For nature lovers Attenborough documentaries are the pinnacle of conservation inspiration. They are however much more than that as they create a time when discussing wildlife and nature becomes the ‘hot’ topic and those who are in the minority for their love of the environment are now at the forefront of the discussion. Shouting about how amazing nature is suddenly becomes ‘cool’.
The BBC Planet Earth II nature documentary series narrated by Sir David Attenborough was watched by over 10 million people. We all sat with hearts filled with anticipation as we watched Sir David, in the thickest coat possible, float above the mountains in the first episode. For nature lovers and conservationists these documentaries are an instant motivation booster, further defining our love for nature and showing that it is even more extraordinary than we could imagine. For others it is the chance to become involved with amazing creatures and marvel at extraordinary photography.
Some people however hold a negative view of documentaries and suggest that they do not really make any difference to actual conservation. Surely fostering an interest in wildlife in those who do not necessarily strive to conserve it but are just tuning in because it’s an Attenborough documentary is important. Even if viewers do not contribute to conservation, they may be more aware of environmental problems, which is an undertone of the documentary series. In addition TV documentaries like this may capture rarely observed behaviour or provide additional knowledge for those who are actually involved in the conservation work of the species featured. Sadly the closest many children may come to nature in the modern day of technology is through David Attenborough documentaries, even if the nature outside their house is equally fascinating. Therefore just engaging people and making them think about nature is important. These documentaries definitely caused amazement, whether this was at the fighting strength of the Komodo dragon or at the surprising call of the female pygmy sloth. Viewers can’t help being astounded and think about nature. I mean just how cute was that sand mole!
The photography was of course exquisite. From the way the lion’s paws sank into the sand before they travelled 100 miles in three days to be epically karate kicked by a giraffe, to the flicker of a chameleon’s eye. The camera trap footage of snow leopards in episode two was equally astonishing. To see the behaviour of such an iconic animal, which is often used as the face of campaigns, will surely help people appreciate their rarity and importance. Watching a snow leopard perform its deep bellowing chuff and rubbing its cheek on a rock was truly enchanting and when there were four in one shot – well that really was hitting the jackpot! Shots of snow leopards as well as jaguars walking amongst butterflies and brutally killing caiman are scenes of extraordinary power and we got to see them all.
It wasn’t just the photography though, the script filled us with fascinating facts and statistics as well as making us laugh, such as when the Draco lizard had the ‘conveyor belt of food’, just before it flew like Superman across the forest. The music, composed by the incredible Hans Zimmer, also heightened your emotional connection to the animals on screen but this emotional connection is something else which people are often quick to criticize. The anthropomorphic tendencies we have towards ‘cute’ animals such as the chinstrap penguins, which had to fight their way through the treacherous sea around Zavodovski Island, is often said to be misleading as animals such as invertebrates, which are vital components of our ecosystems, are often underappreciated. These documentaries definitely made you feel emotionally connected to wildlife, which makes you care and in the end if no one cares then nothing will be done to conserve them. If they can make some people who wouldn’t have done so think about wildlife for just a minute, than it is a good thing, isn’t it? Seeing a penguin, often likened to a little man wearing a tuxedo, covered in blood is of course emotive, but an ‘unattractive’ reptile in the form of the newly hatched marine iguana had as all cheering in ecstatic delight when one escaped the coils of the racer snakes, which appeared from the rocks in a way far more frightening than in any horror film. This really was a captivating predator-prey interaction. This documentary series made us feel connected to a variety of species including invertebrates. For example we all felt the giddy happiness of the darkling beetle as it danced and forward rolled down the sand, after it had gathered a drink, until bam – ‘oh, hi chameleon’. Nature is amazing.
The documentaries were actually well balanced as over the weeks we watched mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians, fish, brightly coloured fungi and of course plants. We saw the classic array of mammals surrounding the water hole, including elephants, giraffe, zebra, impala, wildebeest and ostrich, which made me feel we should all be singing the ‘Circle of Life’. It was also nice to see European species feature, such as the harvest mouse who was completing the grassland obstacle course and what a privilege it was watching the expressions on its face. The wildlife we have here in Britain is pretty spectacular but it isn’t viewed as ‘cool’ like the wildlife of other countries, so maybe a few more people will be encouraged to go outdoors and value nature in this country after watching the antics of that delightful mouse.
You are also continually learning throughout the documentaries. For example we saw the marvels of evolution in the sword-billed hummingbird; the dedication of the male sand grouse who acted as a sponge on his 120 mile round trip and the ultimate game of hide and seek played by the leaf-tailed gecko who surely must have borrowed an invisibility cloak from Harry Potter. We even saw species discoveries such as a new species of river dolphin in Brazil. And it wasn’t just wildlife. We were introduced to amazing places across the world and to meteorological terms such as ‘diamond dust’. We even looked into a habitat entirely created by man and saw how some species have adapted to these concrete jungles while others have struggled to cope.
Topics that were upsetting were the problems that humans have created, from direct impacts such as human encroachment to indirect influences due to global warming. It was sad to see the problems that introduced crazy ants were causing to the red crabs on Christmas Island because this isn’t natural, this was us. Humans have disrupted one of the most famous migrations of all – perhaps that will make people think. The most heart breaking of all however must have been when the hatchling turtles became disorientated by the city light pollution, leading many to their deaths. If ever scenes were emotive it was when the hatchlings fell down the drains, wandered onto the road or when one found itself trapped in a plastic cup. Surely this will make people think about their effect on the planet. Even if the critics are correct and these documentaries have no positive impact on conservation, it does at least confirm to those of us who already love it, how amazing it is and motivates us to never stop protecting it.
In the end the fantastic combination of more than astounding camera footage (even the raindrops were mesmerising) combined with emotive music made Planet Earth II a marvel that will never be forgotten. The series was suitably ended with a heartfelt but important speech by Sir David Attenborough who left us knowing that something has to change, for the sake of wildlife and ourselves. In reflection this documentary series taught us much, including that southern Buller’s albatrosses not only look cool with racing stripes on their bill but that bonds and dare I say love in the animal kingdom are great; that grizzly bears are better dancers than us; that nature and evolution is more than astonishing and that the only ‘bad guy’ here seems to be us.
Thank you to the whole Planet Earth II team and especially the crew members who jazz handed their way into a wasp nest while herding locusts, just thank you.