Archives for September 2009
Someone asked me a difficult question the other day: if I were an endangered animal, where in the world would I choose to live? In other words, where is safe? I know where isn't safe, which I suppose is a reasonable start.
The Yangtze river basin, for example is home to an astonishing 10 per cent of the entire human population and its increasingly endangered wildlife has been fighting a battle against the odds for years.
Garamba National Park - home of the northern white rhino, which featured in last week's programme - isn't much better, slap-bang in the middle of a war zone.
I don't think I'd choose Madagascar, either: this week's endangered species, the aye-aye, faces an inordinate number of threats from habitat destruction and civil unrest to an unrequited prejudice against anything that looks like an alien. I was really shocked by the damage to the rainforest there over the past 20 years.
I suppose the safest place in the world depends on what sort of endangered animal you happen to be. If you're a kakapo, one of those trusting parrots we meet in the fifth programme, then Codfish Island off the southern tip of New Zealand is a fairly safe bet. Every single bird is cared for 24/7 by a veritable army of volunteers.
If you happen to be an otter, on the other hand, the UK would be better: decades of intensive conservation work here have enabled otters to make a dramatic comeback.
There are official ways of measuring these things. The Environmental Performance Index, for example, quantifies the environmental performance of every country's policies. Switzerland is currently top of the list, but I lived just outside Geneva in the 1980s and, to be blunt, wouldn't necessarily choose to do so again.
So if I had to pick just one country that really, truly, honestly cares about conservation, I think I'd go for Costa Rica. This tiny nation is fifth on the Environmental Performance Index but is home to roughly five per cent of the world's biodiversity. It's by no means perfect, of course, but it does have one of the best conservation records in the world: more than a quarter of the country is under some form of official protection and sustainable development is actually being incorporated into national policy.
As a bonus, Costa Rica has just been rated number one in the 2009 Happy Planet Index (the UK came 74th and the States 114th). Whoever said that conservation is not in tune with our own survival?
Twenty years ago, Douglas Adams and I visited Garamba National Park, in the north-eastern corner of Zaire, to search for the rarest rhino in the world. I say 'Zaire' because that's what the country was called while we were there, but it changes its name more often than The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
It was originally called Congo Free State, then Belgian Congo, then Congo-Léopoldville, and then Zaire. Now it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo, or just the DRC for short.
Expatriates living in this humanitarian disaster zone say the acronym stands for 'Danger: Rebels Coming'. It's scarily apt, under the circumstances. The Country Formerly Known as Zaire lies in the heart of war-torn Africa. It has been fighting a series of complex, many-sided wars for umpteen years. Millions of people have died and many more have been displaced from their homes.
Garamba itself - where Douglas and I saw no fewer than eight of the 22 northern white rhinos that survived at the time - is now surrounded by armed refugees, guerrillas, rebels, Congolese army troops and horse-riding poachers. Stephen and I responded to a question about Zaire that was sent into the website.
The poor rhinos couldn't have picked a worse place to live, and I suppose the result was inevitable. So, unfortunately, Stephen and I were too late to see them - they are now believed to be extinct in the wild. Read more about the Northern White Rhino in the animals section.
Conservation is challenging at the best of times, but protecting wildlife in a war zone is another matter altogether. However, it's not impossible, as we discovered when we went to see mountain gorillas on the same shoot. They live in the border zone between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC and, like the rhinos, have been caught up in a vortex of human conflict and misery on and off for years. Yet, despite some serious setbacks, the remnant population of about 700-750 clings on for dear life - and may even be increasing. The reason is simple: tourism.
Now, I realise that the business of gorilla tourism is a vexed one (some people worry that it might cause disturbance or expose the animals to deadly human diseases) but there's no denying that it makes gorillas worth a lot more alive than dead. By generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year, even in times of trouble, it's the one thing that has so far guaranteed their survival.
One species disappears, another hangs on for dear life - it's rather typical of the mixed bag of good and bad news we encountered during our five months of filming.
Last Chance to See hits our screens this week starting in the Amazon. I was a little apprehensive about this first shoot to be honest. Travelling with Stephen was going to be like travelling with Wikipedia. I remember sending a video blog about this at the time. He's far too unassuming and generous to make anyone feel in any way deficient on purpose, but there's no escaping the fact that he's the kind of person who makes you continually question your own intellect.
It didn't even cross my mind at the time, but he was a little apprehensive too. We did have at least one thing in common. Our Amazon adventure had been occupying our thoughts a great deal over the previous year or so, and we were both thrilled and eager to get started.
We went to the Amazon to look for the Amazonian manatee.
Despite weeks of trying, Douglas and I had failed to see one on our original expedition twenty years ago. Actually, that's not strictly true. Our jungle guide saw a manatee disappear beneath the surface of a remote tributary of the Rio Negro. I saw the ripples after it had disappeared and Douglas nearly saw the ripples. (You can listen to the 1989 radio programme for more on this!) Stephen and I were determined to do better. But we failed too. We were all outfoxed by one of the slowest creatures on Earth.
Perhaps it wasn't surprising. No one knows how many Amazonian manatees are left, but here's a hint at their current status: in the 1980s, there were reports of as many as 1,000 manatees huddled together in a single river or lake; nowadays, a gathering of half a dozen is considered a lot.
But we did see a lot of other wildlife along the way, of course, and one of the highlights for me was a day we spent swimming with pink river dolphins. These are the kind of animals young children paint at school. A particularly naïve teacher might relegate the exuberant splashes of dazzling pink, the chubby cheeks, the long beak crammed with crushing teeth and the gargantuan designer flippers to a wild and fertile young imagination. But pink river dolphins are real - and they really are as pink as an embarrassed teenager's blush.
I also discovered the science of dendronautics - the navigation and study of the jungle canopy. If you fancy a career change, with more day-to-day risks than coal mining, deep-sea diving or flying with the Red Arrows, this is the job for you. And it's perfect for dinner party conversation because, joy of joys, you would be allowed to call yourself a dendronaut!
But I think what stands out most in my mind from this trip is the Amazon rainforest itself. It's hard to grasp the sheer scale and splendour of the largest non-stop expanse of pure, unremitting nature on earth. Larger than the whole of western Europe and heaving with wildlife, it is utterly mind-boggling.
It's also disappearing fast. You couldn't dream up a bigger list of more damaging activities if you tried: cattle ranching, land clearance for soya-bean plantations, small-scale subsistence agriculture, logging, and a mixed bag of commercial agriculture, mining, urbanisation and dam construction... just for starters.
What's really frightening is that nothing much seems to have changed since deforestation first hit the headlines several decades ago. Have all those years of campaigning, fund-raising, pleading, cajoling and cautioning by so many individuals and conservation groups made the slightest difference? I suppose the positive response would be to say that it must, surely, have slowed things down. But clearly it hasn't slowed things down anywhere near enough.
I hope you enjoy the first programme in the series. It starts on Sunday 6 September, 8pm on BBC Two.