‘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.


Ni! He’s a lumberjack — and now a knight — so he’s OK.

It was his presidency of the Royal Geographic Society what done it, as the English say.

That, and the James Joyce Award, bestowed by Dublin, Ireland’s Literary and Historical Society, not to mention the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and — just so the (ex) colonies aren’t shut out entirely — a gold medal for achievement(s) in geography from the Royal Canadian  Geographical Society.

Also, by all accounts he’s a swell guy, judging from his self-description as being a man of “amenable, conciliatory character.”

Perhaps this charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe can wear the mantle of “Sir Michael” after all, despite being a willing participant in some of Monty Python’s most irreverent — and anti-establishment — sketches, including the Lumberjack song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK; I sleep all night and I work all day” / [chorus] “He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK; he sleeps all night and he works all day”) and the Parrot sketch, arguably Monty Python’s most famous — certainly the most readily quoted — sketch, inspired by Michael Palin’s trip to an auto mechanic who refused to accept there was a problem with his car.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

In my previous life as an entertainment-industry reporter, I talked to Palin a couple of times — most notably when he was promoting Sahara, his 2002 BBC docuseries account (film and book, both) of his transect of the Sahara Desert, “meeting people and visiting places.” There was the pink touring bus in Libya, his remark on revisiting Tunisia that this is where he was crucified (in Life of Brian, filmed in part in Tunisia 12 years earlier), and his sheepish admission that his Sahara expedition almost ended before it began, when he twisted his ankle while playing a pick-up game of beach soccer with street urchins in Morocco. When I asked him about possible future expeditions, in 2003, he seemed ready to admit that, at age 58 and with considerable prodding from his wife of 37 years and growing objections from BBC’s in-house travel insurance advisor, it was perhaps not a good idea to keep returning to war zones for the sake of a TV show. 

(How to stay married for 49 years, Palin told The Telegraph in 2015: “Sex has nothing to do with it.” How English!)

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

Why not follow in the footsteps of the early English explorers’ search for the source of the Nile, I suggested. I’m sure Sudan is a safe place to travel, BBC camera crew in tow, I told him. As for Uganda, how bad can the Lord’s Resistance Army be? They’re with the Lord! They’re doing the Lord’s work, where it’s most needed — in the wetlands of northern Uganda and South Sudan. Your wife would be thrilled. I suggested.

Once a Python, always a Python: He laughed.

He never did do Search for the Nile, but he still racked up the travel miles, camera crew in tow: the Himalayas in 2004, “new Europe” in 2007, Brazil in 2012, and this past year, North Korea.

He admitted his fellow ex-Pythons were somewhat mystified by his sudden post-Python wanderlust: In their eyes, truth be told, it was kind of weird.

No matter. Fast-forward to the New Years Honours list, the 2019 edition, when Palin, already made a CBE in the year 2000 (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), became the first member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to be given the full knighthood. Sir Michael it is, then. Palin, now 75, was knighted for his services to travel, culture and geography, and for being a global “Ambassador for Britain.”

©BBC/Michael Palin

©BBC/Michael Palin

Palin took the honour with characteristic British understatement. What, you were expecting him to go the full Mick Jagger? (When the Mick became Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, knighted for his 40 years of service to popular music at Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday bash at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman sniffed, “Jagger does not deserve a knighthood.”)

The Queen personally avoided bestowing Sir Mick with the honour, because she believed him an inappropriate candidate for the honour, owing to his anti-establishment views — or so it was said at the time.

The Monty Python comedy troupe wasn’t exactly pro-establishment in its day, but that geography thing — Pole to Pole in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days in 1992, going Full Circle around the Pacific in 1997, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway Adventure in 1999 — helped tip the scales of atonement for his sins of irreverence during the Python years.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

After learning that he had made the Queen’s New Year Honours list, Sir Michael hinted to the BBC that he’s getting a little old to trash a hotel room, Mick-style.

Instead, he told the Beeb, he may “just have a quiet celebration, just myself and a glass of Horlicks, and then go to bed.”

Horlicks, for those not in the know, is a malted hot drink developed in the early 20th century by founders James & William Horlick and sold as “Horlick’s Infant and Invalids Food,” with “Aged and Travellers” added to the label later. 

Don’t buy this “Ready for Retirement” act for a second, though. Sir Michael always knew the value of a good sound bite.

Instead, look to an admission made earlier in his career — but not so long ago that it’s forgotten by now — when he said, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

There are some miles to go yet on that particular road. Think of it as a road less travelled.

“I enjoy writing, “ he wrote in Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. “I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end.”

Weddell Sea Expedition 2019: All begins well that (sort of) ended well.

As you saw in my last post, the 2019 expedition —months in the planning — has made landfall, if you will, on its way to one of the harshest regions in Antarctica. Their official mission is to gather vital data on the rare and little-studied species of marine life which call the icy western Weddell Sea home, and to monitor the effects of rapidly accelerating climate change.

The unofficial mission is to find the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance,  which could only endure so much before it was crushed by pack ice and abandoned at 5 p.m. local time on Oct. 27, 1915 — this, after Shackleton and his crew of 27 had survived nine months trapped in the Antarctic ice, four of those months in winter darkness.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

On this past New Year’s Day, while countless partygoers around the world nursed a hangover from the night before, the roughly 30 scientists and 138 crew members aboard the expedition ship SA Agulhas II played an impromptu game of soccer on the Antarctic ice — 104 years to the day after Shackleton and his crew played a New Year’s Day soccer game of their own, even if they called it football. (That event was photographed for posterity by Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley — who, it’s often noted, deserves much more credit than he’s received over the years for making a record of Shackleton’s exploits for future generations.)

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Weddell Sea expedition is enthralling stuff, especially as it comes in cynical, jaded times, when global anxiety and an all-pervading sense of gloom rule the day. Social media gets a bad rap — it probably wouldn’t be as bad if only users learned how to use it, but that’s an argument for another day — but the age of instant communications has its upside: Not only are events from the Weddell Sea expedition being shared around the world in real time via Twitter (@WeddellSeaExped) but the UK Royal Geographical Society, one of the expedition’s primary sponsors, has made teaching resources available for educators, presumably for those public schools that haven’t trashed their history and geography programs.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Why do we care about Ernest Shackleton more than 100 years later? Perhaps it has something to do with courage. And competence. After all, in an age when little of social or political consequence ever seems to get done — when more people are concerned about who got voted off The Voice last night than finding a way to fix Brexit, the polar ice melt, species extinction and our growing climate emergency — the idea that, with cool heads and strong leadership, more than 20 human beings can survive nine months trapped in polar ice and then navigate their way to safety in lifeboats across 1,300 km (800 miles) of open water — in Antarctica, no less.

And then there’s the place itself. Even as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft discovery of the most distant object ever explored at the edge of the solar system continues to make news headlines, Antarctica remains the last great unknown in the annals of contemporary exploration of the world’s land masses. Much like the snowman-shaped, 33-km (21 mile) long asteroid 2014 MU69 orbiting the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto, much of Antarctica remains unchanged since the beginning of recorded time, in no small part because of the desolate conditions.

“There’s no way to make anything like this . . .  type of observation without having a spacecraft out there,” New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin told reporters in a press conference just days ago.

The same could be said of SA Agulhas II and the Weddell Sea Expedition. It’s hard to beat being there.




Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 8.29.35 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 8.48.44 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 8.57.46 AM.png

From ‘Terror’ to ‘Endurance,’ a New Year’s Day expedition for the ages.

On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance

It was thought unlikely, if not  impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus —  in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

SA Agulhas II/handout

SA Agulhas II/handout

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.

And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became  trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.

Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.



Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.

The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming. 

In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg  — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.

The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker  Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.

National Maritime Museum/archives  - Photo by Frank Hurley

National Maritime Museum/archives - Photo by Frank Hurley

The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.

The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.

As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”

Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.

“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”



How newly discovered cave art is changing our perception of early humankind’s story.

Human pre-history keeps changing. Buried down on the list of year-end science stories that grabbed headlines in 2018 — somewhere between the growing impact of livestock on planet Earth’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and speculation about how Bajau ‘sea nomads’ deep-diving the waters off southern Philippines have changed the way we think about natural selection — was newly discovered evidence that Europe’s hegemony on humankind’s story may be misplaced.

In November, a newly uncovered cave painting of a wild banteng, a kind of wild cattle, on Borneo was found to be 40,000 years old, older than the prehistoric Lion-man ivory sculpture discovered in a limestone cave in southern Germany’s Hohlenstein cliffs region, in 1939.

©Pindi Setiawan/The Guardian

©Pindi Setiawan/The Guardian

The Lion-man, dubbed Löwenmensch, was important to science because, until this past year, it was believed to be oldest-known animal-shaped sculpture in the world and, more importantly, the oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art — proving that, while humankind’s early ancestors might have walked out of Africa, it was in Europe where those same ancestors first learned to appreciate art.

That was the theory, anyway.

It was always bound to be controversial, and not just because it caters to a specifically Eurocentric view of civilization but because of nitpicking over artistic interpretation. Carbon dating determined a flaked stone found in Blombos Cave in South Africa — a stone with hashed patterns made by an ochre crayon — was at least 70,000 years old, but the experts decided the markings “fell short” of being identifiable art.

©Wikimedia Commons.

©Wikimedia Commons.

Evidence of identifiable art is important to palaeontologists and art historians alike because it supposedly shows the emergence of minds like our own — civilized, if you will, and reflective of behavioural modernity. Modern-day Homo sapiens are smarter than Homo neanderthalensis — Neanderthals — the thinking goes, because we can tell Michelangelo from Andy Warhol. (Even by this reckoning, early Neanderthals may not have been not as dumb as they looked: a cave wall discovered on Spain’s Cantabrian coast in February of this past year revealed abstract paintings of mysterious figures dating back some 65,000 years; the only people known to be living in northern Spain at the time were Homo neaderthalensis.) As Dr. Adam Rutherford, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science, remarked in a year-end essay for a UK news site, “Neanderthals were simply people, too.”

As human population expands and northern glaciers recede, more and more previously unexplored quarries and caves are being examined and scrutinized. Who knows what hidden tales the coming year will uncover?

Humankind’s history has not been written just yet. Only the early chapters.


©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Finding light in the darkness: An elephants’ tale for Christmas.

Christmas. An uncertain ending to a bleak year. And, to those who pay attention to such things, signs of more bleakness to come. Hurricanes, cyclones. Droughts, forest fires. Dying oceans. Shrinking glaciers, melting polar ice caps. A climate emergency in the present, and a looming mass extinction in the future. Feckless leadership. Unquestioning followers. In the kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Christmas is traditionally a time of hope and spiritual renewal, regardless of one’s social, political and religious affiliations, but this Christmas seems empty somehow — a throwback to Dickensian times, perhaps, this time with the added distraction of frenzied technology and the ever-present threat of Big Brother, looming over us, driven and enflamed by social media.

And yet.

There are still good, kind people out there. Science and technology is still capable of producing surprises. And miracles. There have been scientific advances in the past year that take the breath away.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, and a 92-year-old, Sir David Attenborough, stood and delivered before an international conference on climate change, and the world listened.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

NASA landed a space probe on a predetermined, precise spot on the red planet, Mars, after a journey that lasted seven months, over 300 million miles.

The true wonder, which would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago, was that NASA’s InSight probe beamed pictures from a neighbouring planet, in real time, in such a way that you could watch them on a screen the size of your hand, on your phone.

And in an early Christmas present for anyone who cares about elephants and the health of the world’s remaining wild creatures, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the African country of Zambia, together with the conservation NGO Elephant Connection Research Project ( ECR), provided long-awaited proof of the viability of “wildlife corridors” that connect far-flung populations of wild animals across national, political boundaries. Wildlife corridors for animals such as elephants are essential for the revitalization of threatened and endangered species.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

In the case of the Zambia elephant, the pleasure lies in the details. An elephant bull was fitted with a remote tracking collar in 2017. In the past year, he was shown to have walked a long, circuitous route from his original home in in Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park to neighbouring Kafue National Park, a distance of 390 kilometres, in 14 days, accompanied by six other elephants, through another country.

In moving to Kafue from Sioma Ngwezi through the broader Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), this elephant and his companions demonstrated that restless tuskers wander in and out of neighbouring countries whenever the mood suits them.

Elephants have been known to wander back and forth between Namibia, Zambia, Angola, Botswana and even neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa. The regional transfrontier park system, as represented by the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, recognizes the right of wild animals to travel across national boundaries in protected areas, regardless of any political tensions that may exist between countries. The transfrontier park system was originally proposed in part, co-developed, established and enforced by one of the region’s great elder statesmen. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name was Nelson Mandela.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Information and knowledge are vital not just to existing wildlife populations, but for future populations as well. WWF Zambia’s communications officer, Nchimunya Kasongo, noted in a press statement that this isn’t just about elephants. Information gleaned from the satellite-collaring of elephants in Zambia — 15 collared to date — is crucial to understanding the right and wrong way to use land in such a way that subsistence farmers won’t be terrorized by seven-ton elephants, and the elephants in turn won’t be shot by angry farmers. It’s all about lessening the chances for human-wildlife conflict.

The future of the world’s large endangered wild animals, not just elephants but also rhinos, lions, gorillas, jaguars and polar bears wildlife is not only tied to climate change and habitat loss but also making sure the animals who call the wilderness home and the people who live there don’t come into conflict.

Why does this matter? We’ve trashed the planet in recent decades, in thrall to the demands a miserable, insecure society, even as the language of environmental protest has changed. A new, younger generation is involved, and they are engaged in ways we never were. Many of them know, even if we have forgotten, that economics and the environment are inextricably interwoven, in the same way an elephant from Kafue, Zambia is connected to another elephant from Khaudom National Park in Namibia.

Here’s one final thought to leave you with, on this Christmas Day 2018, this one brought to you by Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green party in Wales and England, writing in The Guardian:

“History is not pre-written, or destined to repeat itself. Offering the hope that with political, economic, social, educational and environmental transformation we can build a society that works for the common good, within the physical limits of this one fragile planet, is politically essential. The politics of the far right is built on fear and we must not feed that.

“Business as usual isn’t an option. But then that is one thing that certainly is not going to happen. That’s good news, for our planet and for its people.”

Merry Christmas, good people of Planet Earth.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“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.

On “nomaphobia” and digital detox: Tuning out, turning on and doing without the the devices, if only for a few days.

There’s a hotel on Bali that has passed a “digital detox” policy for its guests — while poolside, anyway. The resort has banned smartphones from outdoor public areas to enforce relaxation, and the early word is that people are loving it.

I won’t be on Bali for the next two weeks, but I will be somewhere in the tropics, untethered from my digital devices.

So … no blog, no Dispatches, and no weekly columns for TVWorthWatching.com. Imitation is the sincerest form of — well, if not relaxation exactly, something close. As writer Hannah Ellis-Petersen put it recently in the Sunday Observer, does a hotel pool exist if you don’t put it on social media?

Ayana Resort in Jimbaran, Bali —perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean — is encouraging guests to simply soak in their surroundings and take pleasure in being alive and somewhere other than the concrete jungle — to stare at the wider, green world, rather than staring at a screen.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Ayana’s digital detox extends to tablets, MP3 Players and laptops, not just smartphones. It’s all part of an effort to “forcibly untether people from their addiction of checking the news, compulsively taking photos, updating social media and replying to emails even when on holiday.”

I will be taking photographs, mind, just not compulsively. And not on Bali. 

All of us need to take a break from the wired world on occasion. It’s hard sometimes to grasp just how pervasive — and easy — instant communication has become, across the entire globe. A conservation-photographer acquaintance of mine just this past week sent me a Facebook message from the Southern Ocean, off the northern tip of Antarctica. Her expedition ship had no Internet connection while in Antarctica, she noted, but she had discovered — presumably by accident and not out of some need to stay in touch with the West Coast of Canada — that her Facebook Messenger app worked, albeit sporadically, and assuming her ship wasn’t about to be tossed about in a Force 9 gale while trying to navigate the Drake Passage, somewhere off Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. The life of a research assistant in 2018 is never completely cut off from the ends of the Earth, it seems.

On Bali, Ayana’s guests are encouraged to swim, “truly relax and be in the moment” and — spoiler alert — read a book. On actual paper.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

There’s even a new word to describe our need to be in touch 24/7 — “nomaphobia,” which experts are now labelling “the 21st century disease.” Surveys show that, even while travelling, one-in-five of us check our phone once an hour. More than one in 10 of us — 14%, if you must know — admit to checking our phones at least twice an hour. A 2017 Deloitte survey in the UK found that more than a third of those polled — 38%, if you must know — said they believed their were using their smartphone too much . . .  and then immediately went back to looking at their phones.

After all, how were they to know the results of the survey they had just taken, if they didn’t look it up online?

Myself, I plan on reading Paul Theroux’s new book, Figures in a Landscape: People and Places, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman’s book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival — in the original hardcover.

Back in two weeks.

Oxford 101: How to get that PhD in zoology without losing the plot.

As headline grabbers go, any young person considering a long-term career in ecology, zoology, conservation, wildlife biology or anything to do with the environment and climate change couldn’t help but be drawn to the recent heading on Nature.com (official website for the journal Nature), titled: “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD.”

The writer, Lucy Taylor, wasn’t banging on about Kwantlen College or the Mary Magdalene School of the Unrequited Sisters, either, but rather the University of Oxford — better known to plebes, proles, tourists and avid fans of the popular Inspector Lewis and Endeavour TV crime series as Oxford University.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Taylor earned her PhD from Oxford this year, in 2018, so her advice is both topical and au courant.

Helpfully, she curated a to-do list, including don’ts, by buttonholing fellow PhD students and post-doctoral researchers at her alma mater in the Dept. of Zoology, partly to help new graduate students and partly — no doubt — to rationalize, justify and come to terms with decisions she made, or didn’t make, in pursuing her goal.

Her post came to me in a roundabout way from a medical doctor and trauma surgeon I once interviewed in a past life, who had been serving at the time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Médecins San Frontières (MSF). I was writing about the National Geographic anthology documentary Doctors Without Borders at the time, and did the interview by satellite phone (he was in Goma, in the middle of a war zone; I was in Vancouver, on the other side of the world).

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

We’ve stayed in touch, through the miracle of social media (and Twitter), and he’s taken it upon himself to mentor and help advise any young person willing to give up a comfortable life back home for a career post in the developing world — though he would be the first to draw the line at sending someone, anyone, into a war zone without first knowing exactly what they’re getting into. (Among his other observations, the sound of distant mortar fire coming through faintly but clearly over the satellite phone, was that he missed watching NHL hockey games on TV in his home town of Toronto.)

He thought enough of Taylor’s advice to share her list with his followers on Twitter. I won’t burden you here with all 20 (I’ve included the link here, so you can find out for yourself, if you’re so inclined), but I have included a handful that jumped out at me.

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

• “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it,” is the biggest lie you can tell yourself. Write down everything you do, even if it doesn’t work. This includes notes from meetings, code annotations, method details, everything.

• It’s never too early to start writing your thesis. Write and show your work to your supervisor as you go. Even if you don’t end up using your early work, it’s good practice and a way to get ideas organized in your head.

• Back up your work. You can avoid grief by doing this at least weekly.

• Aim to publish your research. It might not work out, but drafting articles and submitting them to journals is a great way to learn new skills and enhance your CV.

Have a life outside work. Although your lab group is like your work family, it’s great for your mental health to be able to escape work.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

• Don’t compare yourself with others. Your PhD is an opportunity to do original research that reveals new information. All PhD programs are different. Just do what works for you and your project.

• Enjoy your PhD. It can be tough, and there will be days when you wish you had a ‘normal’ job. PhDs are full of wonderful experiences, though, and give you the opportunity to work on something that fascinates you. Celebrate your successes and enjoy yourself.

Taylor’s article was from the Nature Careers Community, a place for readers of the journal Nature to share their professional experiences and advice. Since there’s less money in a career in nature and conservation than, say, being a hedge fund manager, bonhomie and community is what it’s all about.

And, unlike a hedge fund manager, you’ll be helping to save the planet.


©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018: The experts have spoken. Now it’s the people’s turn.

It’s a known fact: People trust customer reviews more than they do critics. As one influencer posted recently on Review Trackers — not exactly an unbiased source, as any objective, professional journalist worth their salt, would point out — “So it’s between the New York Times and Yelp.”

The academia website academia.edu recently asked — somewhat rhetorically — if consumer critics write differently from professional critics, while the self-explanatory site “Coaching for Leaders” (coachingforleaders.com) named “3 Differences Between Feedback and Criticism” (the Dale Carnegie principle: ‘Don’t criticize, condemn or complain’).

All of which is a roundabout way of taking a second look at the 54th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, announced just last week.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

I was fairly critical — and I stand by my criticism — of the judging committee’s choice for the top image this year, which favoured the safe and comfortable over last year’s daring and, some would say, controversial and inappropriate choice of a poached rhino, slaughtered for its horn, worth an estimated USD $120,000 on today’s black market. (Why ground powder from rhino horn, made of the same material — keratin — as our fingernails, should be so valuable to a primarily Asian market, and it is strictly an Asian market we’re talking about here, is a topic for a whole other debate.) One idea holds that wildlife photography awards should celebrate the beauty of nature; the other holds that, in the environmental catastrophe facing humankind and planet Earth today, the top award is better suited as a deliberate provocation, urging us to wake up and shake us out of our complacency.

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

Any award calling itself “the People’s Choice” wears its intention clearly and on its sleeve, though. Every year, following the WPOTY’s black-tie awards dinner at London’s Natural History Museum, the “Oscars of wildlife photography awards,” as they’ve been called, the judging committee announces 24 images shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award, which is announced the following February (voting for this year’s edition closes Dec. 13). Each visitor to the Natural History Museum’s website is allowed one vote, and one vote only. (This isn’t America’s Got Talent, where you can vote early and often, in almost as many different ways as you can think of.)

Anything open to the general public is driven by emotion, not reason.

That’s positive emotion, though. One of this year’s shortlisted finalists, of a starving polar bear, went viral around the world earlier this year. It sparked a lively and at times bitter debate about humankind’s effect on climate change in the polar regions. (Climate deniers refused to accept that the melting polar caps could have anything to do with a starving polar bear, et alone that humans might be responsible.) The image, by SeaLegacy conservation photographer Justin Hofman, is undeniably powerful, and has already proved influential, but I suspect it won’t win the people’s vote. (In his caption, titled “A Polar Bear’s Struggle,” Hofman admits his entire body was pained as he witnessed the starving bear scavenge for food at an abandoned hunter’s in the Canada’s high Arctic; the bear could barely stand under its own power, Hofman recalled.)

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

There’s nothing wrong, in this case, with favouring beauty over fragility. Inspiration works in wondrous, often mysterious ways. In a world beset by grim, increasingly bleak news — everything from climate change and dwindling food resources to a new mass extinction — one can’t fault people for looking for a ray of light in the darkness, wherever that light may be found.

As the Natural History Museum’s own guidelines for the Lumix People’s Choice award points out, they’re looking for a winning image that “puts nature in the frame,” something that reflects the beauty and fragility of the natural world — with the emphasis, I’m guessing, on “beauty.”

A conservation-photographer acquaintance and occasional travel companion tells me he’s doubtful of people’s choice awards as a rule, since a public vote tends to favour those finalists who have a sizeable social media following, and he has a point.

Still, as someone who pays attention to customer reviews — I’ve personally known a number of professional critics, in different fields, who are so screwed up I’m not sure I’d trust their judgment of anything, let alone something I care about — I’m always curious to see where popular tastes lie.

I’ve yet to decide which image I’ll be voting for myself, but I have narrowed my choice down to three or four candidates. I have until next month to make my final decision — and you to, too, if you choose to participate.

As with any vote, though, remember: If you don’t vote, when you had the chance, you can’t complain afterwards, if the vote didn’t go the way you want.


Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the world's most prestigious nature photography competition (WildlifePhotographerOfTheYear.com). This year’s finalists and winners, some 100 images in all, are on display at  London’s Natural History Museum from now until June 30, 2019. See  nhm.ac.uk/wpy for tickets.

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

When “Earth becomes Mars” — a global warning from inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year lifetime achievement recipient Frans Lanting.

“I think a photograph, of whatever it might be — a landscape, a person — requires personal involvement. That means knowing your subject, not just snapping what’s in front of you.”

That’s Frans Lanting, recipient of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards’ first Lifetime Achievement Award, earlier this week at London’s Natural History Museum. The ceremony just celebrated  its 54th year of existence, so while “lifetime achievement awards” are a dime a dozen these days — there’s even one for shoe salesmen — being the first in an organization that has existed for more than half a century is saying something.

Lanting, 67, a Dutch nature photographer based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been at this game almost as long — so much so that, in addition to numerous published books, including several by the Cologne-based German art-house publisher Taschen and his personal website (lanting.com)

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he rates his very own page at BrainyQuote.com

. “I want to interpret the natural world and our links to it,” he says. “It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis. . . This time (of our own making.)”

Life is both wonderful and mysterious, he says.

“Life is a force in its own right. It is a new element. And it has altered the Earth. It covers Earth like a skin.”

And this, “Life needs a membrane to contain itself, so it can replicate and mutate.”

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“I became interested in photography during my first visit to the United States. I was a student at a university in Holland. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the American West. That was when I learned about the tradition of nature in American photography.”

“Tourism is important,” Lanting adds, “because it can create sustainable local economies. I’d much rather have 1,000 tourists going up the Tambopata than 1,000 gold miners.”

©Frans Lanting

©Frans Lanting

And then there’s this:

“Water is the key to life, but in frozen form, it is a latent force. And when it vanishes, Earth becomes Mars.”

His wife, he says, “says that I become different once I start to work with animals. My movements become different, my mood is different. It involves letting everything fall behind you, becoming intuitive in your dealings with wild creatures in a way that bypasses reason. Sometimes it’s more like a dance than anything else.”

As with many nature photographers of his generation, Lanting’s work over the years has evolved from portrait and landscape photography to activism and conservation. He was appointed special ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature in 2012, and counts a World Press Photo award, the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, the Lennart Nilsson Award and the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Medal among his list of honours.

“Nature is my muse,” Lanting has said, “and it’s been my passion.”

Some truths were meant to be self-evident.

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“Nice” is in, controversy is out at Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 awards.

The first thing to know about this year’s winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is that this time, the jury shied away from controversy with its picks. “Nice” is the operative word in the 2018 edition, unlike last year, when South African photojournalist Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino forced people to confront serious issues facing wildlife conservation today.

The inevitable result is that, as likeable as many of the 2018 winners are, collectively they’re unlikely to stir the kind of difficult debate about species extinction and the wanton slaughter of rare animals for their body parts many conservationists — and wildlife photographers — say is even more imperative today, in a Trump world of climate denial and environmental deregulation.

That means fewer angry emails to contest organizers from parents upset that their younger, more  impressionable children might be dissuaded from a career in conservation, because the winning image didn’t reflect the beauty and wonder of nature.

This year’s overall winning image — “The Golden Couple,” Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s tender portrait of a pair of rare golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana) taken in central China’s Qinling Mountains, certainly evokes wonder. The image was chosen over 45,000 entries, from 95 countries. It will be one of 100 other images to go on display at London’s Natural History Museum, the 54th such exhibition in the world’s most prestigious, high-profile wildlife photography contest. The exhibition opens this weekend, Oct. 19th, and closes July 1st, next year.

In her statement to the world’s media this week, long-serving jury chair Roz Kidman Cox admitted the winning image is traditional — it’s a portrait, pure and simple — but then added, “But what a striking one, and what magical animals. It is a symbolic reminder of the beauty of nature and how impoverished we are becoming as nature is diminished. It is an artwork worthy of hanging in any gallery in the world.”

©Marsel van Oosten

©Marsel van Oosten

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On one level, this is true. It’s hard to imagine Stirton’s dead rhino, blood still congealing from the stump where poachers hacked off its horn with a chain saw, being unveiled at the Louvre or the National Portrait Gallery.

For all Cox’s brave words, though, “The Golden Couple” is unlikely to make people stop and ask themselves, what happened here, who did this, why did they do it, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again.

Admittedly, it’s also hard to imagine Cox’s email in-box filling up with angry comments along the lines of last year’s, “How dare you? I’ll never follow your rotten contest again” viral outrage. As many upset patrons were only too happy to remind Cox then, nature photography is supposed to be about awe and  appreciation, about inspiration and inculcating our collective sense of wonder, and not something that’s shocking and awful.

©Natural History Museum

©Natural History Museum

I also know at least one prominent wildlife photographer and former WPOTY winner, a high-profile veteran who gives frequent lectures as part of National Geographic’s National Geographic Live! speaker series, who argues that the time for debate has passed, that it’s more important to shake people out of their complacency than to show them another pretty picture of a wonderful animal doing something wonderful. (Interesting fact: The award committee’s decision to opt for such a violent, off-putting image in last year’s edition sparked some of the most intense debate the jury committee can remember in awards history, but in the end the choice was unanimous. Yes, unanimous. Not only that, but that was reportedly the first time in the awards’ 54-year history that, in the end, the entire jury agreed on the final choice, without a single dissenting vote.)

Here, then, without further ado, is a selection of this year’s picks, along with a link to the Natural History Museum’s awards page, and a link to an investigative article about the precarious situation facing China’s dwindling population of golden snub nosed monkeys.

In a few days, I’ll be posting a profile of renowned wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, winner of this year’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, but first this.



©Skye Maeker

©Skye Maeker

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“Whoso pulleth out this sword of that yonder lake is the rightwise queen born of all Sweden.”

And now for something completely different — the oddball news stories you didn’t see this past week. News flashes that somehow escaped the media glare — and these all happened — included such ‘say what’ headings as, ‘Florida store owner: Don’t warm urine in my microwave;’ ‘Ohio man says rescued cow is a regular backseat passenger;’ ‘Iguana on power line knocks out nursing home’s electricity;’ ‘Rhode Island man wins first prize for 1-ton pumpkin;’ and, for the purposes of this item, ‘Swedish girl Saga pulls our pre-Viking era sword from lake.’

That last one missed perhaps the most pertinent item in what otherwise might have been a mild distraction for a slow news day: The “Swedish girl” in question was just  eight-years-old.

Forget The Sword in the Stone; this sounds like a Disney animated classic in the making.

The facts were these:

An eight-year-old girl, Saga Vanacek, pulled a 1,500-year-old sword out of a lake in southern Sweden this past July.

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Her find was announced only this past week for fear it would trigger a summer tourist stampede to the sleepy hamlet of Tånnö on the shore of Lake Vidöstern. Forgive all the umlauts, but this is Sweden we’re talking about here.

According to local news in Sweden — the local news site local.se, followed by the regional Värnamo Nyheter newspaper, followed by national radio  — and picked up virtually overnight by media across Europe and the U.S. and Canada, experts from the nearby Jönköping county museum estimated the sword, found still in the remains of its original wood and leather scabbard, dates back to the 5th or 6th century AD, give or take a couple of pre-Viking generations.

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Saga’s father, Andrew, admitted in a Facebook post that he was annoyed at first: He had been waiting impatiently for his daughter to come in from the water because, godammit, the World Cup final was about to start and Croatia was about to face France, and it was Croatia who had knocked out England, who in turn had knocked out Sweden, and so therefore deserved to pay  the price.

His daughter was skipping stones, however, when she suddenly held up a rusted artifact she found in the water.

He wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of hauling the find home — who knows where it might’ve been? — but neighbours convinced him it looked “kinda old,” and so he called an archaeologist the following morning.

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Ensue pandemonium.

Readers of The Local’s news site started a campaign to have Saga declared the rightwise Queen born of all Sweden. The post of prime minister is currently held by Stefan Löfven in an acting capacity only, but one has to be at least 18 to be PM, rulling Saga out. 

Sweden, officially known as the Kingdom of Sweden, already has a monarch — King Carl XVI Gustav — but why spoil the beauty of a thing with mere detail?

Besides, it was an eight-year-old Lady in Waiting who found the sword in the lake, not the 72-year-old ruling monarch born at Haga Palace, Solna, in April, 1946. (For the record, the official, rightful heir to the throne is King Gustav’s eldest child, Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden, Duchess of Östergötland.)

There is a serious side to a fun story. A team of forensic pathologists and archaeologists is poring over the sword, trying to pin down its provenance.

The question of whether Saga will be rewarded or involved in future projects has been referred to the National Archives of Sweden — a body not exactly noted for its  romanticized view of historical events.

Then again, as Saga told local media, she doesn’t really want to be queen, nor does she want to pursue a career in archaeology. She’d rather be a doctor, or a vet, “or an actress in Paris.”

See? There must be a movie in there somewhere.


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Bones of contention: How a 70-million-year-old dinosaur, bone smugglers and a US court case rewrote palaeontology history

Imagine, if you will, a story that links dinosaur bones, bone smuggling, international intrigue, a so-called “commercial palaeontologist,” the Gobi Desert, a diplomatic spat pitting the government of Mongolia against a prestigious auction house in New York, the Hollywood actors Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a staff writer for The New Yorker who’s written a book about it

Add to the mix the prehistoric beast Tarbosaurus bataar, a Cretaceous critter reputedly so irritable and given to mood swings that it’s believed even the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex gave it a wide berth.

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The story, under the delightful heading ‘Bones of Contention,’ first came to public attention — that is to say, when The New Yorker picked it up — in 2012, though to be fair, not to mention accurate, the story probably begins more than 70 million years ago, when the Tarbosaurus was an actual thing.

The Tarbosaurus came by its bad temper naturally: It weighed up to five tons, and boasted more than 60 teeth.

But wait, there’s more. It had a locking mechanism in its lower jaw, similar to the space alien in the horror movie Alien, and small, gimpy forelimbs that predate opposable thumbs by more than a few White House presidential administrations.

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Tarbosaurus was no bottom feeder, either. It ate other dinosaurs, the larger the better. The hadrosaur Saurolophus and sauropod Nemegtosaurus were favoured items on the buffet menu, and they were not small. In present-day natural history terms, think of a lion that’s only interested in hippos and elephants, with buffalo having to serve as a light snack between meals on an otherwise slow day on the hunting plain.

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The largest known Tarbosaurus skull is 1.3 metres (4.3 ft) long, which makes sense when you consider we’re talking about a critter that ranged between 10 and 12 metres (33to 39 ft.) from snout to tail, and weighed some four to five metric tons.

The weird gets truly going when, on May 20, 2012 Heritage Auctions in New York City published a catalogue announcing that a fully restored Tarbosaurus skeleton was about to go on the auction block.

This was a problem — though hardly anyone guessed at the time it would be a problem that would involve a million-dollar bone smuggling scam — because Mongolian law stipulates that any dinosaur remains found in the Gobi Desert must be laid to rest at an appropriate Mongolian institution. Since Tarbosaurus are only found in Mongolia and not, say, Iowa, or New York City, this Tarbosaurus, if real, could only have been stolen.

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Enter “commercial palaeontologist” and real-life “Florida man” Eric Prokopi, a present-day Indiana Jones — except that he isn’t — who was willing to part with the dinosaur bones for no small amount in US cash — until, that is, the then-president of Mongolia, and more than a few actual palaeontologists, gave it the old ‘WTF?’ and filed a complaint in the US courts.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 2012, as Paige Williams wrote at the time in The New Yorker, federal agents and sheriff’s deputies raided Prokopi’s home in Gainesville, Florida and arrested him.

The would-be Indiana Jones, dubbed a “one-man black market,” was charged with several counts of felonious smuggling. 

And so an actual court case, United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton — the case has its own Wikipedia page! — came to light.

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Prokopi, caught dead-to-rights and facing 17 years in prison, pleaded guilty to illegal smuggling. Facing hard time, he sang like a bird. “There is probably not an active fossil investigation at this point that doesn’t owe, on some level, to information that Mr., Prokopi has furnished law enforcement,” assistant US attorney Martin Bell told US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein during Prokopi’s sentencing hearing in lower Manhattan.

Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, meanwhile, agreed to return the bones a dinosaur skull he bought in 2007 for some USD $276,000, handing it over to US authorities, who in turn returned it to Mongolia.

Cage originally bought the skull in an auction held by the I.M. Chait gallery — outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio in the process. Cage didn’t realize the skull might be stolen until the Prokipi affair — movie title! — and voluntarily gave it up when he learned of the circumstances. 

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Sure, he was out nearly $300,000, but now he had one hell of a story to tell. Might not a movie be made out of this — starring, say, Nicolas Cage and Leo DiCaprio?

The Prokipi court case, as reported at the time by Paige Williams in The New Yorker, featured this priceless exchange between US attorney Bell and judge Hellerstein:

Bell noted out that some 18 separate “largely complete” dinosaur skeletons seized included “a dinosaur called an oviraptor, which is an egg-eating thing. I think a number of them stampeded in the 1996 movie Jurassic Park. It might have been 1992. I was young and awestruck in any event, Your Honour.”

“I missed the movie,” the judge replied. “Maybe I should go back to see it.”

“Every now and then it airs on TNT,” Bell replied, presumably with a straight face.

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The Tarbosaurus skeleton was returned to Mongolia the following year, bruised but not battered, where the remains were put on public display in Sukhbataar Square, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital (pop. 1.3 million).

For one brief moment, this Tarbosaurus became the most famous dinosaur in the history of the planet, a strangely fitting end for a critter that died of unknown causes in the Gobi Desert, its skeleton more-or-less intact, some 70 million years ago. Perhaps it died of natural causes? If it had been taken on by a Tyrannosaurus, or another Tarbosaurus, it’s hard to imagine the bones would have survived without being scattered across the Mongolian Steppe.

Why is this suddenly in the news again, now, in October, 2018?

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Because Williams, whose side job — in addition to her staffing duties with The New Yorker — is Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, has just published her novel account of the strange case,  who has just published a new book, The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy (Hachette).

The Dinosaur Artist is unlikely to survive 70 million years, but Williams’ fellow authors have jumped onboard, for the most part.

“A fascinating story of adventure and obsession, and a captivating journey into the world of fossils and fossil peddlers, scientists, museums, international politics, the history of life, and the nature of human nature,” Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times Bestselling author of The Genius of Birds, enthused. “If you love dinosaurs, palaeontology, or just a rollicking good tale, you will love this book. I couldn't put it down.”

The Dinosaur Artist is a tale that has everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sixth Extinction added in a jacket blurb: “Passion, science, politics, intrigue, and, of course, dinosaurs. Paige Williams is a wonderful storyteller.”

With a wonderful story to tell, it would appear.


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.


"Ig Nobel" feelings of not-so-intense jealousy.

Ignoble. ig-no-ble. /ig’ nōbel/. Adjective.

1. not honourable in character or purpose. 

“ignoble feelings of intense jealousy”

synonyms: dishonourable, unworthy, base, shameful, contemptible, despicable, dastardly, vile, degenerate, shabby, sordid, mean.

2. of humble origin or social status.

“ignoble savages”

Ig Nobel. An elegant, grand and most noble prize, a take on the Nobel Prize, but a lot more fun. And with more laughs.

It’s a science award — after a fashion — designed to make you laugh and then afterwards, and only afterwards, think. Laughter is not only the best medicine: Nine out of 10 leading scientists say it also makes you think harder.

Or maybe not.

The science, truth be told, isn’t in on that part yet. Sounds reasonable, though.

©Associated Press

The 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (2018)  was held over the weekend at Harvard University, and the winners were in good form. Humble origin, check. Low social status, check — at least, when compared to that annual soirée in Oslo, Norway. Or is it Stockholm?

And if the losers — excuse me, “non-recipients” (it’s an honour just to be nominated!) — harboured any “ignoble feelings of intense jealousy,” they were dignified enough not to show it. The ignoble savages behaved themselves, for the most part, right up to the part where Wilfrid Laurier assistant professor Lindie Hanyu Liang — a teacher of “organizational behaviour and resource management” at Laurier’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics in WEaterloo, Ont. — won the grand prize for her groundbreaking research on how angry employees can use voodoo dolls to get even with abusive bosses.

“We were really excited to hear we had won,” Liang said, with characteristic humility and understatement — so much so that onlookers were willing to overlook her use of the royal ‘we.’ Unless, by that, she meant her team of underlings and staffers. Assistants to the assistant professor, if you will.

And to be recognized in such a competitive field of finalists, too!

“Our work manipulating the psychological state of retaliation is really novel and can pave the way for future researchers,” Liang added.

There you have it, then. The next time you confront your abusive boss, feel free to poke away with a sharp needle, and then cite research as your excuse. Hey, it works for the Japanese whaling fleet.

“We’re trying to understand why people retaliate against abusive bosses,” Liang continued. “We found that, with voodoo dolls, people feel they’ve restored their sense of justice.”


According to their study, Righting a Wrong: Retaliation on a Voodoo Doll Symbolizing an Abusive Supervisor Restores Justice (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S104898431730276X), published in the February issue of Leadership Quarterly, Liang and fellow researchers asked participants to recall an abusive workplace interaction. Some participants were asked to harm an online voodoo doll using the materials provided (pins, pliers, etc.), while others weren’t given that option. “Those who hurt the voodoo doll felt a greater sense of justice than those who did not,” the release found.

Even so,, Liang is hesitant to recommend that people use voodoo dolls. 

“Employees retaliate because there’s mistreatment going on in the workplace,” she said in a statement. “Instead of punishing people who retaliate against their bosses, the focus should be on the leader’s behaviour.”

Oh, like, that’ll work.

But enough about bad bosses and voodoo dolls.

©Daily Express

Other leaps of the imagination jumped to the fore at this year’s ceremony, all in the name of weird science.

The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) as a way to recognize real, actual science, just not the kind you’d expect to learn about in Oslo or Stockholm. The presentation itself may be silly at times, but the science of the prizewinning research is legit.

Adding to the occasion, the prizes are awarded in person by a group of “genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel laureates” — this, according to the Ig Nobel’s official website (https://www.improbable.com/ig/2018/)

BBC News thought enough of the event that it assigned its senior science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh, to the ceremony.

The Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine went to researchers from Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, who found that riding a really, really dangerous roller-coaster is an effective — if ill-advised— way to pass kidney stones. (Don’t laugh: This actually happened when Michigan State professor Dr. David Wartinger, a urologist, assessed a patient who returned from a vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida, complaining that a spin on the theme park’s Big Thunder Mountain ride gave him a lot more than he bargained for.

Prof. Wartinger was intrigued. He pursued the research further, going so far as to build a silicone model of his patient’s renal system, complete with artfiical kidney stones and scale-sized models of theme park rides.

Prof. Wartinger discovered through his research that Big Thunder Mountain is more effective than similar yet scarier rides (because of their prolonged drops) such as Space Mountain and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. Prof. Wartinger found that Big Mountain boasts more side-to-side and up-and-down movements that “rattle” the rider, rather than long, steep drops that simply scare the living bejesus out of one.

But wait, there’s more.

©Ars Technica

Other awards went to British researcher James Cole, who won the Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition for a study that found that good old-fashioned cannibalism is not as nutritious as you might think, copmpared weith other kinds of meat — one imagines the researcher intoning, much like a self-important network-TV news anchor, “We looked into it, and what we found might surprise you.”

(Don’t be alarmed: This wasn’t part of some industry study to come up with a cost-effective alternative source of protein, but rather a look at the dietary habits of early humankind, which branches of early humans survived or died, and why._

Prize winners will have their research published in the Annals of Improbable Research, which is a little like the journal Nature, only not really.

The evening went quickly by all acounts — more quickly than those tedious Hollywood ceremonies like the Oscars and the Emmys.

That’s in part because the award winners were told they had 60 seconds, and no longer, to deliver an acceptance speech.

The time limit was strictly enforced by an eight-year-old girl who was instructed to say, “Please stop — I’m bored,” over and over again, until the speaker stopped.

Perhaps Hollywood could take the cue.

After all, you know what they say: Imitation is the sincerest form of television.


There are no good years or bad years anymore at Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards.

There are no longer good years or bad years at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. The prestigious contest — half a century in the making — sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, has never seemed more important.

This past weekend, some 14 commended images in this year’s edition — the 54th overall — were announced to the public. 

One of those images, South African nature photographer Isak Pretorius’ stirring image of a lion drinking from a reed-covered riverbank, has already been selected as the cover shot for Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 28. The overall competition winners will be announced on Oct. 16, and a full exhibition of winners and finalists will go on display at the Natural History Museum three days later, on Oct. 19.




Submissions for next year’s 2019 WPOTY Awards open Oct. 22 and close on Dec. 13. The window is short, in other words — just eight weeks.

The past year has seen its fair share of controversy, from photojournalist Brent Stirton’s competition-winning 2017 image of a slaughtered rhino, its horn hacked off with a chainsaw by poachers — many viewers found the image to be disturbing and inappropriate for a competition supposedly designed to celebrate nature in all its beauty — to the disqualification of Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral’s award-winning night image of an anteater moving towards termite mound that was later found to be staged. (The anteater turned out to be stuffed, arguably making it the most famous stuffed animal in the history of taxidermy.)

It will be instructive to see what image wins this year’s competition, because by focusing on a hard-hitting “message” picture last year, award judges were signalling that the most urgent issue facing wildlife today is environmental ruin, everything from habitat destruction to poaching and looming species extinction. It’s no longer enough, in other words, to celebrate natural beauty just for nature and beauty’s sake.

With no further ado, then, here’s a look at a few of this year’s commended images.

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