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Duration: 1 hour

David Attenborough returns to the island of Madagascar on a very personal quest.

In 1960 he visited the island to film one of his first ever wildlife series, Zoo Quest. Whilst he was there, he acquired a giant egg. It was the egg of an extinct bird known as the 'elephant bird' - the largest bird that ever lived. It has been one of his most treasured possessions ever since.

Fifty years older, he now returns to the island to find out more about this amazing creature and to see how the island has changed. Could the elephant bird's fate provide lessons that may help protect Madagascar's remaining wildlife?

Using Zoo Quest archive and specially shot location footage, this film follows David as he revisits scenes from his youth and meets people at the front line of wildlife protection. On his return, scientists at Oxford University are able to reveal for the first time how old David's egg actually is - and what that might tell us about the legendary elephant bird.

Last on

Mon 30 Dec 2013 16:20 BBC Two

  • David Attenborough and his giant egg

    David Attenborough and his giant egg

    At home in London, Sir David shows off his prized possession, the Aepyornis egg.

  • On location in Madagascar

    On location in Madagascar

    David Attenborough films on location in Madagascar, searching for egg shells on the sand dunes in the south of the island.

  • Egg jigsaw

    Egg jigsaw

    Fifty years ago while filming early wildlife series Zoo Quest to Madagascar, local people gathered Aepyornis (elephant bird) shell fragments for David Attenborough.

    Zoo Quest to Madagascar
  • Elephant bird

    Elephant bird

    Madagascar's giant, flightless elephant birds were once a common sight on the island. Find out how scientists have pieced together the elephant birds from their remains.

    Wildlife Finder: elephant bird
  • Madagascar


    Over 80 per cent of Madagascar's animals and plants are found nowhere else on Earth. Discover what made this island so different from the rest of the world, and how evolution ran wild here.

    Madagascar: explore with David Attenborough
  • A view from Madagascar

    Written by Mary Summerill, Series Producer

    Madagascar is vast, a thousand miles long, and with the variations in landscape of a small continent. Everywhere I went I experienced different views and 'moods' of nature, from steamy, noisy rainforests in the east, to bizarre spiny forests in the far south. But as you travel around, you can't help noticing that these wild habitats are vanishing.

    While filming, we came into contact with many people who have become passionate about Madagascar’s wildlife and landscapes. They've seen it change, and they have strong opinions about what its future might be.

    Here are the personal views of some of them.

    Find out about Madagascar politics and daily life
  • Rainer Dolch

    “Almost everything in Madagascar is found nowhere else on Earth.

    Unfortunately, this extraordinary place is severely threatened by the massive destruction of its habitats. Like so many countries that face the loss of their biodiversity, a mixture of indifference, ruthless elites, corruption and poverty contributes to Madagascar's extinction crisis. But because almost all species are endemic, any species that disappears from Madagascar will be lost to the world forever.

    Political instability in the wake of a military-backed coup in 2009 is proving increasingly disastrous for Madagascar's people and environment. Laws are seldom if ever enforced. Organized syndicates are responsible for the massive illegal logging of rosewood within protected areas. Both poaching and collecting animals for the food and pet markets are on a steep rise.

    As the country spirals towards economic decline, people are more than ever forced to make a living on slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal production or logging. In this way, almost 90% of Madagascar's forests have irretrievably gone. But now even the last remaining vestiges are at risk. According to key sources, increased burning alone has lead to a 30% increase in deforestation last year. On top of this, big mining companies have now begun to gain a foothold.

    The work of conservation organizations in Madagascar has not become any easier under current circumstances. Without substantial improvement of government, economic development and education, the future for Madagascar's astonishing wildlife looks bleak.”

    Rainer Dolch has been living and working in Madagascar since 1992. He is co-ordinator of Association Mitsinjo, a conservation organisation which promotes community-based conservation and research in Andasibe, one of the biodiversity hotspots of the eastern Madagascar rainforest corridor.

    Association Mitsinjo
  • Alasdair Harris

    “From deforestation to overfishing, Madagascar’s astonishing natural heritage is under siege. And it’s not just local human impacts that are threatening the island’s remarkable diversity. From the highest montane cloud forests to the remotest oceanic coral reefs, the unrelenting impacts of a changing global climate are challenging more than ever the work of conservationists seeking to stem the loss of Madagascar’s biodiversity.

    Beneath all this lies the fact that Madagascar has one of the world’s poorest and fastest-growing populations. Most of these people depend on exploiting forests, fisheries and other natural resources for survival. Around 85% of them live in poverty, and over half of the country’s children under five suffer stunted growth, a result of chronic malnourishment. With no resolution to the country’s ongoing political crisis in sight, there is little indication of positive change on the horizon.

    Yet one thing is clear: any move towards environmental sustainability must first reconcile the critical needs of the Malagasy people. From family planning to improved education and livelihood diversification, conservation today is every bit as much about poverty alleviation as it is about counting chameleons. Only by working for and alongside local communities can conservation efforts be truly sustainable and replicable.

    For scientists, the time has come to look beyond protecting biodiversity for the intrinsic value of species. We need to focus on conserving healthy ecosystems as the building blocks of a sustainable future for communities that respect and guard their resources. Our challenge is to demonstrate this in real economic terms; showing what undisturbed biodiversity is worth in terms of the untold and boundless services that healthy ecosystems provide. It is down to us to make this case, and we’re working against the clock.”

    Alasdair Harris is Director of Blue Ventures, an award-winning marine conservation organisation, dedicated to working with local communities to conserve threatened marine environments.

    Blue Ventures
  • Alison Jolly

    “In Madagascar, unprecedented profits now seem to be possible from mining and the wholesale grabbing of rosewood trees in the national parks. The country is desperately poor. People cut further and further up the hillsides, eating the forests which hold the jewels of biodiversity of Madagascar. The rich can afford to appreciate long-term gain, the marvels of the great natural reserves, the beauty of their creatures, the forest bulwark against drought and floods, but the rich also force the poor into the destruction of these things.

    What is to be done? First, apply pressure from outside. Responsible mining companies, under international scrutiny, already attempt to improve both the environment and people’s welfare. Less responsible companies should not escape. Also we should apply pressure for the wise oversight of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), carbon credits for saving the forest.

    We all need the forest to counter our own droughts and floods, but there is a danger that the money will go to those who can grab it, not those who deserve it. Nobody anywhere should buy a guitar or a bed made of Madagascar rosewood. It will bleed on you.

    From inside Madagascar, this generation of enthusiastic Malagasy scientists and conservationists have little power in the face of the money-makers. But they know more than anyone else what they stand to lose. It is for them to champion their own biodiversity, and to engage with those who manipulate the levers of power to try to deal fairly with the forest communities.

    Conservation never ends. There will always be people who wish to profit from the wild lands which belong to all. Whatever the challenges of today, the greatest need is to plan for the future. Every child who watches a nature programme, opens a picture-book of a lemur or laughs with delight when a lemur’s wide eyes look back at them, stores up hope for a future when they may do better than we did.”

    Alison Jolly has studied ringtailed lemurs since 1963. She has written books, about the adventures of young lemurs, for Malagasy schools since 2006, with colleague Hanta Rasamimanana and artist Deborah Ross.

    Lemur Conservation Foundation
  • Erik Patel

    “It’s shocking to consider that around 90% of Madagascar's original primary vegetation has been lost since human colonization only 2,300 years ago. Only 10% of the remaining forest cover lies within protected areas, some of which are ‘protected’ in name only. For example, ongoing illegal rosewood logging (for export to China) remains a serious problem within Masoala National Park (an important area of rainforest). If current deforestation rates are not slowed and forest monitoring is not improved, several entire ecosystems are predicted to be lost within a few decades.

    Most forest disturbance is driven by the daily living needs of one of the world's most impoverished and fastest growing populations. Average annual income is estimated at just $300usd per person. Since the political crisis and coup d'etat in 2009, children have suffered greatly as severe budget cuts have forced some schools to close. Food shortages and nutritional deficiency also have become more widespread. UNICEF recently reported that 300,000 children under five were at high risk of severe malnutrition and 90% of all Malagasy children did not have clean drinking water at home.

    Madagascar needs tourism and long-term research projects now more than ever. The money that local residents living near protected areas earn from such projects is powerful incentive to conserve those forests.

    One researcher recently described a neat idea called ‘working tourism’ in which tourists apply their professional expertise (i.e. business, communication, medicine) to assist current projects in Madagascar.”

    Erik Patel is a primatologist studying the critically endangered silky sifaka. In 2010, he founded SIMPONA, engaging local communities to protect and study this lemur and its remaining habitat. He is also the Madagascar field representative for the international environmental organization Seacology (

  • Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana

    “In Madagascar, species may disappear even before they are discovered. Although the rate of forest loss has been reduced by half over the last 20 years, natural habitats are under continuous and increasing demands from a fast growing population which predominantly relies on natural resources for their livelihoods.

    On the one hand, most people living in high biodiversity areas are poor subsistence farmers: they merely survive, and often have no choice but to clear forests to farm, hunt lemurs for meat, and so on - little support is available to help them. On the other hand, forests are a free raw material for many charcoal producers, and rare species feed national and international markets, most of the time illegally, as the rule of law is barely applied. This is even worse in this time of political instability; species such as rosewood and ebony and the ploughshare tortoise are under unprecedented threat. Conservation gains of the past 20 years could be lost if the crisis continues.

    To succeed, biodiversity conservation needs genuine political will from the government to make it a development priority and the will to apply the rule of law. Local people need support in developing livelihood strategies that promote the value of natural resources and ecosystem services. Some projects already strive to do this – however, they need scaling up to really make a difference.”

    Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana is Conservation Director for WWF Madagascar and the Western Indian Ocean Islands Programme Office.

    World Wildlife Fund Madagascar


David Attenborough
Sally Thomson
Sally Thomson
Executive Producer
Michael Gunton


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