IF there is anyone who knows what it takes to beat the threat of extinction, it’s Sir David Attenborough.
But while some campaigners, such as militant animal rights group PETA, have branded zoos “pitiful prisons”, the TV legend has a different view.
Having witnessed the planet’s most extraordinary animals thriving in their natural habitats, the 94-year-old deems some zoos essential for certain species to survive.
Speaking to The Sun, the national treasure said: “I justify zoos providing they are scientific, they are selective about what they keep and they keep them to the best possible standards.
“If you’re talking about animals that have been reduced to fewer than 100, something has happened in their environment and made it impossible to survive.
"Then you can either sit back and say, ‘they can look after themselves’, or do something active.
“So there are cases of real urgency where animals can justifiably be kept, and must be kept, in captivity.
“It’s important that the public be aware of the reality of these things, get close to them, what they smell like, what they sound like.”
It is not just the animal kingdom Sir David fears being wiped out.
He believes humans are an endangered species and we need to see the reality of our perilous situation before we can face up to it.
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Getting people to understand the danger is the driving force behind Sir David’s latest BBC natural history series A Perfect Planet.
Filmed across 31 countries on six continents, it is a five-part exploration of the forces of nature that enable life on Earth and the relationship animals have developed with those forces.
The finale switches focus to the devastating effects humans are having on the planet and its wildlife.
In emotive scenes, viewers will see turtles battling for life on ventilators in an aquarium “ER unit”, having been drawn into colder waters by Climate Change.
Sir David, whose career at the BBC spans 70 years, said: “We are at a crucial point and our planet is poised close to big disasters.
“We can stop them, but if we are to stop them we have to understand what they are and how they work, and that’s what this series does.
“The first thing I keep reminding myself of is there are three times as many human beings on this planet as there were when I first made a television programme.
“This is not something that happened over eons of history. It’s right now, and if we don’t sort out how we deal with the planet, we’re in big trouble.
“The answer is, of course, that we can sort it out.
"It’s enough if we all behave in certain ways, but to start with you’ve got to recognise the problem, and that’s what our last episode shows.”
The seven Green Team pledges
- Eat more plants
- Cut your food waste
- Turn down your heating
- Insulate your home
- Switch to green energy
- Repair and re-use things
- Drive an electric car
One figure who has failed to “recognise the problem” is the world’s most powerful man — for now — Donald Trump, 74.
In 2017 the outgoing US President ordered America to withdraw from the United Nations’ Paris Agreement to tackle Climate Change.
We are at a crucial point and our planet is poised close to big disasters.
Trump has labelled it a hoax created by China, prompting some scientists to warn that avoiding environmental catastrophe would be “essentially impossible” if he won a second term.
Given the high stakes, and Trump’s branding of environmentalists such as Sir David as “perennial prophets of doom”, the broadcaster said he got out of his seat “cheering all by myself” when Democratic candidate Joe Biden, 78, surged to victory in the US election in November.
Biden immediately vowed to reinstate America’s backing of the Paris Agreement.
But although Trump will be out of the White House next month, Sir David fears scepticism of Climate Change among his devoted followers will endure.
He said: “I filmed a year or so ago one of these series in a helicopter, flying up and down Miami, and I said to the pilot, ‘All these great huge hotels, if we go on like this they’ll all be under water’.
"‘Rubbish’, he said. He sees no reason why anyone should take any action.
“There is a very strong element in the United States who do not believe it, including the past president.”
Closer to home, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, last month set out a £12billion “green industrial revolution” plan for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which included ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
But in a stark sign of how desperate our situation is, Sir David said: “Of course it will not go far enough.
"No matter what plan you took, it wouldn’t go far enough. This is not just talk, this is not just a little fantasy, we are facing a real crisis.”
APPRECIATION OF NATURE
However, Sir David accepted that living an environmentally friendly lifestyle can be challenging day-to-day and admitted to being guilty of slipping up, especially at Christmas.
He said: “It is extraordinary how much we do waste at this time of year, simply on wrapping paper. I’m as guilty as anybody.”
Like everyone, Sir David was forced to adapt as Covid-19 spread.
He finished recording voiceovers for A Perfect Planet at his London home using a makeshift studio with sound deadened by a duvet stuck to a wall.
Despite having travelled to every continent to see species in the wild, it was while confined to his home that Sir David came to truly appreciate nature.
He said: “I’ve never listened to more birdsong in my life and I think that applies to a lot of people. We realised our dependency, emotionally and intellectually, on the natural world in a way we haven’t done before.”
For Sir David, the public’s growing appreciation of nature and decrease in travel have been silver linings for the climate amid the pandemic.
And he doesn’t subscribe to fears of a new plastic pollution crisis sparked by discarded face masks, which some conservationists have warned could soon outnumber jellyfish in the Mediterranean sea.
He said: “I don’t think you can say that our reaction to Covid is going to cause a major increase in the amount of plastic pollution in the sea.
"The masks I use are washable. There’s no need to have masks you throw away. I don’t think it’s a serious problem.”
Sixty-six years after his on-screen debut, Sir David and his team are not running low on stories to tell.
In episode one of A Perfect Planet viewers will be gripped as they watch days-old flamingo chicks embark on a three-mile trek across the volcanic Lake Natron in Tanzania, East Africa, to get to their parents.
Many are swallowed by toxic mud or picked off by towering Marabou Storks, which Sir David describes as having “a beak like a Roman sword”.
The lake, described as “the foulest place on Earth”, could only be reached by a hovercraft, and that needed to be continually patched up by a local tribe after being shredded by razor-sharp salt crystals.
In Sir David’s eyes, though, the ordeal was worth it.
He said: “That flamingo sequence is one of the most memorable I’ve seen on television, shot under the most extraordinary circumstances.
“It’s impossible not to identify with these poor little chicks which have to make it from the middle of this appalling lake to the edge.”
In other standout scenes from the first episode, a pregnant iguana dodges avalanches as she descends 2,500ft into a volcanic crater to lay her eggs, and a wildebeest battles to save her calf from a hungry hyena on the Serengeti.
Sir David hopes A Perfect Planet’s unforgettable visuals and core message will be enough to fuel change, as he is “embarrassed” to be seen as an environmental prophet.
Name-checking millennial activist Greta Thunberg, 17, he said: “She says all the time, ‘It’s not me, it’s the science we must listen to and the scientists’.
“It’s the way of things that there have to be people who speak.
“A personal statement is more powerful than an abstract statement or one that’s not backed up. All one can hope is those of us who are near microphones, computers, printers, say sensible things, not silly things.”
- A Perfect Planet begins on BBC1 on January 3 at 8pm, with all episodes then available on iPlayer.
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