Sir David Attenborough turned 94 last month. He’s been a hero of mine ever since I first saw him on television in the mid 1960s.
Back then, he presented a program called Zoo Quest. One episode I remember vividly was his trip to Borneo. The boyish looking explorer hacked his way through the jungle with a machete and a Dayak tribesman as his guide, looking for the elusive orangutan. This early documentary was in black and white; it was shot like a home movie but had a pioneering realism that made it exciting to watch.
Around the same time, my favourite creature at Adelaide Zoo was a wonderfully eccentric orangutan called George. He often appeared to be sad and sullen, sitting at the front of his cage with a hessian bag over his head. Occasionally he’d flick it out so you could put an unshelled peanut on it. He’d drag it back. Then he would eat the nuts, spitting out the shell while staring right back at you. When I saw George’s jungle on Zoo Quest I knew why he often turned his back on us and withdrew into his own world.
When George died, we built a statue to him and now insist these extraordinary primates deserve better than metal bars and concrete.
Sir David with an orangutan at London Zoo, 1982
Image credit: Getty Images
I doubt anyone has done more to change our appreciation of the natural world than Sir David. Now he’s just completed what could be his most powerful and important work.
The film is called A Life on Our Planet. He says it’s his “witness statement” and his “vision for the future”. I like the term witness statement because it implies there has been a crime or an accident and he’s giving evidence of what he saw. If he went back to Borneo he’d find vast areas of jungle destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used in biscuits and cosmetics.
Almost 30 years ago I realised a dream and travelled there to see what Sir David had seen in the 1960s. I wanted to see an orangutan in the wild. At the Sepilok rehabilitation centre dozens of orphaned and injured animals were trying to survive in a 4000ha reserve. One of them walked alongside me as I walked through the forest. He stopped when I stopped, and walked when I walked. Finally, we came to a clearing where a few more of his fellow creatures were gathered on a feeding platform. It was breakfast time and I stood there among a crowd of tourists. They looked at the orangutans and the orangutans stared back. The one who had walked beside me eyeballed me as he ate his food.
So what’s the essence of the witness statement by the most important advocate for our natural world? I’ve seen a short preview where he sums up things in his usual succinct style. He challenges us, saying “human beings have overrun the world”. He calls climate change our “greatest mistake” but says “we can put it right”.
Perhaps, as he hopes, we can change our ways. The way we have changed because of the coronavirus shows we can live differently. He has a simple, clear message:
“Don’t waste things. This is a precious world. The world’s not a bowl of fruit that we can just take what we wish. We are part of it and if we destroy it we destroy ourselves."
Like the orangutans we need a viable healthy habitat too. Save our planet and it might just save us.
Sir David talks with Queen Elizabeth II during an event at Buckingham Palace, 2016
Image credit: Getty Images