Sir David Attenborough: A name that is synonymous with nature, and wildlife filmmaking. He may well be the primary source of biological knowledge for many of the general public, and you would be hard pressed to find another living human who has not heard his name. For decades, he has brought the natural world into our living rooms with amazing, new, and breathtaking images of animals, plants, and our planet’s diverse ecosystems. He is undoubtedly responsible for inspiring many of us to follow dreams of studying the natural world, as well as fostering an appreciation for nature in those who would not otherwise have taken an interest. So, when I heard that Sir David was coming to Melbourne with his show ‘A Life on Earth’, I didn’t think twice about purchasing myself a ticket.
The air was buzzing with excitement when I arrived at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Everyone was eager to see the man himself, the man who had brought delight and wonder into their homes for so many fulfilling years. Sitting down in our seats, eager for the show to begin; I could feel the anticipation within the room growing as more people filed in. I felt fortunate to be there. I couldn’t believe that I would soon be in the same room as the great Sir David Attenborough. Adding to my appreciation was the fact that the show had been rescheduled from three weeks earlier as Sir David had fallen ill. Thankfully, he recovered, and the show would go on.
The lights dimmed till only the stage was bathed in a warm low light. The entire hall instantly fell silent, all eyes trained on the stage curtain in eagerness and expectation. The curtains finally parted and almost instantly there was a thunderous, excited applause for the revealed Sir David.
Ray Martin then appeared and set the tone of the night asking Sir David questions pertaining to his extraordinary ‘Life on Earth’. It began with his meagre beginnings in publishing. From there he moved to producing television programs for the then just born BBC. That’s right, Sir David was around before television.
Attenborough spoke of the early days in television with humour. He discussed his first animal program ‘Zoo Quest’, a series which centred around the search for the Bald-Headed Rock Crow (Picathartes gymnocephalus), but also involved encounters with other exotic animals before finally finding the rare bird. The search to find the Komodo Dragon was another amazing tale. It involved cannibals, hostile tribes, and some shady boat captains plotting to steal camera equipment from under his nose. Fortunately for the viewing public, the camera equipment was not stolen. The footage that they obtained of the Komodo Dragon was the first footage of this terrifying and mysterious species. As always, Sir David’s warm and informative tone held the attention of the entire audience; it seemed everybody was hanging off his every word. I was in awe.
Sir David’s ability to make almost any topic interesting is proven by the next instalment in this thrilling and entertaining night. He presented his dilemma of determining how much sex or violence is, or was, allowable for television. To bring the audience right in, a segment of Attenborough’s series ‘The Trials of Life’ was shown. Brilliant footage of Chimpanzees co-operatively hunting Colobus Monkeys, again a first for nature filmmaking and photography, stunned the audience. What ensued during the ‘raid’ is horrifying and amazing; a group of the chimps captured an individual Colobus Monkey and proceeded to consume its still living, squirming body. The footage is renowned for its brutality and violence. Attenborough reasoned that, although it is a difficult scene to watch, violence is a part of nature, and to cut it out would mean losing the sense of objectivity that is so crucial to studying the natural world. He went on to explain that he chose to show the footage in his series ‘The Trials of Life’ because it demonstrated the intelligence of the Chimpanzees, in that they orchestrated a coordinated hunt, unique and amazing behaviour. Indeed, he argued that this display demonstrated the ability to work as team so crucial to the survival of not only the Chimpanzees, but our own species.
Another clip that was shown was a segment of footage from ‘Galapagos 3D’, showing Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise. Pinta Island Tortoises were previously found on the Island of Pinta, a member of the Galapagos Islands. This species of tortoise was previously common on Pinta Island, but due to excessive hunting this amazing species was wiped out. Lonesome George was found to be the last remaining Pinta Island Tortoise in 1971. Since his discovery, he acted as an ambassador for endangered species everywhere. Attenborough used Lonesome George as an example of the plight of all species on planet Earth, in regards to human impact on the environment. He eloquently drew the audience’s attention to the fragility of our natural world, and our responsibility to protect it.
Before the show commenced, members of the audience had the opportunity to submit a question that they wished to ask. Towards the end of the evening Sir David answered five of these questions. I myself submitted the question: “as someone who is passionate about conserving our environment, how do you recommend that we communicate our passion and enthusiasm with others?” Alas, my question was not selected. Those that were included topics such as favourite insects, extinct animals to be brought back from extinction, and tarsiers. Then a question from fellow science communicator Brian Cox was presented. Cox inquired whether Attenborough was optimistic about our planet’s future considering the rejection of Darwinism by certain schools of thought. Attenborough responded that the dangers that we are facing are man made, and that population growth is an enormous threat to the natural world. Attenborough went on to say that you have to do what you can to spread the message, and that it’s easier to deny it than to do something about it. With luck, slowly the tide will turn.
The evening came to an end with footage of a variety of animals and landscapes accompanied by Attenborough speaking the lyrics to ‘What a Wonderful World’. It was the perfect conclusion for a night filled with stories, experiences, and an amazing life from our ‘wonderful world’. The hall swelled with emotion, and as Sir David Attenborough bowed, waved, and walked off stage, there was a standing ovation.
For me, the night will be an enduring, happy memory. For Sir David, his legacy will last the ages: the great communicator who changed the way people everywhere view the natural world. Truly, his ‘life on earth’ has been a life well spent. Myself, and all the Wild Melbourne crew, wish him all the best for his future work. We could think of few things more worthwhile.
Images from: lateralevents.com