Life and death central to new wildlife series

Usain who? A cheetah, seen here hunting an antelope, can reach speeds of 58 mph. © PA

The Hunt, which looks at the relationship between predators and prey in the natural world, began on BBC One last night. Should humans embrace our own killer instincts or rise above them?

Humpback whales attempt to escape from a clever gang of killers; a polar bear risks its life on 1,000-feet high cliffs in a desperate attempt to steal guillemot eggs; and a million-strong colony of army ants lays siege to a black ants’ nest in the Venezuelan rainforest.

Viewers of The Hunt, a seven-part BBC TV series which broadcast its first episode last night, will witness all of these. Animals in a wide range of habitats will pursue each other in life-and-death battles which, in the words of presenter Sir David Attenborough, ‘are as dramatic as any event in the natural world’.

But executive producer Alastair Fothergill says ‘this isn’t a sensationalist, blood and guts show’. His team spent three years filming predators and prey with the aim of showing how they use any possible advantage – such as power, speed or intelligence – to get the better of their adversaries. It is often a matter of life and death for the hunter as well as the hunted, and most hunts end in failure.

The series therefore explores two instincts – the need to find food and to avoid becoming others’ food – which have played an essential role in evolution. In his famous work On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used examples such as frogs, which had evolved to look like leaves to avoid predators, to illustrate the natural principle of ‘survival of the fittest’. Attenborough says the predatory instinct has helped to create ‘some of the most refined and sophisticated physical abilities, sensory systems and behavioural tactics to be found in the natural world’.

The subject is perhaps most relevant to our species: a recent study suggested humans are ‘unique super-predators’ which kill other animals at vastly higher rates than their natural competitors do. And a similar mentality can also be found in many walks of our lives: writer Joris Luyendijk recently named his book about the culture in the city of London Swimming with Sharks, while some of the most fearless players and teams in the recent Rugby World Cup were referred to by national newspapers as ‘predators’.

Hunter’s choice

We should celebrate the predatory instinct, say some. The Hunt will show what ruthless, high-stakes competition can do – it forces adversaries to improve, rewards ingenuity and punishes complacency. As we marvel at the natural world, so we should reflect upon a message which is relevant to our personal and professional lives.

What a dreadful notion, respond others. Humans work best and achieve most when we act collaboratively, rather than trying to beat one another. Our species should see the natural world as a tragic reminder of what happens when creatures allow their basest instincts to rule.

You Decide

  1. If you could be an animal, which one would you be and why?
  2. Is having a ‘killer instinct’ a good thing?

Activities

  1. Watch the video of the wild dogs chasing the wildebeest under ‘Become An Expert’ (seventh link). Draw a short cartoon strip to re-create the chase.
  2. Choose three wild animals which feature in the series and write short CVs for each of them. What qualities do they have, and how do they demonstrate them?

Some People Say...

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about animals fighting each other?
The natural world gives us insights which often strike very close to home. Early humans were hunter-gatherers — we, like many of the animals we shared the planet with — had to kill other species in order to stay alive. Now most of us (particularly in developed countries) take our food supply for granted, but our ancestry affects our evolutionary instincts.
Are humans ever prey these days?
People do still die at the hands of predators such as bears, wolves, crocodiles and sharks. But this is a relatively rare form of death, and often the animals involved are either defending themselves or their young. Unfortunately, we have more reason to be afraid of each other: 437,000 people were murdered worldwide in 2012, according to the UN.

Word Watch

Polar bear
The very risky attempt to snatch eggs — which provide minimal sustenance — suggested that the bear was near starvation. Polar bears’ main source of food is seals, but shrinking Arctic ice has made hunting them harder.
Three years
Production of the series presented unique challenges for the camera crews and technicians involved. At one point a cameraman had to be rescued from the Arctic ice after nearly being eaten by a polar bear. But some of their filming techniques were very innovative: for example, a crew attached a camera to an Indian elephant to get a close view of feeding tigers.
Super-predators
The report showed that humans kill adult fish populations at 14 times the rate that marine animals do themselves and top carnivores, such as bears, wolves and lions, at nine times their self-predation rate.
Rugby World Cup
Before Saturday’s final, Australia’s outstanding flanker David Pocock was described by The Telegraph as a ‘predator’, while Argentina’s team — nicknamed the Pumas — were praised as ‘predators’ by the Guardian after they beat Ireland in the quarter-finals.

Subjects