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'Virus is serious but we all need to keep a sense of proportion - a neighbour called to see if I was dead'


David Attenborough says the loss of orangutans in Borneo is particularly upsetting for him

David Attenborough says the loss of orangutans in Borneo is particularly upsetting for him

David Attenborough says the loss of orangutans in Borneo is particularly upsetting for him

At 10pm one recent Sunday evening, David Attenborough received a knock at his door of his London home. It w as a concerned neighbour who had just read on Twitter that the veteran broadcaster was dead.

"My daughter answered the door and the neighbour asked if it was true," the 93-year-old says with a devilish twinkle in his eye.

"She said, 'Wait there and I'll go and ask him'. I was watching the news on television."

During the panicked age of Covid-19, Attenborough's name is one of a number of celebrities to be bandied around social media as the latest to succumb to the virus.

However, when we meet in a London hotel shortly before the UK started to go into lockdown, he is full of vim and vigour and comfortingly dismissive of the whole damn thing.


"We don't need to think that if you catch coronavirus you might as well jump into the grave and pull the grass over yourself," he says.

"If you're old like me or if you have respiratory problems, it's going to be quite serious - but at the same time we need to keep a sense of proportion."

What of his own safety, being firmly lodged as he is at the top end of the "at-risk" group?

"I'm mildly worried, yes. But believe me, at 93, something is eventually going to come along anyway," he adds.

We are here to discuss his latest venture, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet (his latest Netflix collaboration) which casts Attenborough as the central character reflecting on his extraordinary career.

He describes it in another way, as a "witness statement" to the biodiversity he has been privileged to experience, and the tragedy of all that has been lost over the course of his lifetime. The film follows Attenborough from the very beginning of his television career, sailing shirtless, bronzed and carefree over some distant ocean, to the silver, though still marvellously spry, figure we see today.

Over the decades, the once pristine forests and coral reefs he first visited have been hacked away and bleached by warming seas, and the exotic species he travelled the world to film have been pushed to the very brink by humanity.

"What animates me is the gravity of the situation," Attenborough says of his desire to make the film.

By nature, Attenborough says, he is not an especially reflective person, preferring instead to always focus on the next project, hence his continuing prodigious output.

He admits this can sometimes become a slight bone of contention with his daughter Susan, who lives with him at his home.

"My daughter is a reticent child," he says.

"She does occasionally tell me to remember I'm 93. I say, 'Yes, dear, thank you, dear'."

In light of the current outbreak there has been much talk of the link between environmental degradation and pandemics.

The coronavirus, which originated in a live animal market in Wuhan, China, last December, is believed to have jumped into the human population either from a bat, or perhaps a pangolin.

Various strains of the Ebola virus are similarly harboured in bat populations and as humans expand ever further into the last vestiges of true wilderness, we are creating ample opportunities for new pathogens to circulate among us.

Attenborough, however, remains unconvinced by this theory when it comes to the latest strain of coronavirus - that it is somehow a symbol of nature biting back.

"With due respect I don't think that's actually true," he says.

"The Black Death comes to mind and there have been lots of other influenzas and Sars and swine flu and all these other things. International travel now being as universal as it is has exacerbated things, but I don't think we need to go mad."

Even the very worst outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic are nothing on the scale of what is eventually feared will be the catastrophic implications of climate change, so why does he believe governments are not reacting toward the latter with the same urgency?

"The coronavirus is about dying tomorrow," he says.

"With this we're talking about my grandchildren dying."

In the twilight of his career, Attenborough has reinvented himself as an environmental activist.

Last year, he addressed world and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He tells me he is regularly invited to address shareholders of large businesses.

"It is going to take political and economic revolutions to do this," he says.

The question that has dogged Attenborough in recent years is: why did he not speak out sooner? He admits he would have been unlikely to have made such a political film as his latest project a few decades ago and nor was he sure enough of the science to do so.

"I personally see the conservation issues with a clarity I didn't see 20 years ago," he says.

Also, he freely admits, the BBC would not have shown it.

This latest film is his second to be screened on Netflix and, despite being a BBC man to his bones, he believes loosening its grip on commissioning is a good thing.

"It is only because the access to the media is no longer in the hands of one monopolistic public service broadcaster and is instead a multitude of voices that we can speak with freedom," he says.

Still, he remains forever grateful for the opportunities he was given in his youth.


Today, he says, there would have been no chance an editor would have dispatched him across the world for four months without BBC bean counters picking over his every move.

What goes through his mind, I wonder, when he reflects on those early expeditions and rewatches old footage of himself?

"I think, boy, were you lucky," he says.

When I ask which species he most laments the demise of, his voice lowers.

When he first visited Borneo in the early 1970s it was a pristine wilderness. Since then orangutan populations have roughly halved and their habitat has been decimated by at least 55pc in just 20 years, largely for palm oil production.

Attenborough was the first to film orangutans in the wild, describing in his original narration "a great furry red form swinging through the trees".

He contrasts this magical encounter to recent footage of an orangutan stranded in a newly logged part of the island.

"I can see it in my nightmares," he says.

"This poor orangutan on a logged landscape going up a tree with all its branches lopped off and it has to get to the top and nowhere to go."

Such images scar and motivate him in equal measure. The Covid-19 pandemic will, in the long term, prove a mere chapter in human history.

When the world comes back to life, David Attenborough will keep fighting to save it.

David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will be available via Netflix later this year