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Packed halls hear Attenborough
13 April 2011
Guy Rogers

AN ESTIMATED 2000 people gathered at NMMU on Monday night to listen to a seminal address by celebrated Nature documentary film-maker Sir David Attenborough, 84. The audience packed the university’s main auditorium to watch him live on stage, as well as into two other satellite auditoriums, also at the Port Elizabeth stadium, and a hall at the George campus, where they watched his screened address.

A mix of young and old, students, academics and members of the public, they sprang to their feet and welcomed him with prolonged applause when he arrived – and gave him an even more boisterous standing ovation at the close of his lecture, which focused on the themes of biodiversity, exploration, the independence of Nature and scientific collaboration.

Dozens of fans queued up at the end of his lecture, which was titled “Alfred Russel Wallace and the birds of paradise”,  to meet him personally and get him to autograph copies of his books.

His address preceded the gala ceremony at the university yesterday when he was awarded an honorary doctorate in science.

As Sir David recounted, Wallace was the 19th century British explorer and naturalist best known for his collaboration with Charles Darwin on the formulation of the theory of evolution.

He was also the man who first recorded for western science the amazing birds of paradise that live in the rain forests of Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands.

In the 16th century, the explorer Ferdinand Magellan had returned with extraordinary golden plumes and they started to appear in the crowns and capes of royalty in Asia and Europe. He also brought back stories of the birds from which they came, which “floated ethereally through the forest, sustaining themselves only on dew, never alighting until they die”.

Wallace journeyed to these islands and ended up living there for years studying these birds, which turned out even more remarkable than  the fantastical first tales about them.

The variety of species and the distinctiveness of their different plumage and mating displays led him to lengthy contemplation of how this could have happened and, lying one day in a malarial fever in his village hut, he was seized by an epiphany.

He scrambled to his feet and, sick as he was, managed to scribble down an essay on survival of the fittest, natural selection of traits and evolution. When he recovered he posted this essay (amazingly the postal service was good enough in those days to get a letter from the jungles of South-East Asia through  to England) to Charles Darwin, among other eminent scientists.

Darwin had already been working on a very similar thesis, but he had not yet published. The two men were very different in that Darwin was highly educated and wealthy and Wallace was neither of these. But the story of how the two men agreed to co-operate on the formal formulation and publication of this landmark theory of the origin of species is one of the great stories of science, Attenborough told his audience.

“It could not have been more honourable…. and Wallace deserves to stand alongside Darwin as not only a great scientist but a great philosopher and human being.”

Despite the early discoveries by Wallace on the birds of paradise, the jungles they live in are so remote and impenetrable that little more was discovered for the next 100 years, and there were still no pictures let alone moving footage of the birds.

In the 1950s, shortly after starting at the BBC, Attenborough set out to change this and, over the years, he and his team managed to achieve their aim.

Some of the sequences shot of these birds (there are now known to be 42 different species)  was screened as part of Sir David’s NMMU lecture, inducing gasps of wonder and gales of laughter from the audience.

The birds have never been threatened by natural predators and because of this and the excess of food available in their jungle home, the males do not have to spend time building nests or foraging for food. Instead they concentrate on super-elaborate mating displays using their strange plumage and even stranger manoeuvres – swishing, fanning, “caping”, dancing and swinging like a pendulum from their perches.

Sir David also highlighted Wallace’s observation, made during his time in New Guinea, that these glorious displays had carried on for millenia, “without an intelligent eye to gaze”.

This is a reminder that wild creatures carry on their “loves and hates, their vigorous lives and early deaths…. without need of man”, he said.

“It is a reminder to us that not all living things are made for man or by man.”

 A 2006 Reader’s Digest opinion poll named Sir David “most trusted celebrity in Britain” and, in the same year, New Statesman magazine named him on their list of “10 heroes of our time”.

In an interview with The Herald earlier on Monday, he said that while Earth would likely survive the human onslaught of pollution and species and habitat destruction, it would inevitably become – and was already becoming – less species-rich and more “homogenised”.

But even as we moved toward that outcome, it was worth “banging the conservation drum”, he said.

“In all the hundreds of programmes I’ve done, it’s what I end off with every time. A UN study has revealed that over half the people in the world are now urbanised and out of touch with their natural world,” he said.

“If we don’t bang the drum, if we don’t continue to try to educate and bring awareness, that much more enjoyment of nature will be lost, and the damage to it will be that much worse.


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Your Views

thirsty 18 February 2012 9:23 am

Look at Zimbabwe where they also silenced the press. We have the privelage of hindsight if we use Zimbabwe and other countries that have tried to prevent dictatorial wims and corruption from being exp…

vim 17 February 2012 5:58 pm

What type of brakes are those? About the only great improvement I have noticed lately is in the condition of animals in Walmer. They are still thin, but most of them are better cared for and perky. …

thirsty 16 February 2012 5:42 pm

The department was put under administration in March LAST YEAR, only a year ago, and they still can’t organise a bloody thing (sorry they did strike again). Sounds like Motshekga cant get on top of th…

thirsty 16 February 2012 5:30 pm

It is absolutely pathetic what happenened to this family. But i suppose the police officers are still on duty, not dismissed yet, or apologised to the family yet, we read more and more about this sort…

thirsty 16 February 2012 5:18 pm

Ja Faku and his friends realy have “Fackued up” this Metros financial situation and now we even get more crap to put on the table. I dont think the ANC have a clue of what they are doing and it is ser…

thirsty 16 February 2012 4:59 pm

tell me is it just arragant, bombastic, tenderpreneurial, hollow heads that are in the ANCYL that they think they rule the works. What i find interesting is you never hear anybody from the ANCYL (memb…

Rex 16 February 2012 3:00 pm

What is sad is that this is a common practice for police in the Bay area! Police breaking the law to up-hold the law….This is the world we are forced to live in. I urge all the people whom have been…

BrandGat 16 February 2012 1:43 pm

To all at the Nelson Mandela Metro muncipality, if you can`t take the heat get the hell out of the kitchen,resign enmasse and let a responsible body take charge and sort your mess!…

BrandGat 16 February 2012 12:00 pm

Bays family terror!This smacks of Nazi Germany in the 1930`s who would think in 2007 the SAPS would resort to this type of action against citizens!…

BrandGat 15 February 2012 3:58 am

Malema! playing the race card again? you are on a hiding to nothing and smokescreening the issues will not save you! Justice will be served,and if your`e guilty you will pay….