David Attenborough, Gorillas and Me - Mick Conway reflects on his encounters with nature

Over Christmas, I saw a programme which reviewed the career of David Attenborough.
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He began making wildlife programmes in the fifties opening the eyes of his audience to the wonders of nature.

Over time, his approach became more sombre as he drew attention to the threats our planet faced.

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Numerous species are named after him: snails, fish, birds, bats and, even, fossils. There is also the arctic exploration ship which bears his name.

David Attenborough enjoys a close encounter with gorillas in Rwanda.David Attenborough enjoys a close encounter with gorillas in Rwanda.
David Attenborough enjoys a close encounter with gorillas in Rwanda.

In spite of all his achievements he appears a humble and sincere man, irritated at the ‘national treasure’ and secular saint tags.

Over time, his programmes became more complex, using sophisticated technology to record the lives of a far greater variety of creatures. For me, this technology became a barrier to my enjoyment, not least because my real life encounters with wildlife could not be more different.

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A few weeks ago, while driving near Inch, I spotted something in the water. I jumped out and crept towards the lake. It was a mother otter and two pups diving.

An otter feedingAn otter feeding
An otter feeding
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Scared of disturbing them, I shifted my position but my view was blocked by trees. In my excitement, I had forgotten my camera. Any shot would have shown three black bobs on a grey background.

I was aware the danger the abandoned car posed and was late for an appointment so I gave up and drove home. The whole drama lasted two minutes.

It was as un-Attenboroughesque as it was possible to be. I am sure he could make a brilliant programme about the otter, following it through a whole year, showing everything from copulation to the independence of cubs.

He would have the advantage of researchers, camera crew, scuba divers and every support to make an entertaining and informative piece of work. However, it is still a drama at second hand viewed from the comfort of an armchair – as quickly forgotten as any piece of TV.

A baby gorillaA baby gorilla
A baby gorilla
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The difficulty is that our real experience of wildlife is more like my encounter with the otters: brief, disorganized and unrecorded.

I can count on two hands the number of times I have seen otters – it is about once a decade. This incident was the best I had ever experienced and will live long after any TV show.

Perhaps the most famous of Attenborough’s many great programmes is his meeting with the gorillas in Rwanda. You must know you are really arrived when people can take the micky out of you without malice.

Mick Conway.Mick Conway.
Mick Conway.

I am thinking of a Rowan Atkinson’s sketch, dressed as a gorilla but speaking with the voice of a sophisticated snob. Closer to home, there was a hilarious skit by Gerry Anderson and Sean Coyle on Radio Foyle of Attenborough’s encounter with the gorilla.

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In 1969, I found myself in Cameroon. Wildlife programmes in Africa featuring spectacular wildlife, lions, elephants, rhinos, cheetahs are almost always based on the open savannah of East Africa. I was in a place called Mamfe which was then in the middle of a tropical rain forest.

I imagined Mamfe would be a great place for seeing wildlife but this was far from the case.

I saw almost nothing, except very scary cockroaches, giant spiders, huge hornets and the occasional black rat.

The trees were enormous, twice the height of Ireland’s.

The locals were aware of the dangers of the forest where getting completely disorientated posed many dangers.

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Except to visit their gardens along well-trodden paths, they rarely ventured.

The locals knew I wanted to see gorillas.

They introduced me to the village hunter, an old man with the knowledge to penetrate the forest.

He did a valuable job catching animals for food. We set off on safari to see the gorillas.

Navigating the trees, the hunter snapped twigs to guide us on our return, checking traps along the way.

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I pestered him about the gorillas. He told me we were close.

Suddenly, one of his traps was sprung but the animal escaped. He became agitated and kept saying, ‘big beef, big beef’.

He carried an ancient flintlock but seemed to put no trust in it. We left in a hurry.

At the village, I recounted the drama. What had he meant by ‘big beef’?

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West Cameroon is about the size of Ulster but has 3,000 languages.

There have been very few advantages of colonialism but I suppose one was that most spoke ‘Pidgin’.

By using just a few words in English, communication was possible between different language speakers.

In Cameroon, Pidgin animals are divided into two groups. 'Little beef' you can eat and 'big beef' can eat you.

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The hunter had been afraid of a leopard or other large animal.

I never got to see the gorillas. Sadly, it is now difficult for anyone to see them in Cameroon.

Their habitat has been decimated by increased population, mining, logging and hunting and they are under threat of extinction.

There is no record of my recent encounter with otters at Inch or my non-encounter with gorillas. Both are memories.

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What makes them valuable is that it was a real experience. In neither case was I sitting on a couch staring at a screen.

To some extent, I shared the same environment as the creatures.

They were brief, messy and incomplete. They would have made poor TV but remain experiences of great value.

WB Yeats sums up their lasting impact in the final line of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree': ‘I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’

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Anyone with an interest in nature needs to leave the couch, especially young people.

In his childhood, Attenborough collected fossils, stones and other natural objects.

This was the basis for his career and massive influence on our perception of nature.

Parents and teachers need to use every opportunity to show children nature in their own surroundings.

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Without this, existential problems – biodiversity, global warming and pollution have little relevance.

I am sure David Attenborough would agree.