David Attenborough: Zoo Quest for a Dragon | Seeking the Komodo dragon in Indonesia

Proposal for the first 'Zoo Quest' series

David Attenborough proposes that the BBC should collaborate with London Zoo to make a natural history series filmed on location.

BBC Archives Written Document

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The thick rain forests of Sierra Leone contain two extremely rare birds that are
still virtually unknown. They have been seen alive by only one or two Europeans
and are known to the rest of the world solely by written descriptions and a few
specimens of their skins.

The Emerald Starling, a handsome and strikingly coloured bird, is the first of
these and was recently seen in the deep forest by J.W. Lester, of the London Zoo
when he was in Sierra Leone on a research expedition in 1950. Unfortunately,
however, he was unable to stay long enough in the area to catch specimens.

The second, and even rarer bird, is Picathartes, a large and bizarre creature the
size of a fowl. Lester was the first white man to see this bird alive, when he
discovered a colony of them nesting among piles of huge boulders high up in the
forest-clad hills of Sierra Leone. Although he managed to capture two specimens,
they died before be was able to get them back to the coast, for adequate
preparations had not been made for them.

The Zoological Society are very anxious to exhibit specimens of both the Emerald
Starling and Picathartes alive in London end are proposing to send Lester on an
expedition to capture then.

Although those two birds will be the primary object of the expedition, Lester
also hopes to collect two other rareties - the Superb Sunbird, the most beautiful
of all the Sunbirds which has only been seen in Europe once before, when two
specimens Lester brought back in 1950 were on exhibition in the Zoo for 3 weeks;
and the Olive Colobus, a very rare monkey. In addition, however, the expedition
will collect whatever other interesting creatures it finds. These might well
include the pigmy hippopotamus, chimpanzees, snakes of all sorts, pottos, bush
babies, honey badgers, giant millipedes and scorpions, crocodiles, land crabs,
lizards and a wide variety of birds and monkeys.

The expedition wou1d be in Africa for about 8 weeks. The moat suitable months are
September and October; earlier than this the rains are at their height and later
the birds will have left their nests. It would not of course be possible to
organise the expedition this year, but there would be ample time to arrange things
for departure in September 1954.

If the Corporation were to join the Zoo in the organisation of the expedition,
there could be compiled four to six 30-minute programmes consisting mostly of film
but introduced by Lester from the studio. At appropriate points - for example after
seeing the setting of a trap and the successful capture of an animal - the viewer
could be returned to the studio to see in close-up the actual creature he has just
seen on film, and Lester could tell how the creature fared on the voyage back, and
mention any other interesting details about it.

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The programme would trace the expedition's journey from the coast through the
thick rain forests to the nesting place of Picathartes, on to the mountains
where the Emerald Starling lives, and would culminate in the capture of the
bird. Apart from watching the many diverse methods employed zoological
collectors for capturing birds, monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, etc., the
grotesque plants of the forest and the primitive African tribe, met by the
expedition, would provide many subjects of the greatest visual interest for the
film cameraman.


He is the only person who knows where these birds can be found. He is a very
experienced animal collector and has, by virtue of many years work in Sierra
Leone and his recent collecting trip there in 1950, a great number of contacts,
both European and African, who would be invaluable to the expedition.

Preferably with a 16 mm camera, both on grounds of expense and mobility in the very dense and difficult rain forest.

To direct the film and operate a tape recording machine. There will be much
unusual sound to bring back for dubbing onto the film, e.g. night sounds in the
forest, the cries of Picathartes at their nests etc. He would also act where
necessary as assistant to the cameraman.

Subject to official confirmation, the Zoo would give Lester the necessary leave
of absence for two months and organise the expedition through their
representative in Sierra Leone. The BBC would be required to pay the fares and
living expenses of the Corporation staff who join the expedition, as well as a
share of the travelling expenses in Africa.

A rough budget is as follows:-

Return fare by air to Freetown for 2 = £400
Messing for 8 weeks for 2 = £70
Share of transport expenses in Sierra Leone = £50
Shar. of expenses for African bearers = £15
Stock and processing of 10,000 ft. 16mm film = £300
Special kit for cameraman and producer = £40
Incidentals = £25

Total = £900

In addition to this expense the mounting of each programme in the studio would
cost roughly :-

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Negative cutting charges = £20
Show print of film = £7
Fee for Lester's appearance =£30
Incidentals = £13

[Total] £70

Thus if there were to be six programems in the series their approximate cost
would be: -

900 [divided by] 6 [plus] 70 = £220

If only four programmes the cost would be: -

900 [divided by] 4 [plus] 70 = £295

There might also be a possibility of using the film in a series of programems
for Children's Television which would, of course, reduce further the expenses
per programme.


David Attenborough
31 July, 1953

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Document Type | Internal Memo

31 July 1953

Document version




In this document, David Attenborough first proposes the idea for 'Zoo Quest', a television series based on an expedition to Africa in conjunction with London Zoo. The idea came about after a discussion with Jack Lester, one of London Zoo's curators, with whom Attenborough had worked on another series, 'The Pattern of Animals'. Attenborough explains how the BBC could film Lester collecting rare animals (in this case, two rare birds) that were required by the zoo, and then show him examining them in the studio later. This became the premise for 'Zoo Quest', and the first series featured the now infamous rare bird called Picathartes.

Did you know?

This first series of 'Zoo Quest', broadcast in 1954, was set in Sierra Leone, where the team succeeded in finding the rare bird Picathartes.


Jack Lester

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