Wildlife television presenting was once a man’s world. A documentary on baboon behaviour or ocelot extinction would call for a bearded naturalist like David Bellamy, or the cheery anthropomorphism of Johnny Morris. But now this territory is facing a climate change all of its own, as it is invaded by a new breed of presenter: feisty, intelligent, eco-aware – and female. Though a publicist for Sir David Attenborough assures Timesonline that he is “obviously not replaceable”, his grip on the title of king of the jungle may not be as firm as it once was.
Dr. Charlotte Uhlenbroek is one of them. Uhlenbroek’s big television break came in the late 1990s. “I’d spent months analysing chimp vocalisations in a soundproof studio back in Bristol,” she explains – work that revealed that chimp communication involves not just one type of call, as was previously thought, but several different long-distance calls. “The BBC heard there was a girl up the road who had been working out in Gombe, and asked if I wanted to go back to present a series called Dawn to Dusk, and that they’d pay me!” Presenting came naturally to the young primatologist. “I was talking about chimps that I knew incredibly well. I was just turning to the camera as if it was a friend. I felt like a conduit.” Her ability to decipher primate behaviour, her blue-chip zoological credentials and look of “an eco-friendly Lara Croft” meant she was soon fronting BBC2’s Chimpanzee Diary. Since than, she presented Jungle (2003) and Safari School (2007) and has written several books. Her latest book, Animal Life, is a “bang-up-to-date” look at animal behaviour, packed with research using the latest technology.
The Independent reported in an interview with Uhlenbroek:
I love Kenya and the whole of east Africa but Tanzania is my favourite because that’s my stomping ground. I worked in the forest for four years, I speak Swahili and I go back regularly so I’m very at home there. Tanzania has some of the best wildlife in the world and some beautiful wildlife parks, the best two being the Serengeti National Park and the Selous Game Reserve. Selous, in the south-west, is three times larger than the Serengeti and twice the size of Belgium. It was founded by the German colonial administration in 1905 and later expanded to include elephant migration routes. You really get a sense of wilderness in these reserves. As for the people, the Tanzanians are just some of the nicest I’ve ever come across. I worked really closely with the researchers there and they became my second family. They derive a lot of pleasure from spending time with people and families. When I worked in Gombe, I would periodically come back to England to write up some of my research. Then, when I returned, the Tanzanians would tell me off for being too abrupt. I’d say good morning to them and then launch into a series of instructions for the day about who should follow which chimp. They’d say, “Charlotte, slow down. We don’t live at that pace. How are you? How are your family?” In Gombe, you might spend half an hour talking to the staff about their goats and their family (though not necessarily in that order) before getting down to the day’s programme of work.
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