Attenborough's Africa: disturbing birds, new technology and the Frozen Planet controversy

"What's important to us is to be able to share great moments of animal nature, and some controlled filming allows us to do that"

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Attenborough's Africa: disturbing birds, new technology and the Frozen Planet controversy
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This bird looks like a comedy computer-generated creation for a Disney children’s film. But there’s nothing funny about the shoebill. This prehistoric-looking bird with a clumsy walk and seemingly inane grin is actually a killer – and not of its feathered rivals, but of its own offspring.

The bird hatches two eggs and – once it’s confident about the survival of the oldest chick – deprives the younger one of food and drink and allows it to die.

The behaviour is observed in this week’s episode of Africa, the sprawling new natural history series that explores some of the lesser- known stories of the continent’s wildlife.

“Very little is known about the shoebill and it has hardly ever been seen,” says series producer James Honeyborne. “It took us four weeks to find a nest, and once we located one the crew had to drag canoes full of equipment for two days through the swamp and then camp for a month on a half-drowned ants’ nest while filming.”

“Initially we thought it was going to be a funny sequence, but then we realised that the parent birds were favouring one chick over the other – one chick was being fed, was growing and getting stronger and the other one was being ignored. It has never been witnessed in that detail before and we’ve only been able to do that because of the new technology we have.”

That technology included three remote cameras, positioned around the nest, that were serviced by almost a kilometre of cabling. But technology doesn’t deliver every shot. occasionally, to reveal behaviour that otherwise would be impossible to capture, captive or habituated animals are used. It’s always gone on, though last year the BBC was criticised after it was revealed that a sequence in the documentary series Frozen planet apparently showing polar bear cubs in their den was, in fact, shot in a German zoo.

In this series, for the first time, it’s been decided that David Attenborough’s commentary will make it clear when what’s known as controlled filming is used – a rock python scene in episode three shot in a special filming burrow and one involving a naked mole rat in episode five.

“We felt that because of the reactions to the polar bears being filmed for Frozen planet it was appropriate to be more explicit,” says Honeyborne. “We are doing it because we feel it is important to maintin trust and credibility with the audience.”

“What’s important to us is to be able to share great moments of animal nature, and some controlled filming allows us to do that. We’re proud of those sequences because they reveal new aspects of behaviour that you can only see filmed in this way. We know that the audience wants to know, and we don’t have a problem with it. We’re not embarrassed about it, we’re absolutely proud of it.”

Africa continues on Wednesdays at 9:00pm on BBC1.