David Attenborough turned ninety last year. In a short animation celebrating his birthday, two Aardman penguins muse on their first meeting with the famous naturalist. ‘There’s something just about him,’ says the first penguin. ‘I don’t know why you wouldn’t love David Attenborough,’ declares the second. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who does not admire Attenborough. Over the decades his work has fundamentally has shaped the way we think about ‘wilderness’ and the natural world. His influence on nature education and conservation – and modern broadcasting – is incalculable. It is rather astonishing to think that Attenborough has been making nature documentaries for longer than most of us have been alive.
In many ways, Attenborough’s long career maps out our changing attitudes to nature conservation. Adventures of a Young Naturalist is a compilation of three books originally written and published in the 1950s about Attenborough’s earliest expeditions – to Guyana, Paraguay, and Indonesia. The Zoo Quest programs were collecting expeditions, documenting the capture of wild animals for the London Zoo. They are more reminiscent of the hands-on physicality and showmanship of Harry Butler or Steve Irwin than of the quiet, non-interventionist observation of modern Attenborough documentaries. If the approach has dated, there is no denying the good intentions and the importance of such endeavours in promoting conservation and environmental protection in many places that might otherwise have been ignored.