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Friday 11 Jul 2014

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David Attenborough's iconic Fifties series Zoo Quest For A Dragon becomes available online through BBC Archives

David Attenborough

As part of the BBC's Darwin Season, and supporting David Attenborough's new documentary Charles Darwin And The Tree Of Life, the BBC Archive is taking audiences back 53 years to join David on one of his first adventures for the BBC: Zoo Quest For A Dragon.

First broadcast in 1956, Zoo Quest For A Dragon was the third series of the iconic Zoo Quest show that saw David travel to Indonesia in search of a Komodo dragon.

All six episodes of this ground-breaking series, along with a special interview with David about the evolution of Zoo Quest, are featured in the collection – allowing a new generation to enjoy this series online.

The collection also includes rarely seen photographs dating back to 1955 and previously unpublished documents, including audience reports, handwritten letters from Attenborough to the team back in London and letters of thanks to friends he made along the way.

David Attenborough said: "Zoo Quest was a true adventure in all senses of the word. Looking back to over 50 years ago, it's interesting to see how the BBC's natural history documentaries were just as popular then as they are today.

"Although the technology in those days wasn't quite as advanced as it is today, I am pleased that this series of Zoo Quest was the first time the Komodo dragon had been seen on British television."

The audience report, also included in the collection, shows the documentary was a big a hit at the time, with comments such as: "A most fascinating trip, whilst enjoying the comfort of one's fireside, to places of great interest which are only names to most people. Thanks for a tip-top conducted tour"; with another saying "We regard Attenborough as the finest type of young Englishman – unpretentious, humorous, resourceful and humane with his animals. A grand boy!"

David's clothing expenses request for the six-week expedition, dated 17 April 1956 for a grand sum of £20.10, has also been made available, featuring requests for one Tropical Suit at a cost of £10.00 and six pairs of long stockings.

London Zoo featured heavily in the Zoo Quest series, with conservationists from the zoo accompanying Attenborough on his travels.

David Field, Zoological Director at ZSL London Zoo, said: "Zoo Quest is integrated with our history, and helped us to bring some of the world's most beautiful and exciting inhabitants to our zoo, assisting with the conservation of these species and the education of the public.

"Charlie, an orphaned orangutan featured in episode one, was actually rescued by us during this expedition to Indonesia, and went on to father the first orangutan to be born at London Zoo, establishing our breeding programme."

The site goes live today (30 January 2009) and the public can see the collection by going online to

Notes to Editors

BBC Archive Zoo Quest For A Dragon collection includes:


David Attenborough talks to the Archive about Zoo Quest. This was an interview recorded in 2007.

Zoo Quest: Episode 1 – David Attenborough and cameraman Charles Lagus begin their quest in Borneo, the first in the chain of islands they must cross in order to reach Komodo. There they trek through jungle to a village belonging to the Dayak tribe, where they are given a warm welcome. The Zoo Quest team are hoping to find an orangutan and, with guidance from the Dayaks, they discover and film one in the wild. However, it is an orphaned orangutan held captive by a hunter that Attenborough falls for in the end.

Zoo Quest: Episode 2 – Attenborough has a close encounter with a crocodile, spends time with Dayak villagers and makes the acquaintance of Benjamin, an abandoned baby bear.

Zoo Quest: Episode 3 – David Attenborough and his cameraman Charles Lagus explore the island of Java. There is a wonderful sequence featuring gibbons having a leisurely breakfast in the treetops, a stop-off at the eighth-century Buddhist temple Borobudur and a glimpse into Bromo, a sulphur-spewing volcano.

Zoo Quest: Episode 4 – David Attenborough's search for the legendary Komodo dragon reaches Bali, where he witnesses a procession in honour of an "invisible god" and explores a temple that provides shelter to a colony of bats believed by the locals to be sacred. Back in the studio, Attenborough meets a fruit bat that is a resident of London Zoo.

Zoo Quest: Episode 5 – David Attenborough walks through avenues of palm trees and rice fields in order to reach a small Balinese village. Once there, he encounters curious villagers and remarkable creatures, including ants that demonstrate some ingenious behaviour. In addition to exploring less celebrated wildlife, this is also an opportunity to witness the unique Balinese culture with its hypnotic music and dance based on ancient Hindu legends.

Zoo Quest: Episode 6 - The Zoo Quest team sail to Komodo Island, the home of a giant lizard known as the Komodo dragon. Once on shore, however, David Attenborough soon comes face to face with the prehistoric-looking creatures. A villager had recently been killed by one, and it is plain to see why they are a danger to humans. Attenborough also discovers that all is not safe on board the boat.


Tropical clothing expenses form.

Handwritten letters from Attenborough to his boss back home (highlighting some of the difficulties he faced in travelling around Indonesia during a political/border/national conflict).

Letters of thanks sent to a few of the many people Attenborough befriended on his travels, including the couple who dispatched an air sea rescue for him when he failed to return on time from Komodo island.

Audience report revealing the popularity of the Zoo Quest series.


The collection also features a gallery of photographs purely from the time of Zoo Quest (1955-63).

Zoo Quest (1954-64) was the major first series to be presented by David Attenborough. Each series comprised six episodes that saw Attenborough and staff from London Zoo travel to various countries and continents, to source an animal for the zoo's collection (which was standard practice at the time).

The show was studio-based with David narrating over the film from the expeditions and, although the programme was structured around the quest for the animal, it also featured film of other wildlife in the area and of the local people and their customs.

The final episode of each series featured the animal coming into the studio where both David and zoo experts would discuss the zoo's newest member.

Explore over 80 years of UK and BBC history with the BBC Archive website. Programmes, documents and images bring the past to life and reveal forgotten stories. The David Attenborough: Zoo Quest For A Dragon collection will now form a part of this permanent resource which the BBC has made available to UK audiences.

For more information, visit:

Charles Darwin And The Tree Of Life: Sunday 1 February, 9.00pm, BBC One. A one-off special from David Attenborough and the Natural History Unit in Bristol. Charles Darwin And The Tree Of Life explores the origin of Darwin's great idea. David Attenborough makes a powerful case for the importance of the science of evolution. Co-produced with the Open University.


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