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Amazing Lives Special: David Attenborough at 90

Aired September 2, 2016 - 14:00:00   ET



[14:00:00] HEADLINES)

AMANPOUR: Tonight, an amazing live special.

Sir David Attenborough at 90. The renowned British broadcaster and naturalist on his wild encounters protecting the planet and his passion for

our wondrous world.


DAVID ATTENBOROUGH, BRITISH BROADCASTER AND NATURALIST: If you talk to young people today, young people are passionate about wildlife. Much more

they were when I was a kid. When I was there, they're really, really angry of what people are doing in Africa.


Good evening, everyone, and welcome to a very special edition of our "Amazing Lives" series. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

To many, indeed, hundreds of millions of people around the world, he needs no introduction. We've grown up watching him and listening to his soothing

voice, which is our soundtrack to nature's awesome. He is Sir David Attenborough. The legendary naturalist and broadcaster who's covered some

of our most endangered species for over 60 years. Coming face to face with the many curious inhabitants.

He's also witnessed firsthand humanities impact on our planet. And at 90, he's nowhere near putting his feet up. His passion for nature, for

protecting our planet and his hunger for exploration are all as vibrant as ever.

He gives very rare interviews, but we got one. And you will see all of this as we explore his amazing life.


AMANPOUR: Sir David Attenborough, welcome to our program.

ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: You turned 90 this year and you are still going gang busters. What is the secret of your passion and you energy still today?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I think it helps to be interested in what you are doing. And, of course, an awful lot of people including me would actually

pay for what I'm doing to be truthful and so why stop? And I'm -- but it's a lottery, isn't it?

I mean, you know, I know a lot of people tougher than me or whatever, all sorts of things, but you can't do it anymore. I mean, it's not their fault

if they can't remember things -- well, I can't remember a lot of things. But, you know, not being able to walk is pretty bad.

AMANPOUR: But you have so much energy. You are so active.

What do you remember about how you first got fascinated in this world of wildlife?

ATTENBOROUGH: I think that every child born is interested in the world of wildlife. And by the age of four, they are still interested. I mean, I

took out and got to someone, he turned over a stone, he said -- oh, look, what a treasure, a slug. You know -- and of course, he's right, you know.

What were those funny things on the front floor? How can it eat? What does it feed on? How does it even move?

AMANPOUR: And people have come to know and love you in your programs because of the way you relate to the animals, and you never seem to lose

that world, that wow factor.

What if you could would be your biggest wow factor in terms of the animals that you have met and frankly communicated with.

[14:05:00] ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I mean, you can't -- I can't communicate with a tiger, you know. I can't completely communicate with a jellyfish.

We are primates.

And we can, but -- and we can communicate with other primates. There are other things, too. I mean we can communicate with dogs and we can

communicate with dolphins if you are clever enough.

AMANPOUR: Well, you say primates. And, of course, there is that classic footage of you with the gorillas, where you were doing a presentation to

camera and all of a sudden, the gorilla sort of took over.

We are just going to play it.


ATTENBOROUGH: There is more meaning and understanding and exchanging of bonds on the gorilla in any of the animal right now.

And this is how they spend the rest of their day, lounging on the ground, grooming one another. Sometimes, they even allow others to join in.


AMANPOUR: It never gets old, Sir David. It never, ever gets old.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, it couldn't have happened, of course, except for an amazing, amazing woman Dr. Dian Fossey who habituated those. So they were

accustomed to it.

Again, you know, I get all kinds of unjustified credit and reflected glory.

People think how clever. Dian Fossey made that possible, not me.

AMANPOUR: And you had this amazing moment also with a baby rhino, and literally you got on all fours and you started to make rhino noises, or try

to imitate the noises that the rhino was making.

But, you know, you don't often see a grown man on all fours communicating at the animal's level.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, naturally. I mean, yes, not terrifically clever to be on all fours. I mean, I would do it if you like.


AMANPOUR: I don't want you to do it.

Just listen for a second.




AMANPOUR: I mean, it is amazing. And as you say, he had to (INAUDIBLE). He was living in a very dark world. Then he had an operation. But I just

want to fast forward now. Because those rhinos, plus the elephants are facing very, very serious peril to their existence. Some are facing


CNN has just done an amazing report following a census of the savannah elephants and finding the most appalling figures where they say that, for

instance, between 2007 and 2014, that's in seven years, the populations have declined in 15 countries by 30 percent.

And today, over the last couple of years, have been declining at about eight percent, mostly due to poaching and some will face extinction.

What do you say to that?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I think it's a crime. And a crime that if it happens will rest heavily on humanity's shoulders. What a dreadful thing to do,


AMANPOUR: What should people be doing to stop this kind of thing? I mean, governments have tried, conservationist have tried and yet the poachers

some say are acting like organized criminals using heavy machine guns and AK-47s.

ATTENBOROUGH: They are. I mean, I think in the end, it's going to have come to it. That they can't become totally protected and that I have to

say that ivory -- certainly ivory collected no more than 100 years old should be illegal. And that's the only way of getting around it.

AMANPOUR: Do you ever worry after six decades of doing this, that, you know, this great planet, this great wildlife is in deeper danger than even

the most dedicated conservationist can prevent.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, I do. Of course, I do.

The awful thing is that we know how to fix it, you know?

It's like magic. I mean, we know the steps that could be taken. And we need to get the world's nations to agree to do it. That's the problem. It

can be done.

AMANPOUR: You know, if anybody's program, if anybody's life's work has been exactly dedicated to that is you. You were the pioneer and you remain

the master of this profession.

Are people paying enough attention?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, they're not paying enough, that's for sure. But they're paying more than they did, you know?

And if you talk to young people today, young people are passionate about wildlife. Much more than they were when I was a kid. When I was their

age. They're really, really angry at what people are doing to the natural world. And they really want to care about it and do something about it.

[14:10:00] AMANPOUR: Are you in any doubt about the manmade impact on the climate and we, as humans, have to change this.

ATTENBOROUGH: There is no doubt. There is no doubt that there's global warming. There can't be any doubt about that at all. The argument can be

is how far we are responsible, but even if we weren't responsible, we ought to be doing something to stop it.

And we can. Again, we know what to do. We should stop burning carbon. Simple as that. And, again, we could do it if we want to do it.

Just the slightest concentration by the technologically-advanced nations of the world to try and find a way of taking renewable resources from the sun,

and the wind, and the sea to replace carbon-based energy. It can be done. We got all the basic science. We need simply to refine the technology to

make it cheaper. (INAUDIBLE)

AMANPOUR: Let's go from this industrialized picture to the bird of paradise moment that you found when you are doing one of your programs

right here.

I mean, again, we are going to show you speaking as the bird wants to get his words in edgeways as well.


ATTENBOROUGH: Carl Linnaeus is the great crucifier of the natural world.


When he came to allocate a scientific name to this bird, called it --


ATTENBOROUGH: Paradisaea Apoda. The bird of paradise without legs.



AMANPOUR: Well, you finally got it out, what you were trying to say, but - -


ATTENBOROUGH: Well, that bird was bred in captivities. So it knew human voices. And I'm sure it was reacting to me as though it was being caught

in some kind of way

AMANPOUR: What do you feel in terms of, you know, contact, in terms of emotion when you have an incident and a moment like that, whether it's the

bird of paradise, whether it's communing with the rhino or the gorillas?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, of course, it is -- it takes you out of the human condition if I can put it that way. I remember one occasion, in a very

remote part of North Australia, and I never forget it. It's just one of those odd instances, but the sun came up.

And there was this billabong, this lagoon in front of me, full of the most fabulous birds, egrets, and crocodiles, and duck, and geese that's on, and

they're all busy doing their business and they didn't know you were there.

And then suddenly, the camera moved and of course, it turned to the light. And then the whole lot took off. But before their next paradise, you know?

Before humanity entered, that was how nature is originally once was. And that's a moment to -- revelation, recognition of something beyond us, you



AMANPOUR: Coming up in part two of our special conversation, nature and politics as we tackle climate change. And Attenborough's take on the human

specifies from a rare tribe in Papua New Guinea to the occupant of the White House. That's all next.


[14:15:00] AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the special edition of "Amazing Lives" with Sir David Attenborough.

The 90-year-old naturalist has seen more of our planet than most of us put together. And he's gone from a climate change skeptic to a true believer.

In the next part of our conversation, what he thought of President Obama interviewing him, and how he communicated with a rate Biami tribe of Papua

New Guinea.


AMANPOUR: You also have explored other human tribes. The famous Biami tribe -- am I saying that right? What were you looking for then? Why were

you going off to people, not animals?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, you know, it is a remarkable thing. Surprisingly, how eloquent you can be. Somebody who doesn't know a single word of your

language, or indeed haven't met your kind before.

But he -- I would know that he was aggressive or feeling aggressive. You know, you would know by the way he moves his eyebrows. And by the way he

stand. And he knew I was not aggressive.


ATTENBOROUGH: Now, they seem sufficiently confident for me to look at their personal ornaments, and perhaps in the process, he's got a few Biami


In his ear, he had what I recognize is a Casari (ph) quill bent into a ring. Every one of them had two ritual punctures in his nose and he had

pegs in them. What were they?

In their mouth, they were just little wooden pegs.


ATTENBOROUGH: And the interesting thing is that one of the ways that you tell in Papua New Guinea, the relationships of people is the way they count

the gestures. They use to count them. They are different from different groups.

So one, two, three, four, five -- that' easy. Unless it goes, one, two, three, four, five. But it's certainly one, two, three, four, five.

Why did you do that? What's six?

In his line, it was six, seven, eight --

AMANPOUR: You are kidding?


AMANPOUR: How did you get into this business? In other words, you know, there you were loving your fossils, you were working at the BBC and radio,

but how did you get to be a presenter? Was that sort of a pre-ordain journey?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I mean, it's a showbiz thing. I mean, you know, somebody falls down and I got a chance.

I first went to Africa with a lovely man called Jack Lester. He was a curator of reptiles in London Zoo. He was there to collect reptiles. And

I thought it was a good idea to make a program about how a zoo man does that.

Technically, he got very ill of his program. And because there was a live ingredient in it, the program was going to come on next week. Come the

director of television, BBC set it up and you were there now, the person is not, so you do it.

So I did.


AMANPOUR: I did actually read an anecdote that it wasn't actually such a smooth ride. One of your first attempts at broadcasting was sort of mix.

And looking at that picture now, I'm going to point out to it, because they said, no, we don't want Attenborough back again because he got way too big

front teeth.

ATTENBOROUGH: That's true. And the man who produced that program, that very first interview when I was used as an interviewer, he retired. And

there he was, (INAUDIBLE).

Attenborough is an intelligent young man, but he should not be used as an interviewer because his teeth are too big.


AMANPOUR: Well, you certainly had the last laugh on that one.



AMANPOUR: But, you know, it is extraordinary because most people know of you, you know hundreds and millions of people all over the world for more

than six decades, have been watching you in the field with all of these animals bringing us the wildlife.

But you were control. You were the man in charge before all of that at BBC, too. You brought Monty Python, flying circus to television. I mean,

that's pretty amazing in itself.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I joined BBC when television was very small, (INAUDIBLE). And I was a producer for ten to fifteen years. And then the

BBC got a new network, opportunity and they wanted a new controller and they asked me to do it. And I did it.

I thought, you know, (INAUDIBLE), I thought. So I got this job, and I then I was on that for four years. And then I became responsible for both

networks, which has won the entire Monty Python was done. And that was OK.

But then I spent eight years sitting behind the desk, and OK, you know, the kids are educated, (INAUDIBLE), what are you doing?

You know, there is Patrick O'Neill (ph). You've never been to Patrick O'Neill (ph).

AMANPOUR: I hear you. I know how you feel.


[14:20:09] Patagonia and also under water. I mean, you did something. I think you were not quite 90 yet, but you were getting up to 90 and you got

into this unbelievable submersible and went down to the barrier reef, to the seabed.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, that's a double. We're just getting into a thing, we're just doing the thing down and down we go.

AMANPOUR: Was it scary? Claustrophobic?

ATTENBOROUGH: Not at all. Not at all.

AMANPOUR: Otherworldly?

ATTENBOROUGH: No, because you got a re-breather. Say you are changing -- I mean, I had been to other submersible. (INAUDIBLE). But you see, I'm

just sitting in an armchair, watching television.

AMANPOUR: And there's a wonderful big, giant reef turtle. It is better than television.

ATTENBOROUGH: It is a huge privilege, of course. You know, fantastic. But because, I have done in submersibles earlier, where suddenly you have

to worry about every breathe, you know, getting hot and so on, but there, it was just fantastic privilege.

AMANPOUR: You say it was a fantastic privilege, but one of President Obama's biggest privileged as he said was actually sitting down and

interviewing you. I mean, talk about reversal of roles.

What was that like for you?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes. As a matter of fact, while we are walking through the Rose Garden, and the way it went out, he said to me -- of course, you know,

I'm very interested in the natural world because I was born in Hawaii, and I grew up in Hawaii. And I said, in that case, you would know the

Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. And he said, oh, I know about that.

And the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a is a state fish of Hawaii. It's a coral fish. A beautiful fish. Kind of triggerfish.

He knew. So I was talking about knowing the natural world. It wasn't just, you know, put on to the occasion. He knew.

AMANPOUR: I just want to bring up this picture of the orang-utan.

What would you say, for instance, if you sat with the president of Borneo or if Indonesia, where these habitats were in deep, deep danger?

ATTENBOROUGH: The president of Borneo would agree with me.

AMANPOUR: But why is he allowing his forest completely burned down?


ATTENBOROUGH: Because it's a very difficult problem. They are wonderful creatures. Look at that.

AMANPOUR: Listen to the sound here, because you said he looks like he's doing a circus trick.


ATTENBOROUGH: She's seeing others doing it and she's copying. And like ability to imitate as well as to use tools. It's something which started

from monkeys, but has been born to a much greater level among the apes. Those two counts were ultimately to lead to the transformation of the



AMANPOUR: So again, the president of Borneo, the president of Indonesia, where their countries are denying these animals their rightful home.

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh, he will say, I agree with you. But, of course, there are other people. It's a difficult country. It's difficult to control

people and so on. The word is that -- the execution that's the problem.


AMANPOUR: He's explored oceans deep and mountains high. His breakout broadcast was the 13 part "Life on Earth" series, which made him a

household name when 500 million people around the world watched in 1979.

But what about the final frontier? David Attenborough on experiencing zero gravity. And whether he's keen for a life out of this world. That's next.


[14:25:40] AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where our planet's biggest friend and explorer leaves it all behind for space. Don't

worry he's not blasting off. David Attenborough would miss earth too much and quite frankly, we'd miss him.


AMANPOUR: You've been on the sea, you've been in the jungles and the deserts and all over the place, even under the sea. You also experienced

zero gravity. You haven't been to space, but you have done that simulation. And the images are really amazing. You just looked as if you

were having the best time of your life. tell me about it.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, that was just how you train astronauts, which is, you know, if you go up like that, you're only -- you'll swing. You'll suddenly

feel the feeling in your stomach. So you are lifting off from your seat. And it was breathtakingly exciting.

And the first time it happened, you thought, this is wonderful. And then because we are doing it again, the second (INAUDIBLE). And then the third

time. And that was about five times.

Well, I probably had enough of this now. And they said, well, I'm sorry but we got to do 35, because we are doing a testing of actual drug to sea

sickness. And so we have to go through it. And so after 35 times, I thought that was enough.

AMANPOUR: That's enough.

What does space say to you, the last frontier, in terms of our environment, our universe? Would you like to have explored that, too?

ATTENBOROUGH: Not really. Not really. Well, there's no animals there and no flowers there.

AMANPOUR: Are we sure?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, absolutely sure.

Do you think there is an orchid up there on Venus? There might be an ocular on a different Venus, but it's not on that Venus.


AMANPOUR: Any regrets?

ATTENBOROUGH: No. It sounds terrible, doesn't it? I'm tempted to say, yes. I spent the time behind the desk, but that was rewarding in its way.

I just thought I didn't do it the whole of my life.


AMANPOUR: All right. We'll be following you on your trips.


AMANPOUR: Sir David Attenborough, thank you very much, indeed.



AMANPOUR: And that is it for this special edition of "Amazing Life."

Remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for watching and good-bye from London.