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

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

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

But wait, there’s more.

 ©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

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

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

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

 ©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

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

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

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

 ©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

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

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

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

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

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

 ©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

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

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

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

Now you know.


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