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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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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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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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Trophy ‘shockumentary’: Does it really compare to Blackfish?

In 1900 there were 500,000 rhinos in the world. Today there are less than 30,000. This shocking statistic opens the controversial new documentary ‘Trophy‘ — and if there’s one thing that audiences can agree on, it’s that this represents a crisis for the species.

I imagine this divisive film, which serves primarily to promote the idea of legalising the trade in rhino horn, offers little else that can universally unite its viewers.

trophy film poster

There’s no doubt that the time is now to act to save this iconic species. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the momentum intensify when it comes to anti-poaching responses, debates and campaigns concerning rhinos and the horn trade.

Within moments of the film opening (to a scene of father and young son shooting dead a ‘trophy’ deer), we are introduced to South Africa’s most successful rhino breeder, John Hume. I’ve previously heard Mr Hume’s position on the rhinos horn trade at a debate I attended last year. The debate actually features briefly in the film (including a split-second shot of me, holding my pen to take notes for a blog post).

In 2016, John Hume’s rhino farm comprised of more than 1,400 of the animals — also making him first in-line for a huge profit, should the ban on international sale of horn be lifted. A cause he so passionately campaigns for.

“If he had an opinion to give to you, he would say ‘I’m very happy to sacrifice my horn in order to save my life’,” John states, simplifying a somewhat complex issue to a life vs. death scenario, rather than quality of life of a sentient being vs. compromised welfare standards owing to increased exploitation.

I think most people would agree that welfare standards surrounding large scale farming are far from satisfactory (think of the dairy industry) — when money is on the table, it seems that species survival matters only for the sake of profit for the owner, not to encourage an ecosystem to flourish via a natural life for the individual.

white rhinos born free foundations

Rhino by George Logan

Later in the film, John acknowledges that he has a protected stockpile of horns worth at least $16 million. His words echo round my head: “Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding and making money out of it. There’s not one.” And I can’t think of a single example. But nor can I think of a country whose environment and natural ecosystem hasn’t been drastically altered for the sake of farming.

Another familiar face on this documentary is ecologist Craig Packer, author of the book ‘Lions in the Balance‘. Packer, who chaired the debate last year in which I first encountered John Hume, explains the hunters’ desire to ‘collect’ the big five. That is to kill a lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and a rhino — the cost of legally hunting each of these species reflects how rare each animal is and Packer places the bill to shoot the rarest of these; the rhino, at $350,000. Significantly more than the next in line; elephants at $50,000.

african elephant in Shamwari

Safari Club International President, Joe Hosmer, claims the entire cost of an elephant hunt, which sold for $50,000, would go back into conservation. A wildly unsupported claim — as I discovered in my research for an earlier blog post about trophy hunting and canned lion hunting; the average percentage of hunting fees that make it back into conservation at the community level is more like 3%. For clarification, Safari Club International is an international organisation of hunters — not a jolly collective of tourist-ferrying safari guides; as it’s name might suggest.

At 32 minutes in, Trophy provides us with our first counter argument against the killing of animals for so-called conservation. Adam Roberts of Born Free USA examines the contradiction of Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting culture, whereby he hunted thousands of animals (reportedly 5,000 of which were mammals) and recorded each of his kills, whilst at the same time declaring national parks across the US. Roberts challenges the idea of cloaking the ‘sport’ in ideals of conservation and helping people, suggesting that the reality of the appeal is really in the rush of excitement that hunters feel when they put a bullet in something.

Ecologist Craig Packer expands on this argument: “A hunter was somebody who was willing to go out and spend three weeks walking around on foot tracking an elephant, tracking a lion, to shoot it to take home a trophy. There was a challenge, there was a sense of sport, but what has happened in the last 10 or 15 years has been a growing segment of the hunting demographic which are referred to as ‘the shooters’; the shooters may have to spend as much money as it takes to get a three-week permit, but if they can kill everything in the first two days, they’ll do it and they’ll fly home. It’s that mentality that really feeds the birth of the canned hunting industry… it’s not sport, it’s just killing.”

lion trophy born free foundations

Lion Trophy (c) Blood Lions

Having watched the point blank execution of a lion and a crocodile killed with a bullet to the head after first being injured and tied up; followed by scenes from a canned hunting lion farm and hunters posing with various kills with very little discussion and debate — and certainly no sense of a fair and balanced discussion about the ethics of such behaviour — I have to admit, it just felt rather perverse. But worse was to come as viewers bear witness to the slow, long drawn out death of a young African elephant, groaning through it’s last moments and requiring a shot to the chest at point blank to ‘finish the job’. These graphic scenes literally allow you to see the animal’s last breath.

Since the film’s release on 17th November, Born Free Foundation‘s President Will Travers OBE — who makes a brief appearance in the documentary — warns that the film, which was partly funded by the BBC, leaves viewers marooned in a no-man’s land without credible information on which to make up their minds on the highly-charged issues of trophy hunting and the dangers of promoting a legal international trade in rhino horn.

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Kate on Conservation

Travers said: “The film is peppered with assumptions and assertions about trophy hunting that are offered in an almost ‘fact-free’ environment. We are told (by a representative of America’s premier hunting organisation, Safari Club International) that ‘all the money [from trophy hunting] will go back into conservation’ with no evidence to back it up. Also that belief in the medical value of rhino horn ‘has been around for millions of years’. Neither is true.”

“In addition, the film presented almost no counter-argument or reliable data relating to the conservation ‘recipe’ of South African, John Hume, the most successful private rhino breeder on the planet, with 1,530 rhino to his name.”

“Mr Hume’s recipe is to breed rhino, cut off their horns and sell them — currently legal in South Africa but prohibited internationally. It is put forward by the film’s makers with almost no risk analysis, no alternative vision and no understanding of what would happen to the world’s 30,000 remaining wild rhino if his dream came true.”

Craig Packer, John Hume and Will Travers

John Hume, Craig Packer and Will Travers at the debate: ‘Should the trade in rhino horn be legalised?’

Born Free say they provided the film-makers with ample evidence drawn from history as to why legalising international rhino horn trade is likely to be a recipe for disaster. In 2008 the international community, despite the desperate pleas of Born Free and others, approved a ‘one-off’ sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory from South Africa and several other countries to Japan and China. Far from ‘satisfying consumer demand’, as the architects of this sale hoped, it fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching and illegal ivory trade.

The African elephant stronghold Tanzania, lost an average of 1,000 elephants a month, every month, for five years between 2009 and 2014. That’s 60,000 elephants. The poaching epidemic continues to this day with 20,000 elephants poached each year, tons of ivory being seized, and wildlife rangers and wardens — the elephants’ first line of defense — losing their lives. More than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been murdered in the last 10 years.

Mr Hume’s naive proposition, supported by pseudo-economics and a failure to understand risk, is likely to have the same impact

Trophy film poster 2

Does the human race really believe you have to kill something to save it? What a sorry, greedy world. My take away thoughts were that many of the people featured in this film stand to make a lot of money from rhino horn. Many of these hunters have a God-complex. Few of the filmmaker’s points are supported with any evidence. If you ARE expecting the next ‘Blackfish‘ when you watch this, you’ll be very disappointed.

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Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

Discover the documentary ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to be the first film to give an unbiased view of South Africa’s ​rhino poaching war from both sides

Want to read about the debate featuring John Hume and Will Travers?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Find out more about the work of Craig Packer:

Learn more about ‘Blackfish’

 

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Save The Asian Elephants: Tourists, temples and traditions

STAE save the asian elephants

This month kicked off with World Wildlife Day, and for me, the weekend immediately following meant an opportunity to visit the Animal Welfare Bazaar in Ealing. It was my first opportunity to attend the event, which has been running for 39 years(!), and I must admit, it was a treat to see some of my favourite charities and causes coming together.

A particular highlight of these kinds of events is discovering charities I know little or nothing about. In this case, it was Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).

STAE team at Ealing Animal Bazaar

Now, the plight of elephants in Africa is widely recognised — I’ve written several blog posts on the ivory trade and the rate at which African elephants are poached — but far lesser known, and spoken of, are the desperate threats facing Asian elephants.

Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% of that of African elephants — with a huge decline from estimates of a million or more in the late 19th century to scarcely 40,000 today! Around 10,000 of these are captive.

Mali the elephant in the zoo

While the majority of Asian elephants are found in India and Sri Lanka, there are small populations in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and (among others) Thailand. I mention these countries specifically because they are all places where I have see photographs of elephant rides and ‘elephant painting’ for tourists.

I recently watched the incredible BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, and learnt about some of the terrible ordeals these animals face when they are snatched from their forest homes to supply tourist attractions and festivals. Often the young elephants’ mothers and other adult herd members are slaughtered as they try to protect their young.

Elephant sanctuary BBC series Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise

Elephant sanctuary to rehabilitate captive Asian elephants featured in the BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise

The Asian elephant, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986, faces a bigger threat from the tourist industry then it does the ivory trade, as a lifetime of tourist rides are more lucrative than the one-off sale of its ivory.

Unlike the African elephant, only male Asian elephants grow tusks — meaning the enslavement and exploitation of these creatures for tourist attractions brings in money where it otherwise wouldn’t be found. However, the Wildlife Protection Society of India still reported that over 121 elephants were lost to poaching between 2008-2011.

Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African counterparts making them ‘easier to tame’. Their gentle nature sees them stolen from the wild, forced into a pen and tied with ropes to prevent them moving. Deprived of water, food and sleep, they are brutally (sometimes fatally) beaten with bullhooks, rods, chains and other implements of torture.

The ‘breaking in’ process, known as “pajan” ends in the death of 50% of the elephants it intends to ‘domesticate’.

Captive Indian elephants + trainers

The life of pain, fear, dehydration and abuse that a captive elephant faces is something I have witnessed firsthand in Indonesiasomething I have written about in the past.

I have seen Sumatran elephants intimidated with wooden sticks into performing circus-style ‘tricks’; such as balancing (i.e. walking along a relatively thin bench), throwing a basketball into a hoop and using their trunks to paint using a paintbrush. It was awful. Sickening.

Most holidaymakers are unaware that many elephants have been captured from the wild, trained through fear and beaten into continuing their work: often carrying heavy loads of 2-4 tourists on metal seats on their backs. Their tusks are often blunted with chainsaws; the ends removed in a stressful and terrifying ordeal.

This cruel and harsh life — often spent with legs bound in short, tight chains — is not dissimilar to that experienced by ‘temple elephants’.

Chained to tradition by Emily Garthwaite

I remember seeing a photograph of a temple elephant at a previous year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. ‘Chained to tradition’ by photographer Emily Garthwaite shows a desperate, pained-looking elephant with bound legs, looking as though it’s literally crying out for help.

These captive elephants are used for religious ceremonies and rented out for festivals. Often their legs are chained to posts in such a way that they are prevented from even turning round, and throughout their lives they are subjected to the chaos and confusion of crowds and noise — even firecrackers during festival season (December to May).

Like captive elephants used for tourist attractions, temple elephants are forced to carry heavy loads; sometimes up to four men and given very little access to water and shelter.

Other threats to Asian elephants

It’s not just temples and the tourist industry that are having a detrimental impact on this beautiful but fragile species. Population numbers are being devastated by human-elephant conflict (up to 200 elephants are killed annually and around 60 people), and many elephants die from other means of forced contact with man, such as electrocution from power cables and collisions with trains.

Urban development, which results in human activity encroaching on the natural lives of these elephants, has also left migratory paths obstructed; meaning herds are more likely to come into contact with man — thus allowing for situations of human conflict that result in animals being shot or poisoned.

The disruption to migration also means a disruption to gene flow, as naturally Asian elephants migrate to find mates and this distribution of genes over large geographical distances improves genetic strength. When elephants can’t travel to breed, their offspring becomes less genetically diverse and therefore more vulnerable to diseases.

STAE Asian elephants

How does STAE help?

Save The Asian Elephants works to end the terrible cruelty and brutal conditions suffered by this wondrous and ancient species. With Asian elephants facing extinction in our lifetime and by our hands, STAE believes that Asian elephants don’t just “belong” to a country or region, but have an intrinsic right to exist in the wild.

By influencing governments, politicians and the tourist industry to adopt solutions (such as captive elephants being returned to the wild where they can play their natural role in forests, or in extreme cases — where wild release is not an option — being kept in genuine sanctuaries), they hope to see the psychological wellbeing of elephants improved and respect for these creatures realised, so that an increased understanding can be developed, leading to the better management of human-elephant conflict.

They believe that with a global imagination, global funding, and global planning, there can be a future where wild elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully, in a way that supports and respects local communities, as well as Asia’s rich ecosystems, and the world’s forests. They look to achieve this by informing public opinion on the truth behind this collision of commercialism and custom that Asian elephants currently find themselves in the middle of.

Find out more by visiting: stae.org

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Jonathan Scott Special Interview Part 2: The Big Cats and the Marsh Pride poisoning

In my last blog post, I explored the lives of ‘The Big Cat People’, Jonathan and Angela Scott, most famed for their work on BBC’s Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Week. Inevitably, our conversation became not just about the amazing photographs and stories that comprised their latest book offerings, but also the animals that inspired the work.

Like me, Jonathan Scott was first inspired to follow a dream of seeing animals in the wild by the 1966 film, Born Free, featuring actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

“What really stands out from those teenage years is the memory of sitting in a cinema watching Born Free, the true story of George and Joy Adamson‘s triumph in returning the wild-born lioness Elsa to the wilderness of Meru National Park in Kenya,” he explains. “Its stirring effect was reinforced by a talk that a fresh-faced teacher gave to the sixth form one evening, illustrated with colour slides of his travels around the world on a gap year. I sat there aching to do something like that – to be free of studying and to live.”

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 And live he certainly has. Jonathan clarifies that he wanted a ‘life of adventure’ combined with a ‘window on to wilderness’. That meant Africa.

“Preferably careering around in the bush looking for big cats, just as I had seen Armand and Michaela Dennis doing in On Safari on the telly.”

Having graduated with a degree in Zoology from Queens University in Belfast, and spent a year exploring the North American landscape, he signed up for a fourteen-week overland journey from London to Johannesburg in 1974.

“Six-thousand miles later and having sold my onward boat ticket from Cape Town to Sydney in Australia, I spent an idyllic few weeks living on a luxury houseboat – the Sitatunga – stationed in the Okavango Delta, a wildlife wonderland known as the jewel of the Kalahari.”

articles-five-minutes-with-jonathan-scott-big-cat-man

From that point on, Jonathan fell in love with Africa and became a well-established author, photographer (winning the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 1987) and filmmaker.

I have grown to love writing natural history narratives about animal characters Angie and I have followed over the years,” he says, “such as the Marsh Pride of lions, the leopards Chui and Half-Tail, along with the cheetahs Kike and Honey and Honey’s adorable cub Toto of Big Cat fame.”

Marsh Pride

It is the Marsh Pride that we inevitably end up discussing the most.

The now greatly adored (thanks largely to Jonathan Scott’s work) Marsh Pride of lions were the subject of his first book, The Marsh Lions, co-authored with Brian Jackman in 1982.

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Scott credits Jackman with teaching him to appreciate the importance of the narrative flow, rather than simply producing a scientific journal: “He questioned whether I was writing for my chums at the Serengeti Research Centre at the expense of the general public, my primary audience. Learning to integrate the science with the narrative was something that took time for me to embrace.”

The pride, who live near the Musiara Marsh (which inspired their collective name) in the Maasai Mara National Reserve were the subject of several books, including those centered around the BBC Big Cat Diary series; which Scott authored on his own, with photographs by his wife Angie. They also starred in the BBC television series.

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Jonathan spent many years tapping into the lives of these cats, and their relationship with the Maasai Mara National Reserve – a protected area of more than 1,500 cubic km. He fondly refers to the Maasai Mara as the heartbeat of Africa, and observes that the lives of the Maasai people (often seen in their traditional red robes, adjourned with beads and carrying traditional weapons) are instinctively linked with the animals and the survival of the Maasai Mara as a whole.

This couldn’t have felt more relevant, when, at the end of 2015, the Marsh pride was back in the public’s consciousness after a mass poisoning.

“The poisoned lioness was 17,” Jonathan explained to an audience at the Royal Geographical Society, almost exactly one year on from the poisoning, “and a surviving cat from Big Cat Diaries in 1998 – one of Bebe’s pride.” 

Jonathan Scott getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

I asked him in our interview whether the poisoning had ignited an urgency in him to tell these stories and share the amazing photographs that he and Angela took in the book Sacred Nature.

“People asked if we were shocked and surprised by the poisoning. We weren’t,” he explained.

“It is a fact of life for lions living among pastoralists or in the case of the Marsh Pride on the edge of a protected area – half inside the reserve and half outside – among the Maasai.”

His words made me think back to my study of Craig Packer’s book and the plight of lions following CITES last year.

“It was a tragedy, but rather like with the case of Cecil the male lion killed illegally by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe, the killing of [the] high profile [Marsh] lions caused a storm on social media and in the local and international press.”

“That created a far louder ‘voice’ on behalf of lions than we could have on our own. And that caused the Ministry of Tourism – and the Narok County Government responsible for the Maasai Mara – to take the situation seriously, particularly when people realised they couldn’t just wait for the storm to blow itself out.”

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

The poisoning forced the authorities to ensure that cattle did not come in to Marsh Pride territory at night when the lions are most active and incidents with cattle most likely.

“The Marsh Pride are now able to roam their traditional territory without fear of conflict with livestock owners. But this is not a problem that is just going to disappear. Kenya is home to large numbers of pastoralists with large herds of cattle worth a lot of money in terms of cash and a fortune in terms of cultural status.”

Scott explains that due to global warming, Africa – particularly East Africa – is more prone to patterns of wild rainfall.

“Prolonged droughts and failed rainy seasons are more common. When I first came to live in Kenya 40 years ago the onset of the rains was very predictable – the short rains began in mid-October through to December and the long rains started towards the end of March and continued in to June. Droughts and dry times mean that large herds of cattle are driven in to protected areas and on to private land illegally causing enormous problems for the government, the wildlife and local communities.” 

“There just isn’t enough pasture for all those domestic animals.”

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Despite opening this blog post with the early inspirations and aspirations of Jonathan Scott; his dream to have an adventurous life in Africa, I feel it is only fitting to close with the following statement from him:

“One thing I do know is that at 67 I had reached that time in life when I was eager to give back, to transition from following my personal dream of living with wild creatures to trying to find a fulfilling role as a conservationist and spokesperson for Africa’s wild places, in particular the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.”

“I wanted to acknowledge [with Sacred Nature and The Big Cat Man books] in a tangible way, the gift that Angie and I had been given by being able to spend so many years living and working in the Mara-Serengeti; to try to ensure that this last great wild place might survive the pressures that are currently threatening its very future.”

What next?

So, what can we expect from Jonathan and Angela Scott next? The pair have two new children’s books due out this year with Cambridge University Press – one on a Tiger Safari in India and the other on Toto the Cheetah.

Scott also tells me that they intend to take the message of Sacred Nature worldwide with a series of Exhibitions in key cities – London, Paris, LA, Sydney, Delhi, etc. That and a new TV series that they are currently filming in the Maasai Mara.

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Jonathan and Angela Scott – The Big Cat People: Special Interview Part 1

In the days before we saw life through the eyes of animal robots, we saw life through the eyes of the people who knew them best – and Jonathan Scott was instrumental in that. I was 8 years old when I first tuned in to BBC’s Big Cat Diary, where Simon King and Saba Douglas-Hamilton completed the trio of big cat filmmakers that would change the way we saw lions, cheetahs and leopards forever.

man-with-cubs“I had a unique story unfolding right before my eyes,” Scott acknowledges. From his days of sleeping in his car while following African Wild dogs – which, by his own admission, allowed him to become ‘part of the pack’ –  to becoming famous as ‘the man that a cheetah crapped on’ (who can forget that famous Big Cat Week scene with Kike the cheetah?); it certainly seems he has had a life that many of us can only dream of.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Jonathan Scott is still bringing us ever closer to the formidable big cats of Africa, with a little (or maybe I should say ‘a lot’) of help from his partner in work, as well as in life; Angela Scott – or as he affectionately refers to her in our conversation, ‘Angie’.

At the end of 2016, the pair released an impressive combination of work; Jonathan Scott’s autobiography ‘The Big Cat Man and a coffee table book ‘Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance, which is predominately Angela’s photography.

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Angela Scott photographing cheetahs for Big Cat Diary

I spoke to Jonathan in a special interview to find out why he felt it was time to tell his story and what made him want to tell it publicly.

 “It is one thing to write an autobiography, quite another to figure out why,” Scott explains.

The Big Cat Man

“I think in some ways it was wanting to review my life to make better sense of it – I have lived life at such a frenetic pace that I sometimes feel that I need to slow down and take stock and think about the big questions that flash across one’s mind from time to time, reminding us that life is not a dream, that it is real, and that we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to what we are doing with this precious gift of being alive and the amazing opportunity that offers us – both for adventures and for personal growth.”

“Isn’t it an indulgence;” he added, “to think that your memoir is of interest to others – the written equivalent of imagining that anyone might really like to see your holiday photos.”

I actually purchased a copy of the book after listening to Jonathan talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London; guiding the audience through anecdotes of his extraordinary life, in preparation for some of the incredible tales and awe-inspiring photographs that feature in the book. Archives of life that I’ve spent the last month of so poring over as I read page by page before settling in for the night.

It dawned on me that it must be quite a daunting task, to give away the intimate details of human life to complete strangers.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

“I never [gave] a thought to who will eventually read it,” he states, “I needed and wanted this book to centre on me and my growth as a human being – not just about what it is like to live in Africa and spend time following big cats.”

 “I have always led two lives – like everyone to varying degrees – the life lived ‘out there’ in front of my eyes, one’s sense of self; and the inner world that for me was a bit of a muddle given the mental health issues I was grappling with. I really felt I was going to die – like my Dad.”

Quite early in the book, you learn the sad revelation that Scott was just two years old when his father died of an inoperable brain tumour.

“I was convinced that something was wrong that some awful disease was working its way into my system. It took me until I was 40 to lay that to rest.”  

“Marrying Angie and having a family gave me something much more important to worry about than my own wellbeing. Writing my story was a way of coming to terms with who I am – or who I think I am. And [a way of] being honest about my life and letting people see that we all have problems and issues and frailties – and that when you consider the lives of other people you need to see beyond the superficial. Particularly with people in the public eye.”

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“We are all just human – being famous doesn’t mean life is any less complex or angst ridden. I wanted people, particularly younger people who might want to follow the kind of life I have lived, to believe that following your dream is possible. It might be a very bumpy road but in following it you can find the most unimaginable joy and meaning.”

Hearing Jonathan’s words, I feel like, particularly in the current climate, the need to feel like there’s a sense of purpose to be found; a life outside your current existence is a very important rhetoric for young people to hear. 

“The autobiography I wanted to write was a more fulsome account of my life than my celebrity as a wildlife author and presenter of Big Cat Diary merited,” Jonathan explains, as he tells me how finding the right publisher proved to be an ‘elusive creature’.

“People knew me as ‘the bloke the cheetah crapped on’ from my encounter with Kike the car climbing cheetah of Big Cat Week 2003; surely my potential audience wanted to hear stories of daring do among large possibly dangerous wild creatures rather than of growing up on a farm in Berkshire along with revelations of whatever skeletons in the cupboard I might reveal.”  

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My own collection of Scott’s early books

Like many people, it was Big Cat Diary that first switched me on to the work of Jonathan Scott, and I subsequently began buying the BBC books that accompanied the programmes – originally co-authored with Brian Jackman, then later, Angela Scott – and whilst I came to expect more tales of the big cats we’d got to know on the television, the authors certainly fascinated me too. Skeletons in the cupboard and all.

The Big Cat People

The first thing I learned about the combined force of Jonathan and Angela Scott is that they are the only couple to have won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award individually – a testament to their individual skills and vision. Jonathan won the prestigious award in 1987 and Angela won in 2002.

Jonathan Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

Jonathan Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

The second thing I learnt about them, is that they go by the collective name: The Big Cat People. “Social media is a huge opportunity to have a shop window, but you do have to grow your brand,” Jonathan addressed the audience at ‘The Big Cat People’ talk at the Royal Geographical Society.

The Big Cat People feels a like brand that has been a long time in development. Prior to these book releases, the Scotts have worked on 29 other publications together!

Angela Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

Angela Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

I asked what makes them such a good team in telling these stories and sharing their world with people who may never get to see these places or animals for themselves. “Angie always says that the key to a great relationship –  both business and personal – is to make it a “Competition of Generosity”, Jonathan gushes.

“If you are always thinking of your partner’s best interests and prioritising them then – as long as you are both doing it – you will be successful. Angie is great organiser: very structured in her way of thinking, whereas I just tend to wing it and believe that things will always work out fine. So it is a great combo.”

“And we both love each other’s work; we think of it as ours. The problem sometimes – and I am always quick to remind people of this – is that because I am on TV I often get the lion’s share of the attention. But when it comes to our photography, Angie is the talent not me. She has a wonderful eye as you can see in Sacred Nature. Eighty per cent of the images are Angie’s.”

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I can very clearly see their intention in releasing both books together, as a combination of work for anyone interested in their lives and career. As Jonathan puts it, they are ‘very inclusive’ – the personal text of the autobiography with their pen and ink drawings and photographs, and then the splendor of viewing some of their best images in a big folio book.

“The books complement each other. We knew that the autobiography was not the right format to show off our photography to best advantage. Words predominate in the autobiography and images predominate in Sacred Nature. That was our intention.”

Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance

Sacred Nature comprises 10 chapters, each preceded by a short essay setting the theme and tone of the photographs to follow. As well as being Angela’s ‘mission’, Sacred Nature really is family ‘labour of love’, as their son David is responsible for creating the design concept.

“Our son is incredibly creative. He drew together all the elements that we wanted for Sacred Nature: the right images – both colour and black and white; the tone of the text, and he chose the quotes from great poets and sages to mirror the message of: ‘look, listen and absorb the mood created by the images and the words’.”

“He conjured up a little bit of the magic inherent in the wonder of savanna Africa and the incredible place we call The Last Place On Earth – the Mara-Serengeti – home of the great migration, all the big cats that have been our obsession all the years,  and so much more besides.

A leaflet teasing the design concept of 'Sacred Nature' and the book's review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

A leaflet teasing the design concept of ‘Sacred Nature’ and the book’s review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

Keith Wilson writes of the book in Geographical Magazine‘s November 2016 issue: “This may be Jonathan and Angela Scott’s 30th book, but it is without doubt their magnum opus.”

So, what is it that makes the book stand out so much? (Jonathan tells me that one journalist said of Sacred Nature: “It is a coffee table book on steroids.”).

It’s clear from his answer that he agrees with Wilson’s interpretation, which reads: “The Scott’s have been firmly established at the top of their field for decades, during which time the public has grown accustomed to witnessing their spectacular work in print and on screen (through BBC TV‘s hugely popular Big Cat Diary), but this book differs in many ways to any of their previous efforts. Sacred Nature is primarily Angela’s vision.” 

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Angie is a very spiritual person,” Jonathan tells me. “Compassionate; someone who reaches out to others in need. She grew up in Africa, spent her holidays on safari in places like the Serengeti as a child living in Tanzania.”

“She draws strength from connecting to wilderness – she loves trees and seeing plants growing in her veggie garden. And she is very artistic; she loves to draw and was always very artistic and her great passion was photography and the ocean. She is quiet, and shy and retiring – so photography gave her a voice, a way to express herself.”

“The genesis of Sacred Nature was partly to do with our age. I am 68 this year and Angie will be 64. We have had a long and successful career as authors, wildlife photographers and working in television. This was the time when we wanted to review and assess where we were in our lives and careers and plan the next step.”

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Some of the incredible photography featured in the book, giving and intimate view of Africa’s wildlife

He also cites concerns about the natural world, loss of wild habitat and diversity, and the surge of the human population across the planet.

“They all played a part in focusing our attention on the reality that most of the world is shut off from nature. Most of the world lives in cities. And the places that still harbour most of the wild animals on earth are mainly the most impoverished parts of the planet – such as Africa.”

The irony of these places, he says, is that local communities are too busy just trying to get by in ensuring they have the basics in life (and many don’t; ‘living on a few dollars a day’), dealing with far more pressing day-to-day priorities to be able either enjoy the natural environment or to see any reason to treasure it. 

“Most people living in East Africa will never see a wild lion or elephant. And those living in rural areas adjacent to wilderness naturally have a very different view of an elephant a lion or a buffalo to the one enjoyed by visitors on safari. Those same charismatic wild animals that visitors so want to see up close and romanticise are often a threat to life and livelihoods for local communities who bear the brunt of living with wildlife. Elephants and buffalos destroy crops at times and predators sometimes kill livestock.”

“We hope to take the message of Sacred Nature: that we need to re-engage with wilderness and to value it as the source of life, as the provider of our fresh water, our food and the air we breathe, and use it to remind people that the world will be a poorer place without other forms of life to share it with and marvel at.

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Purchase these incredible books here.

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Learn more The Big Cat People

Learn more about big cats

Want to know more about other big cat species?

Want to know more about Cecil’s the lion?

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Blackfish Tilikum: An homage to his memory and a promise to myself

Tilikum-Seaworld-580-2.jpg

It’s easy to think, after all the media coverage of ‘2016: the year of death’, that it was the worst start to a year that we have had in this country for a while; kicked off by the passing of David Bowie on the 10th January, two days after his 69th birthday. 

Though I felt terrible sadness at the loss of a musical hero, who will tie quite deeply into this story later (more on that to come), I remember the previous year starting off far worse. 

On the Wednesday 7th January 2015, at approximately 10.30am I had just finished signing off that week’s Primary School news bulletin at Discovery Education when my BBC breaking news alert pinged. The story read that the office of a satirical French newspaper had been stormed by gun men. Returning to work after their Christmas break, heads full of January thoughts and imminent news deadlines (just like mine), the editor and staff at Charlie Hebdo barely had time to register what was happening, let alone react. 

One eyewitness account said that someone had thought the gunman was someone staging a ‘joke hold up’ and laughed, before gun shots and screams broke the mood. Ten journalists and two policemen were killed that morning.

Journalists and news editors, people like myself, were angry. They killed the messengers. The public was outraged ‘they killed the cartoonists, they killed the funny guys!’ was one quote that stuck out to me. If memory serves, the Big Issue penned that one.

‘We won’t let terrorists win’, ‘pencils are stronger than bullets’, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ were some of the protest slogans I remember reading. 2015 had started with a very literal bang, and for one moment in time; we all stood up, stood together

and gave a shit.

charlie-hebdo

What does this have to do with the passing of Tilikum, I hear you ask? 

The mood of Britain was rocked and on edge. People gathered in their masses four days later at Trafalgar Square, pledged their allegiance to France, shouting their right to free speech. The streets of London felt alive with the absolute opposite of apathy. 

Six days later; one weekend on from London’s Unity March, and once again London’s streets were filled with angry people of all ages, exercising their right to speak up and be heard. This time it was a different kind of terrorist in the firing line. A terrorist that uses ropes, hoists, imprisonment in glass tanks, and funds their work with a cashflow from unsuspecting tourists. We stood once again on the steps of Trafalgar Square, and this time called out ‘Je Suis Tilikum’.

IMG_6832Me, at the anti Sea World protest in 2015

“I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”

Empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove. These were our messages that day. Riding a wave of protest that my fellow journalists; slaughtered at their day jobs, had created. We rode that wave for Tilikum, a whale who hadn’t ridden a wave himself in 32 years at that point. 

I was 24 years only at the protest. Tilikum was 34. He has 10 more years on me. And I thought about that a lot. All the great things I’d done in my life. 

Tilikum came to Sea World in 1992, when I was two years old. I was probably just getting to grips with walking a few steps and talking a few simple sentences back then. All the things I’ve done in my life since then… and Tilikum has been in the same tiny part of Sea World‘s Florida park, in the same tank, swimming in the same circles with the same view, day in, day out. All. That. Time.

A wild orca can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. A wild killer whale with 10 extra years on me should have a hell of a lot more life experience.

kate snowdon photoA wild orca I encountered in South Africa

I encountered Tilikum once. In real life, in person. Summer 1999, and I was nine years old, on a family holiday to Orlando. These were the days before social media ruled the Internet, before I could sit and read National Geographic from cover to cover, before Blackfish was a documentary that existed to be watched and shared hundreds of thousands of times. 

It felt like an innocent day of family fun, and my overwhelming feeling was that I loved this incredible killer whale and the way he could perform with his ‘carers’ so carefully and gently. I don’t think you can get away with that level of naivety in today’s Information Age. Tilikum was driven mad by his captivity and is now known to have killed three people.

Including his Sea World trainer, in the pool, in front of an audience.

001A family holiday snap from 1999.

Dominic Dyer addressed the crowds back at Trafalgar Square in January 2015, and quoted the words of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editor “I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”.

I felt the fire in my belly and I vowed to stand for that poor, disturbed, incredibly intelligent orca that I’d seen behind the glass all those years ago.IMG_6843See Dominic Dyer’s full speech and my coverage of the march that day here. 

“Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

There’s a second part to this story. Fast forward one year from the empty the tanks protest, to January 2016. Almost a year to the exact day, David Bowie passed away after a private battle with cancer. 

About a week on, we were back on the streets of London again, this time protesting outside the Japanese embassy.

A crowd, as big as the year before, marched through the streets once more with the message: empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove.

These three causes are completely interlinked; Taiji Cove is where wild dolphins are rounded up in Japan every year and killed by spears for meat consumption, or the most handsome specimens are captured to be sold into a life in tanks at marine parks like Sea World. 

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For those who know little about the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji, Japan, I would highly recommend watching the Academy Award-winning documentary; The Cove. 

As powerful as Blackfish, this tells the story of the other marine mammal that’s most commonly associated with captive performances alongside human trainers; the bottlenose dolphin. 

Significantly, just before the credits on this powerful documentary roll, the song ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie concludes the film. 

“I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

I’m reliably told that the artist, knowing the activist film makers were on a low budget, charged as little as he could get away with for the licensing of the song to be used in the film. Despite his affection for Japan, he risked his reputation with the country for the cause of the dolphins.

See my full coverage of the 2016 march here. 

As January kicks off once again with a personally significant loss; this time the passing of a creature whose gaze I once met through thick glass many years ago, I vow to stand up once again, and let my voice be heard.

The annual Taiji dolphin drive slaughter is in full swing once more its season running from September to March, and once again the waters of the Cove will run red with blood, and the ‘lucky’ dolphins who survive the massacre will be sold on to marine park shows across the world to face the same fate as Tilikum. Driven mad in a tiny glass prison.

I promise, to Tilikum, that as long as marine mammals are kept in tanks, I will continue to stand against it.

I will stand, until they can swim free. 

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BBC Earth Magazine’s launch night in London

This week I was invited to the launch of BBC Earth Magazine, a new monthly publication about the natural world, courtesy of LiveLikeAVIP.com.

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I have followed BBC Earth’s online articles for a while, as they have previously featured vEcotours — the VR app that allows users to take virtual tours of different conversation locations around the world — so I was pretty excited to hear that they would be getting a printed publication.

earth-mag-content

The magazine will feature news, about the latest discoveries in nature, science, astronomy and anthropology and will include commentary and opinions from experts, including Sir David Attenborough and Professor Brian Cox.

The Sea Life London Aquarium played host to the launch of BBC Earth Magazine with drinks flowing to the back drop of sea turtles and shoals of fish. Read my full post on the launch night here.

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Harambe the silverback gorilla and the question of captivity

Every so often, an individual animal comes along, whose plight opens up a big debate concerning how humans react to, interfere with, or ‘manage’ animal welfare.

Last year, it was Cecil the lion; the year before, Marius the giraffe; this week, it’s Harambe the silverback gorilla. For those who missed the story of Harambe (and I suspect you didn’t), the 17-year-old male silverback was shot and killed at Cincinnati Zoo this weekend after a child entered his enclosure, crawling through bushes and falling 15 feet into the gorilla’s moat.

Harambe gorilla and boy

Online footage showed the gorilla moving the young boy through the enclosure’s moat — though there are varying reports as to the nature of this (some news outlets are reporting he dragged the boy through the water, while other suggest he was ‘protecting’ the boy). Of course, without being there, it’s difficult to speculate.

The animal response team tasked with dealing with the situation chose to destroy the gorilla, supported by Cincinnati Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, who confirmed the boy was not under attack, but felt it a ‘life threatening situation’ where the gorilla was ‘agitated’, ‘disoriented’, and ‘behaving erratically’.

Perhaps the reason that so many have hit out at the decision has something to do with the previous publicity that gorilla-human interactions have received. By coincidence, the last article I posted on this blog referenced the gorilla group who famously interacted with Sir David Attenborough.

DAVID-ATTENBOROUGH_gorillas

But these weren’t the only gorillas to win the public’s heart, and show a softer side to these strong and powerful beings. Made popular by the rise of YouTube, the 1986 incident in which a five-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo has been viewed literally millions of times!

The gorilla in question, Jambo, is seen gently investigating and apparently comforting the boy:

Fast forward 10 years, to a three-year-old boy falling into the Western Lowland Gorilla Pit at the Brookfield Zoo. (Seems like rather a lot of gorilla enclosures have proven to be a little too accessible over the years!).

This 1996 footage shows a female gorilla named Binti Jua approach the child, lift him into her arms, and carry him to an access entrance where staff could get to him.

 

One of the world’s leading gorilla experts, Ian Redmond OBE, posted online immediately following the incident:

My immediate response to the killing of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, is a deep sense of regret and sadness. Watching the shaky mobile phone video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36407643, it is clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed, but in the video shown on the BBC News website, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, held his hand – apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing… but the video does not show the whole incident so I am not in a position to judge. I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff. For a man with a gun thinking a child is in danger, it is a tough decision but there were other possible outcomes. In two other incidents where children have fallen into zoo gorilla enclosures (in Jersey and Chicago) neither the gorillas nor the children died.
Aside from the ethical issues of keeping apes in captivity, the key question is: how is it possible – yet again – for a child to gain access to any zoo enclosure? Especially when zoos are primarily a family attraction?

Harambe

To me, this is indeed a huge public safety issue! One that, had the public safety (particularly that of a child) been put at risk elsewhere in the tourism and entertainment industry (I’m thinking theme parks), would have caused mass criticism, a very public court battle and calls to close the place (just look at the bad press Alton Towers received when guests were injured on a rollercoaster ride).

But zoos are so entwined with education that they’re publicly branded as existing ‘primarily for children’s benefit’ and as such, it’s hard to separate them. This is an issue I’ve discussed before, challenging the notion that zoos are ‘a vital tool’ in getting the next generation interested in nature (for those who’d like a more in depth view of the modern day issues with zoos — and probably a more balanced view — I would recommend the BBC2 documentary: Should We Close Our Zoos?)

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

But whether their PR depends on the link with education or not, it’s worth questioning how the security of zoos keeps getting breached? Just last month alone, a Santiago Metropolitan Zoo in Chile killed two of its lions after a man scaled the fence, removed his clothes (which reportedly contained a suicide note) and goaded the animals to attack him (23rd May 2016). Just the day before, a man entered the lion enclosure at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, India, allegedly to ‘shake hands with the lions‘. Though the man and the lions survived the encounter, he was reported to have been intoxicated at the time.

All this comes after the undeniable, global coverage of Blackfish; the documentary about SeaWorld’s Tilikum the killer whale (or orca), known for having ended the lives of three people, including a man who trespassed on SeaWorld Orlando’s property, apparently evading security to enter the orca tank. When will these locations that house captive animals be recognised as potentially dangerous to the public? It seems that massive security failings are occurring across the globe, and have been for a long time?!

6 ways to appreciate gorillas, without visiting the zoo:

How about some alternatives then, that won’t inadvertently put your family or the lives of animals at risk? Here are my top 5 ways to enjoy watching, feeling close to, and even supporting the conservation of gorillas!

  1. Check out the BBC documentary; Gorilla Family & Me, for which cameraman and filmmaker Gordon Buchanan travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo to spend time with a rare family of Grauer’s gorillas.You’ll get to follow the story of Chimanuka and Mugaruka. For more information on the show and future broadcasts, click here.gorilla family and me
  2. Adopt a gorilla through Born Free Foundation. If you enjoyed the above mentioned documentary, and want to continue being a part of Chimanuka and Mugaruka’s wild story, you can adopt the pair and receive a personalised adoption certificate, a photo of the gorillas, the pair’s full story and regular updates about the gorillas; courtesy of Adopt! magazine. You can even get a cuddly toy gorilla, to help satisfy the need to give the creatures a cuddle! To find out how, click here.adoption pack
  3.  Take virtual tour of the gorillas habitats with vEcotourism.org! Continuing on the story of the Chimanuka group, vEcotours offer an immersive, 360-degree virtual tour of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Rwanda, where Chimanuka and his family live. They also feature a tour of the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group’s home on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi; this features the last living gorilla from the group that met Sir David Attenborough all those years ago! To take a tour, click hereSusaGroupHeader-1024x512
  4. View a GoGoGorilla art piece. Now, this one might require a bit more work, but seek, and ye shall find! These guys are mostly still planted around businesses and tourist locations in Norwich, and I had a whale of time discovering them all when they were used as an art trail around the city, and then auctioned off to raise funds for the Born Free Foundation and local charity Break. I’m pretty sure this guy still resides at the Norwich City Football Club ground!20130724_202257
  5. Buy a gorilla print. Many thanks to an incredible digital artist, Danielle Adams, who supported my World of Wildlife art exhibition last year, for creating this beautiful piece of gorilla art in memory of Harambe. Prints of this artwork will soon be available, so keep an eye out on her website, www.danielleadamsart.com.Harambe by Danielle Adams
  6. Dine with a gorilla table guest at the Rainforest Café! I absolutely love this place, and it offers a great chance to feel like your in a real forest surrounded by animals… except, they’re all animatronic! But hey, at least you know it means none are going to get hurt! And if any children wander off to go and touch a gorilla, they’re not going to get hurt either! To visit the Rainforest Cafe, click here.

Like this? Read more about Ian Redmond and Gorilla Safari VR here.

What happened when Ian Redmond and David Attenborough reunited?

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