Wild Burma: Gordon Buchanan on exploring Nature’s Lost Kingdom

RadioTimes.com speaks to the BBC presenter about opening a time capsule of natural history, escaping a forest fire and fending off wild elephants…

Burma has been closed to the world for five decades. The result? Miles and miles of intact forests undisturbed by commercial gain and human greed. In Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom (9pm, 29 November, BBC2) wildlife experts Justine Evans, Ross Piper and Gordon Buchanan (Natural World, Big Cat Diaries, Springwatch) are granted access to the jungle by the Burmese government to monitor the animals in the area and attempt to convince the powers that be to protect this rare habitat.


“We were the first scientific group that has been there ever,” explains Buchanan. “It was very exciting to go to this mysterious part of the globe.”

The team stomped off on a Victorian-style expedition with little to guide them except old maps created before the Second World War. “We did get the sense that we were going into unknown territory,” admits Buchanan. “Quite often on an expedition like this there will be helicopter support, so you can fly in, but there isn’t that kind of infrastructure in Burma. We had to resort to good old fashioned man power.”

The camera crew, scientists and around 100 porters trekked for days in hot conditions, over mountains and through rivers, to set up camp in the most remote regions. “We were there to help the Burmese government uncover which animals are living where,” explains Buchanan. “The democratic change coming about in Burma means they will have to plan for the future and plan for the habitat that they have.”

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Species-wise, what Buchanan and his team discovered was better than they ever could have ever imagined. Sun bears, golden cats, elephants, tigers and a new species of bat were among the creatures they encountered in the wild. “In Burma, one of the most common animals we found was one of the world’s most elusive cats and one of the hardest to spot elsewhere – the clouded leopard,” reveals Buchanan, “but there seems to be a good population of them in this part of the world.”

The problem with going into unchartered territories is that you never know what you are going to come across. Buchanan and his team found themselves right in the middle of a forest fire. “This fire could move faster than we were able to run,” he explained. “It was just racing across the mountainside…when the forest was burning there was lots of ash and the embers were going up with the wind. We found that the fire was burning on all sides of us, so we had to skedaddle out of there. We ran and found that the way was blocked by the fire.

“We found one place where there was not much else to burn and managed to get out. It was still burning but we had big hefty boots on, so we could walk over it. In the right conditions, with dry bamboo and the wind behind a fire, it can be really frightening.”

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Fire wasn’t the only threat the BBC team faced, they were particularly worried about elephants. “They were the biggest threat in the jungle,” says Buchanan. “Elephants never forget. If there are elephants that have had bad experiences, through poaching for example, the next time they see people or smell people they get very concerned about it. The best thing to do is stay out of their way”; not so easy when you’re there to film them. 

“If you want to film them, make sure you’re up a steep bank or up a tree. If you come face to face with them the best thing you can do is drop what you’re carrying and run away. If you run downhill, elephants are not at their fastest, so if you drop everything and run downhill the hope is that the elephant will come to what you have dropped and investigate that rather than chase after you. If you’ve got a hat or scarf just drop it, because an elephant’s curiosity will get the better of it and hopefully it will give you a bit of time to get out of the way.”

After making it safely out of the jungle, Buchanan and the team hope they’ve done enough to convince the Burmese that they should conserve their natural spaces. And although it’s easier now than it ever has been to travel to this corner of the globe, Buchanan hopes that travellers will be responsible. “It’s a varied country with lots of beautiful landscapes and mountainous area, it’s really interesting in terms of geology and you’ve got this coastal area that runs the full length of the country, but I would hate to go back in 20 years and see those beautiful golden beaches were full of hotels and tourists lounging about,” he says, “right now Burma is still a special place that’s been locked in time.”

Watch Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom at 9pm, November 29 on BBC2


Visit Burma with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details