Gordon Buchanan Wild Burma – Nature’s Lost Kingdom BBC Two Friday 21:00 29th November
In 2012 the Burmese Government extended an extraordinary invitation to the west. They invited a team of international scientists and the BBC Natural History Unit to visit Burma to survey tracts of the planet’s last pristine, natural habitats – The Burmese rainforest – an area of myth and legend, hidden from the world for more than half a century by war and military dictatorship.
There is a lot at stake with Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom. At times this magical, three-part documentary takes on the mantle of a detective story, as much as an unfolding scientific survey of global significance. The viewer is given a front row seat in a race against time to present evidence to the Burmese government that the forest is teeming with some of the greatest numbers and diversity of species on earth; and that they should be protected swiftly to avoid extinction.
At times, you could be forgiven for thinking the animals had lined up to be filmed in all their many splendid colours, plummage or camouflage.
Wildlife Presenter and cameraman, Gordon Buchanan was on the trip. He talks to Alison Jane Reid about his colourful, intense, thought-provoking impressions of Burma and about the time he spent living amongst the noble, stoic and spiritual Karen People in Karen State (Burma). The Karen People act as guides and hosts as Gordon ventures deep into unbroken forest tracks in search of the almost mythical, lost herds of Asian elephants and the most elusive and charismatic predator of them all – the Asian tiger. Along the way he encounters a dazzling array of animal and insect stars from the photogenic sun bear to the highly endangered tapir – a creature straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
Interview with Gordon Buchanan
“Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time working and living with indigenous people, and you can come a way feeling pretty disappointed,” Gordon tells me. Buchanan, who grew up on the island of Mull, is fast becoming a powerful and articulate poster boy for the environment. “When it comes down to the basics; you discover that we humans are pretty much all the same,” he suggests, a note of regret in those lilting, Caledonian tones. “Even so, what you still hope to find is a society that lives in a completely different way to us. A society that lives by a different set of moral rules.”
Buchanan found such a people in the lost land of Karen State in Burma.
“The Karen People do that. I think two things brought this about. The first is that they are governed by an animalist culture; which is intrinsically tied to living check by jowl with nature and depending on the forest for everything. I think the fact that they have been fighting one of the longest civil wars, also makes them incredibly proud and respectful of their forest home.”
Gordon suggests it is easy to become cynical, when you witness the devastation of once pristine wildernesses for quick money and economic advancement; but he suggests that the Karen People could teach us a lot about how to live well and in harmony with the natural world.
“It was really incredible just to walk through the forest with the Karen. When they told me they wanted to protect the forest, it didn’t seem like lip surface. It’s what they have been fighting for. They make their living from the forest and it is their larder too. Every single meal I eat with the Karen was a wild gourmet feast of fungi, edible flowers and plants that they would just pick during the course of our walks. The meals tasted like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was the perfect an example of a hunter-gatherer society in action.”
A feast of fungi, wild flowers, roots and shoots!
Was the food tasty?
“Yes, it was absolutely delicious. The Karen do eat meat, but we didn’t eat meat on the trip. We mostly eat roots, ferns, fungi – just really weird things that tasted surprisingly good.”
The more time Gordon Buchanan spent with the Karen, the more his respect grew. “I started to understand and respect their desire to gain independence from Burma and govern themselves. Gordon describes the Karen as a very spiritual race of people and incredibly hospitable. “When I spoke to them about the forest and their future they were very clear. They said ‘ without the forest, the Karen People will not exist’.”
If living amongst the Karen was a highlight of the trip for Gordon, he jokes that it as easy to get complacent about the dazzling array of species that danced and fluttered like a Walt Disney epic through the lens and camera traps on a daily basis.
“There’s a magical scene where Chris and Ross, the scientists documenting the survey are looking at a screen covered in moths that are so colourful and extraordinary, that they describe the view as like a ‘living painting’. But that was nothing compared to the daily show of monkeys, big cats, exotic birds and ghostly insects. But there is one creature that has evaded me down the years – and that’s the clouded leopard. They are just the most elusive of cats. They are quit arboreal and spend a lot of time up in the trees. So to get them on the camera traps was like striking gold.”
While the pressure was on for the scientists and the BBC to find as many exciting species as they could during the two action-packed trips to Burma, the programme manages to be that rare thing – candid, relaxed,intimate and thoroughly enchanting.
“There were so many highpoints,” declares Gordon. “I have never seen any footage of the Asian tapir; and there is very little footage of Asian elephants in the wild – so both these events were tremendously exciting.
“But the sad reality is that the forest is not the pristine wilderness we half expected. Poaching and hunting are a global problem and technology presents an ever-increasing threat to endangered species. The mobile phone puts the dealer in China right in touch with the hunter in Burma. This is now a clear and present threat to the big mammals in the wild.”
During the trip, the team visited a market on the border where Burma, Thailand and China meet. “ We saw elephant parts, tiger bones, skins and teeth all openly on sale. Basically every species you would find in the forest was being sold in the market alongside fruit and vegetables. There was no attempt to hide these endangered species. It was all out in the open.
Life on a dollar a day
“Our hearts sank. How do you stop it? But who are we to tell some of the poorest people on earth, who live almost medieval lives, on less than a dollar a day, not to kill endangered species for hard cash? The government has to decide the future of the forest and the animals that live there. All we can do is document the forest and hope that protection will follow.”
“This is why the aims of the survey are of global significance.
“All the finding of the scientific survey have been submitted to the Burmese government in the hope that they will look at the areas of forest we surveyed and put in measures to protect them.
Are you optimistic for the future?
“I try to be. The area where we found the Asian elephants is a breakthrough. The Asian elephant is on the way to extinction. They are far more endangered the African elephant. For every one Asian elephant, there are twenty African elephants. To find a thriving population of elephants in an area that is not great for human beings to live – because it is mountainous and inhospitable is exciting. It’s a place where they could survive in the wild.”
What will linger on in your memory of your trip to Burma?
The Karen are a spiritual people who live in harmony with the environment
What I will remember is sitting with the Karen in the evening. They would just burst into song. As a window into another culture, it was a gift. That doesn’t happen very often these days. The songs were Christian prayers. Because some of the Karen have moved away from animism. One of the most magical things was seeing them cut the bamboo and make everything from huts to cutlery and cups. Then, they would cut a huge trunk of the stuff and use it cook fragrant rice over the fire. Just to sit and watch them was a special time. I was really sad to leave the Karen.
“Even though there was a language barrier, it’s fascinating to say how people adapt, and how quickly communication becomes non-verbal. The Karen are a proud, respectful and noble race of people. I never felt like a stranger in their midst.”
What creature comforts do you miss when you are in some of the remotest places on earth?
“I don’t miss much. I miss my kids. On one of the satellite trips, there was no access to running water. We had to negotiate a ravine, just to get a little bit of drinking water. That was hard. It was hot and dusty, and it would be nice to be able to wash at the end of the day. That was horrible. It’s fine if everyone lands up getting hot and smelly at the same time! By the end of the day we looked like we had emerged from a Shakleton expedition. We looked rough!”
Over the years, and countless adventures in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, Gordon Buchanan has learnt to adapt rather splendidly.
“I’ve become good at making myself comfortable in pretty much any environment. I always take whisky. There was one night when we ran out of whisky. That was terrible. Now I encourage everyone to stock up at the airport and not rely on me. Each night on the trip, we would go up to the ridge, sit down and having a tot. It was such a nice way to end the day. We didn’t have that much food, so the whisky was important. In my experience, everyone drinks whisky, when there is nothing else available!
Whisky and Christmas cake from home
Though, this time he confesses to some extra special rations from Scotland. ” I had something a bit special. My wife made the most delicious Christmas cake. She gave me half of the cake to take on the trip. When I was up the tree, waiting for the elephants, it was the cake and the sugar rush that kept me going.”
What next for Gordon?
– Gordon is currently filming a four part series on Loch Lomond in winter and says that it is great to be able to get home at the end of the working day. Next year he will be off to the Arctic Canada to make The Wolf Family and Me for the BBC, as a follow up to The Polar Bear Family and Me.
Wild Burma – Nature’s Lost Kingdom is a three part series that begins at 21:00 on BBC Two, Friday 29th November.
Copyright Alison Jane Reid November 2013 All Rights Reserved