Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Out of office! Tracking & filming canadian lynx in the northern woods of Maine

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I'm off to the snow-laden woods of northern Maine tomorrow for a few weeks filming Lynx, Cayote, Moose and Deer. I'm usually allergic to cats so hopefully I don't start sneezing when we get close and scare them away!

This is the first shoot for my new series 'How Life Works', an exploration of the complex and sometimes bizarre interconnections that exist between animals.

The chances are that I wont be able to post while I am away but rest assured that I'll find a way to twitter as I go. Follow me at @iron_ammonite

Best wishes, I look forward to hearing from you.

- Paul
Now where did I put that box of Clarityn... 

(Photo: Source)

King Cobras of Agumbe - One Million Snake Bites

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WATCH: Natural World: One Million Snakebites, BBC2 9pm, Tues 22nd February 2011

A Spot of Snake Tracking

In 2008 I visited herpetologist Gowri Shankir at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in South West India. Several months earlier he had inserted radio-chips inside two adult King Cobras before returning them back to the forest. Now we were heading into the forest as part of a unique telemetry study to map the movement and range of these adults. It's hoped that the findings will shed new light onto their behaviour, which will help protect them in the future. 

Nervously I followed, as Gowri tracked the regal pair through the thick, wet forest, until eventually we stumbled across... a large pile of leaves! To the uninitiated it might look like a scrappy compost heap - but this was a royal residence. The nest of the worlds deadliest and most feared snake, and it could contain up to 40 eggs. The King Cobra is the only snake in the world that builds a nest - but sadly this is also one of the reasons why are threatened in the wild. These piles of leaves act like warning beacons, and once local people have found them it usually results in the eggs being destroyed. Numerous regional and local authorities claim that this is a legitimate precaution, and some even encourage bounties to be paid for cobra heads.  

It's easy to understand why such actions are taken - not only do King Cobras have a reputation for being aggressive, but one dose of their venom is enough to kill an elephant. Imagine if this nest was in your backyard, where your children played. 

The reality of course is that unless they feel threatened King Cobras are more likely to slither into the undergrowth than attack.  So what can be done to protect them?

Tracking King Cobras with Gowri Shankir at Agumbe

A King Cobra nest protected by a fence to prevent unassuming local people from stumbling across it

 Sign indicating that this is a King Cobra nest being studied by Agumbe Rainforest Research Station

From Monster to Marvel

The Agumbe research station was founded by world famous snake expert Romulus Whittaker. You may remember him from an episode of the Natural World 'The King and I' broadcast in 2005. He had just created the research station and this film followed him as he turned the surrounding forest into the worlds first King Cobra sanctuary. Though allergic to antivenom, he calmly rescued a large female from a home in an Indian village before introducing her to a male called Elvis. Eventually, these snakes bred and Romulus released their offspring into the jungle around Agumbe - the first of a new generation of Kings.

'One of the most decisive moments in my life was finding my first king cobra at Agumbe. I’ll never forget the feeling of facing that magnificent 12-foot-long snake all by my lonesome and the somewhat crazy maneuvers that it took to get it into a bag.'
- Romulus Whittaker (Photo: PBS)

Through their work educating local people Romulus and Gowri are now helping this new generation. They believe that a greater understanding of the Kings behavior will help to dispel fear amongst people who share this part of India with them, allowing both human and snake to live and let live.

Gowri told me that '30 years ago, if a King Cobra was sighted anywhere near a village it would have been hunted and killed, now its more likely to be given space to make its own way back to the forest.' 

'It's all about space and understanding, a Cobra has no intention of attacking a human - we're too big for it consider us as prey, but if we threaten it or invade its space it might strike in self defence.' 

If a cobra does decide to hang around a bit too long, Romulus and Gowri will likely be called in to encourage it to move... or more precisely to bag it and release it somewhere safe.

As for the nest that we had found, I helped Gowri put up a protective 'fence'. This was to keep the snakes inside rather than to keep people out. He's confident that it will remain untouched 'People know about the project and support us' he said 'and once the eggs have hatched, I'll be able to weigh the young and safely release them into the forest.'

One Million Snakebites

Now, Rom and Gowri's work is more important than ever. A new report has revealed that India is in the middle of a snakebite epidemic, with a loss of human life far in excess of any official figures. 'One Million Snakebites' follows Romulus and his team as they travel around India to investigate the natural history behind these chilling new statistics, and to see what can be done to help India's people, and ultimately, its snakes.

Watch this episode of the Natural World, Tuesday 22nd February 2011, 9pm BBC2

Romulus Whitaker gets up close to a King Cobra in India

Viper Strike in Slow Motion

Friday, 18 February 2011

Zoo Quest - Madagascar - eerie indris & world's smallest chameleon

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Don't miss the third episode of Madagascar, BBC2 8pm, Weds 23rd February 2011.

If you've been watching the spectacular Madagascar series then, like me, you may be itching to find out more about this tantalisingly curious island of the east coast of Africa. Where better to start then with Sir David Attenboroughs first memories of the island.

I was fortunate to work with David Attenborough on 'Life in Cold Blood', and even more so to hear first hand of some of his adventures. None was more full of vigour and excitement than his tales of filming in Madagascar 50 years earlier. He had travelled there with staff from London Zoo to film Zoo Quest, a series which had already seen him trek through the thick forests of Guiana to capture a three-toed sloth for the zoos collections (accepted practice at the time). Now he was on the search for an Indri - a lemur which displays striking similarities to Marco Polo's long fabled 'dog headed man'. Little was known of them before the expedition, but David Attenborough and his team were able to attract a family of them using recordings of their 'spine-chilling unearthly howls'. They filmed them as they issued alarm calls and comforted each other in the treetops. As well as the subject of their quest, the films also featured other wildlife that the team had come across - most notably chameleons - a vast array of shapes and sizes - many of which had never been seen by the British audience before. It was gripping television.

The Eerie Indri 

It seemed such a shame that these classic, and pioneering films were hidden away deep in the BBC archives and had not been seen for decades. So whilst producing 'Life in Cold Blood' we searched the Gormenghast of the BBC vaults and located as much of this material as possible. We were able to use some of it in our 'making-ofs' that follow each episode of the series, and we gave DVDs to a very grateful Sir David. He also hadn't seen anything of Zoo Quest since they were broadcast in the 50s and 60's. I spent many a night absorbed by these incredible adventures, from a world that seems so long ago.

Fortunately we now have the BBC Wildlife Finder and the folks there have been locating and digging through this dusty archive to thrust some of these moments back into the loving arms of the British audience.
Watch more classic moments on the BBC Wildlife Finder
Watch an interview with David Attenborough about Zoo Quest on the WildFilmHistory website

David Attenborough introduces us to a mysterious island  

Attenborough Returns to Madagascar

David Attenborough had not been back to Madagascar since Zoo Quest, but in 2008 our team visited for 'Life in Cold Blood'. There we managed to film a creature that David had been waiting most of his life to see, a creature so tiny that ants cast shadows over it. Brookesia - the smallest chameleon in the world. You may remember it from the first episode of the Madagascar series, but I am proud to say that we also filmed it for 'Life in Cold Blood'. It proved to be such a memorable sequence that we decided to make a 'making-of' for the end of the film, featuring some of the 'Zoo Quest' archive.

Life in Cold Blood - Smallest chameleon in the world

David Attenborough meets the smallest chameleon in the world

 (Sir David Attenborough locates Madagascar on a globe)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Rotting Elephants - Life after Death - Channel 4

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Wed 16 Feb, 9PM

Are you watching this Rot?

If not you can watch it on 4OD

Ever wondered what happens to an elephant after it dies? No, this isn't a programme contemplating elephant heaven, it's an exploration into the squelchingly gruesome world of decomposition. The star of the show is a young male elephant, slowly decomposing in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya. He had to be put down by a vet after being severely wounded by poachers. Now his remains act like a giant stinking bird feeder - drawing attention from miles around and providing a bounty of fast-food for the local ecosystem. It also provides a perfect spot for a bunch of scientists, led by Simon Watt, to delve under the skin of this rich African ecosystem as a five-tonne elephant is transformed into six million calories worth of fat, meat and guts. It's enough energy to keep a human sated for over eight years, but here under the African sun, voracious vultures, hyenas, leopards and insects pick away at the corpse day and night, until just seven days later there's nothing left but a pile of polished bones.

Not to be watched after a heavy meal!
- Paul

Read more on the Channel4 Website

Killed by poachers: Simon Watt presents The Elephant: Life After Death, which shows how quickly an animal carcass is absorbed into the food chain.

The documentary shows an experiment to monitor how the remains of the largest land mammal on Earth is exploited for its six million calories.

A bird feeds on an elephant carcass reduced to bones in just a week

Weird cannibals & deadly plants - Lost Worlds - Madagascar

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16th February, 8pm, BBC2

From the BBC programme page:
Tonight we travel deep into Madagascar's most luxuriant landscape; the rainforests that cloak the island's eastern mountains. Remote and mysterious, this little-known region of towering peaks and precipitous escarpments is home to over half of all Madagascar's unique species.

This second episode showcases an amazing collection of wildlife, many of which have never before been filmed. Cyanide-eating lemurs, cannibalistic frogs, meat-eating plants, cryptic leaf-tailed geckos, tadpole-eating wasps, tunnel-digging chameleons and house-proud flycatchers are just some of the weird and wonderful wildlife featured in this programme.

The aye aye is probably Madagascar's strangest-looking lemur – it emerges only at night, and taps branches with its elongated middle finger, looking for insects to eat.

Monday, 14 February 2011

A Tiger Called Broken Tail - Natural World

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Tuesday 15th February.
7pm on BBC Two

If there is one animal I would love to see in the wild it is the Tiger - Panthera tigris. I've spent some time tracking them with my friends Kalyan and Mandanna in India (Poo, Pee & Pugmarks) but sadly I never saw one myself. It's no suprise that they're difficult to see as they are superbly cryptic animals, mysterious and elusive, but more significantly they are also severly endangered. While India has the worlds largest tiger population, and the most active conservation projects, they have still declined by 60% since the 1990s - mostly due to illegal poaching. Now only 1,400 survive in highly protected reserves, and only 11% of their original habitat remains. This weeks Natural World comes straight from the heart of a cameraman, Colin Stafford-Johnson, and explores his relationship with the animals that he has spent many years filming. 'A Tiger Called Broken Tail' follows Colin and his soundman, Salim, as they piece together the final days of a tiger cub they call Broken Tail. After leaving his sanctuary and going on the run, he survived for almost a year in the unprotected badlands of rural Rajasthan. Through Broken Tail's story Colin and Salim uncover stark truths about India's last wild tigers.

- Paul Williams
Find out more on the BBC programme page

(Photo: BBC)

Friday, 11 February 2011

Birds, Bees & 'Stuffed' Sexual Energy - Natural History Museum

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Exhibition: Natural History Museum, London 
Sexual Nature, February 11 – October 2 2011

The Natural History Museum, London, has put on its long overcoat and taken pride of place in the bushes to become a  peeping tom into the sex lives of animals. A new exhibition, 'Sexual Nature', launches today - just in time to cater for romantic valentine dates. It's been touted as a great place to visit with your loved one, to take a voyeuristic peep behind the curtains, and learn about the birds and the bees.

(Photo: Rabbits Mating - Getty Images)

Stuffed Sexual Energy

After the red neon sign spelling out the word 'sex' the first thing that strikes you is the three specially commissioned displays of mating foxes, rabbits and hedgehogs. If you've ever wanted to compare notes with a british cassanova then this is the time. The gold medal has to go to the hedgehog - who, after a prickly start, uses a vaginal plug to prevent other conquests of his mate. His semen sets solid inside the female while the sperm swim to victory. These Kama Sutra 'mounts' are bound to get your pulse racing (well, if you're into that sort of thing), so take a few minutes to relax as you watch Isabella Rossellini's 'Green Porno'. Screens around the exhibition show the Italian film actress dressed up as animals and acting out their mating rituals, including that of Roman snails who fire love darts at each other in an astonishing game of foreplay. These darts contain hormones that influence certain parts of the genitals, and improve the reproductive chances of the snail who fired it - a little like giving someone a pair of beer googles and a dose of viagra!

(Photo: Guy the Gorilla - NHM)

No thrills for a Guy

Feeling a little inadequate due to all the 'stuffed' sexual energy? Don't worry as you can compare the number of notches on your bed-post against that of the unfortunate Guy the Gorilla - one of the museums most famous residents. He would have been alpha male in the wild - but instead he failed to mate successfully in London Zoo's captive breeding programme. Having a bunch of scientists critique your style for 30 years is sure to put even the most amorous off.

Ofcourse, 'Sexual Nature' is not all thrills and giggles, like any good NHM exhibition it also calls on the discoveries of Charles Darwin. During his Beagle voyage he was particularly taken by the feather patterns of the male Argus pheasant whose beautiful spotted and striped feathers are only shown during courtship display. To Darwin they were an important piece of evidence helping him to understand the difference between natural selection and sexual selection.

I hope you enjoy what is surely another top show from our finest institution.

- Paul
Book tickets and find out more on the NHM 'Sexual Nature' website
Watch a video of the exhibition on the BBC website.

You can also read my 'Love Letter to the Natural History Museum' and
'Love affair with the Natural History Museum'.
(Photo: Argus Pheasant - Paul Williams)

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Madagascar - Island of Marvels - BBC2

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Watch the first episode ISLAND OF MARVELS tomorrow night, 9th Feb 8pm, BBC2
Repeated Sunday 13th February at 4.25pm

Over 80 per cent of Madagascar's animals and plants are found nowhere else on Earth. Discover what made Madagascar so different from the rest of the world, and how evolution ran wild here.

For more clips and information visit the BBC Programme page

Funky! Meet the real cast of Madagascar

Crowned lemurs navigate razor sharp rocks

BBC unleashes its brainy content... forever!

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Earlier today the BBC trust (the corporations overlords who represent the license fee payers) gave the go ahead for Radio 3, Radio 4 and BBC Four to offer programmes on-demand for an unlimited time after broadcast - unleashing this wealth of content to the license-fee payers in perpetuity. That means no more 7 day black-outs on iPlayer content, no need for illegal bitorrent downloads and all in all a more widely accessible BBC...well, for some of the 'brainy' networks anyway. Its not about unleashing all content from all channels. Many of the BBC's most popular titles from BBC1 and BBC2 - such as the big Natural History series, Dr Who and Top Gear - will continue to be available on DVD, via pay-TV channels or paid downloads, and there's no plans to change that anytime soon.

Unleashing the Brainy Content

So Why Radio 3, 4 and BBC4? According to Roly Keating, Director of Archive Content, its because...
'All three are well-known to their audiences for their intelligent use of material from the archives, whether it's Radio 4's Archive Hour linking past and present with topical acuity, or BBC Four, with its smart scheduling of archive rarities alongside its highest-profile new shows."

"Today's announcement confirms that in the online age the task of making more of the wealth of its fantastic archives easily accessible to audiences is an inseparable part of the BBC's mission as a public service broadcaster. That's why the new vision for BBC Online which we announced last week put archive discovery at the heart of its design." 

A Utopian Future?

Lets jump forward a few years. We'll be living in a utopian future where the once separate entities of iPlayer, TV channel pages, programme pages and archive, will all be united in a single environment - a place that's simple to explore and enjoy. Programmes will live online without fear of termination or fading into oblivion, part of a rich community of content at the heart of BBC services. These will be discoverable through open search and linkable to by sites inside and outside of the BBC. As media becomes ever more social, individuals will find their own personal treasures in the collection, breathing new life into old content and popularising it among their friends and networks. I can't wait!

- Paul Williams

Read more

The BBC Archives in London (Photo: Ecospace)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Tarantula Kebab? Boiled Monkey? - Jungles: people of the Trees - Human Planet

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Human Planet, Jungles: People of the Trees,
Thurs Feb 3rd, BBC one, 8pm

"Tropical rainforests teem with more species than anywhere else on the planet, but for us humans they can be very hostile environments. The complex nature of these unforgiving forests takes a lifetime to master and people can only survive here through embracing a life as part of the forest system."

Last night I watched the Human Planet episode 'Jungles: People of the Trees' and celebrated its broadcast with some of the talented people who produced it - Tom Hugh-Jones, I take my hat of to you!

It may be considered by some to be controversial, but Human Planet is certainly one of the most powerful anthropological series I've seen in recent years. Last nights episode was no exception - a film of wonder and intrigue which left me ensconed in a world of ancient customs, strange food and the human struggle for survival. My skin tingled as I watched young Piaroa children in Venezuela hunt and then roast tarantulas on an open fire (clip below), and tribesmen scoff barely boiled monkey like a scene from Indiana Jones. I half expected Ant and Dec to pop out from behind a bush to make a crass remark, but then this is 'top telly' with high production values and emotional, captivating stories to be told. None more so than the nail-biting tale of Tete, an African Bayaka tribesman, who negotiates 50ft high branches and swarms of angry bees, whilst on a tightrope - just to grab some honey.

Children hunt world's largest venomous spider for dinner

Uncontacted Community

I have to confess that by the end of the film I felt a little like a 19th century explorer having discovered indigenous peoples for the first time. I was mesmerised by the footage of the uncontacted tribe (see the clip below) the first time one has ever been filmed (well, without making them contacted in the process.) It was shot from 1km away using a stabilised zoom lens. Although this may be controversial, as Jose Carlos Meirelle believes, the fight to protect these uncontacted communities, and their way of life, depends on proving and publicising their existence. He works for FUNAI, a government agency that protects Brazil's indigenous people against the threat posed by illegal logging and mining.

You can read more about the worlds isolated and uncontacted communities, and watch reports and video footage at the Survival website. 

Watch more clips on the BBC Human Planet explorer

I look forward to the rest of the series, and contemplating the issues it raises,
- Paul

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Fig Leaf - The biggest cover-up in history - BBC4

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Thursday 10 Feb 9pm BBC4

BBC4 produces some of the best documentaries - cerebral, insightful and entertaining, yet I rarely find the time to indulge in TV other than natural history. Fortunately next week (10th Feb) BBC4 brings us an art and history doc who's central theme is atleast rooted in botany! In 'the Fig Leaf', Stephen Smith uncovers the secret history of a small leaf that for centuries has been at the heart of an obsession with nudity.

2000 years ago nudity was celebrated by the ancient greeks and romans who created nude sculpture as symbols of heroism and beauty, but with the spread of Christianity the fig leaf was ushered in as a quick cover-up device. In the middle ages only the unfortunate were shown to be naked - exposed and vulnerable.

In this insightful documentary Smith reveals how the Renaissance sculptors tried to reverse this trend starting with Michelangelo who fuelled the infamous 'Fig Leaf Campaign', earning him the nickname 'creator of pork things', and Bernini who turned censorship into a new form of erotica by replacing the fig leaf with subtley draping cloth. Along the way, Smith explores the fig leaf as an object of art in its own right.

Image Above:  Statue of Mercury in the Vatican. The fig leaf was placed over his privates under instruction of a prudish Pope during the 'Fig leaf Campaign'. (Image: WikiCommons)

According to Smith, Victorians had a far more sophisticated and mature attitude to sexuality than we do today - not suprising when you consider 'the cheap sensationalism' inherent in so much contemporary art and culture. Smith suggests that modern sculpture could do with borrowing a fig leaf or two.

Image: Three centuries after it was painted, the fig leaves were added to this 15th century fresco in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The privates of Adam and Eve were once again exposed in all their glory when the painting was restored and cleaned in the 1980s. (Image: WikiCommons)

Tapeworms, George's Gut Reaction - the one show

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This looks like it could put you off your dinner tonight!
In the words of Frank Sinatra 'I've got you under my skin, I've got you deep in the heart [gut] of me'

The one show, BBC 1, 7pm, Wednesday 2nd February

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Elsa - The lioness that changed the world - Natural World

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7 pm, BBC 2, 1st Feb. 2011
BBC Programme Page

 (George Adamson & Elsa, Photo: BBC)

In 1966, as Geoff Hurst's hat-trick was being celebrated in England, two conservationists living in a remote part of Kenya, were being celebrated the world over. They were George and Joy Adamson and their story was 'Born Free'. This was the extraordinary tale of their relationship with Elsa, an orphaned lioness who they returned to a life in the wild.

Joy's book had been published in 1960, and had sold 6 million copies in its first year. Now it was time for 'Born Free' to hit the silver screen and be taken to an even wider audience. It became an overnight sensation, winning two academy awards, and is widely considered to have ignited a public passion for conservation. Lions were no longer to be seen simply as man-eaters or hunters' trophies - Joy and George had brought the gentler side of lions to the worlds attention.

As tonight's Natural World reveals the making of 'Born Free' was a life-changing experience for husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna who played the Adamsons. They were to become instrumental in creating the Born Free Foundation. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the film was that some of the captive lions that were used were released into the wild just as Elsa had been. George was determined to release a 'man-made' pride and this decision was to shape the rest of their lives. Sadly, the story ended in tragedy when in 1980 Joy was murdered whilst on her evening walk, and just 9 years later, George was murdered by poachers as he came to the rescue of a tourist.

Tonight's Natural World commemorates their legacy with an emotional and revealing drama documentary which re-lives those events – featuring intimate contributions from Virginia McKenna, who played Joy in the film, and David Attenborough who first worked with them in 1961.

I hope you enjoy the film as much I have,
- Paul

Produced by Clare Brook and Sacha Mirzoeff
Executive Producer: Brian Leith
Series Editor: Tim Martin