Sir David Attenborough: "The earth's sixth mass extinction event is close - will human self-interest kick in before it's too late?"

Sir David Attenborough: "Every time a species is lost, we lose a crucial piece of the system"

Sir David Attenborough is not just a global superstar of the nature documentary world, he is a force of nature himself.

At the age of 91 he has no intention of slowing down and hopes to continue being heard and seen in the world’s most awe-inspiring and ground-breaking documentaries. City A.M. caught up with conservation’s most influential spokesperson.

What has inspired you the most in your career?

Well of course it’s difficult to give a definitive answer because the natural world is filled with so many wonders that provide endless inspiration, but one of my most significant and memorable trips would have to be my visit to Rwanda in the late 1970s, where we met with the remarkable Dian Fossey, who took us to meet and film her mountain gorillas. My experience with these majestic animals was simply astonishing but it was also heart-rending: at that time the gorillas were under severe threat from poaching and other threats and there was a real danger that, unless something was done, they would be lost forever.

Dian made me promise I would do something upon my return to the UK to ensure the protection of her beloved gorillas from the threat of poachers. The first thing I did was to contact Fauna & Flora International (FFI), of which I had already been a member for nearly 30 years, and a project was immediately set up. Today, as part of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, this work has played an instrumental role in ensuring the survival of the mountain gorilla, which nowadays is celebrated for its tremendous importance to the people of Rwanda. To me, this just goes to show that when we put our minds to it we really can halt declines and that gives me hope for the future.

You are vice-president of Fauna & Flora International (FFI). What is so special about this organisation?

I suppose, for me, what makes FFI so remarkable is its long and distinguished history of getting things done. It was the world’s first international conservation organisation, established in 1903 by a group of far-sighted individuals who had started to notice a decline in African game species and decided something needed to be done.

Even by the time I joined in 1954, the idea of global conservation was still in its infancy but FFI helped to change all that with its journal, Oryx, which at that time was the only one in the world that dealt scientifically with the problem of disappearing species.

Over the course of my more than 60 years as a member, I have seen FFI apply this scientific approach in order to actually deal with the decline of many endangered species and threatened ecosystems around the world. FFI has played an important part in a great many success stories ranging from the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx into the wild, to improving the fortunes of the mountain gorilla to saving the world’s rarest snake from extinction. There are many more.

Awareness has risen but the global situation doesn’t seem to be getting better. Why is that?

Since I started working in nature broadcasting in the 1950s, the situation has certainly deteriorated. The climate is changing.

The human population is increasing. Our planet’s plant and animal species are under more pressure today than ever before, with an increasing number of species hovering on the very precipice of extinction.

Yet people are utterly dependent upon the natural world. We don’t own this world. We are merely here as tenants who must share this space with a rich community of plants and animals. We have a responsibility and an obligation to look after them, for ourselves and for future generations.

The fact of the matter is that we can and must do more. The decisions we have to take now go beyond small communities and beyond nations. If ever there was a time when we should come together and stand shoulder to shoulder, to avoid a hideous fate that is just over the horizon, it is now.

Are humans capable of destroying life on earth and will our planet survive?

The question is not whether the planet will survive but rather what will it look like in a hundred or a thousand years’ time? The damage we are inflicting on species and ecosystems is so extensive and profound that scientists now believe we are witnessing earth’s sixth mass extinction event – the last one marked the end of the dinosaurs.

Yet the history of our world shows even in the face of cataclysmic events, nature somehow finds a way. Our planet can get along perfectly well without humans but we cannot survive at all without all the services that nature provides. So I suppose we have to ask: will self-interest kick in before it is too late for our species?

Does the constant battle to preserve wildlife and nature ever wear you down?

Given the scale and complexity of the challenge we face, it can be difficult not to feel discouraged at times. In many cases, climate change being a prime example, the only long-term answer will be international co-operation, which can be an agonisingly slow process.

But despite a sense of weariness, we can make progress – there are plenty of success stories from FFI alone. The very worst thing we could do would be to throw up our hands and surrender to the inevitable. Instead, we must redouble our efforts. The outcome is simply too important.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned from nature?

Interdependence – the realisation that every species has an important place within a complex network and that every time a species is lost, we lose a crucial piece of this system. No human being is clever enough to be able to predict what the impacts will be or what disasters could occur.

Read more: David Attenborough has now had an ancient shrimp fossil named after him

Attenborough in brief

David Attenborough first appeared on black and white screens more than six decades ago in the 1954 television series Zoo Quest. Hundreds of nature programmes have followed, most recently the stunning second Blue Planet series. He was the controller of BBC Two and the director of programming for BBC Television during the 60s and 70s. He has travelled to every corner of the globe and inspired millions of people.

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