David Attenborough

A breath of fresh air for Earth Day: Pristine, pure air discovered over the Amazon Rain Basin.

Earth Day beckons. The worldwide Extinction Rebellion protests continue, despite concerted efforts to silence them. Sir David Attenborough, 92, and Greta Thunberg, 16, have been passionate, and prominent, speakers for our threatened and increasingly fragile natural world, and the endangered species who cannot speak for themselves.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the powers-that-be — the world’s major financial institutions, the oil- and gas industry and government policymakers — are going to pay lip service, and no more than that, to the idea that our children and grandchildren’s future is finished unless something is done, and done now, about our increasingly evident climate emergency.

These past few days, on the same weekend an exhausted, disoriented polar bear wandered into the isolated village of Tilichiki on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsular, having floated some 700 km (450 miles) away from its home in the Arctic Circle on an ice floe, there was a remarkable discovery in the faraway Amazon rainforest.

©Leonid Shelapugin/Moscow Times

©Leonid Shelapugin/Moscow Times

The discovery was actually made a while ago, but has only now come to light following reports on BBC’s World News service and PBS News Hour in the US: Researchers from Washington State’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found a baseline of pure, pristine air over the Amazon, and is using it to show how we’re messing with climate, by comparing the pristine air to samples of “dirtied” air taken not so far away, over remote jungle towns and logging camps that are expanding rapidly throughout an area dubbed “the lungs of the Earth.”

A team of researchers discovered the pristine air — air that dates back to pre-Industrial times — by flying a specially fitted Gulfstream jet with specialized instruments designed to identify and record particles of air virtually unchanged since before Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World.

©Popular Science

©Popular Science

The Amazon rainforest covers some 6 million square km (2 million square miles) of the South American landmass. It produces so much carbon — and produces so much life-giving oxygen — that it is truly the last, best hope for humankind, and for planet Earth.

And yet, the city of Manaus, Brazil — population 2 million — lies in the heart of the rainforest, with all the overcrowding, environmental destruction and deleted natural resources that come with a city of that size.

This is the classic good-news/bad-news story. The good news is that, on this Earth Day, there remains at least one place on Earth where the air survives as if the human footprint had never happened. The bad news is that the researchers have discovered that human pollution is driving the acceleration of climate-changing particles — aerosols — much more quickly than previously thought. These particles are not just a driver of climate change. They can cause heart disease and damage our lungs and other organs, not just in the immediate area but halfway around the world.



The researchers’ results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that science now has a baseline to create a new standard of what clean, pure air on Earth is supposed to be, and can be if we apply enough effort, energy and human brain power to solving our climate crisis.

As one of the lead researchers told PBS’s Seattle TV affiliate KCTS-9, “We can (now) look back at the Amazon and see how much we’ve been changing it, and how much we will continue to change it (if we don’t do something soon).”

The die is not cast — yet. But it’s getting closer. The  urgency is real, and people need to know the truth.



Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’: ‘Planet Earth’ revisited, but with a stronger, clearer eco-voice.

Politics is inescapable these days, it seems. Take something as seemingly benevolent and benign — and beautiful to behold — as Our Planet, the new, eye-filling nature series from Netflix, narrated by the ubiquitous Sir David Attenborough.

At the time of Netflix’s original announcement, Our Planet was to be similar and yet different to such distinctive, ground-breaking natural history programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. And, as the great unwashed are about to learn Friday, it has largely succeeded. There are moments of real, eye-filling majesty and genuine grandeur, backed by the swelling symphonic score of film composer Steven Price. Overbearing, yes, but it fits this kind of program. It’s easy to forget now but when the original Planet Earth came out, the loud, overblown music was by George Fenton, fresh off an Academy Award for Gandhi and its follow-up Cry Freedom, both films directed by Attenborough’s brother, the late Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough.

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

The familiar visual paean to nature and the natural world that made Planet Earth and Blue Planet must-see viewing in countless households around the world is there for all to see in Our Planet, and on a Netflix budget to boot.

This time, though, there’s a noticeable difference, and not just the subtle shift in tone. Our Planet, eight episodes in all, is more eco-aware and socially conscious. It strikes a cautionary tone  — a warning. Not alarm, exactly, but still. Our Planet is no longer nature programming that focuses on nature-for-nature’s-sake, to the exclusion of any environmental message beyond a polite, almost apologetic request that we be more careful with the Earth’s dwindling natural resources. Please remember to turn off the lights on your way out, and try not to wreck the climate during your drive home.
There’s a sadness, a feeling of regret tinged with genuine fear of an uncertain future as we’re reminded, time and time again, that polar bears and elephants might not be with us much longer.

And not just polar bears and elephants, either, but bees, hummingbirds, ocean-going reef sharks and everything in-between.

Our Planet opens with a close-up view from space — reminders of 2001: A Space Odyssey —  of the moon, with the Earth rising gradually behind it. Since Neil Armstrong made his first step for man and giant leap for mankind, on July 20, 1969, Attenborough tells us, the human population has doubled, while wildlife numbers have dwindled some 60 percent during the same time. 

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

Our Planet isn’t strident. It doesn’t harangue us with a lecture from the bully pulpit, though there are certainly those eco-crusaders out there who would prefer to shake every last one of us — not without reason — into waking up.

Attenborough has not left BBC for Netflix, as some in the media suggested at the time. (Looking at it from both sides of the media divide, these things are easy to misreport, especially given today’s frantic get-it-first-before-you-get-it-right climate of competition in information.)

Attenborough may be 92 (he turns 93 next month) but he’s committed to several more big projects for BBC, including Frozen Planet II, Blue Planet III and Planet Earth III.

Similarly, he has left the door open at Netflix. He was signed after-the-fact to narrate Our Planet as a one-off, to give the expensive — even by Netflix standards — program instant gravitas and global credibility. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the current TV landscape is such that Netflix can reach more viewers in a single week than BBC can over the course of an entire year.

That instant access to the global village is one reason Attenborough needed no convincing to exchange Broadcasting House in London for Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif.

In his later years, he has readily admitted to anyone who’ll listen that his raison d’être in later life is to convince anyone and everyone he can that our home world is in trouble and needs our help.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Netflix’s reach doesn’t exactly exceed its grasp, either: Our Planet could conceivably reach one billion people, something not even BBC can do.

Attenborough is the face and voice behind Our Planet, but not its primary inspiration and directing force. That would be veteran British producer Alastair Fothergill, who made Blue Planet and Planet Earth for BBC and has recently divided his time between BBC, Disney’s Disneynature film division (African Cats, Chimpanzee and the soon-to-be released Penguins, in theatres April 17) and now Netflix.

Fothergill, a Fellow of the British Royal Television Society and recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Keaton Medal, has been at the vanguard of socially conscious, environmentally aware nature filmmaking that seeks to be both entertaining and informative. Unlike Blue Planet, which touched only briefly on plastic’s effect on the world’s oceans, Our Planet’s entire focus is on the man-made threat to the natural world.

Early reviews in the UK — in the Daily Telegraph and Independent, for example — have grumbled that, beautiful as Our Planet is to watch, the overall effect is scattered and unfocused as a result. Fothergill would argue that, unlike Dynasties with its Shakespearean tales of kings and matriarchs facing rebellion and revenge from within, Our Planet is unified by a single, overpowering message: that everything is connected, that what affects the ice fields in Canada’s frozen north also affects the semi-arid deserts in Africa’s sun-parched south, not just Arctic bears and savannah elephants myriad microorganisms, smaller animals and pollinating insects that lie between.

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

“From every region of the world there are stories that reveal nature’s resilience and show how restoration is possible,” Attenborough says in his voice-over — a reminder once again how, over time, his soothing, reverential tones have a calming effect on this crazy world we live in.

There’s something joyful — and joyous — in the way Attenborough reads out loud. It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, why Blue Planet and Planet Earth have reached such a wide audience. He’s a born storyteller. It’s not hard to imagine that programs like Blue Planet and now Our Planet wouldn’t reach nearly as many people without Attenborough as their verbal guide and shepherd.

Our Planet is important because, while it doesn’t harangue and harass us at home the way a TED Talk might, it focuses on the most important threat to humanity — arguably the most important threat of our generation — in ways that both move and inspire.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Attenborough is the star but the last word, by rights, belongs to Fothergill.

“When Huw (Cordrey) and I both made Planet Earth, that series was about amazing scenery,” Fothergill recalled a number of years back at a Television Critics Association press session in Pasadena, Calif. for the then new BBC nature program The Hunt. “It was about taking the audience on a journey around the planet that they could never do in their lifetime.”

What he’s tried to do with Our Planet is combine that epic cinematic poetry with a potent, topical message about climate change, species diversity and the perilous balance of nature, and why all those things matter to our collective future on planet Earth, and to the planet itself.

Only time will tell if Our Planet — and we ourselves — succeed.



A single picture can change the world, but can it save the planet? This is Nick Brandt.

Yousuf Karsh, Robert Capa — Nick Brandt. The art of photography is subjective. How we view the world is personal, and unique to us. How we interpret other people’s visions, as reflected through the medium of photography, is also subjective.

Every so often, though, an image — or a series of images — speaks to a deeper, more meaningful truth. A universal truth.

The debate over climate change — how is this even still a debate? — remains divisive and fractious, driven by monetary considerations, to do with jobs, the world economy and old-fashioned human greed. It takes a lot to cut through the clutter in a world connected through social media and motivated by instant gratification.

Thankfully, the power of a single image — an unforgettable moment, frozen in time — still has the ability to shake us out of our complacency.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Africa, a continent of shit-hole countries, to quote one world leader whose name is widely known but I prefer to think of as El Mamón (thank you, Dave Eggers), is a study in contradictions, not unlike most places, but on a grander, more epic scale. The cradle of humankind — if one is to believe evidence of early archeological digs in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which I do — is home to natural beauty on a scale unsurpassed virtually anywhere else on planet Earth in the early 21st century, but it is also home to overcrowded cities and a seething, steadily expanding sea of humanity, reflecting a youth bulge where the majority of the population is under 25. The population of Africa surpassed one billion people in the year 2009. The annual growth rate is more than 2.5% a year, with a doubling time of 27 years, according to United Nations estimates from the UN’s  Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs.  Today, Africa’s population is estimated to be 1.3 billion people, 17% of the world total. If the population continues to expand at the present rate — a big “if” — the UN estimates the continent’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, or 26% of the world total.

The population growth is the natural result of a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy, coupled with a corresponding healthy fertility rate. So much for the “civilized,” Western notion of Africa as a basket-case continent, riven by famine, disease, conflict and pestilence.

Climate change, on the other hand, is real, and affects impoverished, overcrowded communities in the equatorial tropics more than in the more sparsely populated — relatively speaking — countries of the far northern and southern hemispheres.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

How to convey this paradox of conflicting realities in a single photographic image with the power to both inform and move is no easy challenge, and most photographers don’t bother.

Which is where Nick Brandt comes in. He is neither a nature photographer nor a documentary news photographer, but rather a visual artist who combines elements of both. 

Nature purists argue against “posed”    animals (Brandt actually doesn’t pose his animals but rather takes photos in the wild; many of the animals in his most recent book,  This Empty World, published just last month, on Feb. 5, were photographed in the Maasai tribal lands outside Amboseli National Park, on Kenya’s border with Tanzania, where the dry, dusty plains look onto Mt. Kilimanjaro, a majestic backdrop for some of the most iconic images of wild Africa taken anywhere on the continent. (Mt. Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” to the locals, is also evidence of the more obvious effects of climate change, owing to its ever-shrinking glacial ice cap, but that’s a story for another day.)

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Photojournalists who focus on hard news argue against staged photos, as news, by definition, is about what happens in the moment, in the blink of an eye. Brandt does stage the people in his photos, building entire sets  — for This Empty World, a gas station, an industrial rock quarry, a dusty river bed — and posing his people there, but in a “green” way, deconstructing and dismantling the sets afterwards, so that any evidence of human interference has vanished entirely — we were never there. The animal images are superimposed over the staged people photos, and the result is both eerie and unsettling, and yet strangely real.

And powerful. Brandt’s images in This Empty World, and in his earlier black-and-white work, Inherit the Dust,  are — to these eyes, anyway — some of the most powerful images of human-wildlife connectedness and conflict it’s possible to imagine. The fact that Brandt, while respected among his peers, isn’t a household name on the art and gallery circuit is not just confounding but profoundly annoying to anyone who cares about the future health of the planet. I admire the David Attenborough nature programs immensely, for their pristine beauty, a soothing balm for troubled times and immensely — and deservedly — popular. But Brandt’s work, to me, is just as profound, but in a different, perhaps more meaningful way. Where Attenborough inspires us to action through natural beauty, Brandt demands that we sit up and take notice, and realize that this is happening right now and that it may already be too late to do something about it.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

This Empty World has only recently been published, so there is renewed media interest in Brandt’s work. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this week — Brandt distanced himself on his Facebook page somewhat from the published version, as it appeared in a first-person format, as if he had written it himself, with all the inevitable perils of entire thoughts edited out to fit a proscribed space — Brandt revealed some of his innermost thoughts behind his creative process.


The theme emerges again in this reasoned essay/review in the arts journal Brooklyn Rail.


“These men weren’t actors, just normal people from Kibera in Nairobi,” Brandt told The Guardian. “I didn’t direct them, except for the two guys on their phones. Wherever you are in the world, you see people staring at their phones.”

The animals were filmed in their natural state, with the final composite image edited later.

“The (animal) shots were planned ahead of time but only half-staged,” Brandt said. “We built a partial set and installed a camera that was triggered by motion sensors each time an animal came into the frame. And then we waited. Weeks, sometimes months, went by before we would capture one. There were times I wondered if the project would work.”

Clearly, it did.

“These men are not the aggressors,” Brandt continued. “Their communities are as badly impacted by the destruction as the animals. The villains are off-screen, typically industrialists and politicians, responsible for runaway development in the interests of their own short-term gain. 

“Every environmentalist I know in Africa who has seen the images has written to say: ‘You have absolutely nailed what is going on.’”

#Truth. And amen.

So you want to be a wildlife filmmaker? These are the stories of the people who made ‘Dynasties.’

A change of pace doesn’t always mean faster. Dynasties’ five hour-long life stories of five individual animals have now aired in the US, following their BBC One debut late last year, and it was evident from the start — each hour-long episode was filmed in a single location over a two- to four-year period — would have a different rhythm and pace than traditional nature programs.

Dynasties was always going to be different from earlier David Attenborough spectacles like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. By focusing on a single family group of animals over an extended period of time, Dynasties would bend and twist to the rhythms of life, and pack a real emotional punch. Survival of the fittest is never more urgent than when it affects individual animals viewers have grown to know and care about, even if only for a moment. There were times when Dynasties was both profound and poignant, and hard to watch. Life in the wild is a struggle, and there are never any guarantees that the noble — whether lion or penguin — will win out of the ignoble in the end.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

(New editions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are on the drawing board, by the way, following the next in the BBC-Attenborough canon, One Planet: Seven Worlds. Film composer Hans Zimmer confirmed earlier this week that he’ll be composing the theme for One Planet, as he did for Planet Earth II; no word yet if Radiohead will follow, as they did on Blue Planet II).

If any of Dynasties was hard to watch for the viewer, imagine what it must’ve been like for the cameramen — and women — sound technicians, location managers and field producers who followed each family group for months and years at a time, for the sense of achievement, if not the pay exactly.

Their stories, and the rollercoaster of emotions that rocketed them from highs to lows with an almost capricious regularity, form the core of The Making of Dynasties, which will air this weekend exclusively on BBC America (Sat., 9E/8C).

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the original program itself, The Making of Dynasties’ doesn’t dwell on the obvious — the bugs, the heat or, in the case of Antarctica, the cold — but rather the emotional, inner story of what it’s like to, say,  witness an African wild dog grow from infancy to become a strapping, adolescent would-be hunter and clan leader, only to stand by helplessly while it’s snatched, screaming, by a gargantuan, Antediluvian crocodile after pausing at a riverbank to drink.

It’s hard not to admire the physical and mental toughness of these filmmakers as they spend long days and nights outdoors in places that haven’t changed in millions of years in some cases — there’s no room service on the ice sheets of the Antarctic Peninsular, or in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, for that matter.

There’s Will Lawson, field producer of the Antarctic episode about penguins, rocked to his core at the sheer power and rugged beauty of the Earth’s most remote region, admitting softly to the camera, “I am absolutely speechless,” and 10,000 kilometre away, in Senegal on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rosie Thomas, producer-director of the episode about chimpanzees, struggling with her emotions as she admits. “It’s heartbreaking to see this chimp that was so powerful has just become so weak.”

Many nature programs, even those that claim to take themselves seriously, make the mistake of anthropomorphizing their subjects — deliberately giving animals human characteristics — in the belief that will make the program an easier sell with viewers.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As this hour of Dynasties shows, for the filmmakers themselves, these animals proved relatable in their own right, on their own terms. It’s easy to relate to any living creature when their very lives are at stake. There’s no need to Disney-fy the story. When the aging leader of a chimpanzee clan vanishes for several days after being badly injured in a fight with a younger, would-be alpha male, cameraman John Brown is shaken to his core.“We saw him not only nearly lose his position in the hierarchy but we saw him nearly lose his life,” he says to the camera. “The injuries he sustained in the last coup would have been enough to kill me. . . . 

“We’re still looking.”

The confessional to the camera, a type of aside used as a stylistic, storytelling device, is a tried and true staple of reality TV. Watching Dynasties, though — not just The Making of Dynasties — but the entire series, is a reminder of how much more trenchant and relevant documentary is than reality-TV. Here, the personal confessionals really mean something.

Seeing these cameramen and women in isolation, sharing their innermost thoughts, creates a sense of intimacy, emotions close to the surface for all to see. The Making of Dynasties provides depth and added  perspective to what was already a rich and deeply textured series.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“It’s tough, actually,” Nick Lyon, director of the African painted wolves episode, admits. “Because you spend day in and day out with these animals, for months and months and months, and their lives become very important to you. The stories can be incredible but it’s actually an emotional rollercoaster to see what’s happening with them.”

There are many moments in The Making of Dynasties that will surprise even those viewers who hung onto every word of every episode. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most dramatic revelations of life behind the scenes emerge in the Antarctica episode, where three intrepid filmmakers, Lawson and camera operators Stefan Christmann and Lindsay McCrae,  spent an entire Antarctic winter — in months of round-the-clock outdoor darkness — hunkered down inside an isolated German research station, Neumayer Station III, with just half a dozen German researchers to keep them company. A violent polar storm descends on them, on a scale witnessed by few human beings. Antarctic storms are more violent and powerful than any hurricane. There were times, Lawson admitted, when the sheer noise and violent stresses against a German-made structure designed to withstand just about anything, made him think the entire research station was about to come apart at the seams, taking them with it.

“We were told the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was less than 10 percent,” Lawson told the BBC’s RadioTimes. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was very apparent.”

The best nature programs give voice to endangered animals that can’t speak for themselves. As The Making of Dynasties shows, the conservationists and filmmakers  behind the camera have some interesting stories of their own. The Making of Dynasties ends, not with the Northern Lights but the Southern Lights, as seen from Antarctica.

“That is absolutely amazing,” Will Lawson says, nearly overcome by emotion in the black pitch of the Antarctic night, as clouds of green and amber light play overhead. “Oh my God.”

And how.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forest of the night, in this week’s outing of ‘Dynasties.’

There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already, Ashlan Cousteau once said.

That watchful gaze — ever aware, always alert — may not be enough to save it, though. Jungles and tigers both are in trouble, in this hot mess of a world. 

And the tigress Raj Bhera in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has it particularly hard in Tiger, this weekend’s Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C). She has newborn cubs, and everything from Indian sloth bears to other tigers seems to want them out of the way.

Never mind that Bandhavgarh, as indefatigable narrator David Attenborough takes pains to point out in his voice-over, early in the program, is a tiny — and shrinking — green island surrounded by a very human problem: over-population. The small, 105 sq. km. park in Shahdol District has a tiger population of roughly 45 tigers, which means that each cat has a territory of less than five square kilometres. The better-known Kanha National Park, by contrast, is home to some 60 tigers over an area of 950 sq. km, more than twice as much territory for each tiger than in Bandhavgarh.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

It wouldn’t matter so much, except that — as Attenborough stresses in Tiger — these cats, the biggest of the big cats, are notoriously particular about their territory, which they go out of their way to mark. Trespassing on another tiger’s territory can lead to fights, even death. And it doesn’t help if one of the tigers, like Raj Bhera, has a litter of newborn cubs to protect.

Watching Dynasties, not just Tiger but all the episodes, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers, who followed each of their subjects over a four-year period, have gone out of their way to edit each hour to end on a positive note — if not a happy ending exactly, at least not on a nihilistic note. Animals, predator and prey alike, lead a hard life in the wild, wherever they are. And one of the things that makes Dynasties so compelling, if hard to watch at times, is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the tension, or the threats to its subjects’ existence — even if those endings do seem shaped in some way. (Last week’s episode Chimpanzee, for example, left out the bit where an expedition team returned Senegal’s Sahel region several months after filming ended, only to learn that the researchers’ primary study animal, and the episode’s lead character, clan leader David had been killed after all, beaten to death, most likely by his quarrelsome challengers Jumkin and Luthor, and Jumkin was now clan leader and facing an insurrection of his own.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the other episodes, Tiger’s making demanded meticulous attention to detail and no small amount of time, sweat and dedication from the production team. Episode director Theo Webb, an eight-year veteran of BBC’s Natural History Unit (1997’s Land of the Tiger, which aired on BBC Two, is among his many credits —  gave viewers a hint of the day-to-day jungle routine, writing on BBC’s website late last year, when Tiger made its debut in the UK (this weekend marks Tiger’s US premiere).

“Each morning at sunrise, we’d drive into the park and head straight to the territory of our tigress, Raj Bhera. Tigers are very site-specific and we knew the rough boundaries of her territory. She wasn’t radio collared and so to find her, we’d look for tracks in the dusty roads that criss cross through the park. It’s not only the tourists and us that used these dust roads. A lot of the animals also use them, because it’s much nicer to walk on soft sand rather than twigs and thorns.

“This was incredibly useful to us because you can see what’s happened during the previous night — for example, whether the tigers moving in that area were an adult male, female or cubs.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“If the tiger is moving through the jungle you can actually hear the alarm calls (of other animals) moving, as it passes through. . . .

“Tigers are very unpredictable, so you never know what’s going to happen, or when. Sometimes a deer would walk right past, and they’d continue sleeping in the middle of the day. Other times they’d get up and start stalking right in the middle of the day.

“We’d often sit and wait for an entire day with nothing happening. But you could never zone out. One day there was only a tiny window through a piece of vegetation where I could see the tiger’s tail occasionally flick. I had to have my binoculars on my eyes for hours because I knew that if she left, she’d move off silently and we’d lose her, and we’d be left waiting by an empty piece of grass.”

A tiger’s life in Bandhavgarh is beset by the ever-present threat of poaching and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict that breaks out when a small and shrinking wilderness area is hemmed in by ever-expanding agricultural plots and growing villages.

Alpha predators like tigers are the reason you don’t see old animals in the wild, biologists say. You don’t see sick animals in the wild. You don’t see lame animals in the wild. The predator — the tiger, the lion, the leopard, the wolf — sees to that. That’s why, as more than one field biologist has pointed out, a healthy predator population is invariably a sign of a healthy ecoystsem. It’s not just that the fittest survive. Those survivors procreate and pass on their genes.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Tigers are special, yet they’re vanishing, slowly but surely. It would be a terrible shame if the world loses them.

The Malays only speak of them in whispers, the 19th century explorer, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird, the first woman elected a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, wrote in 1883, in Sketches in the Malay Peninsular.

Malays only speak of them in whispers because they believe the souls of certain human beings who have departed this life have reincarnated themselves through these beasts, Bird noted, “and in some places, for this reason, they will not kill a tiger unless he commits some specially bad aggression.”

Over the centuries, the definition of what “specially bad aggression” really means has proved to be malleable,  shifting, morphing and shape-shifting with the times. The tiger has been able to adapt for the most part — until now. How much longer will the immortal hand or eye frame its fearful symmetry? 

‘Dynasties’ and chimpanzees — “The Garden of Eden is no more.”

Cometh the weekend, cometh the summoning hour. 

This weekend, the David Attenborough-narrated program Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C) focuses on a war for power and succession among a chimpanzee clan in the eastern Sahel region of Senegal, where the Sahara Desert is making inexorable inroads against the cool, green forests the chimpanzees call home.

Chimpanzee first aired on BBC One in the UK last November, and its harrowing tale of an aging but wise and decent clan leader threatened by adolescent anarchists in the clan played like equal parts Macbeth and King Lear

Dynasties, from many of the same producers who brought the world Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unrelenting in its violence and tension, both implied and actual. The filmmakers followed the clan leader David and his bumptious sons Luthor and Jumkin for the better part of four years as a cohort of younger males challenge the alpha male and threaten to tip the troop into chaos as they fight to gain the upper hand. “This is a story of power, politics, and the fight for survival,” Attenborough intoned in his familiar dulcet tones in voice-over.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

For the filmmakers who followed the troop for four years, it was all that and more.

Episode producer Rosie Thomas, a 13-year veteran of BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, gave casual viewers insight into the day-to-day routine of following a chimpanzee clan in the wilds of Senegal in a compelling essay for BBC One’s main website, that shows quite a different picture to the one seen on the screen. 

“It’s 3.45 am,” Thomas wrote. “With the ping of the alarm we drag ourselves out of bed, pull on our field clothes, assemble in the kitchen and try to stomach some coffee and gloopy porridge. No one speaks other than the briefest of ‘mornings’ to each other. It's too early to think straight, let alone try and have a conversation. . . .

“Every trip the road looked different: the rivers might have filled or dried up, the grass could be completely burnt or even two metres high and looming well over the height of the car. So each time we had to relearn the roads. 

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

“We followed the chimps last night until they built their nests so we know where they are located now, but we must reach the troop before dawn to make sure we’re there before they wake up. The temperature is already high, and by the time you’ve walked for half an hour you’re dripping in sweat. If the chimps are in a difficult area you may have to wade through thick vegetation, or even across a river. And all this before the sun is even up. 

“We locate the individual we want to focus on for the day (usually David), set up the camera and wait. We walk and we film, we walk and we film. It’s getting very hot now. We walk, we sit and we wait.”

Not for long. Because when something happened, as it inevitably did, they would see the kind of things that stay with one for a lifetime.

There are never happy endings in the wild kingdom, only temporarily satisfactory outcomes. The chimpanzees’ future is inexorably tied to that of planet Earth, and it’s still an open question as to how that story will end. 

Chimpanzee ends on a solemn grace note, with David temporarily back in control of his clan. As with any Shakespearean play, though, there are more acts to come.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

‘Dynasties’ and lions — it’s not always good to be King.

Finally. The curtain is about to go up on Dynasties in the US, on BBC America (Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9E/8C, and subsequent weekends).

And while the audience is likely to be nowhere near as sizeable or far-reaching as that which watched Dynasties’ debut on BBC One in the UK last November, viewers in the most crowded, competitive media market in the world will finally be exposed to Dynasties’ tough, uncompromising look at the animal kingdom. (True to form, BBC America’s five episodes will air out of sequence with their original BBC broadcast; BBC America is opening with Lion (this weekend, on Jan. 19), followed by Chimpanzee (Jan. 26), Tiger (Feb. 2), Painted Wolf (Feb. 9) and finally Emperor (penguins, on Feb. 16).)

Dynasties, from many of the same producers and  filmmakers who brought you Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unique for two reasons.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

One, each episode revolves around a single animal family or clan and tells a tale of succession. Each hour-long episode focuses on a clan patriarch, or matriarch, as they fight for survival against a variety of threats, from the elements and climate change to human-wildlife conflict and —  shades of Shakespeare — murderous family members determined to usurp the throne and upset the natural order of things.

Secondly, each episode of Dynasties has a pointed environmental message, missing from many earlier David Attenborough-narrated nature programs, in which we learn that many of the threats facing the wild kingdom today are the result of our own actions, whether it’s contributing to climate change through our voracious consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources or, more directly, as in this weekend’s opening episode, Lion, pastoral herders in Kenya poison a pride of lions to stop the lions from preying on their cattle, a critical source of income in many impoverished local communities.

Camera crews, field biologists and anthropologists followed each family group — lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves (African wild dogs) in Zimbabwe and penguins in Antarctica, over a period of four years, and witnessed some remarkable, never-seen-before behaviour over that time. It is the first time so many different, disparate variety of animals have been followed so closely over such a long period of time in their own environment, and that alone sets Dynasties apart from the other Attenborough programs.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

It also means, inevitably, that countless hours of film footage didn’t make it into the final broadcast version. The filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes stories are compelling in their own right, and that’s one reason I’ve decided to share some of them here, each week, before that week’s episode airs.

That means starting with Simon Blakeney, self-described dad and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, who followed a pride of lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as part of the team that put together this weekend’s opener. (“Spent the last few years working on Dynasties with an amazing group of Lions,” Blakeney tweeted at @simon_blakeney. “All opinions my own!”)

Blakeney penned a handful of short essays about filming Lion, for BBC One’s main website when the series first aired, including a trenchant analysis of the perils facing Africa’s remaining wild lions today. (Little-known fact: Just 2,000 wild lions remain in Kenya, the land that made Born Free famous, but more sobering than that is the knowledge that Kenya, and the Maasai Mara, the northern extension of the world-renowned Serengeti ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining strongholds for wild lions left in the world. Period. End of story.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Naturally, Blakeney hopes the lions’ story doesn’t end there, and Dynasties is designed in part to shed further light on the lion’s plight, to an audience that might not otherwise realize just how perilous the situation is — as well as showing directly, day-by-day, how tough a lion’s life is, even at the best of times. One of Dynasties’ great strengths, as television and as mass  communication, is that it’s unflinching and uncompromising in its view. When a pack of two dozen hyenas decide to annihilate a young, inexperienced lion who’s wandered too far away from the safety of his pridemates, or an otherwise tough, self-confident lioness is forced to abandon her ailing, sickly cub, to move on with that same pride, Blakeney and his team of fellow filmmakers were there to record every moment — and a lot of that ends up on the screen, whether it’s painful to watch or not.

Some of the most memorable footage he got didn’t make it into the final cut, Blakeney admits. That’s just  one of the harsh realities of documentary filmmaking. An hour might sound like a long time — actually, each episode clocks in at just 48 minutes, give or take — but in a format where every second counts, four years of filming inevitably means a lot of compelling footage won’t see the light of day.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Decisions about what to leave in and take out invariably come down to subjective opinion and the vision to see a project through to its end, in a way that is coherent, disciplined, tightly focused and communicates something vital and important to the audience.

A personal favourite of Blakeney’s, in which lions exercise a peculiar habit of hunting wart hogs during those times of the year when their regular food source, the annual wildebeest migration, moves on to greener pastures — which is about six months of the year. (Lions are territorial, unlike some predators which simply follow the wildebeest across national borders from Kenya into Tanzania and back again, depending on the rains; lions stay where they are. Also, there are other lions, in other prides, with territories of their own, who will fight any intruder, great or small, to the death — literally — to protect their own.)©BBC/Natural History Unit

“The warthogs live out on the savannah and they’re very quick,” Blakeney posted on the BBC site. “They would outrun lions in a straight race. If they’re being chased, the warthogs will often bolt off into one of their many burrows, usually old aardvark burrows or similar. . . . This could involve a lot of digging. The cubs in particular weren’t very good at digging because they were smaller and not as strong as the adults. The warthogs would get pretty disgruntled and they’d scoop up big facefuls of mud with their snouts, and then chuck them at the lions as they were trying to dig them out.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

For all the hardship and tough times Dynasties’ lions went through, Blakeney had some fond memories, too. The filmmakers found themselves getting close, sometimes uncomfortably close, to their subjects, even thought they consciously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, for ethical reasons as well as reasons artistic. (It never ends well for a wild lion who becomes habituated to human contact, intentional or otherwise.)

“On another occasion, about nine months in, one of the adolescent males walked round the back of the Land Rover I was sitting in,” Blakeney recalled, “and just appeared right beside me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reached out and stroked his mane as he walked past. I was on the radio at the time, which had quite limited range, so I was sitting right at the edge of the seat and hadn’t seen him coming. I jumped out of my skin when he suddenly emerged on the open side of the car. It’s easy to forget how big they are until you are up that close.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

The picture facing Africa’s wild lions is concerning. The IUCN Red List of threatened species officially lists lions as “vulnerable,” which is to say their future is far from assured.

Small-scale conservation groups, such as the locally-organized Ewaso Lions group in Kenya’s northern, semi-arid Samburu district, are doing what they can to lessen human-wildlife conflict, but the issue is complex and the problems are many.

Dynasties, in its own small way, hopes to spread the message to as many ordinary, everyday people — people who will probably never be able to see a wild lion in their lifetimes — as possible. If for no other reason, that makes Lion worth watching.


“Gross worm creatures,” manatees and climate watchdogs — the Week that Was.

It was a Demophis donaldtrumpi kind of week. What was up one minute was down the next.

A newly discovered amphibian that buries its head in the sand joined a growing list of creatures named after the self-styled leader of the free world. Ridicule ensued.

A climate conference ended with a watered-down resolution that vowed to recommit to resolutions promised in the 2015 Paris Agreement and stay the course. The conference ended in a kind of mutual, uncomfortable muted silence, followed quickly by protests that point out that “good enough” is no longer good enough: Climate change is no longer climate change per se but a full-on climate emergency. Not for future generations. Now.

A new civil-disobedience group, Extinction Rebellion, aka XR, renewed calls to take to the streets. The UK-based group has blocked bridges, bolted themselves to government offices and closed roads, all in the name of blocking climate change. Extinction Rebellion’s include zero net carbon emissions by 2025 and a citizens’ advisory panel — a national Citizens’ Assembly — to monitor environmental policy. The movement is not just limited to the UK: Since the group’s inception in October, it has spread to 35 countries. A “national day of protest” is planned for New York on Jan. 26. The group is planning an international week of rebellion in April, timed to coincide with 2019 Earth Day. During this past weekend’s second wave of civil disobedience, thousands of ordinary, everyday people in towns and villages across the UK staged peaceful direct action protests. A demonstration is planned Friday outside the London headquarters of the BBC.

Google Images

Google Images

During UN climate talks in Poland this month, David Attenborough — representing citizens’ voices — warned that unless action is taken soon, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is already on the horizon.”

Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student from Sweden, seized the spotlight at the UN climate conference with a defiant call to action, coupled with accusations that world leaders are “stealing” children’s futures. They’re not the only ones, to borrow a line from John Lennon.


There were glimmers of hope. Florida’s embattled manatee population appears to have stabilized, if not entirely recovered: Population estimates, based on a two-year study published this past week, pegs the state’s manatee population at 7,500 to 10,000 animals, up from the 5,700 to 8,000 found in a 2011-’12 study, the last time manatees were counted in a proper population survey. Even that news comes with a caveat, however: Scientists found that more than 700 manatees died in the past year alone, mostly from Red Tide and collisions with boats.


©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Nepal’s tiger population has increased as well, despite a worsening crisis in neighbouring India, brought on not so much by poaching and trafficking in body parts as big-picture concerns like climate change, environmental degradation, habitat loss and human overpopulation.

For sheer wackiness, though, few events this past week topped the recently discovered earthworm named after planet Earth’s most notorious destroyer.

EnviroBuild, a green-minded sustainable building materials company headquartered in London, paid $25,000 for the privilege of naming the blind, limbless, newly discovered worm, which buries its head in sand and exhibits behaviour that bears “striking resemblance” to the U.S. Commander-in-Chief’s attitude toward climate change. The money is being put toward a fundraiser for the Rainforest Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated, as the name suggests, to preserving and protecting the world’s remaining rain forests.

EnviroBuild co-found Aidan Bell insisted his company is not overtly political, he said in a prepared statement. “But we do feel strongly that everyone should do everything they can to leave the world in a better way than they found it. . . . As Demorphis donaldtrumpi is an amphibian, it is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and is therefore in danger of becoming extinct as a direct result of its namesake’s climate policies.”

That namesake famously bragged about his “very high levels of intelligence” and how thinking bigly with his giant brain led him to not believe in climate change.

He rejected the findings of his own administration’s climate change report.

EnviroBuild’s Bell told The Guardian that the worm’s name is “perfect.”

Caecillian, you see, is taken from the Latin caecus, meaning “blind,” perfectly mirroring the, erm, strategic vision (DJT) has consistently shown toward climate change.

It’s been that kind of a week.

Google Images

Google Images

Small is good: How community-based micro-efforts give the environment reason for hope.

So much for digital detox. I return from the tropics — just in time for CoP24 — and find little has changed. Climate change is now a full-on climate emergency, but then if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve known that for some time now — long before Mango Circus Freak was elected Leader of the Free World by 63 million low-information voters and climate deniers.

It’s hard to find light in all this darkness — Sir David Attenborough has certainly done his part, even at age 92, with his stirring Planet Earth and Blue Planet films — but as Jane Goodall reminds us in her self-reflective book Reason for Hope, there are always glimmers. We just have to look for them.

And behind every glimmer of light, there’s invariably a small group of committed difference makers who swim against the tide of apathy and willful ignorance, working their hardest to preserve, protect and restore their own small corner of planet Earth.

One such glimmer of hope exists in Mumbai, India — one of the most benighted, overcrowded and polluted metropolises on the entire planet — where, three years ago, activist lawyer Afroz Shah convinced Mumbai residents to clean up pollution-choked Versova Beach. The cynics said he was a fool, a latter-day hippy and would-be cult leader looking to take advantage of gullible locals and convince well-to-do, guilt-laden outsiders to part with their donor money.

He proved the cynics wrong.

versova tweet.jpg

Versova Beach remains a success story today, three years later, albeit the success is mixed. Versova is perhaps not the Utopian ideal and semi-permanent breeding colony for sea turtles some hoped for in the campaign’s early days, but despite the return of some garbage — owing to dumping in surrounding creeks around Mumbai that feed into the sea, Versova today is nowhere near the environmental calamity it was in 2015. (Nature has shown over and again that it doesn’t take much for an ecosystem to recover, given enough time and the concerted efforts of ordinary, everyday people to clean up their act, but many activist organizations prefer not to accentuate that fact, fearing — perhaps quite rightly — that misleading information coupled with willful misinterpretation will lead to complacency and the wrong-headed idea that, no matter what we do to the environment, it will always find a way to recover.)

Versova Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.10.51 PM.png

Shah has been in the news again lately, in part because he’s turned his attention to a 17-km stretch of Mumbai’s Mithi River. As the activist who led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) campaign to remove more than 5.7 million kg. of waste over 90 weeks starting in 2015, he notes that some two million Mumbai residents live along the banks of the Mithi River, choking the river with everything from human waste to everyday household trash.


Shah has been involved in three previous river rejuvenation projects and has been a featured speaker at NGO environmental conferences in Washington DC, and other cities around the world. He estimates that cleaning even that relatively short stretch of the Mithi River will take five years, but it can be done. Of that,  he’s certain.

“The water at all these places is clean,” he told the Times of India this past week. “But (it’s) full of solid waste like plastic, that ultimately floats down to the beaches and oceans.”


In an echo of Attenborough’s series-defining caution in Blue Planet II, Shah says plastic is the real problem.

Versova Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.11.10 PM.png

If we can somehow find a way to wean ourselves off plastic, planet Earth might have a chance.

In the meantime, it’s the small, grassroots community organizations working at the local, grassroots level — not the bureaucracy-heavy NGO multinationals with their high media profiles and slick advertising campaigns — that seem to be making the most difference. Micro is often better than macro, where environmental programs are concerned. It’s those small, community organized efforts that, time and time again, provide tiny glimmers of light that give the wild world reason for hope.

One tree can make a million matches; one match can destroy a million trees.

Yes, the numbers are sobering — as they should be. And while it can seem overwhelming — an estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest felled, burned and ground into sawdust each year — there’s  room for help. For another decade, anyway, if we’re to believe even the most pessimistic of climate scientists. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) cites, as just one example, the case of Afghanistan, which has lost more than 70% of its forest cover in just the past two decades.

And so it goes. Logging. Overgrazing. Forest fires. Deliberate burning. Urbanization. Unchecked soybean farming, to provide cheap feed for cattle on ever-expanding cattle ranches. And so on.

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

One and a half acres of forest is cut down every second. Shrinking forest cover contributes to between 12% and 17% of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. At the current rate of destruction, it will take less than a century to destroy all rainforests on Planet Earth — that is, if climate scientists are wrong when they say we have just 12 years to stop irreversible climate change.

There’s more.

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

The Amazon rainforest alone produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, but the newly elected national government in Brazil is committed to wholesale destruction, in the name of development and boosting local economies. Short-term thinking, in a world where more than 25,000 animal and plant species are expected to become extinct in just the next 25 years.

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves battle in vain.”

There are things we can do, though, according to the website Conserve Energy Future. 

The NGO Green Match named Conserve Energy Future (https://www.conserve-energy-future.com) one of the best green-energy websites for 2017, not so much for its dire predictions — though this is one problem that won’t be solved by just shutting our eyes and hoping it goes away — but for its practical how-to pointers on how nearly everyone can, if not save the planet exactly, slow down its destruction.

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

(It’s worth noting, for the record, that there are exposés online denouncing Conserve Energy founder Rinkesh Kukreja, such as an April, 2017 essay in medium.com headed “Credibility Becoming an Issue,” but these pointers are common-sense enough that they don’t need a scientific study to back them up. Sometimes, common sense is just that.)

• Use and re-use paper bags or, better yet, switch to canvas.

• Eat less beef. Cattle farming is one of the planet’s most destructive agricultural practices.

• Choose products that require little or no packaging.

• Support eco-friendly companies (easy enough to ascertain online). Likewise, boycott or simply shun those companies whose products actively encourage environmental degradation. 

• Sign those online petitions, even if you suspect they have little effect. If nothing else, the old saw, “Not worth the paper they’re written on,” doesn’t lead to much deforestation if they’re not written on paper to begin with.

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

• Plant trees — in your garden, your backyard or with a local neighbourhood group that actively plants trees in nearby wilderness areas. “The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it,” Kenya Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai famously said. “As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.” Lend a hand to save trees.

 • Try to wean yourself off plastic. Collins English Dictionary named “single-use” as its Word of the Year, but that’s not a good thing: “Single-use plastics” drew unwanted attention across the UK following the airing of BBC’s Blue Planet II, in which presenter David Attenborough showed sea birds trying to feed bits of plastic to their newborn chicks, in remote regions of the ocean previously believed to be untouched by human presence.

  • Stay informed, and spread the word.

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

It’s never too late, until it is.

David Attenborough's ‘Dynasties’ — a betrayal of the natural world he loves, or a celebration. You decide

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves battle in vain.”

I stumbled across that epigraph quite by accident  recently, during my online travels through social media. I liked it enough that I made it the introductory inscription on my Facebook page — no, I’m not above stealing — and I’ve seen nothing since to suggest the inscription is in vain.

One of the unintended consequences of growing old, the novelist and raconteur Paul Theroux wrote in his Siberian travelogue Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is being confronted by the same old arguments, made time and time again, often by younger people who carry on as though they’ve thought of that argument for the first time.

And so, with Dynasties, a new BBC natural history program about to make its debut on BBC (Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One and Nov, 17 on BBC Earth; Jan. 19 in the US, on AMC Networks’ BBC America), presenter David Attenborough is once again having to defend his approach to wildlife documentary filmmaking against environmental activists who insist that, by focusing on nature’s wonder and deliberately side-stepping the human-made catastrophe facing the world’s last wild places, Attenborough is being part of the problem, not the solution.

At age 92, Sir David is more easily irked than he was at, say, 32, when his early BBC effort Zoo Quest, a studio-bound program featuring animals from the London Zoo, let alone at 52, when his landmark, career-defining series Life on Earth changed the way many TV viewers viewed the natural world.

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough has devoted the final episode of virtually every nature program he’s ever made to climate change, the environmental crisis and the looming mass extinction, he recently pointed out in a pithy exchange in The Guardian, a fortnight before Dynasties’ BBC debut. This didn’t start with this year’s Blue Planet II, he said testily, even though few programs he’s made have had the real-world impact of that series’ final episode, in which he focused on how our careless use of plastics is killing the world’s oceans — and getting into our food chain, whether we like it or not. Science and technology can only do so much to counter humankind’s consumerism, rampant greed and penchant for excess.

That said, he added, turning to one of his most deeply held beliefs — that too much pessimism is a turn-off. Viewers overwhelmed into thinking the situation is hopeless, that the time to do something has long since passed, are tempted to give up. “There’s nothing I, one person can do, so why bother?”

That’s the real danger, Attenborough insists. The issue is not whether he fails to constantly remind you that virtually every wondrous, living breathing wild being you see in one of his eye-filling nature programs is staring extinction square-in-the-face. The worse danger, he argues, is that by being constantly told that the problem is so big it’s insurmountable, it becomes all too easy for the viewer at home to toss the remote aside and go back to noshing on Chilean sea bass and farmed salmon, chowing down on hamburgers and steaks made from soybean-fed cattle, and wrapping everything in plastic, all the while filling the gas tank to the brim, keeping the lights on all night and cranking up the air conditioning and/or central heating to the max, and leaving it there until winter or the spring thaw. 

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Regardless of what you think of him, Attenborough’s touch with ordinary, everyday people was apparent following the airing of Blue Planet II, perhaps proving his point: Millions of people around the planet tuned in, and his efforts — in the final episode especially — was credited with pushing the issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans higher up on the political agenda.

Attenborough might argue, too, that had he pushed industrial fishing and overconsumption into Blue Planet’s agenda, as some environmental activists demanded he do, he might well have lost viewers rather than gained them.

Dynasties was filmed over two years in five locations, including Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, famous for its lion prides and the setting for one of BBC’s more popular natural history programs from the 1990s, Big Cat Diary, a precursor — stylistically and from a storytelling point of view — of Meerkat Manor: The focus is on individual family groups, filmed over a period of time (in Dynasties’ case, day in and day out, over two years).

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Dynasties’ producers have promised a grittier journey into the natural world with this new series, grittier anyway than anything in Planet Earth.

“The animals are extraordinary creatures in their own right and they live amazing lives,” Gunton said in a just-posted interview with BBC Earth’s online media service. “But they're also animals that have to share the world and compete with humanity. They are in trouble. There is an environmental subtext to this; all these animals are in decline because there isn't enough space for them. We tell incredibly dramatic stories of these animals living really difficult lives against their rivals, their enemies and each other, and that's hard enough. But when you superimpose them also having their space taken from them by humanity, which adds to the pressure, it almost feels unfair.

“Hopefully, I think it's going to make people think about our relationship with nature and also what goes on in nature in a way we very rarely see. The realities of these animal’s lives. Sir David Attenborough says these are important films, they're real documentaries. They tell a truth not often told.

“Every film has very moving moments, where you see heroic struggles against the odds. There are also extraordinary moments of connectivity where you absolutely empathize with the animals.”

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough himself defended his approach in an interview just days ago with BBC News.

“We all have responsibilities as citizens, but our primary job is to make a series of programmes which are gripping, truthful, and speak about something quite important,” Attenborough said.

“These aren't ecological programmes. They're not proselytizing programmes. They're not alarmist programmes. What they are is a new form of filmmaking, and a new form of wildlife filmmaking.

“What we have said is, we will show what happens. We are not going to tart this up, we're not going to distort it in any way. If it's a triumph, fine, if it's a tragedy, that too we will show.

“This series is about the problem, for a lot of these creatures, that there just isn't enough space for them to survive. Space is not as sexy as plastic, it's a harder thing to get your head around, it's a much bigger issue, so [with] the individual struggles in these creatures lives, that's a very good way of bringing it to attention.”

As a counter-view, the respected environmentalist and Guardian editorial-page columnist George Monbiot penned a furious denunciation of Attenborough’s approach earlier this week (links to both articles below), and more-or-less accused Attenborough of betraying the living world he professes to love so much. By knowingly creating a false impression of that world, Monbiot argues, Attenborough is unwittingly playing into the hands of the planet’s destroyers, not its defenders.

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Monbiot argues that since just one scene in Blue Planet II’s final episode caused a sea change in the way millions of BBC viewers in the UK view disposable plastic in today's oceans, he could have done so much more if the entire series were rooted in environmental message-making.

Just as compelling an argument could be made that, had Blue Planet II been an environmental screed,  millions of viewers would have given up on the series long before that point in the program.

Who believe? Who is right, and who is wrong.

I can see the strength of both arguments. Based on my 25-plus years of experience covering the TV industry in my previous incarnation as a media journalist and critic, I lean toward Attenborough and his understanding of the way TV audiences think.

That’s not to say the question of environmental ruin and degradation should be overlooked entirely. Attenborough doesn’t do that anyway, regardless of what some of his more ardent critics say.

Es nidditmir de neshuma, as they say in Yiddish.

“My soul is vexed.”



Dynasties premieres Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One at 20:30 GMT, and Nov. 17 on BBC Earth in Canada. Americans will have to wait until Jan. 19, 2019, when it finally makes its debut on BBC America.

Magical circus beasts, and where to find them — a digitized ‘Carnivale’ of the Animals.

No animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture.

That Humane Society disclaimer is familiar to anyone who’s stayed to watch the end credits of any movie featuring animals, or bothered to watch the end titles of a TV show featuring the same, whether it’s a family-friendly classic like Lassie or a post-modern Netflix western like Godless.

Hardly anyone expected to see that of the circus, however. The treatment of animals in circuses — everything from locking tigers in tiny box cages for days and weeks at a time to forcing elephants to perform balancing acts before as giggling crowd  — has been a cause célèbre of animal-rights activists for decades now, and rightly so. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, aka “the Greatest Show on Earth,” took down its tentpoles for good several years ago because the travelling carnival act was no longer welcome in many towns and cities across the Americas, largely because of mistreatment of animals and the appalling conditions they were kept in.

©Circus Roncalli

©Circus Roncalli

For career performance artist, one-time circus clown and academically accredited circus historian Bernhard Paul, the circus — not just his Circus Roncalli, founded in Germany, but the circus as an institution — needed a complete makeover, if it was to survive.

He came up with a novel idea — holograms, not real animals. This is David Attenborough-type stuff, writ large, in 3D. His elephants are remarkable, and beautiful, and they pull off amazing stunts. They’re not real, though; they’re digitized images, CGI at its most stylish, images so realistic they’re almost real. And no animals are harmed in the performance of his circus act. Even domesticated animals like ponies trotting in circles or dogs jumping through hoops of fire — all holograms.

Where have all the animals gone? Aren’t the kiddies disappointed?

“Pah,” Paul replied, when asked that very question by a trade publication earlier this month. (Yes, the circus industry — such as it is — has its own trade publication.)

“Every child knows what an elephant looks like today, but you do not have to show it anymore.”

The David Attenborough effect, again.

©Circus Roncalli

©Circus Roncalli

Circus Roncalli’s philosophy in a nutshell: They decided against having the animals for the benefit of the animals.

Apart from the societal and ethical considerations, there’s a practical reason, too: Circus Roncalli prefers to play in city centres and town-hall squares — places “where there are not many appropriate accommodations for animals, since suitable pastures for the horses (for example) are often found only outside the cities.”

There’s no room at the Ritz for Mr. Ed, in other words.

Paul, 71, has been around the block a few times. It’s been a while since he last played Zeppo the clown in front of a live audience, but he’s filling seats in the big tent just the same. The artist-previously-known-as-Zeppo has put some serious time — and money — into his digital productions: two years and €300,000, to be exact, to design a proprietary computer program that uses holography, 11 high-performance beam projectors and a transparent screen — a net, actually — that rises in front of the audience. Technology, not animals.

Circus Roncalli’s main tent is 16 metres high — just seven metres shy of Salisbury’s now infamous cathedral,

Roncalli’s travelling carnival act, titled Storyteller: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, is moving to the Rathausplatz in Vienna, after its dry run in Innsbruck.

Not every circus mogul is a fan.

“What I’ve done there,” Paul told his interviewer, “almost all the other circuses lynched me.”

“Pah,” was his response. The only response, to his mind.

“You have to have visions. Certain visionary abilities.”

©Circus Roncalli

©Circus Roncalli

But, wait, there’s more. Paul didn’t spend all those years in the circus to be the shrinking violet when somebody asked him what he’s about.

“I’m a big radar. I know exactly what people like.”

Animals, for one. But that doesn’t mean they have to be real.

It helps, too, he added — no false modesty here — “that I come from another world.”

Well, not exactly, but not a world everyone is familiar with. Paul hails from the town of Wilhelmsburg (pop. 6,500) in Lower Austria, a town some describe as having been seized by circus fever. 

Paul didn’t start out as a clown, though — his original trade was electrician. He had no idea how his electrical background would one day inspire his dream of a circus in which no actual animals are hurt, injured or mistreated in any way.

Paul took on a civil engineering apprenticeship straight out of school, but soon grew tired of it. Wanting a new challenge, he studied graphic design at an arts school in Vienna. Electrician, graphic arts, the circus — the idea for Circus Roncalli was born.

©Bernhard Paul (centre), Circus Roncalli

©Bernhard Paul (centre), Circus Roncalli

Yes, old-school circus traditionalists want to lynch him, but he’s not going anywhere soon. And neither is Circus Roncalli, if a write-up in this month’s TIME is any indication.

“Once upon a time, a little girl saw the circus parade past the end of her street,” one-time circus performer and “elephant girl” Dea Birkett wrote, years ago, in a Long Read essay for the Guardian newspaper.

“Within hours, the park where she played was transformed into a world of wondrous, exotic people and beasts. She saw men walking on stilts and wobbling on a high wire, clowns squelching, white horses teetering on their hind legs, and an elephant strolling around a sawdust ring. She longed to run her hand over the deep ridges of its trunk, to feel the rhythm of its stride, to be transformed into the shimmering lady who smiled down from its back. Then, the next day, the magical world was gone. There was nothing but swings and slides in the park. 

“I was that little girl, and as I grew older fewer and fewer elephants paraded past the end of my road. Soon, there was no magical kingdom springing up overnight in our park. The rhythm of suburban life was no longer interrupted by fantastical eruptions. The circus had left our town forever. . . .

©COO/Creative Commons

©COO/Creative Commons

“. . . In less than 20 years, an extraordinary two-century-old art form has been near-obliterated. Animal-rights groups have waged a war against circus(es) . . . Now, the most common image of the circus is not the magic, but the misery. Instead of fabulous feats by human and animal, we imagine elephants chained to pallets, incarcerated big cats and horses trapped in tiny stalls.”

Not anymore. Not if Bernhard Paul, Circus Roncalli and his amazing cavalcade of wondrous, magical — and computer-generated — beasts have anything to do with it.


2018 Bird Photographer of the Year winners: More than just pretty pictures of our feathered friends.

Not all flamingos were created pink. Nature photographer Pedro Jarque Krebs, from Peru, won the 2018 Bird Photographer of the Year award — the ornithological equivalent of Best-in-Show — this past weekend for his colourful image of American flamingos preening in a lake mist. Yes, there were splashes of pink, but the predominant colour was a rich, vibrant red. Pink flamingos may still be a thing, but in Krebs’ image,  flamingos were allowed to show off their richer, more vibrant shades of vermillion.

Admittedly, Krebs’ work has relied heavily on digital manipulation and Photoshop in the past, but it’s the final image that counts. At least, in this case, the contest judges thought so.

Also, Krebs has had a reputation in the past for using captive animals in his portraits, often under less-than-ideal conditions. (Not all nature-photography award contests are so forgiving; judging committees at many of the top, prestigious awards value authenticity — wild is wild — over the final image, any day of the week.)

All this aside, Krebs’ winning image is certainly arresting.

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru


The Czech Republic’s Petr Bambousek was cited for Outstanding Portfolio, based in large part on his capture of a roseate spoonbill — genuinely wild —  preening its feathers in a pool of standing water.

Young Bird Photographer of the Year — an award of increasing significance, given the precarious state of the environment in these present, turbulent times — was awarded to Johan Carlberg of Sweden, for his stylistically fetching composition of a great crested grebe — also preening! — during golden hour.

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

Best Portrait awards went to nature photographers from Italy (Saverio Gatti, with the gold medal), the Netherlands (Roelof Molenaar, silver) and Sweden again (Ivan Sjogren, bronze).

Other category winners hailed from France, Greece, Spain, Kuwait and Singapore — proving, if nothing else, that bird photography is a global pastime, and not just the private hobby of a handful of well-to-do bird enthusiasts and world travellers from North America and the UK.

The Bird Photographer of the Year awards are managed by the UK-based peer group Nature Photographers Ltd. and the British Trust for Ornithology, a spiritual cousin of the US’s National Audubon Society.

More and more, as Canadian polar explorer, trained biologist and 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Paul Nicklen told The Sunday Observer this past weekend, nature photography — or conservation photography, as some prefer to call it — is on the front line in the social-media battle for hearts and minds.

It will be hard if not impossible for humanity to survive, let alone thrive, on a desolate, despoiled planet — that seems obvious — but the present-day toxic mix of greed, denial, militant ignorance and an almost wilful disregard of basic facts means the argument has to be made over and over again.

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

David Attenborough can’t get the message out on his own — not at his age, and not with so many deep-pocketed, big-money interests arrayed against him. Big Oil, the Koch brothers, Fox News and others still perpetuate the belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax, intended to bring western economies to their knees, even as he evidence suggests otherwise and entire ecosystems collapse around us.

That’s why my favourite category in every nature/conservation photography contest award I can think of is that which celebrates wild animals in their natural  environment.

And so it is with this year’s Bird Photographer of the Year awards.

Salvador Colvée, from Spain, won the Birds in the Environment category for his striking image of an ostrich wandering the crest of a sand dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert — the world’s oldest, in geological terms — not far from the aptly named Skeleton Coast. The cold-water Benguela Current from Antarctica follows the Atlantic coast from from South Africa to Angola, creating early-morning sea mists that stretch as far as 500 kms. inland across an arid, deceptively barren desert landscape, nurturing mosses and lichens that in turn feed a surprisingly complex ecosystem that includes, yes, ostriches, as well as large mammals like oryx, desert-adapted elephants and even the increasingly rare, hard-to-spot desert lion.

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

This is what the award-winning images in the  Bird Photographer of the Year contest are all about: showing nature in all its beauty, but also showing its hardiness and resilience in the face of existential threats. After all, threats don’t get much more existential than climate change and species extinction.

Another wildlife-in-its-natural-habitat image: Nature photographer Richard Shucksmith, from the UK, won a pair of awards, including the popular People’s Choice award, for his over- and underwater image of a northern gannet, the same kind of image that propelled Nicklen’s early career as a photographer, while at the same boosting his profile and spreading the wider message about the need to preserve what remains of  the world’s embattled polar regions.

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

Nicklen’s above- and below-water split-screen images from Antarctica remain the gold standard against which all similar images are judged today.

Despite some 22 assignments for National Geographic and a new book (Born to Ice, published by the high-end, German-based specialty publisher teNeues, https://books-teneues.com), Nicklen would prefer to be known for his on-the-ground conservation efforts and his co-founding of the ocean conservation group SeaLegacy with his partner, conservation photographer, environmentalist and frequent National Geographic speaker Cristina Mittermeier, than as an accomplished photographer. One is a calling; the other, a life’s mission. SeaLegacy is dedicated to the idea that future generations won’t have to know the world’s wild wonders solely through photographic images from a distant, fading past.

That’s why these contests — and the positive image they present — are critical to our understanding of Planet Earth and what’s at stake.

These aren’t just pretty pictures of birds. They’re a reflection of life itself.





‘The Lion’s Share’ and advertising: “A simple, brilliant idea.”

A number of years ago, a far-reaching, all-powerful telecommunications company, one of the big players in an ever-dwindling market of consumer options,  launched a highly effective ad campaign featuring computer-generated images of anthropomorphized animals being playful, friendly and full of energy.

You know the game. If it looks soft and cuddly, had big eyes, and was familiar to children and adults alike — lion cubs, panda bears, giraffes, baby hippos, you name it — it’s good enough for the phone company.

Cheetahs, the fastest of fast cats, are especially prized for a tech company looking for ways to brag about its high-speed Internet connections, regardless of whether that service is any faster than its competitors or not.

There were a handful of complaints at the time, from a handful of environmental groups and animal-rights campaigners, that ad agencies and tech companies were making money off the images of endangered animals, without paying any of the profits back into the conservation community. (It’s a sign of the modern times we live, and how much more savvy and technically sophisticated audiences are today, that accusations of animal cruelty are virtually non-existent: Today’s audiences assume that if you see a cute animal on the TV doing something cute, it’s a digital manipulation, not actually real.)



Naturally, the argument that ad agencies should give something — anything — for the conservation of animals they depict in their ads fell on deaf ears.

Fell on deaf ears, that is, until earlier this year, BBC legend David Attenborough, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Australian advertising production company Finch, Finch founder Rob Galluzzo and composer-filmmaker Christopher Nelius.

Signatories to the fund already include the advertising company BBDO, marketing research and TV-ratings measurement firm Nielsen and Mars Inc., makers of the Mars chocolate bar and Wrigley’s chewing gum, among other products.

UNDP goodwill ambassador and Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau announced the new initiative at June’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity called The Lion’s Share, based on the idea that advertisers pay into a fund when they use animals in advertisements. They would contribute a token percentage of their media budget, “spend” in ad-agency parlance,  to conservation and animal welfare projects.

©NHM/Natural History Museum, BBC Earth

©NHM/Natural History Museum, BBC Earth

The suggested amount is picayune — 0.5% of the budget of any ad featuring an animal. The amount may sound picayune, but as anyone who’s managed a family budget knows, pennies add up.

“The Lion’s Share shows that by making a small difference today, we have an opportunity to make an unprecedented difference tomorrow,” Attenborough told the UNDP get-together in Cannes this past June. “Animals are in 20% of all advertisements we see, yet they do not always get the support they deserve.

“Until now.”

The Lion’s Share aims to raise $100m a year within three years. The money will be invested in a range of conservation and animal welfare programs implemented and supervised under the auspices of the UN and a handful of selected NGOs.

Cynics will immediately cite the c-word — corruption — as misuse of funds from charitable donations is practically a spectator sport these days, but UNDP officials and assorted NGOs will be actively involved in seeing that the funds go where they’re supposed to. 

Finch founder Galluzzo, who originated the idea with Nelius, noted that nine out of the 10 most popular animals we see in commercial ads are endangered or threatened. Just as one example, there are 400,000 wild elephants left in the world — but just 7,000 cheetahs. If that.



The Lion’s Share — and, for the record, lions aren’t exactly thriving either — is big-time stuff, in no small part because of the active involvement of the UN. The Lion’s Share is designed to work hand-in-hand with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals programme, the global organization’s universal call to end poverty and re-nourish the planet. Helping to preserve animal habitat — thereby helping the animals themselves — is key to achieving the UN’s stated Goal No. 14, Life Underwater, and Goal No. 15, Life on Land.

The announcement in Cannes featured some star power, but not the kind onlookers may have expected. Coster-Waldau, familiar to fans of Game of Thrones as Jaime Lannister, was there to introduce not himself but Collette Ngobeni, a commando in South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, the Black Mambas.

Ngobeni told festivalgoers and UNDP delegates that the Lion’s Share is a worthy, worthwhile initiative  because it’s designed to help grassroots programmes like the Mambas anti-poaching unit, and not the big NGO’s with their multiple layers of bureaucracy.

“We’re working hard every day to prevent poaching,” she said simply.

©Alliance Earth

©Alliance Earth

Later in the day, Coster-Waldau did a series of interviews with the US TV networks on the Cannes waterfront.

They wanted to talk about Game of Thrones; he wanted to talk about wildlife conservation and The Lion’s Share.

“It’s our responsibility to safeguard all life on our planet,” he explained. “We can’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, as launched by the UN and world leaders to protect the future and ensure prosperity for all people, without preserving natural habitats for all living beings, from wildlife to marine life.”



Facing a US TV news crew from CNBC, his message was more succinct.

“It’s a simple, brilliant idea,” he said.

Simple. Brilliant. Reason for hope.





Less than 15% of world’s oceans untouched by human imprint: Antarctica the last, best hope for future of our blue Planet.

Good news, bad news.

First the bad. The first systematic analysis of the world’s oceans shows that less than 15% of planet Earth’s sea reservoirs remain untouched by human hands. The study, by the University of Queensland, Australia in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is an eye-opener, in part because even the researchers themselves were surprised by how little marine wilderness remains.

The ocean, after all, covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. So if just 15% of that remains untouched, it shows just how far-reaching — and  damaging — humanity’s effect on planet Earth really has been.

The good news is that some efforts are being made to protect what’s left.

Much of that 15% lies in Antarctica, where even some prominent, high-profile fishing companies have agreed to back a UN proposal to establish the world’s largest marine sanctuary.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

The survey’s findings were published in the journal Current Biology. Ward Appeltans of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, run by UNESCO, noted the research focused on the ocean floor, and did not include effects on the water column above that.

Not surprisingly, the oceanographic commission is backing calls for a global ocean conservation treaty. Just 5% of the world’s remaining oceans lie within existing protected areas, a disparity former U.S. President Barack Obama tried to address before leaving office in January, 2017.

©Ward Appeltans/Twitter

©Ward Appeltans/Twitter

There are other bright spots, but they are tiny — and not without their own controversy.

Remote coral gardens around the equatorial atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean are still healthy, though researchers note that in part this is because more than 500 islanders were forcibly removed from their island homes in 1971, as part of an international arrangement between the UK, US, Mauritius and Seychelles, to facilitate the building of an air base.

Pragmatists may also be forgiven for wondering about the potential environmental impact of a military airbase on pristine coral reefs and the surrounding sea, given the penchant for secrecy around anything to do with national, international and hemispheric security.

Antarctica is the key to any future decisions, though.

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Antarctica lies within an area loosely defined in marine terms as “the high seas,” those areas beyond protected areas that individual nations can establish as part of their territorial waters.

That is why an all-nations international agreement, such as that which can only be negotiated by the UN or a similar worldwide body, is so important.

Climate change and ocean acidification, coupled with more obvious manmade activities such as industrial fishing, global shipping, pollution in coastal areas and resource extraction, are having a profound effect, not just on marine ecosystems but on the world’s weather patterns.

As David Attenborough warned in his epic BBC series Blue Planet II last December, the world’s oceans are under threat as never before.

In January, marine scientists warned that the oceans are suffocating. So-called “dead zones” have multiplied four-fold since 1950.

In February, new surveys showed that more than half the world’s oceans are now industrially fished.

Is it too late?

Perhaps not, if more nations — and individuals — accept the old proviso, Not on my watch., whether that means scaling back some $4 billion in government fishing subsidies toward fishing on the high seas or deciding against Chilean sea bass the next time you go to a fancy seafood restaurant.



“Thirty years of climate hysterics proved wrong time and time again” — What price willful blindness?

Media tycoons can be just as dimwitted, disingenuous — or downright dishonest — as the next person.

I have posted already about the frightfully stupid column by a media tycoon weeks back in a national newspaper in Canada, and its audience-grabbing headers, Thirty years of climate hysterics being proven wrong over and over again, and, There is no justification for the self-punitive nonsense of the Paris climate accord, and — yes! there’s more! — Most of our political and academic leaders are so far over-invested in defending against something that is not happening, they continue to call for the sacrifice of others.

You see, because if media tycoons are known for anything, it’s their selflessness and finely tuned sense of sacrifice, honed over many decades, centuries even, of looking out for their fellow human being.

Economic suicide — i.e. shutting down oil fields and getting off fossil fuels once and for all — is only tempting to those who have forgotten what pre-industrial life was like, it ended.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Why stop at the pre-industrial age, though? If we’re dealing with the semantics of history, why not rewind all the way back to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction period, the so-called K-T event, some 65.5 million years ago. For many years, palaeontologists believed this event was caused by climate change that disrupted the dinosaurs’ food chain.

Scientific discoveries in the mid-1980s, based on geological findings of the rare element of iridium in rock samples taken from that time, suggest the most likely culprit was a meteor or asteroid that kicked up so much dust it effectively triggered a global blackout, ushering a new ice age. The theories are many; the proof in short supply. What evidence there is shows that the planet did slowly became cooler during that time, the late Mesozoic Era, during which the dinosaurs died out, after surviving some 160 million years in a hot, humid, tropical climate. Dinosaurs, like today’s reptiles, you see, were cold-blooded; they obtained body heat from the sun, and so would not have been able to survive a considerably colder climate.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Mammals are warm-blooded, and while it’s a stretch to say all mammals are ill-suited to adapt to a suddenly hotter climate, “economic suicide” is clearly a matter of degree. As environmental activist and marine wildlife conservationist Paul Watson once told me — though you don’t need an activist to tell you this — there’s not much point in worrying about what you do for a living if the entire planet is unliveable.

In the time between my last post and this post, this has happened:

More than 50 forest fires have broken out in Sweden, a nation more known for its cold and snow than fires which — and this is true — are now breaking out inside the Arctic Circle.

@World Health Organization/Twitter

@World Health Organization/Twitter

But wait, there’s more. Following catastrophic floods across Japan, temperatures there have now reached north of 40°C, and thousands have been hospitalized for heat-related reasons.

Toronto, a city known more for its obsession with ice-hockey than anything else, has recorded temperatures that exceeded 30°C on 18 days so far this year, well ahead of the 10 such days all last last summer.

Oh, and scorching weather across the UK has melted panels on the roof of the Science Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, as well blistering agricultural fields throughout a verdant land more known for its craggy highlands and rolling sea mists than once-in-a-generation heatwaves.

As an article in the Sunday Observer this past weekend by science editor Robin McKie noted, climate scientists point to a number of factors, not just climate change and global warming but also the jet stream, which is uncommonly weak right now. A weak jet stream causes weather patterns like high-pressure ridges in the northern hemisphere to stall, which in turn leads to substantial increases in sea-surface temperature across the North Atlantic, which in turn cause more drought on dry land. One factor feeds on the other. The more heat there is, the hotter it gets. Everything is connected, as David Attenborough keeps reminding us in his nature programs.

©Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine

©Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine

Again, you don’t need a science degree to understand this, but constantly rising global carbon emissions — man-made or not, regardless of whether you think they’re the whole cause or only part of the cause — DO. NOT. HELP.

As events of the past week and the summer so far  suggest, heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense, and, as one marine scientist (with the Scottish Marine Institute, Oban) told the Observer: “That is something . . . we should be very worried about.”

You know, on second thought, any economic fallout from the Paris Agreement may be a small price to pay.



©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Sand mining — the global environmental crisis you’ve never heard of.

As incredible as it might seem, the world is running out of sand.

Depending on who you talk to, whether in academia or in the conservation community — or with anyone who keeps up on the news and reads between the lines —sand is the new gold, the new coltan, the new diamonds.

The New Yorker, The Guardian, al-Jazeera English, The Economist, Business Insider, the journal Science and countless others have weighed in on the looming sand crisis.

As headlines go, though, this one is decidedly unsexy. Sand doesn’t have its own lobby group. Sand isn’t an icon animal on the brink of extinction, nor does it seem as immediate and far-reaching in our day-to-day lives as the precarious state of the world’s oceans. Not even David Attenborough, probably,  could pull off a cautionary documentary series about sand, and get people to watch.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

I’ve enclosed a couple of links below to the more authoritative, recent — and reliable — media accounts of what for all intensive purposes looks like a looming existential crisis.

Here at a glance, though, are the big-picture issues, facts, questions and arguments, whittled down to a few brief, basic pointers.

• The problem, as always, is overpopulation — too many people, with more arriving all the time — coupled with overheated economies competing for a finite and ever-dwindling supply of natural resources.

• Sand is vital for use in construction. It is one of the  primary ingredients of concrete.

• The world’s largest, ever-expanding deserts contain huge deposits of sand, it is true, but it’s the wrong kind.

• Desert sand is composed mostly of tiny, finely rounded grains, sculpted and smoothed by wind erosion. The sand used in concrete is of a more jagged, rough-edged kind — the kind found, ideally, at the bottom of riverbeds.

• Riverbed sand is prized because it has the right texture and purity, and is constantly washed clean by running water. Freshwater, not salt.

• As the sand needed for construction becomes more sought after, there’s a growing black market in sand that’s illegally obtained.

• Demand drives the market, as always. Sadly for the environment, a hollowed-out riverbed in a protected, environmentally sensitive area can take decades, generations — centuries, even — to recover.

• In the meantime, illegally dredged sand leaves  environmental ruin in its wake. Sand barriers and coral reefs that protect coast communities can collapse; drinking water is polluted; and habitat that sustains fish, turtles and other riverine life is destroyed.

• Illegal sand-dredging is conducted on an industrial scale, with hundreds of trucks filled, often late at night, in a matter of hours. 

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Strange but true: The world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is surrounded by sand, part of the Arabian Desert, a vast desert wilderness that stretches from Yemen in the Persian Gulf to Jordan and Iraq in the heart of the Middle East. And yet, the Burj Khalifa was constructed with concrete incorporating “the right kind of sand” — imported from Australia. Everything comes at a cost.

Sand may not be a headline grabber, but the numbers are truly vast. 

Consider this: In 2014, the most recent year for which hard figures are available, sand accounted for 85 percent of the total weight of minded material on Planet Earth that year. That’s an issue because, according to published reports, sand is replenished by rock erosion over thousands years.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

High demand inevitably leads to scarcity, which in turn means money — and money means trouble. The world sand extraction market is estimated to be worth some USD $70 billion a year; a cubic metre of sand can fetch as much as USD $100 in areas of high demand and short supply.

Sand mining is unsustainable over the long term. More and more, scientists insist this is a hidden ecological disaster in the making. We’ll be hearing a lot more about sand in the coming years, they say.

Life’s a beach, it seems, in more ways than one. To paraphrase the late great Jimi Hendrix, even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.




Jane Goodall and ‘The Wild Immersion’ — a potential watershed moment for wildlife film-making.

Have you ever experienced the roar of a jaguar standing in front of you with nothing restraining him?

“The Wild Immersion” aims to make that not just possible but a virtual reality.

With the blessing of Dame Jane Goodall, French film-maker Raphaël Aupy and a small team of dedicated film professionals asked that question just last week of the assembled throngs at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, along with a challenge to, and there’s no subtle way to put this, “Trade the sunglasses for VR helmets.”

Film is one thing; the VR experience quite another. Goodall is determined to not only make younger people see and hear what’s left of our wild world, but experience it and feel it, in their bones and in their soul, as if they were there, in person.

First, the bare bones behind the project. This is the boring part. The explanation of what it is. Why it matters, why you should care — and why Goodall is injecting so much of her personal passion into the project — comes after this.

©Wild Immersion

©Wild Immersion

Simply put, The Wild Immersion is a virtual-reality entertainment production company whose stated aim is to produce, recreate and present immersive experiences in wild, natural surroundings, whether it’s staring up from a blade of grass at a pride of prowling lions or soaring through an African sky while flying with a flock of flamingoes, looking down on the pristine waters of a primordial lake not far from the volcanic highlands where humankind was born.

©Wild Immersion

©Wild Immersion

Goodall, the Bournemouth, UK-born primatologist, anthropologist, ethicist, author, behavioural scientist, mother and human being who founded the Jane Goodall Institute, has been spreading the word of conservation for half a century now, in the trail of her pioneering studies of chimpanzee behaviour at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park in Central Africa’s “Great Lakes” region.

In 2007, when asked why, if chimpanzees are so much like us, why are they endangered, she famously replied,

“Well, in some ways, we’re not successful at all. We’re destroying our home. That’s not a bit successful.”

And then there was this admission, a few years before that, 

when asked by the New York Times’ Tamar Lewin why she had exchanged her calling as a behavioural scientist to that of an environmental activist:

“I feel a desperation to make people see what we are doing to the environment, what a mess we are making of our world. At this point, the more people I reach, the more I accomplish . . . I do miss Gombe and my wonderful years in the forest. But if I were to go back to that, I wouldn’t feel I was doing what I should be doing.

“If you look into their [chimpanzees’] minds, you know you’re looking into a thinking mind. They teach us that we are not the only beings with personalities, minds capable of rational thought, altruism and a sense of humour. That leads to new respect for other animals, respect for the environment and respect for all life.”

©Wild Immersion/Jane Goodall Institute

©Wild Immersion/Jane Goodall Institute

The first three 12-minute films in the Wild Immersion film series  — depicting the African savannah, underwater and polar habitats — were unveiled at Cannes, but that’s just the beginning.

Future screenings — or immersions, if you will — are planned for China, the U.S. and across Europe. There are plans, too, to introduce The Wild Immersion in schools through headset-maker Lenovo’s “VR Classroom” project, via “virtual field trips.” The Wild Immersion project is designed to raise money for nature reserves — that’s the conservation part — based on 80 minutes of VR footage captured by Aupy and his team of technicians following 120 days of filming on five continents.

In an interview with The Guardian’s Steve Rose earlier this week, Goodall, 84, explained why she refuses to give up in the face of what seems like impossible odds.

“There was one time, years ago, when [David Attenborough] was going to give up. When I talked to him, he was totally depressed and feeling hopeless. Then something happened and he dived back in.”

That something, it seems, was Jane Goodall.

“I (just) did my usual spiel,” Goodall told The Guardian. “‘We can’t give up.’”

Most ordinary people can be forgiven for thinking just that, Goodall said, but there always room for hope. That’s one reason — one reason only — why she titled her 1999 book Reason for Hope.

“Most ordinary people . . . feel, ‘What can I do to help?’ So they do nothing. My life mission is to give people hope. Because, without hope, you don’t bother. Being abusive is not going to get you anyway. You need to reach the heart. Once you’ve reached the heart, you’ve got somebody for good.”

Based on the early evidence — and just take a gander at the images below, if you doubt that — The Wild Immersion is going to touch a great many hearts, possibly more than any two-dimensional film or TV program can hope to do.




GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

‘The World’s Most Wanted Animal’ eye-opening, heart-rending — and urgent.

Cute — but doomed. That, at least, was the gist of a cranky review in The Independent of the BBC Two TV special Pangolins: The World’s Most Animal last week. “I’m not sure how many more wildlife documentaries along the lines of World’s Most Wanted I can cope with,” The Independent’s Sean O’Grady wrote, no doubt keeping in tune with his publication’s stated penchant for, erm, independent thinking.

“This sub-genre conforms to a template roughly as follows,” O’Grady continued: “Sir David Attenborough narrates; attention is focused on an endearing critically endangered creature; but also on some plucky humans trying to save them from extinction; heart-rending scenes of the human conservationist encountering the bagged-up corpses of their smuggled favourite creature at some airport terminal, usually in East Asia; plus, at the end, some scant hope represented by the work of the hopelessly underfunded endangered species reserve.”

But wait, there’s more.

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

“I was sort of ready for the pangolin to get the usual moving treatment, and sympathetically so, but, as I say, it’s just so overwhelmingly depressing and the battle to save these creatures so plainly unwinnable I feel like just letting the poachers get on with it and save us all more upset.”

Alrighty, then! Plainly, this is not the kind of program where a grinning, exquisitely coifed Jim Carrey is going to pop up as Ace Ventura, animal detective, pulling Courteney Cox, Sean Young and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in tow behind him. (For the record, it’s worth noting that the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective received “generally unfavourable reviews” from the critics when it was released in theatres in midwinter in 1994; made for $15 million, it went on to gross $107 million worldwide, proving that, while critics talk a good game, their opinion is often worthless.)

This is instructive because Pangolins: The Most Wanted Animal gets its North American debut this week, Wednesday on PBS, as the season finale of Nature — now in its, and I’m not making this up, 36th season. Nature’s 500-plus episodes puts it in the same league as The Simpsons, where longevity is concerned. Nature bowed in 1982; The Simpsons bowed in 1989. Pangolins may be doomed, but if they are, they’re not about to pass by unnoticed.

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

And when a writer for The Independent ends by saying, “Sorry, pangolins, elephants, rhinos, orang-utans, gorillas, pandas, sea cows, sh=now leopards, butterflies and bees, but I reckon you’ve all had it,” it’s hard to know whether he’s being deliberately facetious or whether he’s plugging for a leading role in the new Lars Von Trier movie. 

“We’ll miss you, though,” O’Grady admits, “if only for all the nice footage.”

Alrighty, then! Why not give up altogether — just stand idly by while pangolins and everything else marches off planet Earth into oblivion, shortly to be followed by the 91-year-old Attenborough and all hopes of a future, greener, better world.

©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

Despite the crabby review in the UK Independent, The World’s Most Wanted Animal struck a chord with viewers across Britain. As the reaction to Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II showed, natural, history programs do better with a UK TV audience than they do in the US and Canada, but that’s not to say they don’t have an effect. 

Anyone who reads this space already knows about Maria Diekmann’s Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST, website www.restnamibia.org) and the crisis facing pangolins, scaly anteaters, the world’s only scaly mammal, who are now being trafficked at a faster rate than elephants, rhinos and tigers combined, for quasi-medicinal use in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and because their scales 

Pangolins are often labelled, “the most endangered animal you’ve never heard of,” but — crabby reviews in The Independent aside — that’s exactly why programs like The World’s Most Wanted Animal serve a purpose, quite apart from filling empty hours on BBC Two and PBS’s prime-time schedules.

Years ago, while at a Television Critics Association get-together in Pasadena, Calif., I asked long-time Nature executive-producer Fred Kaufman what he looks for in a Nature documentary, considering his program has been a staple for public broadcasting in the US for nearly four decades now.

Kaufman replied that he’s always looking for new stories, stories that haven’t been told before — or, if they have been told, told in a new way. The World’s Most Wanted Animal fills the bill in both respects.

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

The crisis facing the world’s endangered animals — climate scientists and wildlife biologists are now talking about our present time as being the latest and potentially most serious in a series of mass extinctions — is an old, all-too-familiar story, but Most Wanted throws a new spin on it, despite The Independent’s gripe about it following a time-tested template of endearing, critically endangered animals and plucky humans, voiced-over by the sonorous tones of the great Sir David Attenborough.

A quick look at REST’s Facebook page, in the hours and days after The World’s Most Wanted Animal aired in the UK, 

shows that, in actual fact, many people don’t know what a pangolin is — or at least they didn’t, until they watched the program.

Now you know.

Pangolins: The World's Most Wanted Animal premieres in the the U.S. and Canada on Wednesday, May 23, on PBS Nature at 8E/7C.

Celebrity nature shows can no longer save the planet on their own.

A day late and a dollar short — much like recent US action on the Paris Climate Accord— Blue Planet II makes its North American debut Saturday next.

That might seem like old news, and it is. We’re living in a global village, after all. It’s a measure, though, of how far-reaching and long-lasting Blue Planet II was for its originating broadcaster that, this past week, BBC announced that it’s commissioned a pair of new documentaries about the challenges facing the environment, along with a new Planet Earth-style nature series, Dynasty, which will follow several groups of animals — lions, African hunting dogs, chimpanzees, tigers and penguins — over a two-year period.

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

Why does this matter?

It matters because, in spite of strong reviews and stellar ratings in the UK — more than 14 million viewers tuned in to see the debut episode of Blue Planet II in the UK, making it the third most-watched program on UK TV in five years — the program’s overarching message of environmental degradation drew criticism in some quarters for preaching. 

Some of the more unforgettable images in entire series, especially in the later episodes, were hard to watch, including heartbreaking footage of albatrosses unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic.

Blue Planet II: aesthetically inspiring, but sobering, too. And thought-provoking — whether we want to be provoked or not.

BPII straw.png

One of BBC’s newly commissioned documentaries, the self-explanatory Drowning in Plastic, will show in stark, simple terms exactly what our disposable culture is doing to the world’s oceans. A second documentary, The Truth About What You Wear, will explain exactly that.

David Attenborough once said that no one wants to be lectured at home about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket and how it’s their fault, but that was in simpler, less dangerous times.
BBC executive Tom McDonald, head of the Beeb’s Natural History Unit — effectively, Sir David’s employer — has told anyone who’ll who’ll listen that, the BBC’s critics aside, it’s not as if BBC1 hasn’t tackled these issue before. It’s just that, thanks to the heady reception accorded Blue Planet II, more people are listening.

“We’re not here to campaign,” McDonald told The Guardian, earlier this month. “We’re not here to lobby. But there is a consensus among scientists that the world is changing. I don’t think there’s anything contentious about what’s happening in the world.”

The reasons why what’s happening is happening could be very contentious, however. No one in a position of authority at the publicly-funded BBC is going to say anything too controversial, but more and more of those same viewers and listeners who help pay the BBC’s bills are having their say, and it’s not always what other people want to hear.

©Audun Rikardsen for The Guardian

©Audun Rikardsen for The Guardian

“The real solution to saving our planet is population control,” one reader posted on The Guardian’s message board. More mouths to feed, more land razed for livestock, more fossil fuels to drive ever-growing industry, more desire and need to boost quarterly profits.

“We are outgrowing the Earth and stripping it bare. Recycling your Starbucks coffee cup and buying loose vegetables just won’t cut it (anymore).”

Famine, flooding, landslides, forest fires and tectonic upheaval — everything from earthquakes generated by fracking and unchecked nuclear testing — are subjecting the Earth to a slow, lingering death.

“We’ve . . . recognized an uncomfortable fact,” Attenborough says in Blue Planet’s closing moments. “[The oceans are] changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.”

Not preaching. Just fact.

Another fact: Sadly, we can no longer save the world just by watching celebrity nature shows. Activism involves more than simply staring in wonder at an endangered animal on TV. Increasingly, people — some people, anyway — are realizing that humanity must find a quicker, cleaner way to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and do away with conspicuous consumption altogether. It’s a Manhattan Project for the 21st century.