Charlotte Uhlenbroek: Why I still love the apes

The zoologist, co-presenter of The Adventurer's Guide to Britain, on why she walked away from primetime TV

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The first thing that will strike anyone watching Charlotte Uhlenbroek in her ITV series is the complete absence of great apes and tropical jungles.

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Instead of addressing the camera while dangling from the tops of central African forests, or crouching beside families of chimpanzees, she does her talking from the wind-blown wilds of Exmoor, or sitting in a kayak on a Cumbrian lake.

By the same token, her co-stars aren’t giant silverback Congolese gorillas, but Gethin Jones, former Blue Peter host and Strictly Come Dancing contestant.

Yet was it not the lissom Dr Uhlenbroek who, only a few years ago after a filming a whole raft-load of increasingly high-profile BBC wildlife series, was being hailed as the next Attenborough?

Was there a moment when she made a conscious decision not to step into the still-warm sandals of Sir David? The 43-year-old takes a deep breath before replying: “There was a point when I went to the doctor for a medical and he said, ‘You’re not as fit as you have been in the past.’

“It set me thinking. Up until that point, I had been doing series after series, and writing books to accompany those series. Basically, I had no life.

“I was always telling people, ‘Sorry, I can’t be there, I’m working.’ I missed everyone’s weddings. The series were coming thick and fast, and while people kept telling me they were ‘dovetailing’, it felt more like overlapping.

“As for my husband Dan [Rees, a BBC natural history producer], I hardly ever saw him. Either he was away on a four-month shoot, or I was.”

The solution they both came up with was to take a sabbatical. Not away from filming but away from big-time TV projects. The two of them packed a film camera, a laptop with editing software, and set off together around the world.

First stop was Nepal, where Uhlenbroek spent most of her childhood (her father was an agricultural specialist with the United Nations). Here, she and Dan made a film highlighting the work of the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre, in its bid to solve the problem of dogs that roam wild in the capital, some of which carry rabies.

“The best thing we did was to get two celebrity Nepalese comedians on board,” says Uhlenbroek who, as a girl, used to spend her pocket money helping the Kathmandu dogs. “Because of them the film got shown an average of twice a day on Nepali TV.”

Next stop was the Himalayas, where the couple made a promotional video on behalf of women health workers who serve mountain villages.

From there they travelled to Tanzania, where they made a film supporting an Aids treatment centre, Uhlenbroek recording the commentary in Swahili.

Then on to Nicaragua to film a turtle project run by Fauna and Flora International, a conservation organisation Uhlenbroek supports.

So does she have any regrets now about having effectively turned down the opportunity to scale Mount Attenborough and become the unquestioned Queen of Wildlife? She shakes her head. “People did warn me that if I walked away I might never get a big series again,” she replies.

“The thing is, though, that TV just fell into my lap [she was filmed while working as a researcher at Jane Goodall’s chimp sanctuary in Tanzania]. I just stumbled into television, really, and while I’m well aware you can’t just step straight back in, I still love communicating about natural history, and hope I can earn a crust from doing that on TV.”

She’s clearly attractive – does that help? “I’m not particularly bothered what I look like, but I suppose it doesn’t harm,” she shrugs. “That said, it can work the other way round, in that it’s hard to be taken seriously in academic circles. There’s this idea that you can’t be intelligent unless you look like a frump.”

So what remains on her “to do” list?

“My big plan now is to do a programme where Dan and I work in a chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa, not just for a few months but at least a year.

“I want to get really hands-on, to look at what lies behind the problems facing great apes, find out why they’re being poached, why they’re being hunted for bush meat, as well as looking at all the other factors, such as the increased threat from the Ebola virus and the growth of mining for coltan [a mineral that yields tantalum, which is used in electronic components inside devices like mobile phones].

“It’s not just a question of the goodies who are on the side of the animals, versus the baddies, who aren’t. It’s far more complex. You can’t solve anything if you go out there with that attitude.

“The terrible thing, though, is that the way things are going, we look like losing the great apes of Africa within the next 20 to 50 years. I, for one, am not prepared to stand by and watch as the creatures who are biologically closest to us just vanish from the face of the earth.”

For the moment, then, we must content ourselves with Dr Uhlenbroek shinning up and down hillsides and encouraging us to get out and about more in the British Isles. But while she is talking to us humans, at the same time, her heart still clearly belongs to the apes.

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The Adventurer’s Guide to Britain starts tonight at 7:30pm on ITV1/ITV1 HD.