Africa – Savannah

Episode 2 of David Attenborough’s latest BBC wildlife documentary. This time we’re in East Africa, exploring the savannah, swamps and snow- capped mountains, from Ethiopia to Zambia.

Beginning in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a helicopter flight takes us over Mount Nyiragongo – an active volcano containing the largest lava lake in the World. The eruptions are so large they can be seen from space, and they play a huge role in shaping the landscape surrounding it, the ash helping produce fertile soil which in turn allows grasses to grow and animals to live there. Wildebeest jump from cliffs – tumbling into rivers in order to reach fresh grass on the other side. Opportunistic agama lizards carefully select sleeping lions in order to steal flies from their backs, scuttling away as the irritable lions stir.

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Just North of the Equator lie the Mountains of the Moon – the Rwenzori as they are known locally, directly translated this means “Rain-maker”, here is the largest glacier in Africa. Over 5000 metres tall they attract clouds – providing so much rain that the surrounding areas are jungles and wetlands. Millions of years ago, jungle stretched from East to West, covering the whole width of Africa, now just clumps remain and in them, live the last of the mountain gorillas. Only two populations of mountain gorillas survive and both live in the jungles of Eastern Africa, isolated by swamps and savannah. The gorillas appear remarkably human-like in their movements and gestures, from their sleeping positions to the way the mothers cuddle their babies.

Out in the wetlands, lives a much more unusual creature. The Bangweulu swamp is home to the shoebill, sometimes known as the whalehead, this ancient bird moves slowly fishing for catfish. In a comical moment, the shoebill delibrately lunges coming up with a large stick and after shaking it drops it back into the water. As she returns to her nest, we see her two young chicks, both around three weeks old. The elder pecks at it’s weak sibling – pulling chunks of feathers from it’s back, but when the smaller stumbles to it’s mother, it is ignored. The stronger will be fed, it is not worth the risk of trying to raise both.

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The dry season brings bush-fires – 1000 degrees Celsius, hurtling at 50 miles per hour across the country. An area the size of Britain is engulfed each year. Beautiful, brightly coloured bee-eaters dive into the flames to fish out insects that are trying to escape. The wily Drongos featured in last episode also take part, along with colourful, crow-like rollers.

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On the Amboseli plain, a two year long drought is taking it’s toll on the elephant population, forced to survive on just twigs, small herds push on across the vast, dusty ground. When a baby can no longer stand, the herd moves on, but not it’s mother. She stays, fanning it with her tail and nudging it gently with her foot and trunk, as it snuffles in the dust. As it dies, she stays by it’s side, her herd long out of sight. Eventually it succumbs and after grieving she moves away, alone.

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From the twisters of the Amboseli, we move to the surreal surface of Lake Bogoria, a soda lake filled with toxic water, and containing the highest concentration of geysers in Africa. It’s colours, more like a piece of art than anything, are due to the algae that lives there – patches of cyanobacteria blooms.These blooms contain carotenoid protein – it is this that gives the flamingos their pink colour. Nearly the entire World’s population of lesser flamingos lives on this chain of lakes.

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Back in the forests, a crowned eagle is nesting with her young chick, waiting for the largest mammal migration in Africa. She is the only eagle who has taken this risk, and she needs the rains to come. Soon enough, they do and along with them – 10 million fruit bats. Fish eagles and martial eagles also arrive, adding to the competition, but with so much food the crowned eagle and her chick have a plentiful supply.

The rains transform the Amboseti plain and the elephants return. Bulls, their heads the weight of cars, fight for their long-awaited chance with the females. Newborns chase egrets, flapping their ears with joy. They are part of the largest elephant ‘baby boom’ ever recorded. Luck plays so much part in life here, had they been born a few months earlier, their lives would have been very different.

As Attenborough reminds us – the savannahs are harsh, but they have produced the most adaptable of all species – us.

In the ten minute ‘Eye to Eye’ this week:

Filming on the Mountains of the Moon was no easy ride, with one tonne of kit and an entire 3000 metres to be scaled on foot, it took over two weeks to reach the peaks. Rain, hail, fog,snow and even an earthquake disrupted the climb and when they finally reached the top, terrible visibility and imminent storms kept forcing the crew back to base camp.

On the Amboseli – Masai elders told crews that it was the worst drought in 50 years. Cameraman Mark Deeble filmed the death of the young elephant calf, surrounded by other starving animals, the full gravity of what he had filmed didn’t hit him until the scene had played out. However tempting intervention might have been, it wasn’t possible in this situation – there was no spare food in the area and removing the baby from it’s mother would have caused great distress. The full weight of the drought is present in that scene.

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