With an eighth of the planetâs species at risk of dying out, this documentary offered a stark look at the devastation that humans have wreaked, and are wreaking, on the natural world
It is hard to absolutely, positively look forward to an hour-long programme about the many varied, catastrophic ways we have ruined the world around us. David Attenboroughâs Extinction: The Facts (BBC One) was as upsetting as you might expect. If his earlier Planet Earth series delivered joyous portraits of nature at its most spectacular, here we had beautifully shot footage of monkeys desperately leaping into a river to escape a forest fire, a baby bear looking lost in a ransacked, smoking landscape, and the corpses of killer whales, tangled in fishing nets, rotting on the shore. It was unbearably painful to watch.
People who make programmes about the environment are constantly searching for new ways to force us to pay attention, to make sure we resist the temptation to change channel in search of less distressing content. This time they tried making the theme of extinction feel urgent by filtering it through the prism of the coronavirus pandemic. But there is something depressing about this need to persuade people to focus on the imminent extinction of 1m different species by appealing to our self-interest, highlighting how humans will ultimately suffer as a result of the devastation we have brought upon ourselves.
âThis year, we have been shown we have gone one step too far. Scientists have linked out destructive relationship with nature to the emergence of Covid-19,â a mournful Attenborough said. Itâs sad that both the scientists and the film-makers sense the problem of extinction has to be shown to hurt us (in the form of triggering global pandemics that cut a swathe through humanity) before we really care enough to engage.
Because, actually, once you had steeled yourself to absorb the stream of images of the tragedy unfolding around us, this was an immensely powerful film on its own terms, and not simply in the context of the extra disruption that Covid-19 has caused over the past six months.
Attenboroughâs regretful delivery of the facts only made them worse to hear. There were a few flashes of a youthful, more carefree version of him, laughing as he filmed endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda in the 70s, but his tone has become stricken, acknowledging the failures of his and current generations to tackle the challenge. He was joined by a chorus of aghast scientists, offering a bald summary of the accelerating state of decline. One million species out of 8m on earth are now threatened with extinction, they reminded us. Since 1970, vertebrate populations â birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles â have declined by 60%. While extinction is a natural process, it is the current rapid rate that is the problem. Studies suggest that extinction is now happening hundreds of times faster than the natural evolutionary rate and it is accelerating.
As you would expect from an Attenborough film, we learned much about some of the worldâs most extraordinary animals, but touching footage of the giant anteater (who carries its pup lovingly draped over its back) was there only to illustrate the rapidly dwindling area of its remaining habitat in Brazil. Endearing shots of the nocturnal pangolin, which can consume 70m ants a year, was included only because it has become the most trafficked animal in the world, as a result of specious claims about the medicinal properties of its scales.
All this was set against the unforgiving soundtrack of a whirring electric chainsaw, cutting into the thick trunks of ancient trees, and the crunching of industrial machinery crashing through the forests. The only polar bears and tigers that featured were the decapitated hunting trophies stored in customs warehouses, next to grinning crocodile heads and confiscated snakeskin boots.
There is a formula that makers of this documentary genre struggle to get right. They need the correct balance between displaying current levels of devastation and instilling a sense of urgency, while simultaneously offering an optimistic promise that it still isnât quite too late for things to change. Contemplating his own mortality, Attenborough did his best. âI do truly believe that, together, we can make a better future. I might not be here to see it, but if we make the right decisions at this critical moment, we can safeguard our planetâs ecosystem.â He showed how careful work by Rwandan conservationists has ensured that the mountain gorillas he filmed in the 70s have survived.
But this offered only a faint glimmer of hope. Images of the planetâs last two remaining white rhinos were the starkest illustration of how badly things have gone wrong. âWe betrayed them,â the Kenyan conservationist James Mwenda said. A heartbreaking hour, but essential television.
Actu monde – GB – Extinction: The Facts review â a heartbreaking warning from David Attenborough