TV presenter George McGavin talks about the BBC's new programme featuring our closest relatives – and how we really aren't that different
The BBC's new wildlife programme, Monkey Planet, is set change the way we look at our closer relatives. With never-seen-before footage revealing hitherto unknown family structure, tool use and planning, the show underlines just how much other primates are like us. Or, as presenter George McGavin likes to look at it, how much we are like them. He speaks to Peter Moore about the joys of hanging out with the 'relatives'.
What’s the overall theme of the programme?
It’s to introduce the viewer to our amazing family. We’re apes, along with monkeys and other apes, we're part of the primate group. We wanted to show that all these animals are just as adaptable, intelligent, versatile as us. There are so many things we think of as human behaviours that are found across the whole group. By the end of the series, the average person will come away thinking they are very much like us. But I would say we’re very much like them.
Where did the series take you?
South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia, Congo, Thailand, Japan. The one thing I wasn’t able to see were the mountain gorillas. They are very expensive to film, even for a day. That was just a cost too high but thankfully there’s excellent archive footage of them anyway. I would have loved to have gone there, but with a series of this scope, it’s just not possible to be on location with absolutely everything.
You meet a bonobo in the States that can light a fire. I thought that was one of the things that distinguished us from the apes?
Kanzi is an interesting animal. He’s been in a cage, as a research animal, for a long time. He’s supposed to know several hundred images that mean various things. I have to say, when I was there, he seemed preoccupied by the ones about food. Which is not surprising. The main interests of animals are food and sex, in that order.
I think what distinguishes us from other apes is that we have a very large brain and can do things that other apes are unable to do.
What about planning?
One of the most amazing things in the show, I think, was when we arrived in Uganda and stumbled upon a chimpanzee hunt, as it was happening, above our heads. Until fairly recently it wasn’t known that these animals hunted for meat, but they do. And, what's more, it's an intricately planned operation. One of the males goes ahead and hides, the other animals drive the prey towards him. They have to inform each other – you're on that flank, I’m on this one, drive up here, that one’s at the end. It’s really highly planned. When the prey is close enough, the one hiding grabs it and kills it.
That sounds pretty intense...
It was. I was sitting on my haunches, five feet away, from the group of four or five males when they basically ripped this thing apart, limb from limb and ate it. It was shocking to see. I felt horrified. But we have to be honest – human beings have done a lot worse to other human beings in the history of the world and not for food, but fun. These animals were hunting prey to eat because they were hungry, to acquire meat.
Were there any other things you learnt that surprised you by closely observing these primates? The way they use tools, for example?
Tool use is amazing. We filmed on an island off the coast of Thailand, where a group of macaques have learned how to open oysters and clams with rocks. It’s extraordinary. They hunt for the oysters and the clams on the rocks, and then get a rock of the right size and weight to smash them open and eat them. I had a try, and I have to tell you, it wasn't easy. The secret is selecting the right 'tool'. You see them holding a stone, turning it in their hand. A lot of the time they go, ‘That’s not quite right’, throw it away and pick up another one that’s heavier or has a sharper edge.
Were these the same monkeys that use human hair to floss?
The same species, macaques, but a different troop, in a different part of Thailand. The behaviour of flossing has evolved with that particular troop. It was a very hard shoot because there were hundreds of these animals and they were just all over me. If I sat still for two seconds, I was covered in macaques, trying to grab my hair and rob my spectacles. I’ve got to say, it's almost impossible to do a thoughtful piece to camera when you are being molested by 20 macaques!
Did you get the chance to get up close with any primates you’d never seen before, that you always wanted to see?
Absolutely. The aye-aye. Most people think they look like Yoda on a bad day but I fell for the aye-aye completely. Such amazing fingers. I remember drawing the hand of an aye-aye for my Edinburgh degree course, drawing bones and thinking about bone structure. To be within a foot of one as it hunted for bugs in a log, going tap-tap-tap with its finger, was the realisation of a life's dream.
We had the infrared camera on the finger tip and it just showed how much blood goes to that long, slender middle finger. It gets very hot, and it can feel every single thing under the wood. When it actually finds a hollow, in the same way a builder taps on a wall looking for a hollow patch, it then excavates away with its finger and its teeth and eats the grubs. I thought it was one of the most gorgeous things I’d ever seen.
You also spent some time with the snow monkeys in northern Japan
Yes, a troop of macaques that have taken to sitting in a hot pool. It’s a human made hot pool, an onsen, and it’s a great place to bath. It was a bizarre experience because it was literally a pool, full of these animals, and tourists. Wave upon wave of tourists with thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment. They must be the most photographed animals on the planet.
That’s interesting you mention the tourists. You never see that. You think it’s just this isolated hot pool, somewhere up in the mountains.
Exactly. You will see that in the show. We’ve shot them in isolation, like everyone else. But we also show the pool edge and the tourist with cameras because it’s bizarre. As I said, absolutely bizarre.
Why should people watch this series?
I’ve been involved in this game for six years now, and I’ve made quite a few programmes. But, honestly, this is the best programme that I have ever been in. The filming is stunning. The animals are stunning. The behaviour we’ve filmed is stunning. Some of it has never been filmed before. It’s a really, really good show.
And what message do you hope viewers will take away with them?
I hope that they realise that we are part of this amazing family and that we are responsible for their survival, as well as our own. Gorillas, orang utans, chimpanzees, monkeys – they have just as much right to exist, to share this planet as we do. We have to have a jolly good think about what we appreciate and what we value and what we have to do to help them survive. They’re our relatives and you’ve got to look after your relatives. If you analyze a chimpanzee’s DNA, it’s vitally us. It’s as close as makes no difference, really.
Monkey Planet will be broadcast on the BBC 1 on Wednesdays at 9pm from April 2, 2014.