact of humans, both in terms of footprint and the spread of diseases. Many animals in Africa are completely fearless, and while that’s endearing in one respect it’s dangerous in another.

I’ll often come down on the side of the tourist. At the end of the day, if tourism is being managed properly – and in 99 per cent of locations around the world it is – then it can only be a good thing for any place. You think about revenue especially: eco-tourism provides a source of funding that just wouldn’t be possible in most places. And let’s be clear, eco-tourism has saved many more species than it has ever harmed, especially in Africa.

To manage growth, we need to be more economical in what we do and less wasteful – and we are so, so wasteful, it’s criminal. Of course, we need education in terms of family size, because in the Third World there is not the responsibility that you find elsewhere on the planet. But if we look after the resources we have and ensure we replenish them properly, there is some hope.


Click here to see a recording of this interview with Sir David Attenborough


5 of Attenborough’s finest moments
Now in his seventh decade of film making for the BBC, Sir David Attenborough has, in the course of his career, presented or provided the narration for many of the most spectacular wildlife and cultural documentary sequences ever seen on television. Here are some of our highlights.

1. Chimpanzees hunting colobus, Côte d’Ivoire
Deep in the humid West African jungle, Attenborough witnesses first-hand an example of primate teamwork at its most sophisticated: in a tense and shocking sequence, a group of male chimpanzees successfully hunt and kill a red colobus monkey, then share the meat with their extended families.
The Trials of Life, 1990

2. Dogon tribal art, Mali
In the Pays Dogon, Attenborough investigates whether the qualities that European connoisseurs most admire in ethnic art bear any significance for the artists themselves, or to other members of their community, and discovers that there is no such thing as an absolute measure of beauty.
The Tribal Eye, 1976

3. Matabele ants raiding a termite mound, South Africa
Columns of warrior-like ants execute a singularly ruthless and efficient attack on a termite colony. Advanced camera technology gives us an ant’s eye view of the entire campaign, while extreme wide angles show David Attenborough scrutinising the proceedings at close range.
Life in the Undergrowth, 2005

4. Sardine migration,  South Africa
In Alastair Fothergill’s landmark series, a spectacular combination of underwater and aerial photography is used to follow the swirling shoals as they make their way along South Africa’s eastern coast, hotly pursued by predators including bronze whale sharks, Cape gannets and thousand-strong schools of dolphins.
The Blue Planet, 2001

5. Mountain gorillas, Rwanda
Long before the advent of organised gorilla tracking expeditions, Attenborough enjoys a privileged audience with the great apes of the Virunga Mountains. He reflects on how similar the gorillas are to humans – and inspires a generation of
would-be film makers, primatologists and adventurers.
Life on Earth, 1979


This interview was originally published in Travel Africa edition 66, Spring 2014