Celebrating Sir David Attenborough at 90

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In the year of Sir David Attenborough’s 90th birthday, Zoological Director Professor David Field looks back on his incredible career, his ongoing relationship with ZSL and his lasting impact on the world of conservation.

David Attenborough opens Komodo Dragon House at ZSL London Zoo

For many, including myself, Sir David Attenborough is the voice of the natural world. Throughout his prolific 60-year career he has engaged generations of people from all walks of life with the wonders of the nature. From the instance his iconic, measured voice begins over a documentary, I know that what follows will be a true representation of the wonders of nature, presented by someone with a passion for wildlife that matches everyone here at ZSL. 

It is safe to say that in the last half a century, no one has had more of an impact on natural history broadcasting than Sir David, but his influence has stretched far beyond the realms of broadcasting, and into the world of conservation itself. Countless staff and volunteers working here and around the world for the Zoological Society of London, cite him as their inspiration to work for the planet’s wildlife.

ZSL has been honoured to work with Sir David since the very beginning of his career. The first natural history programme he worked on, The Pattern of Animals (1953), featured animals from ZSL London Zoo and explored animals’ camouflage and courtship displays. It was while producing this programme that Attenborough met Jack Lester, then ZSL London Zoo’s Curator of Reptiles, and the foundations were laid for the great career that followed. 

Together Attenborough and Lester devised the plans for Zoo Quest, a joint venture between the BBC and ZSL. The programme followed ZSL animal collection expeditions around the world and explored the culture and wildlife of the different countries they passed through. Though it was initially to be presented by Lester, he unfortunately fell ill during filming and Sir David stepped in, setting him on the path for an illustrious career in front of the camera. 

Zoo Quest was an outstanding success. Running for seven series, it was the most popular natural history programme of its time.  It marked the first time many species were seen by the British public, as Attenborough and his crew collected the first wild footage of animals such as the Komodo dragon and birds of paradise.  

The programme catapulted Attenborough to fame. Two years after Zoo Quest’s final series, Quest under Capricorn, Attenborough became controller of BBC Two (1965), and was awarded the ZSL Silver Medal, for “contributions to the understanding and appreciation of zoology, including such activities as public education in natural history, and wildlife conservation”, the same year.

Throughout his career, Sir David has revisited ZSL and his days presenting Zoo Quest. He often visited the offspring of an orphaned orangutan he brought back during the third series of the programme. Due to his surrogate ‘grandparent’ status to the young ape, the keepers allowed him to choose her name, Bulu, meaning ‘little hairy one’ in Malay. In 2015 he revisited footage of the original Zoo Quest for Paradise Birds in the BBC’s Attenborough’s Paradise Birds, during which he visited the incredible species we have in the Blackburn Pavilion.

Sir David Attenborough and Bulu the orangutan
Sir David Attenborough and Bulu the orangutan

Over the years, Sir David has become not just the voice of nature, but a voice for its protection, and has consistently lent his influence to our cause: the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.  In 2008, in his role as patron of the Amphibian Ark initiative (AArk), he launched the Year of the Frog Campaign at ZSL London Zoo, which sought to raise awareness of the global threats to amphibians, and support research to safeguard their future. You can learn more about the AArk by visiting the Reptile House here at ZSL London Zoo.  

His positive influence seemed to extend to animals themselves on this occasion; eight Mission golden-eyed tree frogs, which had lived at ZSL London Zoo for nearly three years without mating, did so following his visit.

The awe Sir David invokes when he visits is palpable. I have witnessed entire rooms of people, from eminent scientists to hardened field conservationists, fall silent in respect and hang off his every word. And he always has time for people on these occasions, too. So many times, I have seen  zoo visitors approach him just shake his hand and tell him how he has changed their lives – and I think many of the animals here would say that, too.

Throughout his remarkable broadcasting career, Sir David has spread his infectious passion for nature across the globe. His inspiring influence can be seen not only in those who work for and visit ZSL but also millions who watch his programmes worldwide. 

To me, Sir David Attenborough is one of the best ambassadors animals could have. He has helped bring the wonders of the animal kingdom into hearts and homes worldwide, he inspires people to work for wildlife, and he remains a true guardian of the natural world.

How ZSL is celebrating 

David Attenborough and the Zoological Society of London - An Interactive Timeline

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