Wednesday, February 20, 2013


A pair of bronzed butterscotch eyes fills my television screen. The Macaque monkey blinks slowly and draws me into her gaze. I’ve just taken a sip of tea and the cup remains suspended between my mouth and the table. I’m gazing into her soul, into wisdom that is indubitable. The camera recedes to reveal the exquisite symmetry of a face that mesmerises. Turning slowly, she surveys the vast landscape that rises in the distance to greet the Mountains of the Moon. She shifts slightly, accommodating herself on a cedar branch and yawns. This is her domain, her ancestral homeland; this is Africa.
         As a schoolgirl I was passionate about natural history programmes, and David Attenborough held my attention far longer than Blue Peter or Doctor Who ever could. However, the bleak warnings of habitat destruction and species extinction that inevitably came with the narrative depressed me beyond words, even more than my failure to elicit the attention of whatever spotty schoolboy I had fallen for. It was just too distressing to be dazzled by the antics of leopards, gorillas, elephants and lusty rhinos, only be told that their days were numbered thanks to the boundless greed and casual cruelty of my fellow human beings. Rather than be continually sickened, I buried my head in the sand and tuned into whatever soap opera was being broadcast on another channel.
        The recent screening of the BBC series Africa, has enticed me back into the world of natural history documentaries. The six part series took four years to make and has surpassed even the BBC’s own high standards and reputation for making award-winning wildlife broadcasts. David Attenborough’s narrative is impeccable and the camerawork, awe inspiring; they offer us new and unforgettable insights into the private worlds of creatures that the majority of us will never see in real life. The Africa team has brought us indelible images from the Sahara and Kalahari deserts, Cape, Congo and the Rift Valley, a myriad of images and sounds that humble us before the divine power of Nature. Africa takes us on a journey that is both emotional and spiritual.

Elephants feature in most documentaries about African wildlife. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t and Africa doesn’t disappoint. We see nocturnal gatherings of forest elephants, never before filmed. Bull elephants – heads alone weighing as much as a car – charge each other in a fight for mating rights, while the females look on. Hidden microphones capture their rumblings and trumpeting in this remote place, known as the Elephants’ Village. 
On the savannah, the death of a baby elephant is agonising to watch. The mother refuses to abandon her calf, standing over her baby, nudging the little one with her trunk, emitting a deep throbbing sound that is a measure of the immensity of her suffering. It is only when her calf takes her final breath that the bereaved mother resumes her onward journey alone, across a parched land to join the remainder of the herd.  In the ten minute appendage, Eye to Eye, the film crew speaks of their distress at being powerless to intervene in the tragedy. Fortunately, the same episode brings us an antidote: scenes of a family of elephants traversing green pastures, accompanied by a baby elephant trumpeting joyfully as she chases egrets and races back and forth to her mother.
         Thanks to the ingenuity of the Africa team we have the privilege of eavesdropping on the social life of black rhino. Concealed microphones capture the huffing and puffing, squeaks and excited grunts of a gathering of black rhino on the darkest of nights at a waterhole in the Kalahari. New technology – a starlight camera – films the tender exchanges between these normally ill-tempered and solitary creatures. A young female greets a mother and her calf, affectionately nuzzling them before turning her attentions to an amorous male. Initially she flirts, but her interest wanes and a few minutes later she lies down and pretends to be asleep to get rid of her suitor. Up close she is perfect, beautiful beyond any limited conception beauty.
In Eye to Eye, the bad news is broken: poaching claims the lives of around 365 black rhinos every year. The species is under grave threat of extinction; what we have seen on our screens, the greatest gathering of black rhino anywhere on earth, may never happen again EVER. I swallow hard and try to focus on the next feature, an armoured ground cricket, a malevolent-looking creature resolutely marching onward as part of an army in search of breakfast: meat, fresh meat. Fortunately, this one is foiled in his attempt to tuck into a baby bird and his comrades in arms take advantage of the injuries inflicted on him by the hatchling’s mother to devour him. I’ve often suspected that demeanour can reveal a lot about character, and the physiognomy of this African ground cricket suggests something vile: cannibalism.
Eye to Eye offers an inside view of the trials and tribulations of the camera crew during the filming of the series. In one episode the team hired seventy-five guides and helpers to carry a ton of equipment through east African rainforest in their search for a female chimpanzee known to have a fondness for honey and a unique skill to access it. We see the lady in question effortlessly scale a tower-block-sized tree and fashion a tool from a branch which she uses to raid the hive. Delicately she dips her long fingers into the honey and licks them one at a time with obvious relish. Having demolished the hive, she smacks her lips and swings contentedly across to a nearby tree.
Many images from Africa will remain with me for a very long time. I still smile at the cleverness of the Drongo, a wily bird who outfoxes meerkats by imitating their warning cry. The meerkats panic, go to ground and Mr. Drongo swoops down to take his reward, their food. The heroism of a lizard who risks death to hunt flies crawling and buzzing around the blood-stained muzzles of sated sleeping lions has to be applauded. A solitary desert giraffe vanquishes a rival male in a violent contest for mating rights. To see these elegant and graceful creatures bashing each other relentlessly is gut wrenching and seems so out of character. But then, what do I know about giraffes? The camera crew waited 30 days in this scorched land to film this fight.
Close ups and ingenious filming techniques bring us right into the world of creatures whose lives are a continuous fight for survival. High up in the forests of the Rift Valley we peep into the nest of a crowned eagle tenderly feeding her hatchling morsels of fruit bat. The copper-gold eye of a frog fills our screen as he silently scales leaves and stems in the rainforests of the Congo in search of a mate. Down by the Indian Ocean we get a turtle’s eye view of the sprint undertaken by tens of thousands of hatchlings over sand dunes to reach the sea before they are picked off by kites and crows. If she reaches the sea, a baby green turtle, only 7cm long, will not touch land for many years hence, until she returns to this beach to lay her eggs. David Attenborough tells us she has a 1 in 1,000 chance of survival. As I said, Africa is an emotional journey.
There is room for mystery too. Not everything can be explained or needs to be explained. Giant Kingfish – the size of a man – abandon their normally solitary existence in the Indian Ocean to form a shoal and swim up the Mutentu River. Attenborough explains that once a year “they change from aggressive hunters into dedicated pilgrims. In response to an unknown cue these enormous fish begin to circle” far upstream; and they continue to circle for weeks, until they decide to return to their life in the salt water of the ocean. Nobody can explain this bizarre ritual.
It took courage to watch the final episode, The Future. What could the future hold for African wildlife in a world ruled by profit-motivated greed and the perception of animals as mere commodities? Out of respect for the efforts of the film makers I watched it. Yes, many species are on the verge of extinction but there is a powerful lobby devoted to their defence. Green turtle numbers are doubling thanks to the local people in an island off the east coast of Africa. A baby black rhino, born blind, nuzzles up to David Attenborough. There is hope that surgery will give the young rhino sight and then he will be gradually reintroduced to the wild.
Overall, Africa offers glimmers of hope but within a grim scenario. The delicately balanced ecosystem of the continent is up against the demands of a rapidly expanding human population. Footage of a rhino trotting uneasily across our screens, framed by a background of high rise buildings, conveys the horror of the unfolding tragedy more powerfully than the narrative could. But this is not the enduring image that I will hold on to from the Africa series.
On a deserted east African beach buffalo trot along the sand; forest elephants join them; a gorilla watches from the shade of a palm tree and a hippo rises and falls with gentle the surf of the Indian Ocean. This is the scene from Africa that I will retreat to each time I hear about ruthless poachers and habitat destruction. It is all I can do. 

Image courtesy of Worradmu /