Friday, 27 April 2012

Stars are born - #PlanetEarthLive baby animals - pics from BBC crews

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On Sunday May 6th, 7:50pm, Planet Earth Live will be broadcast to 140 countries - the most ambitious live wildlife TV series ever.

(In the US it will be broadcast on May 7th, 9pm on National Geographic Wild and will be retitled to '24/7 Wild').

Over the next few months the lives of the Earth’s youngest animals truly hang in the balance. Join Richard Hammond, Julia Bradbury, and a team of world class cameramen as they follow the incredible lives of baby animals including elephants, black bears, macaque monkeys, meerkats, grey whales and lion cubs.

The crews are out on location right now and they've been tweeting back photos: @BBCPlanetEarth  Here's some of the first pictures of the animals that will make Planet Earth Live a must see.

See more photos from the crews here.

"How could this be anymore cute? Black bear cub filmed today for #planetearthlive with Graham Macfarlane"

@Wolverine Ted "amazing encounters today with black bears for #planetearthlive in Ely, Minnesota."

"@BBCPlanetEarth This little ele has made my day. #planetearthlive *Kenya"

"Can't believe how much fun these baby ele's are! #planetearthlive *Kenya"

"Our first pup sighting!"

"@gordonjbuchanan Back in Longyearbyen after a tough but amazing trip."

"It's bath time for this little baby ele. #planetearthlive *Kenya"

"Suggestions for a name pls? 1st pic of a star. 6wk old female macaque with white tip on her tail. *SriL" The name has been decided: Gremlin!

"First pics from the Masai Mara. Beautiful lioness and cub. *Keyna"

Friday, 20 April 2012

#PlanetEarthLive - Globally Awesome with Richard Hammond. Wild life as it happens! #24/7Wild

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Planet Earth Live starts 6th May on BBC One in the UK - and globally on BBC channels.

In the USA it's called 24/7 Wild and will be shown on NatGeo Wild, starting 7th May 9pm e/p.

This is going to be extraordinary (and my fiancee is working on it so please watch ;-). This series has created a real buzz around the BBC. Building on the success of 'Big Cat Live' and  'Springwatch', Planet Earth Live will bring us wildlife action as it happens from around the world, following the lives of some of our favourite animals - lions, elephants, black bears, grey whales, meerkats, macaques and more.

This will be the first ever wildlife show to be simulcast around the world to 140 countries. In the US it will be broadcast 24 hours later on National Geographic Wild and will be retitled to '24/7 Wild'.

Be part of a truly global audience, Join Richard Hammond and Julia Bradbury as they follow...

"Real animals... real lives... in real time."

Follow the team as they follow the animals - Twitter @BBCPlanetEarth

"With its global reach and an A-list cast of animals, Planet Earth Live will be the most editorially, technically and logistically ambitious live wildlife event we've ever undertaken." - Executive producer Tim Scoones

PLANET EARTH LIVE launches in...


Thursday, 12 April 2012

Where did a million Elephants go? Ivory Wars #Panorama

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Ivory Wars - Out of Africa, Thursday 12th April, 2011, 9pm BBC One

Undercover in China

With wildlife crime now thought to be second only to drugs in terms of profit, Rageh Omaar goes on the trail of the ivory poachers, smugglers and organised crime syndicates to investigate the plight of Africa's elephants. In 1979 there were an estimated 1.3 million African elephants. Today, only 470,000 remain; some authorities estimate the number to be considerably lower. 

As demand for ivory rises in the Far East, this Panorama special - made jointly with the BBC's Natural History Unit - goes undercover in central Africa and China. With access to Interpol's largest ever ivory operation, undercover reporters confront the dealers directly.

Last year saw the seizure of the highest volume of ivory for over two decades. Despite a 23 year global ban on its international sale an estimated 38,000 elephants are killed annually to supply the ivory trade - most of which is in China. If this rate were to continue, elephants could be gone from most of their former range in less than 15 years. One area of northern Kenya has lost a quarter of its elephants in the last three years alone.

"The destinations of all contraband ivory are always neighbouring countries around China" Julius Kipng'etich, Kenya Wildlife Service

Whilst filming in China an undercover reporter soon attracted the attention of sellers and was offered a piece of ivory 1.5m long for $10,000 (£6,000). A kilogramme of ivory sells for as much as $1,500 in the Far East. On the ground in Kenya it sells for 3,000 Kenya shillings ($40). Even a small pair of 10-kg tusks would bring a poacher the equivalent of $400, more than casual workers earn in a year. A big bull carrying 100 kg of ivory would bring a fortune. The incentive is considerable. Source: The Elephant Trust

"We've been in the market in Kinshasa where we've estimated the ivory from more than 200 elephants has been on the tables for sale on a single day" "These markets are patronised by ex-pat communities and Chinese business" - Tom Milliken, who monitors and campaigns against the illegal trade in ivory

In Nature's Miracle Babies (september 2011), Martin Hughes-Games visited a sanctuary for elephants left orphaned by poaching.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Land of The Lost Wolves - Gordon Buchanan

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Land Of The Lost Wolves, 9pm, 5th & 6th April, BBC One.

“I never thought it was going to be easy but it was much harder than I imagined. They are probably the most difficult animals I have tried to film" - Gordon Buchanan

Tonight on BBC One, cameraman Gordon Buchanan goes on the trail of the elusive wolf, which is returning in droves to North America. 

Few other animals inspire such hatred and passion. Once shot to the brink of extinction, the wolves are coming back with a vengeance and are on a collision course with humans. Scientists know very little about where they are from, how fast they are spreading and what their impact will be. 

Gordon and a team of local scientists track these invading wolf packs throughout the year but finding the wily animals requires every ounce of field skill and technical expertise they can muster.

"In the first four-week trip to America, we walked the mountains every day and all we found were tracks.We set up lots of camera traps to gather images but on that first trip I didn’t see a single wolf. Next time we went to Canada, where there is a higher density of wolves, and it took two-and-a-half weeks of constant searching before I saw one.” - Gordon Buchanan

"Wolf film looking great in all it's HD glory. Not too flattering on the old laughter lines (wrinkles), & that's after the Botox."

Part Bear, Part Sloth? - The Real Jungle Book Baloo

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Today's Natural World, 8pm, BBC2 takes a look at my favourite bear - The Sloth Bear.

Written by Paul Williams

What on Earth is a Sloth Bear?

Sloth Bear-20A battered wooden crate arrived in London for Mr Shaw, it was marked 'Urgent Attention - South America'. Shaw, a gentleman naturalist, excitedly opened the crate and pulled out a thick black shaggy fur - it was slightly damp and smelling of mould. Spreading it on a large oak table in the centre of his crowded study, he ran his hands through the knotted hair, reflecting on it's similarity to the overgrown coat of a dog. Next he came across the animals long soft tubular snout, immediately seeing the resemblance to another peculiar creature from South America which has recently been named as the anteater. But this animal was much larger and it's skin and dentition much different.

Like the anteater however its eyes were tiny and recessed suggesting an animal with poor vision. Shaw already had his suspicions on where to place this creature in the animal classification system, but what convinced him so completely were the huge 4 inch curved claws protruding from each of it's short limbs.

Sloths were already known from South America and this was obviously some sort of giant form - like other sloths it used these inward pointing claws to hang from trees. The year was 1790 and Shaw proudly announced this new species naming it Bradypus pentadactylus - the 5 fingered sloth.

It later transpired that the crate Shaw had received originated in India and not South America at all. A mix up which created the curious beginning of the scientific identification of the Indian Honey Bear - The Sloth Bear.

Sloth Bear-6

The Real Jungle Book Bear

This is the bear that the Jungle Book's Baloo is based on. The real Baloo does chase fancy ants, but his life is a lot tougher than that of his fictional friend. Showing on BBC2 tonight is 'The Real Jungle Book Bear'narrated by David Attenborough, this the first film ever made on these shy creatures and it follows a young male called Baloo as he grows up in the harsh Karnataka landscape, fending off foes and finding food. Baloo's mother is also nearby with two new cubs on her back, trying to keep them safe from prowling leopards. BBC Programme Page

I've been lucky enough to spend time with several types of bears but when I visited Karnataka a few years ago I found sloth bears to be the most endearing and characterful of them all.

As I wrote at the time "As he walked his fluffy backside swayed like a big furry John Wayne. He looked satisfied as he approached a nice patch of honey. Adjusting his posture and almost crossing his legs, he hunched over to crinkle his soft snout up against the ground - like a pig snorting in a trough.  When he was finished with one patch he stood up and waddled across to another.  Not a care in the world the bear was completely oblivious to our presence.

Sloth Bears have really poor eye sight and can see little further than 10 metres, so as long as we remained still and silent we would be able to observe the bears in all their slobbering glory. Occasionally our young male surfaced for a breather, raising his nose and opening his mouth like a panting dog. He was tasting the air and I wondered if he could detect the strangers in his midst. If he could then he must have decided that he had more important matters to attend to and chowed back down."

Sloth Bear sniffing for food

"While he sniffed directly in my direction I caught a superb view of his strange dentures. Unlike other bears, sloth bears have a mouth like a pensioner - almost barren of teeth. This is an adaptation for getting closer to food, such as their favourite wild delicacy - termites. Their four-inch claws rip open the mound, they shove their muzzle in, and then suck like a hoover. The sounds can be heard from hundreds of metres away. This bear was entertaining us with a range of sounds that I've only ever heard before in a gents loo - and like a gents loo a few more individuals eventually appeared and joined in the chorus."

The Bear Necessities - Comical Antics

Sloth Bear-43

Sloth Bear-30
"Start the day with a good scratch"
Sloth Bear-46

Sloth Bear Stretching
"and a good stretch"

  Sloth Bear-23 
"Arm wrestle anyone?"
Sloth Bear-18

Sloth Bear-29
"Hide and seek?"


Sloth Bear-28
"Over here"
Sloth Bear-35 "Hi, long time!"

Sloth Bear-34
"Grrr, wrestlemania!"

"He lumbered over to another and unexpectadly pounced on him, bearing his teeth - it could easily be mistaken for aggression but was simply a case of play fighting. Failing to get the desired response the small bear quickly switched to another, and he continued for the best part of an hour, by which time the sugar rush had worn off and he tuckered down for more honey." Excerpt from my field blog

Sloth Bear-12 
"Wait for it..."

Sloth Bear-45
"Ta da!"

Sloth Bear-10

The Dancing Bears

Sadly many sloth bears live a very different life. Seeing bears in the wild made my subsequent trip to the Bannerghata Bear Rescue Centre even more heart-wrenching. I met Samad Kottur of Wildlife SOS, who works to protect and rescue sloth bears who have been sold into a life of dancing.

Stolen from their mothers young sloth bear cubs are sold to the traditional dancing bear community known as Kollanders. 'Here they begin a life of pain and discomfort.' Sammad told me that 'after a few months their canines are ripped out, their claws are clipped, males are castrated and a red hot iron is used to pierce their sensitive nuzzle through which a coarse rope is threaded.' it is the pain of pulling on this rope that makes them dance as they are dragged from village to village and made to perform, standing on their hind legs and used as puppets on a string.

'They are severely malnourished and are only given the very poorest food to survive on' says Sammad who is still moved to tears by his experiences 'when we rescue them they are in really bad shape'.

Here's a short film I made during my visit:

 Filmed by David Heath, directed by Kalyan Varma, Production Manager Mandanna Dilan.

Dancing bear with rope through his muzzle. Photograph by Troy Snow (used with permission)

Monday, 2 April 2012

Mammoth Hall of Fame - Incredible Pics & 'Secrets from the Ice' #BBC2

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Woolly Mammoth: Secrets from the Ice, Weds, 9pm, BBC2

Written by Paul Williams

For centuries, stories have been told of subterranean elephant-like animals called 'ice rats' that use their huge tusks to dig through the tundra of northeastern Siberia. They are never seen alive above ground but their movements underground are detected as earthquakes, and their fresh carcasses are occasionally discovered.

Dr. Leopold von Schrenck, Chief of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Petrograd, published the following account in 1869: "a gigantic beast which lives in the depths of the earth, where it digs for itself dark pathways, and feeds on earth . . .  They account for its corpse being found so fresh and well preserved on the ground that the animal is still a living one."

The 'ice rats' are now better known as woolly mammoths. While our understanding of these creatures has changed, the hairy behemoths continue to fascinate us. The woolly mammoth is one of the most recognisable animals ever to have walked the planet. Weighing in at six tonnes, they lived alongside our ancestors, and their herds roamed across what is now Europe and Asia. Through an ever growing taste for mammoth meat, humans probably contributed to their demise. 

Alice Roberts with Lyuba
Now, in an era of global warming, and melting ice, mammoth hunting has had a revival. In 'Woolly Mammoth: Secrets from the Ice' Alice Roberts joins a team of hardy scientists to face sub-zero temperatures, and release the latest carcass from the icy grip of the Siberian permafrost. Using genetic, chemical and molecular tests, they are uncovering the secret life of the mammoth and reconstructing a picture of their world 40,000 years ago. Every new discovery helps to paint a more vivid picture and now with the help of the latest in scientific analysis in Russia, the USA and Europe, CGI will bring the woolly mammoth back to life.

Woolly Mammoth Hall of Fame

Early mammoth research focussed on teeth and bones. The first woolly mammoth remains studied by European scientists were examined by Hans Sloane in 1728. He became the first to recognise that these monstrous remains were in fact from elephants. He believed they had been buried during the biblical Great Flood, and that prior to this Siberia had been a much warmer place. Others argued that they were elephants from the tropics that had been washed north by the flood. It wasn't until French scientist Georges Cuvier identified the remains in 1796, that the woolly mammoth was identified as a separate species.

One of Charles R Knights Mammoth paintings at the American Museum of Natural History (1935)

Mammoth teeth continue to reveal new evidence and Adrian Lister from London's Natural History Museum analyses them to understand the evolutionary journey that mammoths made from the African tropics to the remote arctic.

The 'Berezovka Mammoth' (1900)

The Berezovka mammoth is probably the most studied of all mammoths and his discovery in 1900 led to the modern era of mammoth research. Complete with skin, muscles, and innards he had been wonderfully preserved by the permafrost for 45,000 years.

The 50 year old male is believed to have died after falling down a precipice
He was discovered in an upright position, with his back humped and his ribs and pelvis brokenMuch of the head, which was sticking out of the permafrost bank had been eaten by wolves. Fortunately the lips, the lining of the mouth and the tongue were preserved, and surprisingly between the teeth, were portions of the animal's last meal. "The mouth was filled with grass, which had been cropped, but not chewed and swallowed, it still had the imprint of the animal's molars," indicating that he died suddenly whilst feeding. The plants were species that are no longer found as far north as Siberia, and indicates a much warmer climate 40,000 years ago supporting Hans Sloanes theory of climate change.

The food inside Berezovka's stomach was exceptionally well preserved and suggests that following his fatal fall, Berezovka must have rapidly frozen - either falling into a frozen lake, an ice crevasse, or being engulfed by a mudslide. Many mammoths, rhinos, horses, bison and antelope preserved in the same banks seem to have succumbed to a similar fate. 

Mammoth Scene Investigation had been born.

The Berezovka Mammoth on display at the St Petersburg Zoological Museum  (Photo: Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2007

Preserved muscle tissue taken from the left hind leg of the Berezovka mammoth, now at the Smithsonian. (Photo: Tom Jorstad, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History)

Another mammoth on display at the St Petersburg Zoological Museum. This young mammoth has much of its hair intact but it is missing its trunk. Photo: Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2007

Dima - The 70's Mammoth (1977)

In 1977 workers digging up ground close to the Russian town of Magadan in north eastern Siberia uncovered a well-preserved carcass of a 6 month old baby mammoth. It was the first mammoth to be investigated using modern scientific methods. Radiocarbon dating determined that it had died about 40,000 years ago and it's internal organs were found to be similar to those of living elephants. Sediment in Dima's lungs pointed to death by asphyxiation.

Dima being extracted from the Siberian permafrost in 1977 (source)

(Photo: Institut Royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique, Brussels)

Lyuba - The Love Mammoth (2007)

In 2007 Reindeer breeders in Russia's Arctic Yamal Peninsula discovered a perfectly preserved 42,000 year old baby mammoth. It was named Lyuba, meaning 'love' after the discoverer's wife. It soon triggered a flurry of speculation about whether it was possible to create a living mammoth by extracting its DNA. Lyuba is a female woolly mammoth calf who died at the age of one month and is generally considered to be the best preserved mammoth in the world. Lyuba is one of the stars in 'Woolly Mammoth: Secrets from the Ice'

“Lyuba is a creature straight out of a fairy tale. When you look at her, it’s hard to understand how she could have stayed in such good condition for nearly 40,000 years.” 
- Alexei Tikhonov, Russian Academy of Science 

A Nenets boy tentatively examines Lyuba outside Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, Siberia. Some of his elders still hold to the Nenets tradition that touching a mammoth, a creature they believe roams the spirit underworld, will bring bad luck (Photo: Francis Latreille)

 (Image: Photoshot)

During an autopsy fecal matter was collected from Lyuba's intestine. The feces probably came from Lyuba's mother, fed to the calf to aid growth of bacteria needed to digest vegetation. The mother's feces will help identify plants she ate and may yield her DNA (Photo: Francis Latreille National Geographic - see more here)

Inspecting the baby mammoth carcass. Photo credit: Sergei Cherkashin/Reuters Source

The carcass began to thaw during an exam inside Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, Siberia. Members of the recovery team moved it outside to refreeze. (Photo: Francis Latreille National Geographic - see more here)

 Lyuba on display after a CT scan in Tokyo (Photo: Francis Latreille National Geographic - see more here)

The latest technology including CT scanning is allowing scientists to take a non intrusive look inside these incredible specimens. Source

The CT scan provided detailed new insights into a mammoth's anatomy as well as important clues to Lyuba's death. Sediment found blocking the trunk's nasal passages (shown in white) and in the mouth, esophagus, and windpipe suggests that she asphyxiated by inhaling mud after becoming trapped in a mire (Photo: Francis Latreille National Geographic - see more here)

Sunday, 1 April 2012

BBC Natural World uncovers the secret life of the last Tree Octopus

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The Last Tree Octopus, Thursday, BBC2, 8pm.

Extremely elusive and highly endangered, the tree octopus was almost wiped out in the early 20th century when a passion for hats ornamented with cephalopod accoutrements fuelled widespread hunting. Even today octopus numbers remain below the critical level for successful reproduction. 

For the first time a team of scientists are uncovering the fate of this once common cephalopod in the temperate rainforest of North West America. Here the high humidity, and up to 6 metres of rain a year, protect the remaining tree octopi from desiccation, but to survive they need regular access to their spawning streams. Habitat loss and new roads impede their migration routes, but the biggest threat comes from introduced house cats who have developed a taste for arboreal calamari. Can this peculiar species be saved?

Using the latest camera technology The Natural World brings you the secret life of the tree octopus, like you've never seen it before!

"Filming this species required many hours stuck up a tree but eventually we were able to witness the most intimate behaviours between a pair of courting Octopi, before the male led the female down the tree" - Rich Conhoax, Cameraman

Cameraman's eye view of a courting male tree octopus (Photo)

Tree Octopus heading for the spawning waterways (Photo)

Predation of the rare tree Octopus (Photo: Galen Leeds) 

Predation of the rare tree Octopus (Photo: Galen Leeds) 

During filming the crew has an unexpected encounter with a large tree octopus. (Photo)

Early 20th century advertisement for the latest hat fashion 

Also find out about the Australian Drop Bear at the Australian Museum

The Giant Pacific Octopus

You might think that the tree octopus is difficult to study ;-) but have you met it's cousin - the giant Pacific octopus? Scientists from Alaska Pacific University have been tracking this elusive creature in the North Pacific. BBC Photo Gallery:

The giant pacific octopus (Photo: D Scheel)