Sixty years ago, Blue Planet’s Sir David Attenborough was an unknown film maker with a lust for adventure in the world’s most remote areas and a passion for wildlife.
Here, in our final extract from his gripping memoir, the great naturalist tells of a hairy encounter with a very unusual wolf . . .
Sixty years ago, Blue Planet’s Sir David Attenborough was an unknown film maker with a lust for adventure in the world’s most remote areas and a passion for wildlife
We’d been warned against the Gran Chaco. Stretching hundreds of miles to the foothills of the Andes, it’s an arid wilderness that turns during the winter months into a gigantic, mosquito-ridden swamp.
Everyone in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, had something to tell us about it. Most described hideous hardships, others gave us lists of essential equipment, others urged us to avoid it at all costs.
But despite all this my cameraman colleague Charles and I had made up our minds to spend the final days of our trip to South America exploring its harsh terrain. It was there we hoped to find the animal we most wanted to see and film: the giant armadillo or, as it’s known locally, the tatu carreta, or cart-sized armadillo.
Sir David Attenborough recalls a story of trying to find a giant armadillo in Asuncion, Paraguay. Pictured: Tatou, a giant armadillo at Asuncion zoo in September 2006
In the middle of our preparations we bumped into Sandy, our guide and interpreter, in a bar in the centre of Asuncion. He usually worked in the city’s tourist office, but he was today obviously preparing himself to withstand weeks of drought in the Chaco.
‘By the way,’ he said after buying us a beer, ‘a chap came into the agency yesterday asking if it was true that there were some boys in town who were interested in armadillos. He said he had got a tatu carreta.’
I nearly choked on my drink. These animals are very rare — few people have ever seen a giant armadillo in the wild, and no naturalist or explorer had ever succeeded in bringing one to a British zoo.
‘Where is this man?’ ‘What is he feeding it on?’ ‘Is it in good health?’ ‘What does he want for it?’ Excitedly we bombarded Sandy with questions.
We rushed to the tourist office and found the clerk who had spoken to the man with the armadillo.
His name was Aquino, and he worked for a timber firm by the city’s docks.
David Attenborough bumped into a guide while in a bar in Paraguay. He said he could show Sir David a giant armadillo in the wild. At the time no naturalist or explorer had ever succeeded in bringing one to a British zoo
In a fever of excitement we hailed a taxi and headed there. At the firm’s offices they told us Aquino had come from the riverside town of Concepcion 100 miles away. The armadillo must be there, but we couldn’t ask him, as he had left on a boat several hours ago.
It was imperative that we found him as soon as possible. I knew only too well from past experience that most people have no idea how to feed any animal they catch. It might well be that this rare creature was at this very moment starving to death somewhere in Concepcion.
We dashed to the airline office. A plane was leaving the next day, and there were two spare seats.
We decided Sandy and I should take them.
Concepcion was a small town of dusty streets where everybody knew Aquino. He worked as a lorry driver and had recently been fetching timber from a logging camp owned by a German man 90 miles away on the Brazilian border. If he had a captive tatu carreta it would be there.
Sir David Attenborough filming for Blue Planet II last year. His career has spanned 60 years
‘Can we hire a truck to take us there?’ I asked. Happily, this question was quickly answered, as there was only one man in Concepcion with a suitable vehicle. His name was Andreas, and a small boy was dispatched to find him.
Half an hour later we were on our way, our horn blaring.
Our speedy progress was not maintained, however, as Andreas suddenly pulled up outside the local hospital. He explained that he had spent the night drinking with a sailor from Uruguay. His new friend made the mistake of offering a girl in the bar a drink, whereupon another man had stuck a knife in the sailor’s stomach.
Now the unfortunate man was in hospital, and Andreas was taking a couple of bottles of beer to put under his pillow for when the nurses weren’t looking.
Despite this unscheduled delay, we reached the lumber camp at five o’clock that evening — a large hut. My heart beat uncomfortably fast as we approached it. Was the giant armadillo alive?
With difficulty I prevented myself from running along the track to the building. The hut was deserted. We shouted, and Andreas sounded a fanfare on his horn. But no answering sounds came from the forest.
At six o’clock a man on horseback came round a bend in the road. It was the German owner. I ran towards him. ‘Tatu carreta?’ I said anxiously. He looked at me as though I were a raving lunatic.
Sandy extracted the full story. It turned out that a week earlier a Polish worker at the yard had met an American Indian man who told him he had recently enjoyed a magnificent feast at his village in which the main dish had been a giant armadillo — a tremendous delicacy.
The Polish man asked his American Indian hosts if they could catch another to show him. Aquino overheard the conversation, remembered the gossip he’d heard about Englishmen looking for armadillos, and made his offer in the tourist office, boosting his bargaining position by claiming he’d already captured the tatu carreta.
By the time we returned to Asuncion the next day I had almost recovered from the crushing disappointment and as I recounted the story to Charles I began to feel more optimistic. Although we had not actually set eyes on a giant armadillo, I told him, we had spoken to a man who employed a logger who had met a man who had eaten one. It was, I insisted, a narrow miss. We might get one yet. He looked unconvinced.
Sir David Attenborough at the premier of Blue Planet II earlier this year – in his memoir he tells the tale of being an unknown filmmaker
Charles was right to be pessimistic. Our weeks in the Chaco produced many beautiful creatures, but, to my huge regret, no giant armadillos. There was, however, a wonderful surprise in store that would almost compensate for our disappointment.
By the time we were due to leave South America on our homeward journey just about everybody in Paraguay seemed to have learned of our mission. As we made arrangements to transport the animals to London via Buenos Aires and New York, people from all over the country began converging with last-minute offerings of animals in gourds, boxes and string bags.
In his memoir Sir David recalls seeing the rare maned wolf which he describes as ‘a glorious creature which lives only in the Chaco and the northern part of Argentina. Its long legs enable it to run extremely swiftly and some people have claimed it is the fastest of all land animals, excelling even the cheetah’
The rarest and most exciting of these was brought to us by a man I had met in Concepcion, who arrived at the house where we were staying one morning trundling a handcart.
On it, surrounded by a frail network of strips of wood and string, stood the most enormous wolf — an absolutely majestic beast with a long reddish coat, large furry triangular ears and long legs out of all proportion to its body.
This was the extremely rare maned wolf, a glorious creature which lives only in the Chaco and the northern part of Argentina. Its long legs enable it to run extremely swiftly and some people have claimed it is the fastest of all land animals, excelling even the cheetah.
In his memoir, Sir David Attenborough describes how he found his friend shining their torch at a snarling wolf, which lead to the pair wrestling them
Pictured: Sir David Attenborough on Zoo Quest which aired on the BBC from 1954 to 1963. Attenborough travelled with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo’s collection
I was overjoyed to have it, especially as we had recently received a message from London Zoo telling us they had acquired from a German zoo a male maned wolf, and asking if we could find a mate for him. By a stroke of luck, this one was a female.
Housing her presented us with a great problem. Not only was her present cage flimsy, but it was so small the poor creature was unable to turn round. She raised no objection when Appolonio, a young man who had been helping us care for the animals, and I fitted a collar round her neck and tethered her to a tree.
I offered her some raw meat, but she spurned it. Appolonio insisted we should instead give her some bananas. It seemed an unlikely diet for a wolf, but to my surprise she polished off four.
Sir David Attenborough with two ring-tailed lemurs during a Christmas lecture at London zoo
We set to work to transform a wooden crate into a cage for her. Appolonio put more bananas in it to coax her inside, but she leapt over a chicken wire fence and was gone.
By now it was dark. We ran to fetch torches and for an hour Charles, Appolonio and I scoured the garden. But we could find no trace of her. Increasingly gloomy, we divided forces, each of us combing one section of the garden.
‘Senor! Senor!’ shouted Appolonio eventually. ‘She’s here!’
I ran across and found him shining his torch on the wolf, which was sitting snarling in the middle of a small clearing surrounded by cactus plants.
Now we had found her, I wondered rather vaguely what to do next. While I was still thinking, Appolonio leapt over the cactus and grabbed her by the neck. I could hardly hang back while he was being so courageous, so I jumped over it myself and dived on top of them.
By the time I had disentangled myself the wolf had fastened her jaws on Appolonio’s hand, enabling me to straddle her and hold her head without risking being bitten myself.
To my huge relief we found when she released her grip that he was not badly hurt.
While all this had been going on Charles had gone to fetch the cage. After what seemed like an interminable delay with the wolf struggling in our arms, he arrived and we were able to bundle her inside. It was one of the crowning moments of our expedition.
Pictured: Sir David Attenborough in 2017 filming Blue Planet. The wildlife present began his career at the BBC with Zoo Quest, most popular wildlife programme of its time in Britain in the 1950s. He recalls parts of the show in his new memoir
At last all the arrangements were complete and the time came for us to leave South America. We had two days to wait in Buenos Aires, and while we were there I heard that a friend of mine and his wife were also in the city beginning their own animal-collecting expedition.
I found his number and rang him. His wife answered and told me their plans. ‘Oh by the way,’ she said nonchalantly, ‘we have got a giant armadillo.’
‘How wonderful,’ I said, trying not to sound jealous. ‘Would it be possible for us to see it? We have searched so long and I would love to see what they actually look like.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘we haven’t actually got it. But we have heard of a chap 500 miles away who has caught one and we are going to collect it.’
I hadn’t the heart to tell her the story of our experiences in Concepcion. Months later I discovered they were just as unlucky as we had been.
Back in London officials from London Zoo met us at the airport with heated vans and the collection was whisked to Regent’s Park.
As they disappeared, a huge load of worry was replaced by the feeling of relief that, although it had been a long and complicated journey, not one of the animals had shown any sign of illness or discomfort, and nor had any died.
Sir David Attenborough holds ‘Inti’, an armadillo from Edinburgh Zoo
I went to see them all many times at the zoo in the weeks that followed. Desmond Morris, then curator of mammals, was very complimentary about our armadillos.
We had brought back 14 of them of four different species, but I was still sad we had not managed to bring back a giant for him.
I described to Desmond the abortive journeys we had made in search of this miraculous creature, but he looked on the bright side. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘you have brought us back more armadillos than we have ever possessed before.’
A week later he phoned me. ‘Wonderful news,’ he said excitedly. ‘By an extraordinary coincidence I have just received a letter from a dealer in Brazil who says he has got a giant armadillo.’
Sir David Attenborough in his recent BBC show, Attenborough and the Giant Elephant
‘How marvellous,’ I replied. ‘Are you absolutely certain?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Desmond. ‘He’s a very reputable dealer and knows what he is talking about.’
A few days later he contacted me again. ‘The armadillo has just arrived, but I am afraid you are going to be disappointed. He is just a rather large hairy armadillo, but not a giant at all. You can enrol me as vice president of the Failed To Find A Giant Armadillo Club.’
Sie David Attenborough looking at an armadillo on a children’s show on the BBC in 1963
Three months later Desmond was on the phone again. ‘I thought you might be interested to know,’ he said in a flat voice, ‘that we’ve got a giant armadillo.’
‘Ha, ha,’ I said. ‘I’ve heard that story before.’
‘No, he really is here, in London. I’ve just been looking at him.’
‘Good gracious! Where did you get him from?’
‘Birmingham!’ said Desmond. I went to the zoo immediately. The armadillo had been sent to a dealer in Birmingham from Guiana, the first of its kind to have arrived in this country alive.
Sir David Attenborough with a young Asian elephant
Fascinated, I examined him closely and he peered back at me from his tiny black eyes. Over four feet long, he had gigantic front claws and, unlike any of the armadillos we had caught, seemed to prefer to walk on his hind legs, with his feet only just touching the ground. He was one of the most strange and fantastic beasts I have ever seen.
As I looked at him I thought of the German man in the forests beyond Concepcion, of all the false trails, the days and nights spent searching for the elusive creature.
‘Nice, isn’t he?’ said a zookeeper. It seemed like an understatement, but I had to agree.
‘Yes, I said. ‘He’s nice.’
ADVENTURES Of A Young Naturalist by Sir David Attenborough (Two Roads, £25). To order a copy for £20, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until January 14, 2018.