David Attenborough to tell the tragic story of the elephant that inspired Dumbo

BBC announces five new natural history commissions with documentaries on cats, urban wildlife and Chris Packham on the T Rex

Attenborough Jumbo

David Attenborough is to tell the bittersweet story of the Victorian elephant that inspired the movie Dumbo.

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The documentary, Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar, will examine the bones of Jumbo the elephant who became a firm favourite of Queen Victoria after he arrived at London Zoo in 1865 and went on to inspire the famous Disney film.

With unique access to Jumbo’s skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Attenborough’s film will focus on the complex story of the animal who was a firm favourite of the British monarch and her children before he was controversially sold to PT Barnum’s circus in America. There he travelled with his keeper to start a new life and is widely believed to be the inspiration behind the Disney cartoon character Dumbo.

But there is a dark and troubling side to the story of this animal who, when he was in London, was highly aggressive, smashing his den, breaking his tusks and being pacified by large amounts of alcohol.

Attenborough will try and explain they mystery of how the animal died and ask questions about what captivity did to Jumbo’s state of mind.

The film was announced by the BBC today as part of five newly commissioned programmes.

Also on the slate is a film by Chris Packham which will attempt to demystify the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.

Called T Rex, the one-off piece will feature what Packham says will be the most accurate CGI representation of the fearsome creature ever produced. He will use new technology and access to ‘Tristan’, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil in the world.

Said Packham: “Big, fierce and extinct! It’s the most famous, most glamorous poster pin-up in the zoological world; it’s the greatest animal that ever lived. And yet perhaps the most misrepresented too. It’s time to put that right. T Rex has evolved more in my lifetime than the last 65 million years; it’s gone from a grey tail-dragging dullard to an intelligent, social super-predator. Using science we will at last tell the truth about T Rex. Don’t bother to put the kettle on!”

The BBC also announced that it is making a three-part programme called Big Cats which promises to be “the ultimate, definitive celebration of the entire cat family, from the captivating big cats to the secret and surprising small cats”.

Another three-parter, First Year on Earth, follows six, very different, wild animal babies across their first twelve months: a leopard cub, a baby mountain gorilla, an infant African elephant, a baby toque macaque, a black bear cub and a sea otter pup.

Working alongside long term scientific studies, the BBC’s cameras will gain remarkable access to the infants’ world and follow them across the year.

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The fifth commission is Wild Cities, another three-part documentary which focuses on wildlife living in the newest and fastest changing habitat on the planet – human cities.