Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough – Review
By Joe Forshaw
This book was first published in 1980 by Lutterworth Press as The Zoo Quest Expeditions in Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay and is republished in 2017 by Two Roads.
The David Attenborough-narrated TV epic Blue Planet II took viewers, by way of the wonders of modern science, down into the ocean depths in highly specialised diving bells equipped with high tech cameras. This tome allows the readers to experience a 60-year time shift by way of the written word to a time when information came in book format, when TV was still a phenomenon and travelling was much more of an endurance test.
In 1954 Attenborough was commissioned to travel the world looking for rare and exclusive animals for London Zoo and to film the expedition for a new BBC show Zoo Quest. The production team decided to travel to Guyana (then known as British Guiana), Indonesia and Paraguay in search of dragons, cannibal fish, vampire bats, exotic birds and species unknown. The book devotes a section to each of the countries visited.
From Guyana there are tales of digging out a caiman from the banks of a river, wading in piranha infested waters, being scattered by wild cows and cuddling up to a rainbow boa. From Indonesia there are tales of being locked up in prison, of an encounter with a monstrous python, a visit to the Buddhist temple of Borobudur at Yogyakarta and a quick trip over to Bali to enjoy the music of the gamelan. The final chapter covers the trip to Paraguay in a search of the giant armadillo and an amusing account of the confusion that was caused by the use of the word tatu which can by intonation mean a certain type of young lady.
The book, whilst concentrating on the thrill of the hunt, covers also the difficulties of looking after the animals once captured. Hummingbirds offered a particular challenge as they feed on the wing and at one stage the birds had to be released as suitable feeding equipment was not to hand. Looking after the animals once caged and getting them back to the London Zoo could surely be a subject of another book.
Enthralling descriptions of the life style of the natives abound. The food they eat, the hunting practices, the medicines, the music, the witchdoctors and the spirits.
There is an enlightening account of how the villagers adapted to outside influences. The Adventist missionaries found their way into a Amerindian village in Guyana and told the Indians not to eat the labba, a small rodent that resembled a rabbit.
This was because for reasons unknown the Adventist were forbidden to eat rabbits. But the meat of the labba was a particular favourite of the Amerindians. A native was spotted eating a labba and chastised by the missionary. But this is not labba, said the native, it is a fish. How is this fish? It is a labba, replied the missionary. Look, said the native, when you came to my village you said my native name was a bad one so you sprinkled me with water and called me John. I sprinkled this labba with water and called it a fish, so I no eat a labba.
I could go on forever eulogising the merits of this publication, but suffice to say that this book is mesmerising and a must read for anyone at all interested in natural history, travel and the exploits of the beguiling personality David Attenborough.
‘Adventures of a Young Naturalist: Sir David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest Expeditions’ by David Attenborough is published by Two Roads