By Lucas A. Ruzo (6min read)

David Attenborough

Last week during one of my days spent volunteering in the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge, I came across the man himself dangling off a 50 foot green wall promoting the work of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Yesterday, that stunt was shared with a room of hundreds of esteemed conservation practitioners and scientists from around the world, who had gathered in Cambridge to celebrate the official opening ceremony of the new David Attenborough Building.

The proceedings kicked off with an intimate conversation between Sir David and Dame Alison Richard, who both took turns to talk about each other’s life works. Here are some of the most interesting extracts from that conversation with Sir David.

David could you tell us a little bit about your world as a young man and the concepts of conservation at the time?

Well at the time, when I was a young undergraduate back in 1945 no one could have dreamed that man could destroy anything in the natural world to the degree we have now. You see we didn’t even know about continental drift – I remember having a conversation with my geology professor at the time who said  “My dear boy, if you can explain to me a force that can be responsible for moving continents apart by even a millimetre, then I may accept it but until then that idea is sheer moonshine”. So you see we’ve come a long way since 1945 and the notion that humans could exterminate life to such a degree wasn’t even conceivable.

What about your journey after that, how did you first get into working with the natural world?

Well at the time the measure of success for zoos was based on the number of species they could collect, so when I finished my undergraduate studies, I saw a job advertised with the Zoological Society of London to go out and collect specimens. And at the time very little was known in fact about the natural world and how to document it.

And what of your work with natural history film making, I know your first documentary involved a trip to Madagascar to film Zoo Quest, could you tell us about that?

Yes it was, and of course back then you could get away with filming anything because so little was known and the general public knew so little. You could get away with the most appalling attempts of film making, you know, cameras out of focus and that, which you could never do now. So my job back then was somewhat easier because anything you filmed was new and exciting and the public would always say… wow my gosh, will you look at that… – I think you have to present a much more rounded story today.

As you well know, there are many young conservationists here today hoping to make a difference, I was wondering if you could tell us who inspired you back when you first got involved with conservation?

Well I have to mention Sir Peter Scott, he spent his life dedicated to saving endangered species and he was well ahead of his time you know. Back in the 1940s, he was a sort of prophet to me, a very inspirational man and one who made an enormous contribution to conservation at the time.

And tell us Sir David, given everything that you’ve seen in the world, all the change and loss, do you still feel optimistic about the future or are you filled with a sense of despair?

Well, I think I need to mention Sir Peter Scott again, who told me, and I shall never forget, he said…”It matters not if I am optimistic or if I am not optimistic, I see what I do, what is happening, so I must act”.

Could you tell us, in all your experiences around the world, have you ever been scared?

Well there have been numerous occasions. I remember one time we were filming in Africa and the director, Ian Douglas-Hamilton, wanted me to stand and walk in front of the camera as a large herd of elephants were gathered not far behind me. And I said to him… but you do know that elephants stampede and his response was… yes, yes but don’t worry they pose no threat to us now…. So in the face of his expertise, I of course did as was asked of me, and lo and behold, all of a sudden I see Ian gesturing in panic before he started running towards the jeep as the enormous herd start running toward us, at which point I of course do the same. I can tell you I ran fast then, and I think it’s safe to say I was very scared [everyone laughs].

What about your time with gorillas, I remember once seeing you in a film, where a large gorilla grabbed your head and moved you around a little and you whispering at the camera, I have always wanted the opportunity to ask you if you were scared then?

Well you know, I think we all know that when we work with [primates], or work with large mammals, we know when the animals want us to be there or not, and this, what she did that female, was just gently hold my head as her two children were playing by my feet and tilt it back and forth whilst looking me in the eyes. In those situations you behave actually very much human. When you’re in the company of a powerful human you don’t act aggressively or talk loudly or obnoxiously, so I think whispering was the first thing that came to mind instinctively but I never felt sacred.

A night to remember

After this intimate conversation with Sir David, the evening’s processions continued with speeches and words of encouragement from keynote speakers. Amongst them was ICCS’ E.J. Milner-Gulland, who joined us via video blog to talk about her support for the initiative, her work in championing wide interdisciplinary research for conservation, and ending with a message about how important it is to include conservation practitioners from the very start in any research endeavour, so that the right questions are asked from the beginning, and so that research can be applied after.

Finally Sir David left us all with one final message before the two hour ceremony ended –

I hope that your lines of communication embrace the world, and that they go out and inspire all people and nations of the world, because we are all in this together” – Sir David Attenborough.

If those aren’t powerful words of encouragement then I don’t know what are, so let’s continue all the great work we are doing, and get to it!

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