When David Attenborough was filming in Madagascar for Zoo Quest in 1960, he was given pieces of an egg belonging to the largest bird to have ever lived – the extinct “elephant bird”. The enormous egg has become one of his most treasured possessions.
In Attenborough And The Giant Egg, David returns to Madagascar to see how the island has changed in the last 50 years and to search for more clues about the amazing elephant bird, which was something like a giant ostrich, weighing half a ton. He also investigates whether unravelling the story of its extinction can throw light on what is happening on the island today.
There have been dramatic changes since David’s first visit – 80 per cent of Madagascar’s native forest has been destroyed; the human population has quadrupled; and many of its unique species are teetering on the brink of extinction. On the positive side, new species have been discovered and, today, scientists and conservationists know far more about the complexities of the environment.
Modern carbon-dating techniques reveal, for the first time, the age of David’s egg. Scientists are surprised to find it is only 1,300 years old. Such a recent date confirms that the elephant bird existed alongside human beings for several hundred years.
“Man may not have been able to tackle an adult bird but they could have taken its eggs, which would have been a huge source of food,” says David. He concludes that, although there were several factors contributing to the giant bird’s demise – including climate change and deforestation – the loss of its eggs was probably the final blow to the species.
“For me, this egg is a reminder of how easy it is for species to disappear and be exterminated as human beings take over more and more of the natural world. But there is hope. We understand more about ecology and eco systems, more about what needs to be done to protect the natural world, and I hope that certainly we take those lessons to heart in Madagascar to save its wonderful wildlife, for it is, indeed, an island of marvels.”
Wednesday 2 March on BBC TWO