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10 things you didn’t know about Sir David Attenborough

Like most people, I’m a huge fan of Sir David Attenborough, and his ability to inspire millions of individuals, old and young, from across the globe to take an interest in our natural world. It’s hard to understand exactly the level of influence that the veteran broadcaster has had, but the stories from his incredible career pay testament to how he’s dedicated his entire life to understanding more about our planet and its wild creatures.

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But with a career so very much in the public’s eye, there must be very little that we don’t know already know about the BBC great. Or is there?

I’ve tried to compile a list of ‘10 facts you didn’t know about Sir David Attenborough’ – do let me know your favourite, or if you have a fun fact that didn’t make the list, please leave a comment in the box below. Here it goes…

1) Sir David Attenborough’s favourite animal…

is identified, re-evaluated, and changed on a regular basis. “Today it’s a weedy seadragon,” he explained when I had the incredible honour of speaking to him in Kingston, London  – it’s an animal he researched and filmed off the coast of southern Australia. “They’ve evolved to look like weeds and spend the entire day dancing,” he confirmed.

2) If he could belong to any other species for a whole day…

it would be a bird of paradise. A few years back I witnessed the then 89-year-old answer this question during an audience Q&A. He 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”.

3) His love of animals comes from…

a book he read in early childhood. Sir David credits Ernest Thompson Seton’s book ‘Wild Animals I Have Known’ as igniting his passion for animals and the natural world. At the beginning of the BBC film ‘Lobo The Wolf That Changed America’ — which tells Thompson Seton’s tale of hunting the notorious wolf Lobo, and in doing so giving him a respect for animals and their personalities which would make him ultimately turn his back on wolf hunting — Sir David expressed that his love for animals and recognising them as having individual personalities comes directly from having this book in his library as a child.

Ernest Thompson Seton - wild animals I have known book

4) He once fought off a pickpocket…

while travelling in Jakarta. Sir David describes this in his book ‘The Zoo Quest Expeditions’; “I suddenly remembered that in the breast pocket of my shirt, I was carrying all my money, my fountain pen, my passport and ticket. I clapped my hand over the pocket. It landed not on cloth, but one someone else’s hand. I gripped it as hard as I was able, slowly bent it back and removed my wallet from its fingers. Its owner, a sweating half-naked man with a dirty cloth tied round his forehead, glared at me savagely… I decided that in the circumstances it would be better to be gently reproving than to attempt an impersonation of an avenging fury, but the only word I could think of was ‘Tidak. No’.”

5) He agrees with cloning animals…

to save a species. “I actually agree with cloning a species if you’re down to the very last one,” he said when I had the pleasure of meeting him. Though it seems he only agrees with cloning two animals of species, adding; “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.”

6) The rarest animal he’s ever seen…

was the last ever Pinta Island Tortoise – which he described during a lecture he gave for Environment Trust for Richmond upon Thames in 2015. He visited the male giant tortoise, known as ‘Lonesome George’, in the Galapagos Islands before this solitary creature passed away on 24th June 2012. The Pinta Galapagos tortoise was already thought extinct for about 100 years, until scientists discovered ‘Lonesome George’. “There was only one in the whole wide world, and I saw it. So that is undoubtedly the very rarest of a species you can have; the very last.”

7) The creature that most obsesses him most…

and grips his affection more than any other, is a human baby, he told the Radio Times in a 2014 interview. “An 18-month-old child is simply riveting, because evolution has evolved that response in us to make sure we protect them,” he added.

8) He names the blackbirds who visit his garden…

albeit in his words ‘unimaginatively’. As he states in the book ‘New Life Stories‘, based on his interviews on Radio 4 in 2011; “I have a blackbird in my garden — a male — who has a white feather in his left wing. I call him, rather unimaginatively, ‘Whitey’ and his arrival, a year ago, transformed my understanding of the dramas and battles that go on in my shrubs and on the bird table. Suddenly I was aware how frequently — or infrequently — one individual bird visited my garden; how often he fed; whether he was likely to win an encounter with another male; whether he was courting; and what his relationships were with others of his own kind.”

9) He’s decorated his home with images of nature…

or at least one room. A sneak peak of his home in the film ‘Great Wildlife Moments‘ shows peacocks on the fire place, leaves and plants on the wall paper and a penny jar plugged with feathers. It’s EXACTLY what I’d hoped for from our biggest wildlife hero!

Sir david attenborough house

10) He visited Elsa the lioness of Born Free fame…

and Joy and George Adamson, out in their home in Kora National Park in Kenya. He even had to endure Elsa’s cub Jespah playfully swiping at his legs. He writes of the encounter in the 1960s; “They were certainly playful, but equally, they didn’t seem to know their own strength. Jespah in particular enjoyed playing games. His favourite trick was to hide behind a bush and then charge out as you were passing and take a swipe at your legs”. Ouch.

 

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What one more fact? Discover what Sir David Attenborough has chosen as his most exciting moment in filmmaking.

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7

5 things that made Bradt’s Big Cat Festival amazing!

Pulling away from Kings Cross Station, head lolling against the window of the rickety train, I couldn’t have felt more content. Once in a while you have an experience that will stay with you forever, and for me; a day spent in the big smoke, celebrating big cats was everything I could have asked for and more.

More than just a source of information (though it certainly taught me a lot!), the day was a brilliant coming together of so many things that have brought me to the very place (and person) I am today; like the universe has been quietly watching and listening and chose this very day to drop it’s hints that I’m on the right track.

Kate on Conservation holds bradt's big cat festival guide

This was the first ever Big Cat Festival, hosted by Bradt’s travel guides at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and it will hopefully be the first of many…

1. Remembering Christian the lion

Alongside the beautiful, black-maned Cecil, Christian the lion is perhaps the internet’s most famous lion. The re-released footage of him reuniting with former owners John Rendall and Ace Bourke (with a great big lion hug) has been viewed collectively more than 35 million times on YouTube!

The beginning of my personal journey into conservation writing started with two brilliant films of my childhood, which would help foster a lifelong love of animals. The first was Disney’s animated classic, The Lion King, and the second was the 1966 live action depiction of Joy Adamson‘s bestselling book Born Free.

The film Born Free, featuring Virginia McKenna in the role of Joy and her real life husband, Bill Travers, playing Joy’s husband George Adamson would start a movement — eventually resulting in the founding of Born Free Foundation, but first helping to establish George Adamson’s pride.

John Rendall shows George Adamson's photo at Christian the lion's legacy talk at Big Cat Festival

After successfully releasing Elsa the lioness into the wild, George was tasked with releasing ‘Boy’ — a male lion used in the filming of Born Free —  into his Kora reserve in Kenya. Christian, ‘the Harrods lion’, would be flown from London to Kenya to join Boy after a chance encounter between his owners in their aptly named furniture shop ‘Sophisticat’ in Kings Road, Chelsea, and Born Free actors Virginia and Bill; visiting the shop to buy a pine writing desk.

One of Christian’s former owner’s, John Rendall, kicked off the programme of speakers, joined by Christian’s official photographer Derek Cattani. Sharing some incredible photographs of Christian — in both his Chelsea flat and later in Kora with George — gave the audience a chance to delve deeper into the story.

John Rendall Christian the lion's legacy at Big Cat Festival

I recently re-watched the documentary ‘The Lion Who Thought He Was People‘, featuring that clip of them reuniting, so getting this further perspective and hearing Derek Cattani’s voice on the experience for the first time was a real treat — and a great introduction to the book that the pair have co-authored, due for release in October. I also spotted George Adamson’s former assistant; Tony Fitzjohn in the audience of this talk, which was an added bonus.

2. BBC Big Cats — behind the scenes

This one is kind of a double-whammy. Along with 5.3 million other viewers, I loved BBC1’s Big Cats series. Learning about lesser known species of small cat — such as Fishing Cats, Margays and Sand Cat’s — and enjoying the amazing standard of wildlife filmmaking that the BBC has become synonymous with — made my frosty Thursday evenings more bearable this past January. So I was delighted to see that Series Producer and Director Gavin Boyland was billed to discuss the series.

Gavin unravelled the series from a filmmaking perspective; showing us how two separate camera buggies were used to film running cheetahs, with the help of a Newton arm and a Phantom Flex camera — which slows down action by 40%. While I’m not very familiar with filmmaking, gaining a simple understanding explained with on-screen examples was a great introduction to behind the scenes of the series.

I was fortunate enough to be attending the event with Tania Esteban, who has worked as Digital Researcher for a number of top BBC series, such as Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, and — you guessed it — Big Cats; for whom she completed work experience as her first job at the BBC. I interviewed Tania on her career earlier in the year, and learnt so many fascinating things about her involvement with the Iberian Lynx segment of the series, so it was pretty special to share this experience with her.

Kate on Conservation and Tania Esteban

Who better to visit Big Cat Festival with than Producer and Director of A Lion’s Tale, Tania Esteban

A brilliant take-home from this talk was that accompanying social media can sometimes be seen wider than the series itself.

I was surprised to hear that in a programme titled ‘Big Cats’, it was the small cats that stole the show — and social media played it’s part in elevating the small cats’ stories. Gavin explained that the below clip showing ‘the world’s deadliest cat’ (with a kill rate of 60%) has been viewed more 58 million times!

3. Cheetahs and HRH Princess Michael of Kent

HRH Princess Michael of Kent‘s fascinating connection with cheetahs is something I knew very little of before Bradt’s Big Cat Festival. But following the event, her book ‘A Cheetah’s Tale‘ is now top of my wishlist.

Discussing her first trip to Africa to visit her father’s farm, Princess Michael’s stories of camping on safari, eating a snake her father had accidentally run over and inadvertently smuggling a puppy across the border were utterly charming and completely captivating tales.

cheetahs tale book by princess michael of kent

Giving a short history of how cheetah’s were used for hunting purposes by members of high society in India in the 1800s, Her Royal Highness explained that cheetahs have a high kill rate, at 50% (though still not as high as number 4’s African Black Footed Cat!)..

A great takeaway from this talk was hearing about her projects to raise baby cheetahs and re-release them back into the wild. I was also intrigued to hear about her collaborations with Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund. Laurie uses Anatolian Shepherd Dogs to help conserve wild cheetah numbers — achieved by using the dogs to guard livestock, which in turn reduces the number of cheetahs killed by people for taking down their valuable cattle.


Watch the above video for full highlights.

4. The Big Cat People — Living with The Marsh Pride lions

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know I’m a huge fan of The Big Cat People, Jonathan and Angela Scott. In fact, during my high school days I was so inspired by BBC’s Big Cat Diaries, I began my own handwritten and personally illustrated Big Cat project — which ended up being 200 pages long! Some 15 years later, stories of the Marsh Pride still have the ability to inspire awe and wonder.

Jonathan-Scott-the-big-cat-people-talk

With Jonathan at the helm, weaving through stories of this magnificent pride and their neighbours; the Ridge Pride (which today contains relatives of the Marsh Pride) — it was fascinating to hear of developments in recent times. How the original Marsh Pride contained 15 to 30 lions, but how today’s prides are smaller. How they get active around 5pm; how they mate around 1,500 times for every cub that’s born. How, like dogs, they have very few sweat glands. And how lion’s are not lazy — they’re just being lions.

All the while, Angie’s photography shines like a beacon above him, in an unusually darkened room (after the pair insist on a complete blackout, to allow the photography on display to really speak). Dramatic photographs of leopards (the big cat that Jonathan originally went to Africa to pursue), cubs, lion prides, a heavily scarred male, chipped teeth protruding out from a scarred lip and aged mane filled the screen. It’s beautiful and powerful, and so utterly distant from the reality of my chair in a dark room in London’s South Kensington.

Jonathan later joined a panel discussion on 'the future of Big Cats'.

Jonathan later joined a panel discussion on ‘the future of Big Cats’.

A somewhat shocking revelation from this talk was that females have been observed eating the remains of their own cubs following episodes of infanticide — where males who have newly taken over a pride kill the existing cubs to bring the females to heat sooner. As Jonathan quotes; “If lions could speak, we probably wouldn’t understand them.”

Perhaps a more recognisable instinct, however, was his explanation of how females with new litters often attack males; even the father of their cubs — a distrust born of the fact the male has likely killed one of her previous litters at the start of his reign.

Jonathan Scott and Kate on Conservation at Big Cat Festival

It was great to catch up with Jonathan Scott after his talk

Before wrapping up, Jonathan announced a new series from himself and Angie, created by an Australian production company. How exciting! Although little more could be said on that for now, a thought-provoking parting message was that there is a counter argument against the kind of wondrous wildlife photography we’d just been treated to: that it makes people think there are more animals and wild spaces than there actually are.

I feel like that statement may be worth an entire discussion all of it’s own, but a quickly offered antidote was that it inspires people to care about the big, charismatic mammals; “and if you take care of big, charismatic mammals, you take care of everything else.”

5. The haul: Big Cat stalls and Bradt’s goody bags

The brilliant thing about the stalls at Big Cat Festival was that there was only a handful — so you really had the time to find your way around them. A host of brilliant books were on sale from Bradt — many of which had been discussed throughout the day; as well as information on Nambian-based charities Cheetah Conservation Fund and Africat; travel information from Exodus Travel, Travel Africa magazine and Kenya Airways — who even had a Born Free Elsa plush on their stand (see below) — and Swarovski Opik showcased some high quality binoculars.

Born Free Foundation elsa toy on kenya airways stall

It was inventible that I would leave with at least one new book, given I’m an avid collector of wildlife and natural history books, but I wasn’t expecting to get quite the bargain I ended up with! I took advantage of a half price offer on the stunning photography book Sacred Nature by Jonathan and Angela Scott, and was delighted to find a free copy of the book A Summer of British Wildlife in our goody bags.

Big Cat Festival goody bag and book purchases

A Summer of British Wildlife is designed for use as a 100-day guide to wildlife spotting over the summer; so I’m very excited to explore its recommendations.

Pictured above is my haul from the event — information pamphlets, early book previews, vouchers, magazines and more — I can’t wait to see what Big Cat Festival has in store next year!

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Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Awards 2018: inspiring eco-warriors


Nothing is better for the soul than spending a few hours listening to children talking about the future they imagine and how they are working towards it. Last Friday’s Roots and Shoots Awards gave me the opportunity to do just that.

Portway School's display at Roots and shoots 2018

Portray Junior School at Roots and Shoots 2018

It was a privilege to attend this inspiring award ceremony for a second year, and to learn about the different projects that schoolchildren are working on across the UK to help care for people, wildlife and the environment — the three prongs on which the Roots and Shoots programme is built.

Rockwood School's display at Roots and Shoots 2018

Rockwood School’s display at Roots and Shoots 2018

Now present in over 100 schools across the globe, Roots & Shoots is a youth service programme for young people of all ages to foster respect and compassion for all living things; to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs and to inspire individuals to take action to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment.

Held in the Barbican Centre in London, the event saw a packed out room teeming energy and inspiration. As the children showcased their schools’ green initiatives and the eco-friendly activities they’re orchestrating, it struck me just how passionate and switched on they are when it comes to making informed choices about their impact on the planet.

Harrow Way Community School with their display at Roots and Shoots 2018

Harrow Way Community School with their models of the school’s eco-friendly activities

From planting vegetable patches to recycling Lego sets, and from monitoring local air pollution levels to creating and sending care packages to dogs in Romania, the compassion showed by these young people was truly admirable.

This year, a new addition was included in the day’s programme of events; a ‘Trashion’ Show; for which clothing designs were made from recycled and up-cycled materials and packaging. Here are some of the superb entries!

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So much creative talent was displayed during the Ethical Fashion Show, and I could only admire the eye-catching styles and brilliant bravery of the entrants as they sashayed down the makeshift catwalk.

The day of course culminated in honouring this year’s Roots and Shoots Award winners, and the incredible effort they have all shown.

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I’d like to take a moment to give a special mention to Ella from James Allen’s Girls’ School for winning the Most Outstanding Photograph Award for her picture of rain water in a lotus flower, taken in Ubud, Bali.

The award was sponsored by National Geographic Kids magazine, and my colleague Alex was on hand to present her with her prize. We’re looking forward to welcoming Ella into the office when she becomes a Nat Geo reporter for the day!

Roots and Shoots Most Outstanding Photograph Award winner Ella. Award presented by Nat Geo Kids magazine.

Most Outstanding Photograph Award winner Ella from James Allen’s Girls’ School

A special well done also to:

  • Chloe Bonner, who won The Jane Goodall Award for Individual Endeavour
  • Children’s Hospital School who won the Most Outstanding Group Award
  • Harrow Way Community School, who won the prize for Most Outstanding Group in Touch With Nature.

There could be no better way to end such an inspiring event than to hear a few words from Dr Jane Goodall herself. First greeting us all in chimp language, she went on to excuse the absence of her beloved toy monkey, Mr H, who is this year 29 years old, has visited 63 countries and been touched by millions of hands across the world!

The original Mr H is currently in transit back to the UK from Borneo, but a similar design was on hand to help in his absence!

Jane Goodall speaks at Roots and Shoots Awards 2018

One of my favourite anecdotes from this year’s closing speech — and one I had never heard from Jane before — was about her favourite tree. The name Roots and Shoots was of course inspired by trees, which Jane described as ‘magical creatures’.

“My fave tree, Beech, is in Bournemouth where my sister lives,” she said. “He’s over 100 years old and I used to swing from his branches growing up.”

When you think of trees as the ultimate givers of life — providing energy, shelter and clean air to the world around them — it’s easy to see why Dr Jane would take such inspiration from them!

Kate on Conservation with Jane Goodall

Thank you once again for allowing me to be a part of this brilliant celebration of education, empowerment, environment, people and wildlife!

If you want to know more about Roots and Shoots and how your local school can get involved, please visit: www.rootsnshoots.org.uk

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Gordon Buchanan: Animals, cameras and family values

The groundbreaking new series Animals With Cameras is back on our screens for its second instalment, and as I read through social media reactions to this innovative style of natural history filmmaking (for those who have yet to watch, species of animals — including chimps, penguins, meerkats and cheetahs — are fitted with cameras to record unique footage of their hidden lives); it seems a good time to share some of series host Gordon Buchanan‘s thoughts on his 25 years of filming wildlife.

“I’m going to end up losing my job to these guys,” Gordon joked as he showed an early preview clip of the series to the audience of his Animal Families and Me tour on its final night.

Concluding the 19-date tour in London, the audience at the Royal Geographical Society were treated to a whistle-stop tour of Gordon’s filmmaking career and the amazing animals he’s shared it with.

Lily the black bear from 2011’s series Bear Family and Me was the first of these animals that audiences were reacquainted with. As an inexperienced mother, Lily abandoned her daughter Hope, but touchingly the pair reunited later in the year.

Of course the Animal Family and Me series are well-known for exploring the sociology and complex relationships of animals, but it certainly added flavour to hear of Gordon’s own relationship (and misconceptions) of the black bears.

“When I first saw the bears — these big animals coming towards you in the forest — I was terrified.” He spoke of arriving in Minnesota to film the series and joining biologist Lynn Rogers, who is known for his habituated relationships with wild black bears.

Gordon Buchanan with bear

Gordon Buchanan with Lily the black bear

“Lynn explained that the black bears were happy with their ‘partnership’ with humans, but that doesn’t really help when one of these animals first comes up and rests its huge paws and head on your shoulders for the first time.”

Perhaps the most astonishing story then, was how deepening his understanding of these bears lead to the utter trust that later becomes evident in his photographs and videos. So much so, that his (then) young children were able to encounter the bears themselves, under careful supervision (especially from a nervous Mrs Buchanan — as his footage showed!).

One of the recurring themes of the evening was understanding just how vulnerable wildlife is — despite the great size and power of many of the species mentioned — and how fragile their environments are.

I was impressed at the time taken to mention the fearless hard work of the rangers putting their lives on the line to protect elephants and other species from poaching (one very poignant image Gordon shared was a tribute to the most recently killed rangers) and at the way he championed the work of The David Sheldrick Trust, who rescue and raise orphaned elephants and other animals in Kenya.

Gordon shares an image of Satao 2’s super tusks.

One of the elephants that left an impression as huge as his size was Satao 2, featured in the Elephant Family and Me series. Satao 2 was killed by poachers in March 2017, just a few months after the series first aired, due to his prized super tusks (shown above).

“Satao should have had no worries [in the wild], he was a ‘supertusker’. But because of his teeth, his ivory, he was more vulnerable than much smaller elephants.”

As with the new series, Animals with Cameras, much of the footage attained during Gordon Buchanan’s impressive career as a wildlife cameraman was the first of its kind.

“We were dropped off on the tundra to study Artic wolves, and just sort of left there on this vast, isolated landscape,” he reminisced of the series Snow Wolf Family and Me. “No one’s ever studied wolves in the Artic that late in the year, other than us, because of the weather,” Gordon explained.

“Even our back-up plans had risks. But we were able to do it because the weather in the Artic is changing.”

gordon buchanan talks about arctic wolves

Artic wolf Scruffy becomes acquainted with the BBC team

As we move towards understanding these animals better, I’m interested to hear the way we speak about them evolve. So I was fascinated that Gordon deliberately chose to speak about the wolf ‘family‘ and not ‘pack‘; something which he purposefully acknowledged.

“It’s not a pack, it’s a family; the responsibility of each member to the pups is clear. Every member of the family would bring food to the pups — even if they were hungry themselves.”

Seeing the wolves in this way certainly challenges their long established image of folklore villains. I get the impression that dispelling this misconception was one of Gordon’s aims.

He explained to the Royal Geographical Society audience that in observing artic wolves he learned that there was something ‘incredibly wolf-like about us‘. Discovering these such parallels between animals and humans was touched upon again when he spoke of the Grauer’s gorillas he encountered in Gorilla Family and Me.

Gordon and team filming silverback Mugaruka for Gorilla Family and Me.

“You couldn’t help but look at them and see something of ourselves in them,” he explained. “Mugaruka and Chimanuka [the silverback stars of the series] are like the Gallagher brothers of the gorilla world,” he joked. “Although they grew up together, they grew apart”.

It was great to hear Gordon Buchanan cite the late filmmaker Alan Root as one of his biggest influencers and inspirations (first proclaiming that he is deliberately not going to say Sir David Attenborough, as his merits are unquestionable and there’s a value in recognising some of the other amazing wildlife filmmakers out there).

As well as learning a little bit more about each of these endearing animal characters, the sense of needing to protect and conserve them was strong. If there’s one thing that natural history filmmaking is teaching us today, it’s that it’s not enough to simply fall in love with our planet’s amazing animals, we must also find ways of fighting for them.

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Tania Esteban chats about her role as a Digital Researcher for BBC’s Big Cats, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II

Tania Esteban behind the camera

I’m sure that, like me, Thursdays for many of my blog readers have meant one thing this January — Big Cats!

The BBC’s natural history programming has started 2018 on a high, with this exciting new series exploring the secret lives of wild cats. This past Tuesday viewers were treated to a rare insight into an international project that’s battling to bring the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and improving wild habitats.

I was fortunate enough to chat to Tania Esteban (whose work can be discovered at TRE Productions) about her work behind the scenes on the series, which involved researching, setting up shoots, storyboarding, and translating for the crew (Tania credits being bilingual as major advantage in securing her role on the project).

Listen to the full interview on the SoundCloud link below.

After discovering her film A Lion’s Tale through Twitter back in 2016 (it featured on my Top 5 ways to beat Blue Monday post in January 2017), I was incredibly excited to chat to Tania about the film; her first big steps into her career in documentary-making; and the amazing work she’s done with the BBC since completing her Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking…

Kate: ‘Big Cats’ was your first project for the BBC, what did you do for the series?

Tania: It was my first foray into the BBC because it was work experience. At the time I was editing A Lion’s Tale, which was good timing, so I applied for the BBC work experience pool. I thought; “I’ll just apply and see if I get it” — it’s usually quite tricky because so many people apply and I knew I may or may not get it. I was at university when I got the call and they said: “We’d love to do a quick interview with you if you’d like to do work experience”, and of course I said; “yeah, I’d love to!”

The reason why was mainly because I could speak Spanish and they sent me to Spain to do a recce of where they were going to film the Iberian lynx for the third episode, on the conservation element of it. So I was very excited because this was my dream project — I wish I could have worked on it for longer. But I spent a month and a half working on it; doing lots of research and getting to learn the ropes of production. We’d just learnt everything on the [Masters] course, so it was fresh in our minds and a good chance to see whether I could do this in the real world of work.

What did the work experience involve?

I helped the main researcher and assistant producer — the lovely Sara [Douglas]. We went out to Spain and actually flew into my home province — which was hilarious; I told the team that I could show them all the best tapas bars. I did a little bit of filming on an Osmo [a type of handheld camera] — so that’s kind of field notes and getting a general scope of the area so that the producer can look and think ‘right, we’re going to film here and we’d like to do this…”.

I did a lot of translating; liaising with the scientist and finding out key facts that would feature heavily in the story. It was my job to work around the language barrier and make them feel comfortable with the team and ask questions about where we could place the cameras and gain their trust — which I love doing, because I love talking to people. 

BBC big cats

What did you enjoy most about working on Big Cats?

I really enjoyed finding pure science, learning how to set up shoots and the storytelling element and thinking about different camera angles and story boards to help the production.

It was very high security and we had to put protective clothes on so we didn’t spread any disease to the animals and they hosed us down, because they’re critically endangered these lynx. And they’re so beautiful; very small animals. I’d never seen them before so that was very exciting. 

It was really inspiring for me actually, because I never realised how many passionate conservationists there are in Spain. I was quite blinded to that in a way because I’d grown up there, but I’d never really had the opportunity to meet any of these people, such as Miguel who features on the programme.

The conservation work is incredible and I’m very glad that — from the perspective of a half Spanish woman — the conservation work that the team is doing is now coming out and being seen. It was brilliant to see that and to start my BBC role and my work as a researcher on a programme that features big cats — as I was obsessed with big cats at that time, after working on my film ‘A Lion’s Tale’.

What’s it like behind the scenes? Did you learn things that weren’t in the final programme? 

Yes. You see all these things behind the scenes and you’ve got your team there; so you find out all of this knowledge and information that embellishes a sequence. And even if that doesn’t make the final cut, you still have that knowledge with you and you still have that bond that you’ve made with these people. I think it’s very important to keep up those relationships where ever you travel in the world, because you never know.

Like the connections you made during the production of A Lion’s Tale; the likes of Ian Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Will Travers. How did that come about and where did you get the idea for the film?

I was studying the Wildlife Filmmaking MA course in Bristol after completing my Zoology course. I’d know for so many years that I wanted to do this particular MA course; since I was 14 and I saw it advertised. So I planned all my A Levels and GCSEs to get to Bristol and do this course. So when I got it I was ecstatic! And as part of our final year projects we had to choose a story we were passionate about; I wasn’t too sure what that would be — I knew I really liked big cats, but wasn’t sure what the story would be. Then Ian Redmond came in [to the university] and gave an inspiration talk — as always. He was talking about vEcotourism and he said this one sentence — that it was the 50th anniversary since the Born Free film was made and I went; “that’s the story!”

A Lions Tale film poster

Click the image to watch A Lion’s Tale

How did you get to work on the filmmaking side?

I’d recently read how lions had declined by nearly 70% over 20 years, and it’s just terrible when you think about how their numbers have plummeted. People always think that lions are so numerous, and they’re really not anymore — so I thought that’s the connection. So I went up to Ian [Redmond] and said “I’m a huge fan and I’ve got this idea for a film I’d like to make with Born Free; could you maybe put me in touch with Will Travers and Virginia McKenna if they’d be interested. And that really got the ball rolling and I got in touch with Will. Will was absolutely incredible — and I’m such a huge fan of his, so I was terrified of meeting him — and of course Virginia has always been such a hero of mine; as I’m sure she is of yours, and many people. She’s got this incredible presence. I even did a presentation about her when I was at school; I was 10 years old and we had to talk about our biggest heroes, and I chose her.

Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’s met Virginia McKenna has said she has such a positive air about her, and she’s so passionate and she ‘does’. She’s an activist — she acts upon her word.

virginia mckenna at home

Virginia McKenna portrait by Tania Esteban

So once the ball was rolling, I spent six months setting up the shoot and liaising with them constantly and then doing all the storyboards, doing all the research; talking to Victor — who’s one of the rangers out in the Kenyan Born Free offices — and then crowd-funded it. It was just a bizarre, really incredible year of planning this dream shoot and I thought: “right, I’ve got 10 days to actually shoot it, just a tiny percentage of a production.”

Actually getting out there was incredible because I got to fulfil a childhood dream of filming a story about one of my absolute heroes and an animal that’s very dear to my heart.

A Lion's Tale film poster

When I started editing it, I want the piece to be very much a memoir of Born Free and of Virginia McKenna as well, because she has dedicated her whole life to conserving wildlife. And her son [Will] is one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. He never stops. He’s seriously incredible.

What was it like going to the 2016 ivory burn in Kenya for the film — to witness the biggest ever stockpile of ivory to be destroyed?

That was something that I was unsure as to whether it would come off. A lot of people asked “what’s the connection?” and I said “well, there is a connection”, at the very end — there was a different ending that I didn’t use, it’s a personal copy that I keep — it’s Virginia McKenna saying: “it’s not just about elephants and lions; it’s about the whole eco-system; it’s about the whole of nature — protecting it. It got me really emotional actually.

Being at the ivory burn was one of the most overwhelming, powerful things I’ve ever filmed. You’re so focussed as a camerawoman, thinking: “I’ve got to get this shot, and I’ve got to get that shot — I’ve got to get the president as he comes out to light the ivory, and I’ve got to roam around with my gimbal to try and get some of the shots of the rangers and the burning flames…” and then you look up and see this 50-tonne pile of ivory going up in flames. It was the smell actually, more than anything and you could hear the ivory crackling because bits of it were hollow — it was so powerful.

Tania Esteban film the 2016 Kenyan ivory burn

That’s why in the film I used Virginia’s voice, Will’s voice and Victor’s in the film, to narrate it. I wanted them to give a voice to all those people who had been working together to reach this moment. It’s all about emotion in the storytelling. That’s what I tell a lot of people — especially in conservation — because nobody wants to be lectured anymore. You’ve got to get them emotionally or visually arresting images to try and do these amazing people justice.

Just being there was amazing and I’m so grateful to Ian and Will and Virginia for giving me that opportunity to make a dream film.

Amazing! I know you’ve become a bit of a drone specialist; how has that come about?

Drones are amazing! I got started with them about 2 years ago when I saw a video on Vimeo that someone shot in Scotland on a Phantom 2 — a very old type of drone — and I just thought “god, it really does open up a whole new world!”. It was only then that it was beginning to get more commercial and anyone from the general public could start to buy consumer drones and give it a go. So I bought a secondhand one to see if I could actually fly it before I start taking it seriously — and it was terrible, the drone was quite terrible, but if you can fly a bad drone and a smaller one, then you don’t have to worry about the bigger ones.

I remember flying a drone over my house in Spain, and the mountains there have always inspired me, so just to see it from above and being able to take pictures was incredible — a whole new perspective. And that’s where it all started really. I realised it could add a whole new perspective to my storytelling. 

Tania Esteban holds a drone camera

I was at the BBC at the time and I thought: yes, I’m going to do this. It’s quite a lot of money, it costs quite a few thousand pounds to train yourself to get the license and get qualified, but I knew that it would perhaps open up more opportunities for me to go out on location and also to enhance my own videography and film work.

The conservation element of it is quite interesting, because you can use drones for aerial surveying — such as for monitoring orang-utan nests and tree distribution and species. In the forest it was incredible to pan up the trees that just go on and on, and it gives a good indication of the health of the forest when you see ferns on the trees, etc. And I’m always concerned about the welfare of the animals I’m filming — when I filmed elephants in the forest I didn’t get anywhere near them. So it’s exciting; you’ve got small drones like the Spark, which you can fit in your hand, and because of the size of it, the motors don’t make as much noise. That’s very exciting for wildlife filmmakers.

I recently went to Iceland, which is the most drone-able country — the way the landscape changes is like turning the pages of a children’s story book — and the new series I’m working on now heavily features a lot of drone work, so I’m going off to Canada very soon to go fly my drone. My first paid internal gig with my drone.

Exciting! And it’s always important to think about the welfare of the animals. So, tell me about your work on Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. What did you do for them?

That came about two months after I finished work experience on Big Cats and I’d finished editing A Lion’s Tale. The film came out at the start of November and at the end of November the BBC got in touch and said “would you like to do digital research for Planet Earth II?” Umm, yeah!

Digital research encompasses all the online aspects: all the video clips, all the behind the scenes pictures and all the social media clips and exclusives that people see online. And I was a part of the team that did all the different additional bits to support the Blue Planet II team. Which is probably why I was very active on social media about it, saying “check this out!” and all the random .gifs you probably saw about it.

Tania tweets about Blue Planet 2

We did some digital exclusives for Snapchat for America, which was interesting. My job was to look into all the archive which wasn’t used for Planet Earth, so I got to see all this amazing footage which wasn’t used on the main episodes and edit up clips for the digital platform.

We crafted these different stories with this incredible footage that wasn’t used on the series. Some of it was breath-taking, I hope its used for something in the future. 

For Blue Planet II I did the equivalent, but also got to do some additional interviews with some of the filmmakers involved and the conservationists — so that was good, as it meant I got to do some more camerawork.

I was so desperate then to move on to production — and I saw that Wild Metropolis was commissioned and so I came up with loads of story ideas and pitched it to the series producer and he said “ok, you can be one of our researchers” — which was great, as I could move on to production which was what I wanted, as it’s pure research. It’s been my favourite project to date. A lot of people don’t see these ‘mega cities’ from around the world as wildlife hotspots, but some of the stories we’ve found: wow! It’s coming out in October time, so keep an eye out for that!

What advice would you give to people who want to go into filmmaking and start a career like yours?

You have to be really passionate — and slightly crazy — about wildlife and natural history. I did the science route, zoology and I studied urban bat ecology for a year and did my dissertation on it and then I specialised in filmmaking, because that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t have to do that, I know plenty of people who didn’t, but I think it just gives you this filmic grammar if you specialise in filmmaking.

So yeah, just get out there, find your own stories — the world has opened up now, anyone can own a camera that shoots 4K now. Talk to people about their experiences, travel — it opens up a whole new perspective of your own life, as well as your career. Keep filming and get on social media. .

Tania with Victor and Born Free team after filming A Lion's Tale

Networking is about 60% of everything that we do. I also believe that if you can specialise in a certain area of wildlife filmmaking: gimbal work, long lens work, drone work, time-lapse, thermal — like you saw in Big Cats, the thermal imagery — there’s so many different niches that you can specialise in, I think you should go for it and pick one that you enjoy. I also believe in developing your own style; don’t just copy.

And always remember your roots; the reason you’re doing why your doing your filmmaking work — to make a difference, to inspire people, which is especially true of wildlife work

 

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Finding my story: gentle nature

We all have stories that shape us. Tales of triumph, or tragedy — or both — which serve to remind us why we do what we do, or why we’ve chosen to walk down the paths that we find ourselves on.

I have been influenced and my decisions inspired by gentle nature. More than once on this blog I’ve listed the story of Suffolk photographer Julie Ward as the inspiring figure behind my decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve in 2008.

Exactly a decade on from my gap year trip, and two decades since Julie was murdered in the Maasai Mara in 1988, I find myself in the most unexpected situation. I always believe in ‘reading the signs’ and serendipity seems to follow me. But this feels like a perfect nod of encouragement at a time when such things are needed.

This week started with ‘Blue Monday‘, the so-called most depressing day of the year. I must admit, every year it does indeed creep up on me. Last year I took the bull by the horns and wrote a blog post; “Top 5 Ways To Beat Blue Monday” and felt suitably inspired. This year, my partner and I booked an impromptu hotel stay in Canterbury — one of my favourite cities — and packed up the car, bundled up the baby and took ourselves off.

Kate in Canterbury

No blog post was written, but some well earned family time was underway after a busy start to January spent planning a major event for our little London business.

Now, most people know I’m a massive book nerd. I read, admire and pore over as many wildlife and conservation books as possible (I’ve even started a hashtag of my recommended reads on Instagram; check out #kateonconservationreads). So it was only natural that I would go book hunting in the charity shops and secondhand bookshops of Canterbury.

Audubon's elephant book

My first purchase of the day was Audubon’s Elephant, a book that explores John James Audubon’s struggle to publish The Birds of America. This felt particularly exciting, given that I’d just written a blog post about the Audubon Society and my time with Audubon Sarasota for National Bird Day and my latest guest post came from a brilliant and enthusiastic birder.

Zafara book

The next book to catch my eye was Zarafa, the tale of the first giraffe to arrive in France. Much like the wonderful book; Jumbo by W.P. Jolly, this book promises an in-depth study of captivity management and animal transportation in the 1800s through the real life story of a much-loved, significant ‘celebrity’ animal.

Having written about Jumbo the London Zoo elephant and his shipment to America just recently, the promise of an equivalent tale of a giraffe being transported from Africa to Europe — and the trials and public reactions en route — was too good to leave sitting on the shelf.

gentle nature book 1998

The most incredible find of the trip however, and what feels like the crown jewel in my visit was walking into one of the most incredible Oxfam bookshops and casting my eyes through the ‘collectibles’ section, only to see sitting on the shelf, a hardback copy of gentle nature!

I treasure my paperback re-print from the year 2000, complete with an additional preface written by Born Free star and Co-Founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna. It was, after all, this copy that I won in raffle by the charity, and here that I first read about Shamwari Game Reserve‘s big cat rescue centre (including the Julie Ward Education Centre), which I would go on to volunteer at 8 years later.

But sitting on the shelf in front of me was an entirely different cover design that I was sure must be from the original 1998 print run.

“This has got to be a 1st edition” I told my partner, excitement dancing inside.

“It’s not that it’s particularly old, it’s just that you never see this kind of thing in secondhand shops. People buy these books because they care.”

I leafed through the front pages to see whether it was an original 1998 print, knowing that regardless, it would have a story attached.

It would have belonged to someone who cared about wildlife, about conservation; someone wanted to see wildlife free and not behind bars.

Someone who wanted to support the family of a young female photographer who grew up in the county next to me, and whose unsolved murder in the Masaai Mara must have touched them.

“No way!” my heart raced faster. This book has been signed!

Sitting there on the page in front of my was an message from Virginia, signed off with ‘Every good wish, Virginia McKenna‘.

To think that back in 1998, when I was eight years old, one of my biggest role models was holding this very book, sharing a special moment with its former owner. I suddenly felt a part of something.

“This is incredible.”

There were more messages and signatures inside the book, most poignantly from Julie Ward’s parents. As a new mum myself, I ran my fingers over the words penned by Julie’s mother, Jan. For Julie.

Needless to say, I purchased the book and it is instantly one of my most treasured possessions.

I have never met Julie’s parents, I wrote a letter to them once as a child; after following Julie’s story in the news. It was a letter writing task at school, and I chose to write to them, to tell them I wanted to go to Africa when I was older and take pictures, because I loved the wildlife photography I’d seen of Julie’s and because she was the only woman I’d heard of at the time who was from the part of England I was, and who had been brave enough to go on an adventure to Africa alone.

Despite her tragic story, she had shown me that young women could be brave and go on adventures, even if they’re from a rural county, rather than a big exciting city.

It was a piece of school work, so the letter was submitted to my teacher and never sent.

But to know that there’s a little bit of the spirit of Jan, and her love for Julie in this wonderful book — it feels like the message has been transferred the other way. From her pen to my eyes.

canterbury street

I said that my goal this year was to reacquaint with my passion for photography as a way to tell the stories of wildlife, to highlight the difference between freedom and captivity, and to share the tales of conservation efforts — and I feel like my spontaneous decision to get in the car and do something different this week was a well-timed reminder that I’m walking the right path.

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Learn more about Julie Ward

Want to know more about the Suffolk wildlife photographer and her legacy?

Want to know more about the Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve?

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Jumbo the elephant: the story of London Zoo’s most famous resident

“For nearly 15 years after he arrived at the London zoo Jumbo gave very little trouble, made the turnstiles click profitably, and was a source of tremendous pleasure to many thousands of visitors of all ages and all stations, including Queen Victoria herself and the children of the Royal Household… [But, keepers] Bartlett and Scott certainly needed all their proven courage and ingenuity when, in 1880, Jumbo, the biggest of all the beasts, began to play up.” 
W.P. Jolly, author of Jumbo.

Jumbo book by W.P. Jolly

Last weekend the heart-wrenching BBC documentary; Attenborough And The Giant Elephant broadcast to a huge outpouring of sympathy for the treatment of a ‘celebrity elephant’ in Victorian times. It seems the ideal time, therefore, to consider the roles of celebrity elephants across different cultures.

I attended the European premiere of the powerful documentary Gods in Shackles at the beginning of October; a documentary that explores the use of elephants in temples and festivals in Kerala, India. The film examines the somewhat contradictory attitudes towards the elephants, in which they are at once both beaten and abused and placed among the gods.

Gods in Shackles film

While the content of the film may be shocking (as I noted in my earlier blog post, one celebrity elephant featured in the documentary was known to have had razor blades hidden in his food in an attack by supporters of a rival elephant), it’s easy to forget that here in the UK, we’ve seen elephants treated exactly the same way — a fact that brings me hope that attitudes toward these loving, intelligent and sentient animals can change across India, too.

In England, our most famous resident elephant went by the name Jumbo.

London Zoo’s first African elephant, Jumbo — who would later cross The Pond and become one of the most famous pachyderms under the charge of the Ringling Brothers — is the reason the word ‘jumbo’ is now synonymous with elephants and used to describe large objects in the English language (and why it was added to the dictionary as such in the 1880s).

Jumbo dictionary definition

London Zoo’s most famous resident was later joined by a second African elephant; a female called Alice, and along with their impressive sizes (which set them apart from the other resident Indian elephants), the Press’ decision to report them as being romantically involved — when they in fact rarely crossed paths — helped to elevate their status; particularly that of Jumbo, when it came to his departure overseas.

Knowing that Jumbo’s story was used as inspiration for the Disney classic Dumbo and having seen the merchandise and literature surrounding Jumbo, the supposed ‘world’s largest elephant’ at the Making Nature exhibition in London’s Wellcome Gallery earlier in the year, I already had a fair understanding of Jumbo’s celebrity.

Arriving at the zoo’s site in Covent Garden in 1865, as part of an exchange with a Parisian zoo (they received a rhinoceros in return for the African elephant), he was the first African elephant that zoo visitors could ride. Formerly, all London’s riding elephants had been of the smaller Indian species.

Having the opportunity to ride such a grand creature — with the promise of one day growing to around 11 feet tall and carrying tusks of up to 7 feet long — endeared Jumbo to the crowds greatly. That and, as the BBC documentary points out, the timing of his popularity coinciding with the development of photography; meaning he could be documented in the public eye far and wide.

Jumbo the elephant offering rides

Zoo visitors taking a ride on Jumbo — up to six at a time.

Although Jumbo never did reach 11 foot in height, at his time of death he measured just over 10 feet (3.2 metres), which is an impressive height for an elephant aged 24, as he could have still had up to 16 years left to grow before reaching full height. The average height of a 24-year-old male elephant is around 2.7 metres (just shy of 9 feet tall), putting him at 20 per cent larger than average. His impressive stature earned him the perhaps exaggerated title of ‘the world’s largest elephant’.

Much like the elephant rides offered in tourist destinations across Asia and beyond today — which most people with an awareness of animal psychology recognise as being cruel — Jumbo was made to carry visitors in wooden benches slung high on either side of his back.

The seats faced outwards however, rather than forward facing, so riders would sit with their backs to the elephant. This allowed room for more riders — and with even less understanding of animal welfare than today, it was not unusual to see Jumbo ferrying up to six passengers through the Zoological Gardens.

elephant with riders

The biggest error on the part of Jumbo’s keepers was their ignorance to the animal’s needs — as perhaps is often the case with captive animals in zoos.

Abraham Dee Bartlett was the zoo’s head naturalist, and with Jumbo in his charge, he sort the assistance of keeper Matthew Scott, who would eventually travel to America with the elephant. Bartlett, while not truly understanding the implications of caring for a sentient being, at least understood the need to keep the animal under control for the public’s and his own sake.

He understood the change in male elephants as they reach adulthood (musth), which is something that today’s elephant keepers (mahouts) in Kerala — who are charged with caring for the country’s festival elephants — still give little allowance for.

As reported in Gods in Shackles, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season from 2012 – 2015, due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command whilst in a state of heightened aggression. Those mahouts who do understand the implications of musth often chemically castrate the elephants to stop the production of these hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

Abraham Dee Bartlett

Abraham Dee Bartlett, head of London Zoo during the days of Jumbo’s residence

Bartlett understood that all male elephants around the age of 20 become troublesome and dangerous — so it was no surprise to him when, in 1880, Jumbo began to play up; smashing his elephant house with his trunk, tusks and feet. Bartlett reinforced the elephant’s house with timber beams, in fear that Jumbo would escape and attack zoo guests.

At 14 years old Bartlett had personally witnessed Chunee the elephant of the Covent Garden Theatre killed after charging at crowds in a state of fury. W.P. Polly notes; “Everyone was astonished and frightened at the fury of the charges made again and again by the maddened elephant. Poison had no effect and there was very real danger that the beast might break out of his enclosure and bring the whole building down in ruins. Eventually a detachment of Foot Guards was rushed up from the nearby barracks, but even then shot after shot had to be fired into the wretched animal, and only after he had been hit 152 times was he pronounced dead.”

Expert opinion given in Attenborough And The Giant Elephant argues, however, that Jumbo’s rages may have been more likely a result of his poor diet of sticky buns, sweets and alcohol given to him by zoo guests; along with toothache from his deformed teeth; witnessing the death of his mother in the wild during his early capture and passage into captivity and the long term affects from a lack of companionship with other elephants.

His story reminded me of the film The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films. Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, The Elephant in the Room (by Director & Editor Tariq Chow and Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner — whom I interviewed around the time of the film’s release) provides a moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions.

The elephant in the room poster

Click the image to watch the full 13-minute short film

Farewell, Farewell poor Jumbo

So what became of Jumbo after his troubles began at London Zoo? Unfortunately, not all stories have happy endings — and Jumbo’s tale is perhaps best made an example of.

In 1882, he was chained in a crate for his passage to America to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming so frightened that he ‘clanked his chains, rubbed them against himself, roared and bellowed’ for some time.

Upon arrival, he drew much interest and publicity for the so-called ‘greatest show on Earth’, courtesy of his new owner Phineas T. Barnum. But would eventually meet an untimely death after a collision with a locomotive in Canada, while being led down a train line as the circus toured the country.

Polly describes the scene; “The grotesque angles of the derailed engine and trunks, the twisted rails and wreckage, and the swarms of labouring men, gave the scene a frightening urgency, touched with the fantasy of horror by the cries of animals, glimpses of scattered paraphernalia of the circus, and the body of a huge elephant with a weeping man by its side.” 

Jumbo skeleton and skin

An entrepreneur to the end, Barnum sold Jumbo’s skin and bones for public display. His skin mounted by a taxidermist was sold to Tuft’s College, Medford, Massachusetts (where it was eventually destroyed by fire) and his bones now reside in New York’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, however, was the Press reception that Barnum held to celebrate completion of the work on Jumbo’s bones and skeleton — a lavish meal was provided, where the menu included a jelly laced with powder made from a pound and a half of Jumbos tusks. Guests were also treated to a souvenir slice of inscribed ivory from the elephant.

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Dr Jane Goodall interview: reflecting on chimps in the image of man

This month I’m proud to announce that a very special interview of mine has been featured in National Geographic Kids magazine: my recent chat with globally renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall about her groundbreaking career studying chimpanzees.

An extract of our conversation; including Jane’s recount of both her favourite and funniest moments with the chimps can be heard here:

Later this month, the brand new feature-length National Geographic documentaryJane‘ will have its UK release on the 24th November, and on the 27th – 29th November the Primate Society of Great Britain, of which Dr Goodall is a patron, holds its 50th anniversary meetings where Jane will be guest speaker — making the timing of this article particularly exciting!

Jane national geographic film

It was a real honour to sit down with this conservation hero of mine in the incredible setting of Windsor Castle at the annual summit of Roots & Shoots.

(Part 1 of my interview, about Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots programme can be heard here).

Flint and Dr Jane Photo Credit NatGeo, Hugo van Lawick

Flint and Dr Jane. Photo Credit: NatGeo, Hugo van Lawick

Hearing about Jane’s determination to fulfil her dream to work with animals in Africa was endlessly fascinating and inspiring.

“When I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to go to Africa and live with wild animals and write books about them. That’s going back about 70 years ago now, and back then it didn’t happen in England that girls had those opportunities,” she tells me, as we both sip tea from china cups in this most regal and British of settings.

Dr Jane goodall and kate on conservation Windsor Castle

Dr Jane Goodall and I outside Windsor Castle

“So everybody laughed at me and said; ‘Jane, dream about something you can achieve’, but my mother said: ‘If you really want something, you’re going to have to work hard, take advantage of every opportunity and never give up’.”

The rest, as we know, is history. We talk through her favourite moments with her favourite chimp (David Greybeard) and some of the incredibly discoveries she observed in her camp in Gombe, Tanzania during her study for National Geographic — and the less than warm reaction she received from the scientific community at the time.

kate on conservation nat geo kids jane goodall article

To read the full interview, see this month’s National Geographic Kids magazine.

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Learn more about Dr Jane Goodall

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Jaguar journey: Alan Rabinowitz and saving a species

The jaguar; a most elusive, yet powerful big cat. Stealthy and strong, it hunts like a true warrior, yet lives almost like a phantom; ghost-like in the rainforests of South America.

Compared to the prolific press that Africa’s big cats — the lion, leopard and cheetah — are granted, the jaguar is rarely seen gracing the covers of magazines, receiving week-long coverage on prime time BBC broadcast slots, or taking centre stage in its own feature-length docufilm.

Despite being the world’s third largest cat, possessing such iconic features as its beautiful rosette-covered coat and bone-crushing jaws (the largest of any big cat), the magnificent jaguar and its vulnerability to the continued threat of deforestation remains a largely unsung story.

But for the last 30 years, one man has made it his mission to save these big cats. Dr Alan Rabinowitz, Chief Scientist at Panthera and the man who established the world’s first jaguar reserve, is himself somewhat of an overlooked entity here in the UK…

 

Discovering the jaguar

Some time in my teens, when I would rush home from high school to try and catch as many wildlife documentaries on National Geographic Channel as possible before the 6 o’clock news and the firmly established family TV time that followed; I fell in love with jaguars.

The Nat Geo documentary that first piqued my interest in the big cat was titled ‘In Search of the Jaguar’. The film followed the story of Dr Rabinowitz — and showcased his quest to a secure 5,000 mile pathway for the jaguar to move from Mexico to Argentina.

The protected pathway would be an invaluable conservation effort to allow the big cats to move freely and diversify their genes.

In search of the jaguar - jaguar journey

Shockingly, estimates at the time (around 2006) suggested that one and a half billion acres of jaguar habitat had been taken by man, leaving the surviving population isolated in small pockets. Back then, it had also recently been discovered that all jaguars shared the same DNA — so a method of sewing together these pockets was necessary to allow movement for more diverse breeding.

Known as the ‘Jaguar Corridor’, the pathway — spanning 18 countries — is intoxicatingly referred to as a ‘necklace’ in the documentary, and each potential new territory sourced by Rabinowitz is referred to as a ‘gem in that necklace’.

The imagery of the emerald forests of Brazil, the burning amber flashes of the elusive jaguar slinking in and out of view and this elaborate necklace of geographical gems has always made it stick in my mind.

That and the fact that Rabinowitz was himself fighting against the odds of a serious illness during this film; yet choosing his quest to save the jaguar over slowing down to save himself.

 

Intermission

As the formidable jungle cat slips in and out of view in its rainforest habitat in real life; so my interest in jaguars has slipped in and out of my consciousness over recent times.

In the years that followed my initial discovery of wildlife warrior Rabinowitz, I would read countless stories and memoirs about people who had entwined their lives with African big cats. I would come to understand the complex social structures of lion prides and marvel at the cuteness of baby cheetahs on BBC’s Big Cat Diaries; I’d even end up travelling to South Africa to see how these big cats find ways to share a continent, and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lone leopard on the horizon. But the Latin American jaguar; this most mystic and spiritual of cats would remain a quiet, secretive, yet powerfully present interest of mine.

Towards the end of last year, exactly 10 years after first viewing ‘In Search of the Jaguar’ I took a chance on following the big cat myself. Perhaps not in quite the same way as Dr Rabinowitz and his team, but through my own journey.

Historically, these animals are interwoven in ancient civilisation as mystic creatures of great spirituality; prowlers of ancient imaginations, paid testament to through elaborate carvings and etched onto the walls of temples: their spirituality and strength make them an iconic feline.

jaguar temple statue

It is perhaps this very spirituality and strength then, that guided me at the end of last year.

Picking up a copy of National Geographic Kids magazine’s September issue, I took in the beautiful jaguar image staring back at me from the cover and flicked through the copy, taking note of facts about jaguars snatching up prey, such as caiman and capybaras, by uniquely using the winding tributaries of the Amazon basin to their advantage.

Poring over information about their skull crunching canines and their skilful swimming abilities rarely seen in big cats, I used the article as my main preparation for chasing down a job at this most esteemed of natural history media brands. I referenced the article several times in my job interview for the publication; and after a securing a second meeting, I was offered a job at the company.

Within my first few weeks, I was tasked with researching jaguar facts for a promotional ‘jungle survival guide’, which would be released with National Geographic publications across the globe, in many different languages. My first real project with the company, and it featured jaguars!

National geographic lego expedition jungle guide

If signs come in threes, the next one definitely felt like one worth seeing — or rather, listening to. When one of my new colleagues recommended listening to a podcast called RadioLab, as it featured and in-depth look at trophy hunting for rhino horn, it didn’t take long for me to look around and find an episode about zoos.

I was curious to see the journalists’ handling of the issues surrounding captivity, and shocked at the coincidence that, quite unexpectedly, the final segment in the broadcast featured one Dr Alan Rabinowitz (a name I had first heard through Nat Geo many years ago); tracing his life’s work back to being a child, and encountering a lone jaguar in the Big Cat House at the Bronx Zoo

The powerful RadioLab story (which can be listened to by clicking on the player link above) focusses on why Rabinowitz connected so much with the jaguar (owing to a severe stutter throughout his childhood, which left him feeling voiceless — a symptom he could recognise in the pitiful yowling of the Bronx Zoo’s jaguar).

The severity of Rabinowitz’ stutter was barely touched upon in that earlier Nat Geo documentary, so hearing about the extremity of the speech disorder and the impact it had on the course of Alan’s life gave a whole new dimension to the story; and a whole new perspective on his connection to the jaguar.

The coincidence of re-discovering a human-wildlife story that had fascinated me so much as a teenager, and learning of such a significant side of the story — the influence of communicating with animals on learning to overcome a stutter — certainly reignited my interest in finding out what has happened to the jaguar population now, and how Rabinowitz’ all-important ‘Jaguar Corridor’ has made a difference.

 

Jaguar journey

In Search of the Jaguar ends with a tantalising concept: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an overwhelming challenge? For this wildlife warrior, that chapter has yet to be written…”

Just over a decade on, it’s safe to say that that next chapter is an exciting one! Dr Rabinowitz is now Chief Scientist of Panthera; founded in 2006 as the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species (including tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, pumas and leopards) and their ecosystems.

The Panthera Team take on the formidable forests of the jaguar’s range – on foot! Photo by: Veronica Domit Photography

Along with Dr Howard Quigley, Head of Panthera’s Jaguar Program, Alan is currently undertaking a three-year quest to journey by foot(!) through the 10 counties that make up the spine of his now well-established 18-country ‘Jaguar Corridor’, sharing his experience along the way of the progress being made—  and of course the jaguars he encounters!

On their journey deep into the jaguar’s range, together with Panthera’s scientists and partners, they hope to continue to shine a light on the developments in the jaguar’s population and range, as well as the challenges in places where jaguars are most at risk — so that they can continue to develop and implement global strategies to best protect the cat.

I’ve signed up to ‘join the journey’ and receive regular updates about the team’s progress and was delighted to read about the efforts to explore the powerful cultural connections that locals have to Latin America’s iconic big cat.

‘The Journey of the Jaguar is showing that humans and jaguars are coexisting’ one of their most recent email newsletters reads.

This sounds like an incredible achievement when there is often so much conflict between local populations and predators (such as in the case of last year’s poisoning of multiple lions from the Maasai Mara’s Marsh pride).

I contacted Dr Rabinowitz to find out more about his experience and how the local people are able to live alongside the big cat, when so often predators are seen as a threat.

“My best experience has been to see the enthusiasm of local people and local governments to the idea of an integrated jaguar corridor,” Alan explains.

“Also to see local people feel strongly about wanting to bring jaguar culture back into the lives of their children and the schools.”

Alan Rabinowitz - jaguar journey

Dr Rabinowitz on his epic ‘Journey of the Jaguar’. Photo by Veronica Domit Photography

Hearing of the desire to educate local children about the beauty and importance of jaguars as part of their learning in the classroom is immediately something that resonates with me.

“I realise more than ever that the future rests in the hands of the young,” Alan continues. “My hopes are that this journey creates a permanent platform and a permanent movement for saving the jaguar, saving jaguar culture, and making sure that the world’s third largest cat does not go down the road of the tiger, lion and leopard.”

And for a man who has faced (and overcome) so many challenges in his life, what has been the hardest part of the jaguar journey so far?

“The worst experiences, as always, are to see dead animals.” he tells me. “Jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, and other animal parts. And learn of the fear some people still have about jaguars.”

 

Join the journey…

You can follow the footsteps of Dr Rabinowitz and the Panthera team at: journeyofthejaguar.org and see regular updates and images on Twitter and Instagram.

The expedition is also being used to spread the word about The Stuttering Foundation, which is of course is an organisation close to Alan, and one whom he is promoting along the route by wearing the foundation’s patch.

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2

Chris Packham campaigns against ‘inglorious 12th’

Chris Packham and Kate on Conservation at Crush Cruelty protest march

This past weekend I attended the Crush Cruelty march from Cavendish Square to Downing Street — centred around protecting and supporting British wildlife.

Almost a complementary demonstration to May’s ‘Keep the Ban’ protest against Theresa May’s suggested free vote on lifting the fox hunting ban (the biggest protest of the general election time), this weekend’s march expanded out further, to put badger culling, driven grouse shooting and the dwindling numbers of hen harrier into the spotlight also.

Images from May’s Keep the Ban protest

Growing crowds (perhaps even bigger than the previous march) gathered at Cavendish Square to hear rallying speeches from the likes of writer and environmentalist Mark Avery, former Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, IFAW‘s Philip Mansbridge, Born Free Foundation‘s Mark Jones, Nigel Tolley of Badger Trust and representatives from Hunt Saboteurs, before setting off through a busy central London spreading the word to the masses.

Natalie Bennett, Former Green Party Leader speaks at Cavendish Square

Mark Jones of Born Free Foundation addresses crowds ahead of the march

The thousands that marched chose the date especially to coincide with the so-called ‘glorious 12th’; referring to the start of the red grouse shooting season taking place in areas of upland moorland over the next few months. A practice know as ‘driven grouse shooting’.

To allow for the perfect conditions for grouse to thrive (so they can ultimately be shot for this cruel and unnecessary practice, which is masqueraded as ‘sport’), predators such as foxes and birds of prey have their numbers ‘managed’ in preparation.

The march ended opposite Downing Street, with a powerful opening speech about the impact of driven grouse shooting and the plight of hen harriers (which have declined in huge numbers due to illegal shooting) from wildlife presenter and passionate campaigner Chris Packham.

Chris Peckham delivers anti grouse shooting speech

Actor and vegan campaigner Peter Egan was next to address the crowds, followed by Born Free Foundation CEO Will Travers, representatives from Hunt Investigation Team and League Against Cruel Sports, and Badger Trust CEO and author of Badgered to Death, Dominic Dyer – showing how many NGOs really did come together to form a Crush Cruelty coalition!

Will Travers addresses the crowds outside Downing Street

Born Free’s Will Travers addresses the crowds outside Downing Street

Dominic Dyer speaks to the huge crowds

Dominic Dyer speaks to the huge crowds

Re-Christening the day the ‘Inglorious 12th‘, further anti-grouse shooting protests took place on moors across the country, including a large protest walk at Ilkley Moor. The day also saw protests outside Tesco stores across the country (including my hometown in Norfolk), calling for Tesco to sever ties with Hogwood ‘Horror Farm’ — a pig farm in Warwickshire that supplies pork to the supermarket chain — known to house over 15,000 pigs in appalling conditions.

The most glorious thing about the 12th August was the mass movement of people standing up for animals.
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