Five things I learnt from watching David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet

As soon as I discovered that David Attenborough’s new film ‘A Life on our Planet’ would have a limited cinema release, I booked myself a ticket. The world premiere event was scheduled to take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 16th April 2020 and would broadcast LIVE to cinemas across the UK and Europe. David Attenborough was then set to be joined live on stage by some special guests for a discussion on some of the most prevalent issues raised in the film.

This, of course, didn’t happen. Like many things, the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, five months later, the movie aired for one-night-only in cinemas across the UK.

The film tells the story of life on our planet by the man who has seen more of the natural world than any other. David Attenborough uses his lifetime to show us just how different the world is now from when he was born in 1926, and he is visibly saddened by his own vision for the future of our planet. However, he does offer hope for future generations.

So, what did I learn from watching this honest and revealing documentary, which serves as David Attenborough’s witness statement for the natural world? The familiar, soothing voice of a man that we all admire taught me:

  1. The world is not as wild as it once was. Since the 1950s, wild animal populations have more than halved. Humans have destroyed the non-human world.
  2. We’re replacing the wild with the tame. Half of the fertile land on earth is now farmland. 70% of the mass of birds are domestic birds, the vast majority of which are chickens. We, as humans, account for over 1/3 of the weight of mammals on earth. A further 60% are the animals that we raise to eat. The rest, from mice to whales, make up just 4%. This planet is now run by humankind – for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.
  3. A sixth mass extinction event is well underway. Scientists predict that if nothing changes, we face a series of one-way doors, bringing irreversible change. Within the span of the next lifetime, the stability and security of the four seasons will be lost.
  4. Don’t waste anything, don’t waste electricity, don’t waste food, don’t waste power. Treat the natural world as though it’s precious, which it is, and don’t squander the bits that each of us have control of.
  5. We must re-wild the world. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we as humans have removed.

David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet is available on Netflix from 4th October 2020.

The lone bull

The mokoro glides through the shallow, murky waters of the delta and onto land. I climb out, firmly gripping my camera; not ready to let go of what I have just captured. As the rest of my group head back to camp to tell those that stayed behind what we encountered, I linger by the shore. I close my eyes, in an attempt to relive my encounter when I’m disturbed by a partition in the tall, unkempt grass across the bank.

As we trundle down the dirt road out of the campsite, the truck sends a vortex of dust into the previously stagnant air. We pass by huts crouched in the shadows, encompassed by grazing cattle and the bright faces of locals, before arriving at the entryway to the Okavango Delta, Africa’s biggest oasis.

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Okavango Delta Drop Off

After some lawless commotion, we’re assigned a poler and a mokoro; a traditional canoe. I clamber inside and before I lose my balance, I sit back. We push off and I find myself listening intently to the sound of the mokoro passing through reed beds and water lilies, somewhere between a swish and wizz. I discuss life on the delta with my poler, a local guy named Shoes. He tells us stories of his childhood, of the delta itself and how he came to earn the name Shoes. I’m hanging on his every word but we’ve reached our campsite. 

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Okavango Delta

Once tents are erected, firewood collected and the toilet dug (there are no luxuries in the middle of Africa); Shoes offers to guide me deeper into the delta. I hurriedly locate my camera and follow Shoes down to the mokoro. Others in the group have caught wind of my proposal and follow suit. After only a short time on the water, Shoes’ hand shoots into the air, silencing the group. He’s spotted something. I crane my neck, trying to catch a glimpse of what it is that he can see. 

Out of the tree line lumbers a lone elephant, a bull. Paying us no attention, he continues his quest for food, stretching his weathered trunk to reach the higher branches of a fragrant marula tree; completely oblivious to the impact his presence has on the group. I feel an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. We linger, in a trance-like state, until the elephant has taken what he can from the tree and wanders back into the bush and out of sight. 

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Male elephant attempting to reach a marula tree.

Shoes gets us safely back to camp and while the rest of the group wander in purposefully, armed with stories of our encounter, I’m just not ready to share mine so I stay close to the water’s edge. I gaze out into the delta, thinking of my late grandmother and how she would have cherished my recollection of this moment.

Abruptly, I’m brought back to the present by movement from across the bank. I study the long grass, waiting on tenterhooks – after all, I am in Africa. Suddenly, yet at the same time in slow motion, the grass parts and there he is. The lone bull. 

At an almost sloth-like pace, I bring my camera towards my eye, attempting to capture everything that this moment is. Only then, as tears are falling, do I realise that happiness is pouring out of me like sunshine through fine white linen, pure and light. 

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The Lone Bull
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Myself and the amazing Shoes