David Attenborough on the animal that evaded him for sixty years
A natural history broadcaster for more than 60 years and one of the world’s most travelled men, there can’t be much Sir David Attenborough hasn’t seen.
But one animal has eluded the venerated naturalist throughout his entire career – until now.
“The snow leopard,” says Attenborough, slowly drawing out each syllable as if to lavish the rare and regal mountain cat with plaudits.
“Three times I wrote it into scripts, and three times I failed,” he adds.
But while filming new wildlife juggernaut Planet Earth II, the highly anticipated follow-up to the 2006 series, the BBC struck gold.
“They put 20 or 30 camera traps around the Himalayan mountains,” he explains, describing the mammoth 34-week shoot, spanning three years, in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park.
“Suddenly, we’d captured a sequence of this most beautiful of animals, who roams an area of one every 100 square miles – that’s all.”
The resulting footage, which features the typically solitary cats having a bloody altercation (about sex, of course), portrays remarkable species behaviour never seen before by TV audiences.
“If somebody else had done the commentary, I would have been livid!” Attenborough exclaims. “I’ve been trying to do this for 60 years.”
The new six-part series focuses on a different eco-system each episode (Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts, Grasslands and Cities), and was filmed across an ambitious 117 locations and 40 countries.
It’s 10 years since the original Planet Earth series was made and technology has advanced enormously. Attenborough admits many of the new sequences filmed simply wouldn’t have been possible in the past.
“When I started in 1954, the limitations were huge,” says the man whose excitement and sprightly enthusiasm easily belie his astounding 90 years.
“Now you can film in the dark, at the bottom of the sea, in the air; you can speed things up and slow things down.
“My imagination is limited but I can’t think of anything I’d wish to be able to do which I can’t do now.”
Impressive scenes in the new series include a roller coaster ride through a Madagascan forest canopy, cameras swinging in tandem with agile Indri lemurs, and a bird’s eye view of a golden eagle stooping between Europe’s jagged Alpine peaks, filmed by a paraglider.
“Drones also opened lots of windows on this series,” says executive producer Mike Gunton, referring to scenes shot in the narrow slot canyons of Arizona.
“It’s often very difficult to get a person in them, but we flew a drone down one to get the perspective of water running through. It’s a wonderful shot, a piece of art.”
Far greater challenges faced the team on the remarkable Zavodovski Island, a remote, uninhabited volcanic land mass in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
It took producer Elizabeth White a year to secure permission to visit the world’s largest penguin colony of more than 1.5 million chinstraps.
Very few people have ever set foot on the inhospitable terrain – although Attenborough can comfortably count himself among them. He arrived by helicopter from an icebreaker ship back in 1980.
“What you’ve got to realise is, whenever you say, ‘Nobody’s ever done this’, he’ll say, ‘I’ve done it’,” says Gunton, laughing.
A lot has happened in the last decade, but as Attenborough is well aware, not all changes have been positive.
Continuing a theme running through his recent productions, conservation issues underpin much of Planet Earth II.
“We’re poisoning the planet,” Attenborough says, with an unequivocal solemnity that clearly weighs heavily on his shoulders. “Climate change deniers are living in a false world.”
Our voracious appetite for fossil fuels, industry and – above all – space are the root of the problem.
“Since I started making natural history programmes, the human population has tripled. They all want places to live, schools for their kids, roads. And who’s to say no? There’s less and less space for the wild creatures.”
But is there a chance some sort of equilibrium might be reached?
Attenborough ruffles his brow in thought.
“Eventually, young people will quite rightly say, ‘Why have we got to keep these bloody 90-year-olds going and support them?’ It’s good reason to go on working until you’re 90,” he adds with a grin.
The potential for human and wildlife conflict is addressed in the series’ final episode, Cities. Surprisingly, many animals appear to do well in concrete jungles – and some even thrive.
“The densest population of peregrine falcons can be found in New York,” reveals Attenborough, who narrates scenes featuring the world’s fastest animal soaring past Manhattan’s iconic Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
“The skyscrapers have become their cliffs, and they’ve got plenty of pigeons to feed on.”
Episode producer Fredi Devas also refers to footage of langur monkeys living harmoniously alongside communities in Jodhpur as evidence we can all get along.
Attenborough shares this optimistic outlook.
“You don’t want the whole of creation coming into a city, but there are certain things you can welcome, which is a joy for them and for you.
“There are leopards in Mumbai hunting amidst a very dense [human] population.”
Success stories are also unfurling closer to home.
“Bitterns were one of the rarest birds when I was a boy,” reminisces the London-born presenter. “They made this wonderful booming call. Now they’re booming away in Barnes at the London Wetlands Centre. That’s fantastic.”
Fittingly, Attenborough closes Planet Earth II with a scene shot on the very top of the Shard; yet again, he’s one of only a few people (less than 100) who’ve been granted privileged access. On this occasion, though, it was an experience he could have easily passed up.
“It was windy, smelly and not all that nice,” he confesses. “There was a lot of naked metal around.”
An enduring professional, he filmed the scenes, which were shot form a helicopter circling 50ft away.
So is there anything he wouldn’t do in the name of a nature documentary?
“Anything’s possible with an experienced crew,” he affirms, pausing before adding with a mischievous smile; “they say you just have to run faster than the polar bear. But you don’t. You have to run faster than the camera man.”
Planet Earth II begins on BBC One on Sunday, November 6.