What David Attenborough Taught Me About Hope

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Sir David Attenborough | Credit: Eamonn McCabe

Deep among forest-clad slopes of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, a young David Attenborough was creating one of the most iconic moments in wildlife history. He was meeting a family of endangered mountain gorillas. Looking a tad overdressed, he lay among several powerful apes, his sense of joy was palpable. Despite being the consummate professional, his composure melted away as Poppy, a mischievous young gorilla started removing his shoes. 

“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know,” Attenborough said quietly to the camera. 

It was a bitter-sweet moment: as the two fellow creatures – man and gorilla – made a playful connection, Attenborough recognised that he might be seeing some of the last of their kind. 

Like so many of us, Attenborough’s adventures have affected me deeply since I was a boy. Perhaps the world’s most celebrated naturalist, he’s been a constant source of inspiration ever since. 

Early March is marked by World Wildlife Day, an opportunity to celebrate the many beautiful and varied forms of wild fauna and flora and the benefits that their conservation provides to people.

Because the bottom line is that we’re all in this together; people and nature, we’re part of the same rich ecosystem that provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. How many times have I seen a picture of those master pollinators, the bees, alongside the phrase, When we go, we’re taking you all with us!’ Well, the same could be said for so many species. 

In my lifetime, much of what was once wild has become domestic. Half the fertile land on the planet is now farmed, with humans and the animals we rear for food accounting by mass for 96 per cent of all mammals on Earth. Everything else, from elephants and wild bison to badgers and mice make up just 4 per cent. In the avian world, domestic poultry account for 70 per cent of birds by mass.

As David Attenborough writes in A Life on Our Planet, ‘This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.’

Things are now out of balance, and something needs to be done about it. 

Which is why I celebrate everyday those pioneers bringing back the wild and the wonderful. Those restoring once-extinct species like beavers. Rewilding magnificent areas like the Carpathian Mountains in Romania,Patagonia National Park in Chile, or Scotland’s Caledonian Forest. And renaturing our farmlands through the re-establishment of regenerative farming practices.   

In this way, we can bring back nature, creating a sustainable future. 

Way back on that Rwandan hillside, Poppy and her fellow gorillas faced a bleak future. When Attenborough arrived, they were on the brink of extinction. Their forest home was being rapidly converted for agriculture. Yet things ended well. The Rwandan government, conservationists and local communities worked together to preserve the gorillas’ habitat and Poppy grew up to have many offspring. 

“It just shows what we can achieve when we put our minds to it,” Attenborough has said. I couldn’t agree more. 

Note: A version of this article first appeared in The Scotsman on Friday 8th March, 2024

MAIN IMAGE: A baby gorilla inside the Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa. DRC, Central Africa. | Credit: Jurgens Potgieter

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