BBC breaks Attenborough’s golden rule… twice

On the edge: Emperor penguin populations are stable worldwide, while lion numbers are in decline.

Should nature documentarians save the lives of the animals they film? David Attenborough has always said that he will not change the course of nature. Yet the crew of Dynasties did just that.

Icy winds roar. Snow whips through the air. A group of helpless penguins and their young are separated from their colony, trapped in a steep, slippery ravine. Without help, they will die there.

A camera crew, filming the BBC series Dynasties, decides to take action. Grabbing shovels, they did a shallow escape route through the ice. Before long, the birds have found their way out of peril.

Sir David Attenborough has been filming nature documentaries for more than 50 years. In all that time he has had one strict rule: do not interfere with nature.

His reasoning? “Tragedy is part of life, and you have to show it.”

This time, his crew broke that rule not once, but twice.

In the very next episode, a cub is poisoned by local farmers. His mother is forced to leave him behind. This time, the crew called emergency vets to try to save his life.

“It’s just entirely wrong, isn’t it? Lions are so endangered,” said an emotional cameraman.

Indeed, lion numbers across Africa have dropped by half, to about 20,000, in the past 20 years. Only 2,000 remain in Kenya, and the population falling is by about 100 every year.

Mike Gunton, the show’s executive producer, believes that both instances were special cases. No other animals were affected by saving the penguins, and the lion had not been harmed naturally, but by humans.

“[Attenborough] would have done the same too,” he insisted.

There are clear examples of when intervention should not be attempted. David the chimpanzee, an alpha male in the first episode of Dynasties, was left on the brink of death after being savagely attacked by younger males.

“You would have upset a dynamic that was going on between the creatures in that group,” explained Gunton. “That would be changing the path of nature.”

Some scientists also argue that weaker animals must die to help a species evolve and adapt to its environment. This principle is called “survival of the fittest”.

Should documentary crews save the animals they are filming?

The circle of life

Certainly not, say some. As film creators, it is their duty to present events in the natural world as they happen, even if it seems brutal to us. As Tennyson wrote, nature is “red in tooth and claw”. Human intervention in habitats outside of our sphere can have all sorts of unintended consequences. Without dead animals, many species would starve.

We should help when we can, respond others. It is callous and cruel to watch an animal suffer and die when you could help for the sake of “truth”. In these two cases, the humans’ actions didn’t hurt other animals or disrupt the course of events. Besides, many of these species are severely endangered. It’s the least we can do for encroaching on their homes.

You Decide

  1. Is it ever okay to let an animal die without helping?
  2. What more should humans do to protect the natural world?


  1. Research one of the species that Dynasties focuses on. Prepare a powerpoint presentation explaining the current state of the species, including its habitat and possible threats to its survival.
  2. Watch the clip of the penguin rescue in Become An Expert. Imagine you were there. Write a short diary entry explaining how you made the decision to save the birds and how you felt about it.

Some People Say...

“The key thing is your presence must not influence the outcome.”

Doug Allan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Dynasties is a nature documentary currently being screened on BBC One. It is narrated by veteran naturalist Sir David Attenborough. During filming, film crews decided to save some penguins trapped in a ravine and called a vet to help a lion cub poisoned by humans. In doing so, they broke the “golden rule” of documentary-making, which is to never get involved.
What do we not know?
How often nature documentary crews save animals. There have been isolated reports of similar incidents in the past. However, many experts say this is different from incidents involving less informed members of the public, who may do more damage if they intervene. In the cases discussed here, the crews carefully considered the situations and decided that no animals would be harmed, and the course of nature would not be significantly changed.

Word Watch

A deep, narrow gorge with steep sides.
Farmers whose cattle were killed by the lions put down meat laced with poison to kill the animals. The Mara Mobile Veterinary Unit filed an incident report, which notes the lions “were seen during the morning behaving strangely by a BBC crew filming them”.
To get involved in something in order to change the outcome of events.
In a similar case in 2013, Sir David Attenborough was criticised after the series Africa showed a baby elephant starving to death. He said it would have been cruel to intervene as the animal would still die of starvation, just at a later time.
Survival of the fittest
The phrase is based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, also known as natural selection. It means that animals who are more suited to an environment will survive to pass on their genes, leading to evolution over millions of years.
Intruding beyond acceptable limits.

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