A strange week

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Mark Carwardine Mark Carwardine | 11:16 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

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It's been a strange week, to say the least.

Sirocco, the kakapo, has been taking the world by storm and made this endangered flightless parrot from New Zealand a household name. In case you missed the fifth programme, we had what can only be described as an intimate encounter (Sirocco tried to mate with my head) and the resulting two-minute clip somehow appeared on news programmes from America to Australia. Now, it has become an internet sensation - apparently, it is the most-viewed video on the BBC website and, at the last count, has been seen by more than a million people on YouTube.

We knew at the time that Sirocco's little outburst would make good television, but had absolutely no idea that it would attract quite so much attention. Meanwhile, Stephen has taken to calling me the Kakapo Porn King and I am slowly getting used to people coming up to me in the street and asking if the scars have healed.

The good news is that, as a result, the kakapo project in New Zealand has been swamped with donations and offers of help. That makes it all worthwhile.

This week also marks the end of the series - with our search for the blue whale in Baja California, Mexico. I'd been looking forward to introducing Stephen to the largest animal on the planet and it more than lived up to expectations. Stephen was so taken by the experience that he said it was one of the best days of his life. It's hard to describe what it's like being next to an animal almost as long as a Boeing 737, but suffice to say it is one of the greatest wildlife experiences anyone could ever hope to have.

The whole point of the series, of course, was to retrace the steps I'd taken with Douglas Adams twenty years earlier - and the final programme was the only time we didn't actually do that. We should have gone to China to look for the Yangtze river dolphin, but we had to cancel our plans when this troubled freshwater dolphin was officially declared extinct before we could get there. It was this, more than anything else, that brought home to me what had been happening in the twenty-year gap.

Last Chance to See was a series about endangered species and conservation, of course, but six hours of doom and gloom television ranting about all the terrible things we are doing to the planet, just wouldn't have worked. Few people would have watched and many of those would have switched off halfway through. But our hope was that, by mixing extremes such as these - the silliness of Sirocco mating with my head, the sheer joy of encountering a blue whale and the shock and sadness of the Yangtze river dolphin disappearing before our very eyes - we could make a series about conservation without anyone really noticing that it was a series about conservation. 

It's not all bad...

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Mark Carwardine Mark Carwardine | 11:46 UK time, Monday, 5 October 2009

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I hope I haven't been sounding too negative in these blogs, because it's certainly not all bad news in the world of conservation. And thank goodness - we need success stories, proving that we really can make a difference, to keep us all going.

Here in Britain, one high profile conservation achievement is the return of the beautiful red kite. Almost wiped out by widespread killing in Victorian times, its population had plummeted to just ten pairs by the beginning of the Second World War. Hiding in a remote corner of Wales, they survived against all the odds - with a little help from their human friends. Thanks to ongoing reintroductions, and the dedication of so many conservationists, farmers, landowners and committed individuals, now there are more than 1,200 pairs right across Britain. 

It just shows that a species on the brink can recover. 

One of the biggest success stories from Last Chance to See is the kakapo, the subject of the latest programme. This wonderful parrot with a song like a Pink Floyd studio outtake was once counted in millions. People used to claim you could shake a tree and three or four of them would fall out. But when Douglas and I went to look for this charismatic creature in 1989, the population had reached an all-time low of just forty birds. Many people had pretty much given up hope. 

Now the kakapo population stands at 124. It's still teetering on the brink but, thanks to New Zealand's Department of Conservation and literally hundreds of volunteers, it has more than trebled in 20 years.

Do you notice the common factor? Dedicated people. One thing that struck me more than anything else while filming Last Chance to See was that Stephen and I were able to meet up with the very same people Douglas Adams and I had met 20 years earlier. They are still out there in the field devoting their lives (and, in many cases, risking their lives) in their sheer and utter determination to protect the animals they care about so much. They are the ones who are standing between endangered species and extinction.
When the going gets tough, it's these people, who have dedicated their lives - to the red kite, the kakapo and the likes of gorillas, robins, rhinos, turtles and lemurs - that give me so much cause for optimism. 

The future of Borneo is bleak - I've read its palms

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Mark Carwardine Mark Carwardine | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 23 September 2009

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This week's programme is ostensibly about Komodo dragons, but Stephen and I started our travels in Malaysian Borneo - and that's where we experienced our personal highs and lows of the trip. 

We had an amazing few days filming at a blissful tropical island called Sipadan, which is one of the best dive sites in the world. As Stephen put it at the time: "You know the saying, 'The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?'. Well, this is the other side of the fence."

But there is one sight in Borneo that neither of us can get out of our minds: the palm trees. Vast swathes of what was once tropical rainforest have been cleared to make way for row upon row, mile upon mile of identical palms. 

It is such a huge problem that the rapid expanse of palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia could be the single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species on the planet. When the forest goes, so does most of the wildlife - indeed, palm oil is now considered the biggest threat to orangutans.

Palm oil is a key ingredient of many processed foods (though it's usually listed simply as 'vegetable oil') and is in huge demand as a source of non-hydrogenated fats. It is also used to produce biofuel, even though clearing the forests releases so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the damage caused outweighs the benefits of switching to a so-called environmentally-friendly fuel.

Malaysia and Indonesia are by far the largest exporters of palm oil. Their economies rely on it - and so do the livelihoods of millions of people. In fact, the incentives to produce palm oil are so great that national park and reserve boundaries are often changed to make way for new plantations.

There are solutions. For a start, there is plenty of non-forested land that would be perfectly good enough to meet the growing demand for palm oil plantations. But even so, the greedy corporations prefer to bulldoze the rainforests to make extra money out of their valuable timber. 

If you'd like to find out more about palm oil and what's being done to tackle the problem have a look at the following websites;

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