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Lions in the balance: A response from Sir David Attenborough

I am intrinsically drawn to places of nature and natural beauty, and as I sit in this very British park, barely three minutes walk from Buckingham Palace, the contrast between the book I am reading and the place in which I am reading it is not lost on me.

I am reading a fantastically insightful and honest book by the Director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Craig Packer, called Lions In The Balance — Man-eaters, Manes and Men with Guns. There’s a good story behind why. It was personally recommended to me by none other than Sir David Attenborough.

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Last month, I did something bold (by my standards, certainly not by Craig Packer’s…), I called out my biggest idol and inspiration for promoting lion cub cuddling; despite its devastating links to the trophy hunting industry (see one of my previous posts, Bred for the bullet, for further explanation of what this industry, also known as the ‘canned hunting‘ industry, actually means).

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Naturally, the posts received a bit of a backlash. Given that I’ve written over 90 posts on this site over five years, and prior to my criticism of the Radio Times cover for Sir David’s 90th birthday, I had only received 20-odd comments, the four responses that made it onto this post are a significant portion of my audience feedback. Most of the responses were angry at me, and one even suggested that my article was “at best a publicity stunt for my blog. At worst, an insult to an honourable man who has dedicated his whole life to animals and has achieved far more in that vein than I ever will”.

Ouch. I did my best to respond diplomatically and calmly; explaining my position and my own shortcomings and former of ignorance to this issue, myself having petted lion cubs in South Africa at a place that I’ve since discovered has previously been linked with the canned hunting industry (however, Daniel’s Cheetah Breeding Centre now staunchly educates against trophy hunting, following the campaign work of an American tourist). But I quietly knew that behind the scenes, I had already voiced my concerns, privately, to Sir David, explaining about the post I had written, why I had written it and asking what his thoughts are on the current situation with lions and the canned hunting industry.

A bold move, from my perspective at least.

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A week later, I had received a handwritten reply — not directly responding to the issue, but suggesting a higher authority on lions, ‘their place within society, ecosystems, and the trophy hunting industry’. One that I would assume he agrees with.

So far, Packer’s book has been a whirlwind of diary-style entries, detailing the experience of being held at gun point in Nairobi whilst on his honeymoon; studying lion and lioness’ reactions to varying mane lengths (long vs. short) and colours (blond vs. black); and near-death experiences at the hands of malaria tablets.

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I’m looking forward to reading more of this book and seeing how his studies and experiences compare to those described by Paul Tully of Captured in Africa in his recent interview for this blog; and to perhaps further explore the darker side to the cub-cuddling issue, which Sir Attenborough himself may have inadvertently promoted.

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Revisiting Sir David Attenborough’s Great Ape playmate

In the wake of Sir David Attenborough’s 90th birthday celebrations, the BBC has curated a fantastic collection of programmes from Sir David’s incredible, extensive catalogue of work, available on BBC iPlayer. The collection includes the brand new programme; Attenborough at 90, which sees a number of colleagues, friends and admirers of Sir David come together to celebrate his milestone year.

Of course, the birthday broadcast included one of the most celebrated (and remembered) moment of David’s on-screen history, which is…

NB: Since the making of these films, the practice of human interaction with wild gorillas is no longer permitted, due to further understanding of the human diseases we may pass on to them. 

Born Free Foundation supporter and ambassador of vEcotourism.org, Ian Redmond OBE, was on hand for the programme, filmed in front of a live audience, to reminisce the infamous gorilla introduction between Sir David and the gorillas.

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As Dr Dian Fossey’s research assistant, it was Ian who took David and the BBC crew to meet the gorillas. The incredible moment has been the subject of a new BBC Earth article, which goes on to explain what happen to the gorillas after that magical moment; written by Ian.

 “There is the unforgettable moment when Pablo, a playful youngster in Group 5, sits in David’s lap and sprawls back wriggling, making David grimace slightly despite his evident delight – I suspect that was because gorillas do have rather bony bottoms!” — courtesy BBC Earth.

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Ian Redmond observing the gorillas. Photo taken by DR Dian Fossey, courtesy of Ian Redmond.

Happily, Poppy, the then two-year-old infant who played alongside Sir David Attenborough, is now an elderly matriarch in the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group, which can be visited, virtually, at close range on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi, courtesy of vEcotourism.org. For full details and more information, click here or the picture below:

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David and the lion’s den

Sounds like a twist on a biblical story, doesn’t it? Well, there are a couple of things of epic proportions in this latest update.

Just a day after posting my recent interview with Captured in Africa about their work rescuing and relocating lions that have either fallen into the trophy hunting trade that saw Cecil the lion killed and beheaded (see my blog post Bred for the bullet for further explanation), or that have been kept captive as pets; I joined the biggest ever march against trophy hunting — taking to the streets of London alongside Born Free actress Virginia McKenna and representatives from the charities: Lion Aid, IFAW, Save Me Trust, Four Paws, One Protest and of course Born Free Foundation.

virginia mckenna march I donned my best lion themed attire, to listen to stirring speeches from campaigner Dominic Dyer, Green World TV’s Anneka Svenska and Game of Thrones actor and staunch lion advocate James Cosmo and Virginia herself (among others), as a huge crowd of hundreds of men, women, children (and dogs) of all ages called out to ‘save our lions!’ and ‘Stop trophy hunting!’.

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Given that I know full well the perils that lions go through during a life cycle in the trophy hunting industry (from petting farms as a cubs, to get them accustomed to human interaction and build a state of trust; to overcrowded pens as adolescences, where their teeth and claws are often forcibly removed; and finally a fenced off enclosure as an adult, where they have no escape from being shot with a gun or bow and arrow depending on the request of the hunter): I can’t believe that any mainstream media outlet can champion cub petting in any form, particularly in the name of conservation.

But this week, RadioTimes seem to have done just that.

imageI refuse to share a picture of myself and the magazine alone, without this weekend’s march banner, as I feel so strongly that anything that can be seen to advocate cub-cuddling is a part of the problem.

Another part of the Goliath-sized dilemma is that I am such a huge fan of Sir David Attenborough.

IMG_8429I expect, from the magazine’s standfirst stating that: “As a birthday celebration we paired him up with two playful cubs, for our exclusive photo shoot at his home” that these must be captive zoo lions, as the photo shoot is said to take place in his home, rather than at a sanctuary of any sorts.

I know that Sir David’s early work centred around zoos, with his first television series, Zoo Quest, discussed here (NOTE: a more recent blog post, which clarifies my updated stance on zoos can also be viewed here, for anyone who’s interested), but this really isn’t about zoos, or where conservationists stand on the age-old debate of do they help with awareness and conservation, or don’t they this is about encouraging photographs with lion cubs.

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

Literature handed out at the Global March for Lions

Please take a moment to view the image above, which details the role that cub petting tourist attractions and cub-raising volunteer programmes play in the much darker trophy hunting industry, which sees adult lions hunted for cash and their heads flown to the hunters’ home turf, to be mounted on the wall.

This is a great opportunity to add that if you haven’t seen the incredibly powerful documentary, Blood Lions, please, please check it out, to fully understand this issue.image

I would still like to know more about the lion cubs used for the RadioTimes cover: who/where do they belong to? Why were they used for this photo shoot? And why did Sir David chose to go along with it? In the meantime, I shall just returned to all the other, much-loved David Attenborough-based literature I have to hand, including the last RT issue that featured him on the cover: which only gets about as dark as the 3D glasses he is wearing! image

I’ll also be adding my name to this petition, started by Paul TullyRADIO TIMES – EXPLAIN & REMOVE YOUR COVER FEATURING DAVID ATTENBOROUGH HOLDING A CAPTIVE LION CUB and praying that Sir David uses this opportunity to open the world’s eyes to the industry surrounding commercial lion cub petting.

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Diving the Great Barrier Reef… at the Natural History Museum

I began this blog in 2011, when I was living, working and studying in Australia. I spent 14 months on the other side of the world, working towards my degree at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

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No trip across Australia would have been complete without visiting the incredibly beautiful Great Barrier Reef, and this was one of the absolute highlights for me (see picture left!).

Incredibly delicate and evidently damaged by climate change and pollution, I chose to snorkel around the reef rather than scuba dive, as this would have been my first time using scuba diving equipment and as an inexperienced diver, I didn’t trust myself to know enough to avoid further damaging the reef.

Nonetheless, the experience was unforgettable. Vivid in colour and full of life, the reef really is quite a spectacle.

This weekend, I visited London’s Natural History Museum to recapture the experience.

Sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? But the Attenborough Studio is offering the chance to take a virtual reality tour of the Great Barrier Reef, with Sir David Attenborough himself.

I’ve never worn a virtual reality headset before and didn’t really know what to expect, but putting on the Samsung VR Gear was the perfect way to brighten a Sunday afternoon with a bit of fun and a bit of wonder!

Admittedly, the visuals in the headset didn’t feel quite ‘real’ but it was a fantastic way to combine technology, education, and immersive documentary film making and to go deep under the water with David Attenborough just over your right shoulder, becoming your tour guide for the journey!

At the end of the 20 minute ‘show’, I was ready to take the gear off and give my neck a bit of a rest – but the feeling of possibility and connection to the location definitely stayed with me for much longer!

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‘Wild Neighbours’ with Sir David Attenborough and Gordon Buchanan

In hushed awe, the crowd at the Rose Theatre in Kingston listened attentively as Sir David Attenborough, legendary TV naturalist, led the way at the Environment Trust for Richmond’s annual lecture.

Titled ‘Wild Neighbours’, the event examined what happens when animals living wild in the UK collide head first with busy, urban environments. IMG_8398Sir David examined the issue of non-native species being introduced… and flourishing… on our shores (such as the now firmly established Canadian goose, the green parakeet and grey squirrel) and how they can impact the native species that claimed the land first. IMG_8401I was surprised to learn the long-accepted wives’ tale that red squirrels and grey squirrels are competing for food, is in fact incorrect. Instead, the red squirrel actually faces bigger threat from the pine martin (incidentally a nemesis of its grey counterpart, too) than the grey squirrel.

Often what happens when a non-native species is introduced to Britain (nearly always by the deliberate decision of humans) is that when its numbers climb too high, we take it upon ourselves to ‘control population’… through culling.

This is a fate that the afore mentioned green parakeet has faced on more than one occasion. When pressed, Attenborough conceded that he actually welcomes the parakeet to the UK.

Next to take the stand was renowned wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan.

Through real life anecdotes and humorous videos, Gordon relayed the plight of the urban fox. IMG_8409 As well as talking the audience through the life cycle of a fox (born in March; first emerges from the den in April; weaned in May; leaves den in June; before being kicked out of the family unit in November), Buchanan spoke of why they find themselves living amongst our cities and towns: we ate into their habitat after WWII.

The two admissions that intrigued me most from Gordon, however, were slight tangents from his talk about foxes; his opinions on reintroduction and intervention. IMG_8412 These two concepts seem to leave the nature world divided as to just how much we should ‘interfere’.

Given that people pay no mind to introducing non-native species to the UK, such as the parakeet (and then culling them for crisis control purposes), or taking away habitats, such as that of the fox; it intrigues me that whether or not we should reintroduce lynx and wolves to Scotland sparks such discussion (though for the record, it didn’t spark to much discussion at all from Gordon himself, who quickly declared himself as believing it will ‘pay off economically’).

The area that Buchanan did seem to struggle with having a definitive opinion on, however, was whether or not a wildlife filmmaker should ‘just let nature take its course’.

I’m sure we’ve all seen those heart-wrenching moments on BBC wildlife series’ where an animal becomes separated from its family unit and is left stranded/lost/alone with no food and no hope for survival – and have shouted at the screen: “help him! Why can’t you help him?!”

But when should a filmmaker intervene?

“I used to think; never” Gordon admits, ‘but over time my view has changed and softened a bit.”

“Now I think it sometimes can be ok. If you’re looking at something that is a direct results of humans (such as the clip he shows up of a fox cub with its head stuck in a Pringles can), I think it’s fine. I just wouldn’t go as far as stroking a wild animal, or treating it like a pet.”

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A conservation conversation with Sir David Attenborough

By his own admission, Sir David Attenborough’s favourite animal is identified, re-evaluated, and changed on a regular basis. “Today it’s a weedy seadragon,” he explained this weekend as I met him in Kingston, London  – it’s an animal he recently researched and filmed off the coast of southern Australia. “They’ve evolved to look like weeds and spend the entire day dancing.”

Kate on Conservation meets David Attenborough

The last time I heard Sir David’s answer to that question was as part of an interview in Radio Times last October, at which time he stated that the creature that most obsesses him (and grips his affection more than any other) was a human baby. “An 18-month-old child is simply riveting!” RT records him as saying. “Because evolution has evolved that response in us to make sure we protect them.” imageWhilst I’m sure that his affection towards little ones remains intact, it seems that some of his self-confessed obsession with the human race may have taken a turn for the worse over recent months. Not least due to a few controversies surrounding his urging of television audiences to consider their position on conservation and the responsibilities that come with it (a directness that had long been omitted from his magnificent TV series’ for fear that it would interfere with the sense of wonder and possibility that audiences tune in to his world-renowned documentaries to experience – I am told). But speak about our role in the conservation of the planet he has. 171465fbAs an employee of a UK branch of Discovery, who co-produced the series Frozen Planet with BBC in 2011, I find it interesting to re-visit the unfolding of whether or not the US network was going to broadcast the seventh episode in the series – in which Attenborough investigated the consequence of rising temperatures on life on our planet. After much debate, they did screen it – agreeing that global warming was an issue that America too, should indeed be talking about.

david_2076444bThe veteran naturalist seems to have reached a point in life where he has little time for holding his tongue in fear of causing a little discomfort. It strikes me that if there is a conversation to be had, he’s not afraid to have it, and no better time than now.

“I actually agree with cloning a species if  you’re down to the very last one,” he said on Saturday. “But you would have to clone a male and female though, unless you plan to go on cloning over and over again to keep the species going.”

During his lecture at the annual Environment Trust for Richmond conference, which took place at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Sir David poignantly explained that he knows exactly what it’s like to see a species down to it’s very final member…

This undoubtedly made me think of Born Free Foundation‘s ‘Disappearing Animals‘ poster campaign and the impact it had on me when I first saw it.

It’s too late to make one of these for the Pinter Galapagos Tortoise that Attenborough had the honour/curse of seeing the last one of. 10916378_10153119345252790_3925467927682003275_oI’ll be writing a further blog post about the ‘Wild Neighbours’ lecture that veteran presenter gave at the Environment Trust for Richmond’s annual event (alongside renowned wildlife camera man Gordon Buchanan), including his opinion on the impact that introducing foreign wildlife species has had on the UK’s own native animals (and why some of them we celebrate, whilst others we threaten to cull). IMG_8429But in the meantime, as I leave you with a message of his printed in this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine (that couldn’t be more different from that afore mentioned ‘obsession’ that he discussed with the Radio Times), and one that I find so significant that I asked him sign (see below), I think it’s good to point out that the world-renowned naturalist has a lot of fun and positive spirit in him yet too – when asked what animal he’d be if he could belong to any other species for a whole day, the 89-year-old smiled and replied “a bird of paradise of course, so I could dance all day looking beautiful, and see how many ‘birds’ I can attract”.image

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I suppose it all starts with zoos…

Bright green eyes stare out from a neatly tangled criss-cross of metal. Green metal. Green like grass, leaves, trees.

The view is skewed from those eyes. A picnic bench, a wooden sign with a map printed on it, two adults with a child and a push chair.

Once fierce , those eyes are now shrouded in dull frustration – just a flicker of wild in them – a flicker when a lump of meat thuds on the floor at a scheduled hour; or maybe when some small, unfortunate finch squeezes between the criss-cross of green metal.

sad leopardI suppose it all starts with zoos.

A zoo where the lions used in the filming of the Born Free film were sent to spend the rest of their days. A zoo where a leopard called Kuma lived in squalid conditions. A zoo where a gentle giant, mentally disturbed from loneliness and isolation (in war zones, we’d call this torture tactic ‘solitary confinement’), reaches out his trunk in affection to touch a face he recognises after 13 years.

Pole-Pole-at-London-Zoo-with-Virginia-and-Bill-c-Daily-Mail-650x500To me, visiting zoos with my family as a child are some of my fondest memories.

Zoos taught me about how incredibly diverse the natural kingdom is; that there is a huge world out there filled with magnificent and exotic creatures and, perhaps ironically, that they should be protected and respected.

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It was perhaps a hard pill to swallow then when I became a supporter of the Born Free Foundation and discovered that the animals they were rescuing were not just privately owned trophy pets, kept in rooftop cages at some European tourist spot I’d probably never come near to encountering – they were coming from places that I associated with animal conservation, education and the ‘safe havens’ that allowed me the chance to encounter these animals up close, in the living flesh. They were coming from zoos.

It’s hard for me to align myself with the position that every zoo is a torturous hell hole that no good can come from. But I certainly feel that way about a few. A disposition that’s only been strengthened by my time at Shamwari Game Reserve.

I have seen and known zoos to be involved in some fantastic conservation efforts: breeding animals and re-introducing the offspring to the wild. And I’ve watched for year’s the fundraising efforts of one of my local zoos – Africa Alive – in its plight to support the Botswana Cheetah Conservation Project.

HowToHelpIf an animal is saved from extinction by the work of zoos, then that is of course a success only to be heralded. But if that species exists only in captivity as a result, then has it been saved at all?

It’s confusing journey to be on; to love animals, to want to be around them to appreciate their beauty and power, to oppose denying them the opportunity to live wild and free. Because being around them often contradicts the scenes of freedom at Shamwari that are etched in my memory.

A scene from Shamwari Game ReserveIroncially, David Attenborough, face of nature to many, began his television days capturing animals to be put into captivity.

BBC series, Zoo Quest, aired between 1954 and 1963. The premise of this programme was to ‘collect’ animals from tropical locations to be introduced to London Zoo. An accepted practise at the time, the show now depicts everything that conservationists; including Sir David Attenborough himself, stand against.

David-Attenborough-Zoo-QuestIt was shortly after this series aired; 1969 that London Zoo would play another significant part in changing the attitudes of conservation…

After making the iconic Born Free film in 1966, husband and wife stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers filmed a documentary about an orphaned wild elephant called Pole Pole. Pole Pole was a gift to London Zoo – a ‘transaction’ that Virginia and Bill did their best to prevent.

Fourteen years later, an exhausted, disorientated and chronically lonely Pole Pole collapsed in London Zoo and was destroyed.

6ca9ca3c43But not before a visit from Bill and Virginia made a profound impact.

During her time at the zoo, Pole Pole’s behaviour was unlike that of a wild elephant: in her distressed state she swayed and paced and acted erratically.

Despite being driven mad by her barren concrete enclosure, Pole Pole broke hearts with her affection towards Virginia and Bill when, thirteen years after they filmed her in Kenya, she recognised the pair and in a tragic, tender, desperate moment; gently reached out to touch Bill’s palm with her trunk. Her death one year later devastated the couple.

This profound moment became the start of something that would bring hope to animals living in these such conditions. The Born Free actors, together with their son Will Travers, launched Zoo Check – an initiative that would later be named the Born Free Foundation – in 1984.

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Zoo Check would monitor the conditions of animals kept in captivity and intervene when an animal was found neglected and distressed.

Like both Virginia McKenna OBE and Sir David Attenborough, whose early careers and passion for conservation stemmed from zoos in some way; another of my wildlife heroes: Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin also entangled his passion for conservation with his now infamous Australia Zoo – a thought I’ve already chewed over on this blog.

575324_109748772523009_1980832430_nWith my conservation ‘teachers’, if you will, mixing rehabilitation and breeding programmes of zoos into their plight to conserve wild species, is it possible to advocate the irradiation of zoos? I expect not.

As photos emerged in March of young giraffe Marius being butchered in front of crowds of zoo visitors (including an audience of children) at Copenhagen Zoo, there was national outrage. Marius had been offered a place at a Yorkshire Zoo, but had met his end on a cold pavement slab, his limbs removed in front of a crowd of tourists and the juicy bits fed to the lions.

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While the world of social media went up in arms over little Marius (sadly with – seemingly – all the effectiveness of a storm in a tea cup), I couldn’t help but feel even more disheartened that a pride of lions at Longleat Safari Park were destroyed in the same month and hardly anybody seemed to turn a hair in comparison. And what of the escaped wolves of Colchester Zoo that had to be shot outright for fear of them causing harm?

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These things are rarely black and white.

They are spotted, patterned, feathered or fury – they are individual animals with individual personalities and individual needs that must be looked at as individual cases.

There are flaws; there are positive and negatives of zoos. There is a need to think and understand and critically evaluate the places that house wild animals; to look at the conditions they are kept in and the work that is going on behind the scenes to educate, to rehabilitate, to give something back to nature and ensure that not a single animal is overlooked in the process.

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And that’s it – that’s the point of the Born Free Foundation.

I don’t need to declare hate for absolutely everything that zoos stand for, or live hypocritically on this pendulum of allegiance vs angst – we just need to ensure that there will always be a body like the Born Free Foundation’s Zoo Check that will hold anyone keeping animals captive to account, and have the ability to intervene when individual animals so desperately need a voice.

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