In 1960, David Attenborough visited the island of Madagascar to film one of his first ever wildlife series. He now returns to the island on a very personal quest.
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This is a story of an ancient island, an extinct giant
and a mystery that I have been puzzling over for half my life.
50 years ago, I came here to the island of Madagascar
to make a series of programmes about the island's remarkable wildlife.
That was way back in the early days of television
when everything was in black and white.
It was one of the first natural history series that I had made.
Madagascar lies in the Indian ocean, here,
and even on a globe this size, it looks a tiny island,
perhaps because it is dwarfed by this vast continent of Africa.
But in fact it is an immense island.
Over 1,000 miles long, it is bigger than the British Isles.
I was astonished by the animals I saw.
They were unlike anything living elsewhere.
And while I was here, much to my surprise,
I acquired an extraordinary object that has been one of my most treasured possessions ever since.
Down in the south of the island, I found lying in the desert sand
pieces of what looked like very thick eggshell.
I knew that a huge extinct bird had once lived down here.
These must be bits of its eggs.
I asked the local people about them.
They were more than obliging.
The fragments were all small and could give little idea
of the size of a complete egg, but then a young boy brought in these.
At first I thought they were just a collection of exceptionally big bits
that he had picked up over some time,
but then I noticed that two of them looked as if they might fit together.
I had apparently got myself a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
And they did fit,
so I joined them with the sticky tape we used to seal our film cams.
Soon I had built up two halves.
This was a single immense egg
and it was virtually complete.
I reckoned it must have contained as much as 140 chicken eggs.
The bird that laid it must have been a giant indeed.
But this raised all kinds of questions.
How old was this egg? When did this bird die out?
And what does it tell us about man's relationship with the wildlife here?
Here is the egg, professionally put together, almost as good as new.
It is to me at any rate a wonderful object.
After all it is the largest egg ever laid by anything.
But what particularly fascinates me
is the thought of the bird that laid it.
What sort of a creature was it?
Well, stories about gigantic birds have been circulating in Europe
since the 13th century when Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveller and explorer,
came back from the East with stories of a huge bird,
"so big that its wings covered an extent of 30 paces
"and its quills were 12 paces long, and it's so strong
"that it will seize an elephant in its talons
"and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces."
Stories of a bird so big they could lift an elephant.
And that's what gave it the name of elephant bird.
But after those rather unbelievable stories,
there were other more concrete stories too, in the 17th century.
This is an account of Madagascar written by Flacourt
who was a French governor of the island
and he lists all the animals that he knows in the island of Madagascar and he draws most of them,
but if you look through here, there is no picture of a bird that could be an elephant bird.
There's an egret, there's a heron, but nothing bigger.
But he does say that there was a big ostrich-type bird
in the south of the island.
So maybe he heard stories
of the elephant bird.
But was it alive then?
He doesn't say. Of course,
we know now that the bird is certainly extinct,
but when did it disappear?
Since I collected this egg, techniques have been developed
which enable us to date it, so I've sent off a small fragment of it for that to be done.
It will take a little time for the results to come through
but after 50 years, I guess I can wait a few weeks longer.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Madagascar to have another look at its wonderful animals
and see how things have changed in the last 50 years.
Some species are thought to have disappeared since I was last here
and new ones have also been discovered.
Could the story of the elephant bird, whatever it turns out to be,
help me to understand what is going on there today?
50 years ago, Madagascar was little known, certainly in Britain.
Until only a few years before, it had been a French colony.
I really didn't know anything about it when I started to read about it
and the only illustrations I could find were drawings or photographs
of stuffed specimens in French publications.
So I thought, OK, that's great, nobody else has filmed there,
and I don't really think there had really been
any natural history film made from Madagascar at all in 1960 that I could find.
It was just me and Geoff Mulligan with his camera, and we were there for four months.
Because the island has been cut off for so long,
evolution has had a chance to produce a whole range of unique animals and plants.
But first, what about the elephant bird?
Beyond the legends, what more do we know about it?
The country's capital is Antananarivo, or Tana, as the locals call it,
and the place to go if you want to find out about the island's natural history is obviously its museum.
It had stuffed examples of some of the animals I already knew something about.
But I also found a mounted skeleton of the huge bird that interests me so much,
one of the very few that exists.
So how tall was the elephant bird?
Not an easy question to answer because very few skeletons are totally complete
and so many of the mounted specimens have been put together
with a number bones from different specimens,
and if you get overenthusiastic maybe it's quite possible
that you stick in one or two extra neck bones.
So we can't be sure about the length of the neck,
nor can we be sure about the posture, really.
This one looks to me rather front heavy
and it could well be that in life the animal was more upright,
in which case it stood very tall indeed.
What - ten feet, 12 feet, that sort of size -
in order to be able to reach the leaves of trees on which it browsed.
But a more safe characteristic is weight,
and you can be fairly sure the estimate of that,
and it's reckoned that the elephant bird weighed around half a tonne.
The extinct moas of New Zealand might perhaps have been taller,
but this was certainly the heaviest bird that ever existed
and, of course, it was flightless, like an ostrich.
Most of its remains have been found down in the dry, hot, southern end of the island
where I had collected my egg fragments,
so, on leaving Tana, that's where we headed.
Sounds like forever, 50 years, to me,
but it's really the day before yesterday, I reckon,
that I was here doing that sort of stuff.
I can't believe that it's 50 years.
Southern Madagascar really is one of the oddest places on the world,
if only because of its bizarre vegetation.
I hadn't known what the spiny forest was.
They showed me plants like long fingers 20 feet high,
30 feet high, with spines all over them and little leaves, you know.
This spiny forest was once widespread in the south,
but now there are only a few pockets of it left.
Big leaves would lose a lot of precious water in a hot desert,
so these plants have very small ones that are protected from browsing animals by sharp spines.
But what browsers?
Presumably, one was the elephant bird.
Some browsers, however, are still around,
and 50 years ago, we went to look for them.
The spines make this a fairly uncomfortable place to move around in.
But eventually we found those browsers.
And they are still here.
Sifakas, a wonderful type of lemur.
They are feeding on bark, stripping away the bark.
They are not particularly upset by my presence any more than they were when I first saw them 50 years ago.
What is astonishing about them is the way they move through the forest.
Very unlike monkeys.
Monkeys, when they leap, leap hands first,
their torso more or less level,
but these marvellous creatures
jump upright because they land with their feet first, which accounts for
why when they come down to the ground very rarely
their legs are so long they can't walk on all fours,
as many monkeys do, but have to stand upright on their very long legs and their rather short arms,
and that gives them this lovely balletic movement
when they get around on the ground.
There are quite a number of different species of these
and they differ mostly in their colouration.
This one with its dark brown...cap.
And I think this is actually one of the loveliest.
I can just hear them making that slight...siffa, siffa noise,
which is a kind of, I think, uneasy noise that they make
when they are just a little worried and which gives them their name of sifaka.
Their faces with that long snout and moist nose,
really rather dog-like,
but it's when you see their hands
that you realise that they are related to monkeys and to us.
These grasping hands.
I've actually had a pet lemur a long, long time ago
and it held onto my hand in the most charming way.
On that first trip, I kept a journal and reading it now reminds me
of how excited I was, seeing these creatures for the first time.
"Before they started feeding, the adult male and female treated us to a captivating display of wrestling.
"The female was sitting on her bottom on the branch, her feet dangling,
"while the male came along and put a half nelson on her.
"Then the match started.
"There was no question of sex nor of aggression, for they often broke off to look at us.
"It was pure play and enchanting to watch."
I've got notes here of what we filmed.
It's all 100-foot reels.
A 100-foot reel runs for two minutes 40, you know, two minutes 40,
and you've got to stop and take the thing out as well,
and of course the lenses we had were very poor
and we didn't have zooms either,
so now, if you see something up there, you've got the wide shot
and then you zoom in quickly and you've got it.
But if you did that then you'd have to take that lens out and put on another socking great lens.
I had never seen a living sifaka until I came here to Madagascar.
It was such a shock and a thrill
to see them in the wild for the first time.
And it's just about as great a thrill right now.
They're bounding away on the ground.
Sifakas are well adapted to living in this world of spines and thorns,
and so, doubtless, was the elephant bird,
but adaptation is often a two-way process.
This is the seed of a particularly strange plant
that grows in this arid, spiny forest.
It is armed with a series of ferocious hooks
which would have caught on the legs of the elephant bird
and so be distributed throughout the forest.
Now, presumably, it's us and our cattle who do the job.
As you go further south, it gets drier and hotter until eventually
there's not enough moisture to sustain even the spiny forest.
And here, once again, I found egg fragments.
Lots of them.
50 years ago, I thought I had been amazingly sharp eyed to find a few bits
and I certainly was very lucky to be brought enough to reconstruct an egg.
But there were so many pieces here,
I think that I must have been half blind before,
or in quite the wrong place.
Of course, these thick shells don't turn to powder,
like say, chicken egg shells would do over a few days,
but remain solid and firm for a long time.
Even so there are vast quantities of shells out there
so there must have been a very substantial population of birds.
What happened to them?
Now, it's so arid that it's difficult to imagine
huge flocks of giant flightless birds living here,
but they must have done so.
How greatly has the climate of Madagascar changed?
We can get clues from examining the fossilised bones of other animals
that were around at the same time as the elephant bird,
and there were certainly some very extraordinary ones,
some quite tiny and some giants, quite unlike anything around now.
This is the skull of the biggest of all the lemurs.
It's got a head much bigger than mine
and indeed it was probably about the size of a young gorilla.
This animal lived in trees
and that's confirmed by a look at its teeth.
These were the teeth of a leaf-eating animal.
Not a grazer, not a meat eater, but a leaf eater.
So this animal lived in trees and probably hung around
rather like a koala, only very, very much bigger,
and that tells us that where this lived there was forest.
The rolling hills of the island are now nearly all bare of trees,
yet bones of this giant lemur have been found in many widely separated places all over the island.
Strong evidence that once the whole of Madagascar was forested.
When I was here 50 years ago,
I speculated that elephant birds had disappeared because their habitat had dried out
and I put that down to a change in climate.
Now we know that, although the climate here has indeed become much drier,
that change took place many thousands of years ago
and elephant birds living in the spiny forest managed to survive it,
so climate change alone can't be blamed for the bird's extinction.
Are there any other clues that might suggest an alternative explanation for that
and for the fact that the giant lemur's forests have also gone?
Well, it's been discovered that those giant lemurs all disappeared over a very short space of time.
And that was when human beings arrived.
Madagascar was one of the last places on earth to be reached by human beings.
They didn't get here until around 2,000 years ago
and then, of course, there were just a few hundred.
50 years ago, there were around six million.
Today, there are 20 million.
Was it human beings who exterminated much of the island's animals,
the elephant bird, as well as the giant lemurs?
Did they perhaps hunt them for food?
One of the ways that you can tell whether or not human beings
hunted an animal is to look at the animal's bones.
This is the bone of an extinct lemur
that dates from about 2,000 years ago
when human beings first came to this island,
and when you look at it, you can see at the top there,
So we know that this lemur was killed,
or at least eaten, by human beings
who cut the flesh away from the bone with some kind of knife.
But the interesting thing is,
although we also find elephant bird bones,
hardly a one of the elephant bird bones have cut marks,
so we can't really blame the disappearance of the elephant bird on hunters.
If it wasn't climate change or hunting, what else could it have been?
Although Madagascar is only separated from Africa by a relatively narrow stretch of sea,
many of the first settlers came not from there
but from Southeast Asia, thousands of miles away.
In fact, the people who live in the centre part of Madagascar
originally came from right across the other side of the Indian Ocean,
here in the Malayan region.
They must certainly have hunted the animals,
but they also did something else which in the long run
was far more devastating for the island's wildlife.
They were farmers, and they cleared the forest to grow rice
and provide grazing for their cattle.
As the numbers of people increased
so more and more forest was cut and burned.
It is a process that is still going on.
So, all over the island, the landscape began to change.
I am on my way to the west of the island
where a few small patches of that ancient forest still remain.
These strange, beautiful trees,
baobabs, are fire resistant and too big to cut down
so in many places they are the only remnants left
of the original forest that once covered this land.
It would have been difficult for a creature the size of an elephant bird
to live without vegetation of some kind,
and today even the smallest of animals are struggling to survive here.
One of those that have managed to do so is the tiniest of all known lemurs.
It's called Madame Berthe's mouse lemur, and it was only discovered ten years ago.
Melanie Dammhahn is part of a team of scientists
who are studying the animal, trying to work out how to protect it.
Just only 30 gram body weight.
-Yeah. Smallest primate in the world.
-Smallest primate in the world.
-Big eyes, small ears.
-Very big eyes.
-And a wet nose.
'Melanie and her colleagues catch these lemurs and tag them to build up a picture of their behaviour,
'essential knowledge if they are to be properly protected.'
And how long will he have been in there now?
-A few hours.
-Is that all?
-So we collect him at night...
-..and he stays in camp and sleeps in there, then we release him the next day.
-And you have caught him how many times?
-Maybe around 20.
-So he's accustomed to it.
-He's accustomed to it.
-And do they travel very far?
-They travel very far.
-They have three-hectare home range so that is quite a bit for an animal like that.
-They might even run five kilometres a night.
-Yeah. An animal like that.
-I think that is amazing, yeah.
OK, let's see him go.
Come on, little one.
That's it. That's it.
The work Melanie and her team are doing is vital for the survival of this little lemur.
It's also revealing just why it is that this tiny creature lives here and nowhere else.
This particular liana belongs to a species that only grows in this part of the forest
and on it, and on no other kind of liana, lives this little insect.
It's a bug which feeds by sticking its mouth parts
into the liana and sucking out the sap.
It then digest what it wants and excretes the rest as honeydew, a sort of sugary liquid.
And it's that honeydew, that sugar,
that Madame Berthe's lemur needs in its diet.
So Madame Berthe's lemur is only found
in this particular part of the forest
because of this insect and this liana,
which just shows how complicated ecological connections can be
and how much you have to know about an animal
if you are really going to conserve it.
It's more than likely that the elephant bird was nowhere near as fussy as a mouse lemur,
but it certainly needed much greater quantities of food.
So, as more and more of the forest was cleared,
there was less and less room for animals of all kinds.
Elephant birds were among the first victims of deforestation.
As people came in and cleared the bush, in order to make space for their own crops,
there was less and less foliage for birds to browse on
and no leaves whatever on the great trunks of the baobabs.
And if we know that, unlike the giant lemurs,
the elephant bird didn't disappear as soon as the people arrived.
Recent archaeological research suggests that the birds lived
alongside human beings for hundreds of years.
Perhaps they were protected by something
that is still deeply rooted in the lives of the Malagasy people -
fady - a belief about the intimate way in which human beings are connected with the natural world.
They believe, for example, that many species of animal contain
the spirits of their ancestors and must not therefore be killed.
When I was here making the Zoo Quest programmes, we watched a traditional ceremony
which centred around a fady connected with Madagascar's only surviving giant, the crocodile.
Here, at the sacred lake of Anivorano,
they tell the story of a wandering holy man who appeared in the village.
No-one apart from one old woman offered him refreshment.
After warning the old woman to leave,
he then flooded the whole village, drowning everyone in it except her.
The people here believe that the crocodiles in this lake
are descendents of those original villagers
and they come here to give them sacrifices of meat
in return for their blessings.
Many animals in Madagascar have some kind of fady attached to them.
This is a chameleon
and Madagascar is the home of the chameleons.
There are more different kinds of chameleons
and more spectacular chameleons here
than anywhere else in the world.
They are, of course, very specialised lizards,
but local people are very frightened of them.
They move in this odd way and they have these bizarre eyes
and they think that one glance from a chameleon is risking death
and to hold one would be disaster.
And when we were last here,
somebody broke into our car with all our equipment in it
and broke the window and so we couldn't lock the car.
So I took one of these splendid chameleons and put it on the steering wheel
and when anybody opened the car door it sort of glowered at them
and nobody did...except us.
These beliefs in fady are still very powerful
and widespread in Madagascar
and in some cases it's they that have been responsible
for the very survival of a species.
This giant baobab is one of the most famous individual trees
in the whole of Madagascar.
The people believe that it's the home to the spirits of the dead
and they bring offerings which they place around its base,
of rum and other things, to ask the ancestors to bring them luck.
But the spirits will only remain
as long as the forest surrounds the tree,
so, thanks to this tree and that belief,
one of the best pieces of dry forest in the whole of Madagascar is still protected.
Many Malagasy communities have such beliefs about the natural world.
Could it be that it was fady that helped to protect the last dwindling populations of elephant birds,
enabling them to survive longer than they might otherwise have done?
It's easy to imagine that creatures whose eggs were big enough to start legends all over Europe
would be surrounded by feelings of awe or even fear.
But that did not save the elephant bird in the long run.
The territories they required were just too big.
Madagascar has one of the highest rates of forest loss of anywhere in the world.
It's estimated that 80% of it has now gone.
All the wetter parts of the island were once covered by rainforest,
which, like rainforest everywhere,
was hugely rich in animals and plant species.
And this being Madagascar, most were species that existed nowhere else.
The changes here have been particularly dramatic.
When I was here in 1960,
all this land was covered in rainforest,
trees 100 feet high, with lemurs and all kinds of birds and insects.
And then they built this sawmill
and for 25 years it operated,
consuming the forest until the forest was all gone.
So then they left the sawmill and the land has gone to waste.
They also started to mine here for nickel.
Madagascar, in fact, has some of the richest untapped mineral deposits in the world.
Exploiting them requires great corridors to be cut through the forest.
Many animals that require big territories won't cross such corridors,
so, just like the elephant bird,
they are squeezed into smaller and smaller patches
and ultimately they vanish, just as the elephant bird did.
This patch of forest in Andasibe on the eastern side of the island
is one of the largest remaining fragments and it's the last home of the biggest of all surviving lemurs,
Joseph has lived here all his life.
In fact, he was here when I was filming in 1960, although we didn't meet.
Then, he was hunting the indri for food.
At that time, I had an idea that stories about the indri
might have given rise to myths almost as fantastic
as those surrounding the elephant bird.
Many people consider that this strange creature is the origin
of the legend of a dog-headed man.
Marco Polo wrote about the dog-headed man
and this is an illustration from a natural history book published some 300 years ago.
Obviously we wanted to film this
and before we went to Madagascar
I visited a very distinguished British naturalist
who had spent seven years there and asked him about the indris.
He told me that as far as he knew it had never been photographed or filmed alive.
The animal which was the most dramatic in the series by a long way
was the indri, which we had been the first people to photograph alive.
It took us a hell of time to find it, we were traipsing through the forest
and nearly always, you heard a call so you'd go through the bush
and look for it and then, as soon as it saw you, whoof, it was gone,
bounding through the forest. So all we got for days and days
was nothing but backsides of these things sailing away from you.
Since people at that time, like Joseph, were still hunting indris,
it was hardly surprising that they were scared of us.
After several days of failure, I had an idea.
I decided to record their extraordinary calls and then replay the sound in the hope
that the animals might call in response and reveal themselves, or even come closer.
And it worked.
Although we didn't get as close as I might have wished,
we watched them for several days.
"We never saw a group of more than four.
"This I think is the source of much of the charm of it.
"Monkeys living in troops have a troop discipline,
'an order of seniority is savagely maintained by battle,
"the males fighting one another ferociously.
"Not so with indri.
"They live en famille. The old male doesn't need to assert his rank
"by fighting, and consequently the atmosphere is one of affection.
"Once we saw a young male join a young female,
"sitting behind her, his legs stretched out on either side of her.
"They licked and embraced one another for half an hour,
-"then suddenly a bird screeched..."
"..loudly and startlingly.
"Immediately, the male put a protective and reassuring arm around her.
"It was most touching to see."
-Anthropomorphism run riot, but there you are, that's what I wrote here.
Joseph, the one-time hunter, still uses his skills to track the indri,
but no longer in order to kill them.
Now he works as a forest guide.
What made you stop hunting them?
Have people's attitudes towards the indri changed over the years?
Without Joseph to help us, it would have been impossible for us to get near the indri,
but this group is so used to him that they are not frightened.
Indeed, it seemed to me that they almost welcomed his company.
Thanks to him, I now had a chance, for the very first time,
to get really close to them.
They could easily collect these leaves from the trees themselves
but they seem to choose to take them from the hand of a human being.
Well, that was an astonishing experience.
50 years ago
I spent days and days and days searching the forests for these,
following the noise,
but now this group is so accustomed to seeing people around
that I have been right close up to them,
something I had never believed could have been possible.
I thought these were the most elusive, shy creatures,
it certainly took me a long time to find them,
but that they can now be so trusting
is a marvellous testament
to how people here now react towards them and cherish them.
A heart-warming kind of realisation
that wild creatures like this and human beings
can live alongside one another in harmony.
And they are such astonishing creatures.
I mean, apart from being so beautiful,
they have these very staring eyes
looking straight at you, straight through you,
and then they have these very human-like hands,
just taking them.
When you look down at their feet,
huge great calliper feet,
when they decided that they've had enough of you,
they simply flex those enormous hind legs
and just with vast bound of, what, I suppose...
three yards, four yards, just whoo and they've gone.
It was wonderful to see how the relationship
between the indri and the local people living alongside them
has changed so much.
But then, our attitudes have changed too.
When I came here 50 years ago, I was asked to collect some animals alive
and bring them back to Britain.
That was how zoos operated in those days,
believing, misguidedly, that when one of their exhibits died,
you could always go out and catch more to replace it.
And I did my best to assemble a few animals I thought might make interesting displays.
The Zoo Quest series started as a collaboration with the London Zoo,
so I found myself as an animal-catcher as well as everything else.
One centetes, one coracopsis, one roller.
24 foly, those are like sparrows.
Ten chameleons, six assorted lizards, three boas, a hundred myriapods!
Bonkers. And I had to feed all these damn things.
Funny way to make television programmes, I can tell you.
And I have collected some beautiful myriapods... What did I say there?
I think a hundred or something.
They were lovely millipedes
the size of golf balls when they were rolled up
and when they weren't, they would run around like little trains,
red with black stripes on them.
And they got out in the middle of the night in the hotel
and they were all over the corridor and all of the rooms and madame was not pleased, not at all pleased.
In rainforests like this, you come across all kinds of unexpected delights.
This rather large snake...
..is quite harmless, in fact,
but it's quite mysterious too,
you would think in Africa, was a python,
and Africa is just over the way.
But in fact, it's a boa constrictor
and its nearest relatives
are right on the other side, in South America.
It's one of the mysteries of Madagascar's fauna.
The last time I was here, there was a belief
that animals like this, this boa,
were the incarnations of people's grandmothers.
I did have some inhibitions
about what people would think if I caught one of those
and took away their grandmother, so I never did.
This beautiful lemur has now become a symbol
of the fight to conserve the forest
and save it from the fate
that overtook so many of Madagascar's animals in the recent past.
So, why did the elephant bird disappear?
It could have been climate change which turned much of its land into desert.
It could have been that people destroyed the forests where it browsed.
I doubt if it was hunted to extinction.
Anyone who's seen an ostrich in a zoo
knows it's got a kick that can open a man's stomach,
and an enraged elephant bird many times the size of an ostrich
must have been a truly formidable opponent.
I suspect it was these.
They may not have been able to tackle an adult bird
but they could take its eggs, which were a huge source of nourishment.
And so I think it's probably these
are the reason why the elephant bird is no longer here.
Even if the bird itself was held in awe, or maybe fear, by the people here,
they might not have had too much trouble in robbing it of its huge, nutritious eggs.
So, although there were several factors threatening the bird's survival,
it could have been people eating the eggs who dealt the species its final blow.
Today we've come to realise that if you want to preserve a species,
you have to preserve the whole community of plants and animals.
Some people here are trying to tackle that problem.
Ryan manages one such group in indri country.
I asked him how much forest remained.
As we speak, it's very fragmented.
Unfortunately in this particular area, we have almost no continuous forest any more.
This is a fragment of about 800 hectares.
One crucial issue for conservation
is to link these fragments with each other
so that there could be genetic exchange
between plant and animal species that life there.
So if they remained as fragments, really the inhabitants, the animal habitants, are doomed?
Yes, that's pretty much the case, and there are studies concerning the indri, for instance,
saying that a minimum size for a forest
in which the indri can survive is about 1,000, 2,200 hectares.
-You have to link them up.
-And how are you doing it?
One thing that we try to do is actually re-establish the rainforest in-between these fragments
by planting trees
that we actually raise in this nursery here from the seeds that we collect in the forest.
And how's it going? How many are you replanting?
Well, we now have replanted an area of about 1,000 hectares.
We ideally have at least 60 species per hectare that you plant,
so this is kind of hard work.
How many trees to do you think you have planted?
If you take 1,000 trees per hectare as a rule of thumb
then this makes slightly more than a million trees now.
-A million trees in how many years?
-That's in three years of planting.
Fantastic. A million in three years.
That is a lot of trees.
This is just so heartening and exciting.
How long do you think you're going to be before you can complete these corridors?
Well, I would say that probably you would need 20 years or so
to be sure that the trees replanted
have actually re-grown to something that you would call a forest.
So, we would actually look at all these reforested areas
for the next two decades to come.
Projects like this are wonderfully encouraging.
When I was here 50 years ago, we had no idea how complex
forest systems were like this
and how difficult they would be to reconstitute.
But plans like that can only work if they have the support of the local people.
South of Tana, in the central highlands,
there's a new initiative which is an inspiring example
of how a local community project could help the future of the country's wildlife.
The coordinator of this project, Eugenie,
told me that the people here have very little to live on
and that they need their local forest to survive.
So, in order to provide work for local people which doesn't destroy the forest,
Eugenie has helped set up a scheme to produce silk
which, by tradition, the Malagasy use to weave a magnificent fabric.
First of all, the caterpillars of a particular moth are released into the forest.
When they change into cocoons, they are collected.
Then the silk is unwound from the cocoon
and spun into a thread which is dyed and ultimately woven.
The scheme has created work for all the women in the village, including Marie.
This project has completely changed people's attitude to their forest.
The villagers now have an incentive to protect the trees
which provide them with such a valuable income
and that, of course, in turn protects the wildlife.
Initiatives like this silk project
bring hope for the future of Madagascar.
For a young man, the Zoo Quest trip was an exciting adventure
to what was then, in television terms at least, an unexplored land.
Coming back after 50 years has been really fascinating.
This time, I won't be returning home with a collection of animals for the London Zoo
but I will be coming back with a greater understanding of how and why Madagascar has changed.
I've seen a country which has been heavily exploited
but I've also seen glimmers of hope for the future of the wildlife here
and I've been thrilled to get so close to some of Madagascar's most wonderful species,
a reminder of just how special this island is.
50 years ago, I found the egg of what is surely among
the most spectacular of all the animals to evolve here.
Now there is still one final detail to fill in.
How old is my egg and what might that tell us?
Here in the archaeological department at Oxford University
there's a carbon-dating apparatus
which can accurately find the age of ancient objects, natural and man-made.
It's a complicated process involving kinds of very sophisticated techniques
but I've been told that Thomas Higham, who took the sample from my egg, has got a result.
You took a tiny bit of this, I know...
-A very small amount from the back.
-A very small amount.
And tell me, come on, what's the answer?
Well, our dates suggest that this egg is 1,300 years old.
-Say it again. One thousand...
-1,300 years old.
-And that puts it at what date?
About 700... 600 to 700 AD.
And did that surprise you?
-It was quite a lot younger than I thought it would be, actually.
-You thought it could be older?
I did, and I say that because I checked back
on the other eggshell dates that we've dated from Madagascar,
and the youngest date that we've ever got is about 900 AD.
Here is 600 AD, 800 AD,
and your dates are these ones that just sit in here,
and these are the youngest ones.
-So, it's quite a recent one in terms of...
-It is. Indeed.
So this, in fact, was one of the last of the elephant birds.
I think within 100 to 200 years, perhaps.
The chick that came out of this was one of the last.
-When do you think it disappeared?
I think somewhere before 1000 AD it was extinct, largely extinct, yeah.
So, there we have it.
My egg is 1,300 years old
and one of the most recent eggs of its kind
that the university has dated.
But that doesn't mean that it was the last ever laid,
and it could be that some of these astounding creatures lived on until much more recently.
But what we have discovered is that elephant birds and human beings
did manage to live alongside one another for hundreds of years.
So, it wasn't the usual story of finding a new species
and then exterminating it within a few decades of finding it,
as happened with the dodo in Mauritius, a much smaller island not far away from Madagascar.
Nonetheless, the elephant bird did ultimately disappear.
Another example of how human beings, in their ever-increasing numbers,
can so easily have a lethal effect on the animals around them.
For me, this egg is a reminder of how easy it is
for species to disappear and be exterminated
as human beings take over more and more of the natural world.
But there is hope.
We understand more about ecology and ecosystems,
more about what needs to be done to protect the natural world.
And I hope, certainly, that we take those lessons to heart in Madagascar
to safe its wonderful wildlife,
for it is indeed an island of marvels.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
David Attenborough returns to the island of Madagascar on a very personal quest.
In 1960, he visited the island to film one of his first ever wildlife series - Zoo Quest. Whilst he was there, he acquired a giant egg. It was the egg of an extinct bird known as the 'elephant bird' - the largest bird that ever lived. It has been one of his most treasured possessions ever since.
Fifty years older, he now returns to the island to find out more about this amazing creature and to see how the island has changed. Could the elephant bird's fate provide lessons that may help protect Madagascar's remaining wildlife?
Using Zoo Quest archive and specially-shot location footage, this film follows David as he revisits scenes from his youth and meets people at the front line of wildlife protection. On his return, scientists at Oxford University are able to reveal for the first time how old David's egg actually is - and what that might tell us about the legendary elephant bird.