Extinction: The Facts will be broadcast at 8pm BST on 13 September on BBC One
A ridiculously young-looking David Attenborough laughs and plays with an infant gorilla called Poppy, in a welcome moment of light relief in the BBC’s new documentary on global biodiversity loss.
The scene comes at the end of a difficult hour-long examination of the ways in which humanity may be driving a sixth mass extinction and how this loss is affecting us in turn, including links to the covid-19 pandemic. Given that the facts are so dire, the show is often unbearably and unremittingly bleak too.
Loosely hooked to a major UN biodiversity report published last year, which found that the survival of 1 million species was at risk, Extinction: The Facts is a whistle-stop tour of our destruction of nature. A stellar cast of academics and experts from NGOs tell the story of a decline in mammals, plants and fish that Attenborough says “isn’t just disturbing, it’s deeply tragic”.
The big drivers of this devastation are ticked off: habitat loss, climate change and the “escalator to extinction” as species try to adapt to higher and cooler homes. The illegal wildlife trade is also covered, accompanied by harrowing footage of ivory, pangolins and more. The effects of long-term exposure to pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – which were mostly banned internationally in 1986, but still end up in seas – are seen for orcas off the coast of Scotland, UK. Even less photogenic subjects, such as the organisms we are losing from our soils, get a look in.
At times, too much has been crammed into an hour – some sections are an unsatisfying mix of shallow sound bites and generic-looking footage of overfishing and power plants, for instance. It would have been better to cut some parts to allow others to breathe.
Still, the film-makers made some smart decisions on what to include. Viewers expecting a simple nature documentary will be confronted with facts about the pressures from a global population heading to 9 billion and overconsumption by high-income countries, plus details on supply chains that link animal feed for chickens in China to deforestation across South America.
The show is made relevant by delving into the links between our destruction of nature and the emergence of spillover diseases such as SARS, swine flu and, of course, covid-19. Peter Daszak, a zoonotic disease expert and the president of research group EcoHealth Alliance, eloquently lays the blame on humans encroaching on wild animals’ habitats. Elizabeth Hadly at Stanford University, meanwhile, points out that our disruption of ecosystems favours the small-bodied species, such as rats and bats, that can transmit disease to us.
The diversity of the talking heads is another highlight. While there is a star turn from the charismatic Bob Watson, chair of the body behind last year’s biodiversity report, there are also welcome contributions from people in regions of Africa and South America where nature is being plundered.
But the documentary is at its strongest when it zooms in and slows down. It delves into the exploitation of pangolins in Asia and the baby-carrying giant anteaters that are dying at roadsides in Brazil’s Cerrado region, before focusing on a ranger who is looking after the last two northern white rhinos in the world and then switching to Attenborough on the recovery of mountain gorillas.
The final minutes on the recovery of mountain gorillas, numbers of which rose from around 250 in the 1970s to more than 1000 now, feel a little glib as an example of how to stem biodiversity loss, given the scale of the problem laid out earlier. Yet despite its minor flaws, Extinction: The Facts is nonetheless a success, right down to Attenborough’s final rousing call for us all to fight for a “better future”.
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