David Attenborough was one of my heroes growing up. Even back then I used to love watching nature documentaries, and he was the king of them. His voice delivers gravitas to the power of nature. He describes Africa as “the only place where you can see the full majesty of nature” and it’s suitable for a documentary series as “there’s no other place on earth where wildlife puts on a greater show”. This is shown in the first episode Kalahari with a snapshot of the sheer variety of wildlife in Africa, a watering hole where we see zebras, ostriches, giraffes, elephants, antelope, wildebeest and later lions all together coming to drink.
It’s fair to say this series started with an eventful episode. The Kalahari desert, which aptly translates as “land of great thirst”, and as the programme notes it is a sad irony that in roughly the same area underground is Dragon’s Breath Cave which contains an underground lake we have no idea how deep it is.
We saw some of the relationships animals have which aren’t just one being predator and one being prey. A drongo bird, which most of the time alerts a clan of meerkats to danger of predators, causing the meerkats to run back to the safety of their underground burrow. But the drongo can be devious, as one here was. After raising an accurate warning of an eagle flying by, this drongo raised a false alarm which again caused the meerkats to run back underground. When they did this the drongo then swooped down and ate the insects the meerkats had dug up. It tried the same trick again, but the meerkats weren’t fooled twice. But then the drongo learned to imitate the meerkat’s own warning call, so was able to steal the food that way.
Black rhinos have a reputation of having a bad temper, but like many wild animals it appears to be a different story at night. Under a starry night sky we see rhinos socialising and being friendly and tender to one another. We also see an amusing love triangle where a male rhino is interested in a female, but she isn’t keen and is more attracted to another, bigger stronger male. Then the first male rhino comes between them wearing some antelope antlers on his nose., and this party trick seems to impress the female. However when it comes to getting down to business he doesn’t perform well so she pretends to be asleep to get rid of him. This may well be personification, but it does show that we have some similarities to other animals even if they are basic.
We also see some monstrous looking giant crickets which try to eat some chicks in a quelea bird’s nest. The parents fly back to protect their young, and the giant cricket sprays its own blood into their eyes. The parents succeed in getting rid of the cricket, and things go from bad to worse for it, as the scent of its blood attracts other crickets which eat it! You can see why many B-movie horror films got inspiration from the insect world. This also goes for parasitic wasps and their way of laying their eggs inside other unfortunate invertebrates. The pompilid wasp in this episode wasn’t successful however, as she targeted a golden wheel spider which cartwheeled its way to safety.
A fight between two desert giraffes, an old male and a young male battling over a female and one of the few areas of trees in the desert, had an epic battle which was later revealed to have only taken one minute of real time, but we were shown it in slow motion so we saw how vicious it got. In the end it was a Pyrrhic victory for the older one, a battle scarred winner. I personally could have done without the Western movie-style music used though, as amusing as giraffes look when they are chewing.
We also got a few moments laughs. David Attenborough’s commentary on a young leopard found a kill stored in a tree by his own mother. “Like any teenager, he thinks nothing of raiding [his mother’s] larder”. We also a comical shot of a ground squirrel noticing a leopard and then dropping what it had been nibbling on and scarpering. All this in episode one!
In episode two, Savannah, we open with the red and black smoke and lava from Mount Nyiragongo, apparently you can see the eruptions from space. But as is the case with volcanoes, the ash provides fertile land. Similarly, forest fires spread rapidly because of the dry grass on plains and can be devastating, but they also help regenerate the land. The imagery we saw in this episode looked similar to paintings of a fire and brimstone hell. Beautiful brightly coloured birds eat fleeing insects from the flames “char-grilled grasshopper” as David Attenborough put it.
In stark contrast we see snow covered mountains with the Mountains of the Moon, also known as the Rwenzori mountains, which translates as “The Rainmaker”, showing large falling icicles, glaciers and meltwater, and other images of outstanding beauty such as flamingos in soda lakes, and a streak of rainbow colour on the horizon signalling thunder, rainfall and lightning, purple and orange skies, and the mist coloured orange from a sunset.
The shoebill is an odd-looking bird, it’s one of those birds where it’s easy to see the link between birds and dinosaurs. But more noteworthy than their appearance was the behaviour of the ones we saw. While the mother went to fetch water, the older, stronger chick bullied the younger weaker one. When the mother returned she was aware of what had happened, and when the younger one went to its mother for comfort… she goes to the older chick and feeds it, ignoring the younger one. Shoebills prefer to concentrate on raising one healthy chick, and the younger one was basically a spare in case the older didn’t make it. These documentaries frequently show that nature at times is very cruel, but even so that scene was a shock as to how downright callous and nasty it can be.
A migration of ten million fruit bats come to feast on fruit, and they in turn attract eagles which fly from miles to feed on the fruit bats. One particular eagle shows great foresight, not to mention impeccable timing as she only breeds once every couple of years, by choosing to nest there before the fruit has even blossomed. These creatures need to have their wits about them, like the tiny agama lizard thinking to feed from flies buzzing around dozing lions.
This episode was most memorable though for scenes with elephants. We get to see a fight between two mighty bull elephants who have been fighting for three days. Despite the long length, it appears relatively civilised, with one conceding defeat. But the real story was the severe drought in the Amboseli which meant elephants were having to feed on dried scraps of plants. Then there was probably the most poignant scene of the series. A mother elephant with a calf that has become too weak to even stand. The mother stayed with her calf as its life slips way even as the rest of the herd disappear from sight. It was very tragic and moving, and stuck a powerful emotional chord with many viewers. By the end, we were shown that rain had returned, and grass had began to grow again, and there was an elephant “baby boom”, with different herds of elephants coming together and a happy baby elephant chasing egrets. It all showed that life can be incredibly tough for these animals, but there is hope that it can get better.
Episode three was Congo. Its forests were described as “the lungs of Africa”. The forest generates its own weather, in fact 95% of its own rainfall from the water vapour the trees release. We see this in action with thunder and lightning filling the sky. One of the most remarkable sights is the fungi which digest dead leaves, as some look astonishing, glowing luminous green because of the enzymes they use.
A chimpanzee uses tools by breaking a branch and using it to get honey in a bee’s nest hidden underneath a tree bark. While this shows a certain intelligence and resourcefulness in chimpanzees, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the bees. For one thing, these particular bees are stingless so have no defence, for another, as the narration points out, the chimpanzee destroys something that took the bees years to build in only minutes.
Elephants here are also shown to have some ingenuity with an area called Dzanga Bai, which translates as “village of the elephants”. They cleared the forest area themselves and use it as a place meet up, many elephants coming from long distances to visit there. They are able to use their trunks as water jets to ‘mine’ salt.
Yet another rather unusual looking bird makes an appearance in this episode, picathartes, with their long blue legs and yellow head. Like many birds they mate for life and share parenting duties like incubation. They make mud nests and sort of bunny hop along the ground.
Bizarre as this may sound, the episode ends with the sight of a hippo in the surf of the Atlantic ocean and elephants, gorrilas and red river hogs going to relax on the beach.
My favourite episode was the fourth episode Cape. It opened with baby green turtles hatching from their underground nest and racing to the sea. At the end of each episode we see a few minutes of “making of” footage with the film crew showing how some scenes were filmed, and I always quite like it when they have similar thoughts to viewers at home. They made the point that while filming the turtles they felt like cheering them on, and were upset with how unfair it was that birds came swooping down to eat them. Indeed only one in a thousand of them survive to adulthood. The last hatchling struggled out, and it she had to escape the clutches of a ghost crab but eventually made it to the sea. Even when in the sea, there is still a risk of birds catching them, but this turtle managed to escape. It was amazing seeing this one little turtle underneath the crashing waves in a vast ocean. But the filming footage showed that they were unable to keep up with it, causing them to comment “Beaten by something that is less than a day old!”. It shows how well adapted they are that they can take on all these odds and some at least will survive.
In the mountains of Mozambique we see what is known as the butterfly forest. The butterflies travel upstream up the mountain to what is known as the butterfly ball, a courtship ritual where the butterflies try to find a mate. It lasts half an hour a day for a few weeks. The skies are filled with butterflies, and it all looks very beautiful.
When fog condenses on a desert in Namaqualand it “bursts into life in a dazzling display of flowers” which won’t last long in the heat so each plant competes with absolutely gorgeous colourful flowers. A monkey beetle sleeps in a daisy which petals close at night as it shelters him from the cold night. It is a symbiotic relationship, as in return for shelter the plant is pollinated.
An example of a food chain is shown starkly when an unfortunate pelican tries to swallow a big catfish only to be eaten himself by a crocodile. But this episode showed some less usual natural events;
King fish, which are solitary most of the time and live in saltwater, sometimes gather in large groups and the leader takes them all upstream until they move into freshwater, and then they stop moving and circle. But we have no idea of the purpose of this as they don’t breed or hunt and eventually go back to the ocean.
We might expect great white sharks feasting on a whale carcass to all fight and tear chunks out, but that’s not how they do it. What happens is they size each other up and take turns based on that. The largest eats first, and only after they have finished the second largest will eat, and so on.
If there’s one creature that you wouldn’t expect to see in Africa, it would probably be penguins, but there are some there, and we see them slipping and sliding on the rocks. In truth, there’s good reason why you might not expect to find penguins in Africa, as they are completely unsuited to the environment. Penguins have evolved to withstand extreme cold, not heat. They still protect their eggs by sitting on them, but it’s to shade them from the sun rather than to keep them from freezing. Their feathers are good to keep them warm in Antarctica, but here in Africa where it is very hot, the feathers are a hindrance. It is upsetting to see the penguins gasping in the heat, for some of them it is too much and they give up and abandon their nests, meaning their eggs will not survive. Some do withstand it and raise chicks though. I suppose it is a credit that they are somehow able to survive in such an environment.
Finally, we see a battle for survival in the ocean. A 5000 strong pod of dolphins are trying to catch a school of sardines. Dolphins are sophisticated hunters, but sardines are fast and are able to dodge. Following the dolphins is a Bryde’s whale, which is absolutely massive, and follows the dolphins knowing it will lead them to food. The whale can get to the sardines in places the dolphins are unable to, and you get the dolphins and the whale driving the sardines to the surface, where gulls try to dive into the sea to eat some of the sardines themselves. But still the sardines are fast so only relatively few will be eaten.
Episode five focused on the Sahara desert, which covers a third of the entire continent. We are shown sandstorms which can be seen rising up high into the air, how sand if watched over a long period of time resembles sea waves and hear the humming sound sand dunes make. We are also given an explanation for mirages. the intense heat becomes like a fog, so the sky reflects on the sand looking like water, and trees appear to move and are mistaken for people riding on camels.
It’s almost impossible to survive there, so it’s no wonder that some of the life that has adapted to live there is decidedly odd. One of the most bizarre was the naked mole rats, David Attenborough describing them as looking like “sabre-toothed sausages”. What is most unusual about them though is that their behaviour is more like ants and termites than mammals. They live in underground tunnels, can move just as easily backwards and forwards, and have a social colony. They have a queen, the mother of all the others in the colony. These are all workers, with the exception of one daughter who is selected to be a future queen, and she is treated like a princess and pampered, but it is only because one day she has to leave and find a male to mate with so she can start a colony of her own.
There’s also the resurrection plant, a dried bundle which looks and moves like tumbleweed. However, even if it has been dormant for a century, when it lands on water the branches unfurl, and if rain falls then they grow green shoots and white flowers. The heat from the sun soon kills them and it returns to its previous state as a dry bundle, but the seeds survive and can wait another century to grow if they have to. The Sahara is even home to some fish, like one we see in a beautiful lake in an oasis. A mother tilapia fish is seen protecting her hatchlings by hiding them in her mouth away from a crocodile. Some oasis are poisonous though, like one we see which has made the water salty through years of evaporation, and we see the surface of it is infested with flies. Migrating birds can still use it as a food source though. The flies are able to filter the water, so if birds eat them they can get water that way. Most bizarrely though, dust from the Sahara desert is carried by wind to South America and fertilises the Amazon rainforest.
The final episode was different from the others. The Future saw David Attenborough talking in camera more and was about what the future holds for the wildlife of Africa. There have been many changes, more in the last 50 years than there have been in 2 million.
Rhinos have been hunted to near extinction, partly because of the belief that rhino horn despite there been no proof that it has any medicinal value whatsoever. The human population is expanding in Africa and other continents meaning that there is less space for wildlife.
But there are people making efforts to make things easier. Cape showed that local people have been trying to help baby turtles on their way, and this saw the numbers increasing.
It has been traditional as a rite of passage for Maasai warriors to kill a lion, but nowadays some Maasai warriors have decided to protect lions instead, one way is to warn villagers to move their cattle along if lions are spotted. There have been conservation efforts for mountain gorillas funded by tourism, and in Kenya they have decided to build an underpass especially for elephants so they can go to the mountain highlands.
Global warming also is making an impact. The Sahara desert is spreading, which is trouble for people living near there as much as it is trouble for wildlife. There are plans to build a green belt of trees across eleven countries, which understandably isn’t an easy thing to put into action. Temperature that eggs determines the sex of turtles, if the eggs are at a low temperature the hatchlings will be male, if they are at a high temperature they will be female. With the temperature increasing they will be fewer males, which means females may not be able to find a mate in future.
But conservation efforts in general have been shown to increase animal numbers, so it is worth doing. There is a plan to restore Gorongosa National Park. Incidentally, I liked the old footage of it from 50 years ago we were shown of lions climbing up a spiral staircase and on the roof of an old restaurant.
The final scene saw David Attenborough with feeding a blind baby rhino a branch and stroking him, and the director Kate Broome was moved to tears. However after that we saw the rhino squeaking to David Attenborough and him squeaking back. He hoped that the rhino would be able to have his cataracts removed and be eventually released back into the wild.
With this programme we get to see how truly marvellous and breathtaking nature is, and also we have a responsibility to protect it. While we may make a negative difference, we can make a positive difference too. I can’t really do justice to this documentary, but it was a brilliant piece of television.