Wanderlust chats to wildlife cameraman-turned-TV presenter Gordon Buchanan about capturing wild animals and what it takes to make it on film
We've dug this interview out of the Wanderlust online archives for wildlife enthusiasts to enjoy, in the run-up to Gordon Buchanan's upcoming programme The Polar Bear Family and Me.
In 2009, wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan stepped out from behind the camera to present the hugely popular BBC series, Lost Land of the Volcano, and discovered a new species of giant rat in the process.
He followed up this success by capturing tigers on film for the first time above 3,000 metres in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in Lost Land of the Tiger.
The camera loves him and so do the ladies, with Facebook groups set up in his honour and a growing twitter following.
Wanderlust caught up with the reluctant heartthrob to talk cameras, stakeouts - and Googling himself.
We’ve most recently seen you in The Bear Family & Me, where you spent a year with a family of black bears in Minnesota. What was it like having the opportunity to really get to know a group of animals?
It was a really interesting thing for me to do. Ordinarily, I want to observe animals behaving naturally and kind of ignoring me; but with the bears, it was an opportunity to actually get to know them as characters.
It made me question the unwritten rule in wildlife filming that you should let nature take its course. I’d adhered to that religiously over the years, but in the case of the little bear, Hope, who we had to help keep alive, I had problems with that.
I’d come back to the UK when she got abandoned and when I was sitting back here, I thought the right thing to do is just let nature take its course and accept that that bear was going to die.
But when I got back out to Minnesota, I thought, not only is it an animal that I’ve got to know, it’s another animal in the wild that needs a helping hand. I feed my birds in the garden through the winter and if I didn’t do that, they would suffer, so you can’t really take that hard line of ‘don’t intervene’ because almost every single animal is affected by human beings. I made the decision that the right thing for me to do was help that animal.
Certainly towards the end of the series you had a slightly parental demeanour towards the family. Did it tug on the heartstrings?
Definitely, because the bears do have individual characters and they are very expressive. I don’t feel the same way when I look at a lion or a leopard – there’s no way you can compare them to us.
But with bears, there are lots of human attributes that they have and that’s why we have the teddy bear as the number one cuddly toy – there’s something we find fascinating about them.
Do you still check on them via the webcam that’s tracking them?
I actually haven’t had a look at the webcam for the last month while I’ve been away filming, but I know that they’ll be fine in the den. I’m interested to see what happens once they get out and about in the Spring.
The discovery of tigers above 3,000 metres famously moved you to tears in Lost Land of the Tiger. It’s such a striking moment, but was that really the first time you saw the camera trap footage?
Yes, absolutely. It’s funny because at the time, it was just such a natural reaction. It’s a slightly awkward position to be in because I know that on a TV programme, if somebody cries, it’s a good thing, but it wasn’t ever my intention.
I’ve never been moved enough to actually shed a tear; even seeing animals being killed by other animals, that doesn’t affect me at all. It’s just nature. But with the tigers, I really didn’t think they were there, so it was just shock and relief. We'd spent about seven weeks in total until that point when we saw them.
You seem to be establishing a pretty good strike rate, having found the tigers, snow leopards and a new species of rat. Is there pressure on you each time now to make some amazing discovery?
The thing about being in front of the camera is you take the majority of the credit and other people do the majority of the work! There definitely is a pressure, not just on me, but on everyone to keep that strike rate high – but I can’t stress enough how much work so many other people put into it.
These remote, motion-sensor cameras seem to be quite a powerful tool in finding these very rare creatures.
They’ve kind of come of age actually. For a long time, there has been camera traps but the image quality was so poor that you couldn’t really use them in a normal nature documentary.
But the style of a lot of today’s wildlife programmes means that the actual technical quality of the image isn’t what you’re striving for. So just recently when camera traps got to a certain level of quality, everyone realised that we could actually use these.
Some of the things that we’ve been able to capture, you would never ever stand a chance of seeing by any other means – you could sit in the best disguised hide in the world and still you can’t put in the same hours as a camera trap can, so they’ll probably slowly put me out of a job.
What makes a good camera trap site?
I’m trying to think of a way that will make this sound more complicated! You just kind of enter into the mind of an animal and think ‘if I was a tiger, where would I go in this landscape?’
Most big mammals will stick to a path or a bush trail, so if you’re looking for leopards in a forest you just look for these animal trails. For the tigers, because the mountain was so steep-sided, we put camera traps on ridges at the very top. On the ridge where we had the most success, there was a really well-worn path so we just thought if there are any animals up here, they’ll be using this path.
If you went out to the Serengeti and put a camera trap on a random acacia tree, your strike rate would be quite low because there’s lots of open space and the animals don’t necessarily have to use tracks and paths.
What are the specific skills that mark out a really good wildlife cameraman?
I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. The technical side is less important these days; 20 years ago if someone had handed me a camera trap it would have taken me most of the afternoon to work it out. I give a camera trap to my five-year-old son and he’s out in the garden within five minutes!
There’s more technology in most people’s mobile phones than there is in the equipment we use. You’ve got to be technically-minded, but I think the key thing is trying to anticipate where the animals might be and what they’re likely to do once you see them.
And you definitely have to have a deep passion for wild animals because there’s no way you could devote the amount of time that we have to devote if you didn’t really feel it.
What’s been the longest amount of time you’ve sat in a hide waiting for an animal to pop up?
I think the longest stretch has been two weeks, all-day, everyday, in a hide in Sierra Leone in West Africa waiting for chimpanzees to come to a nut-cracking site. Had camera traps been around then, I wouldn’t have had that two week wait. As soon as they started coming, my boss went in and it was two weeks before he got the sequence.
The worst hide experience I had was two 18-hour days in Papua New Guinea waiting for cassowaries – these huge, emu-like birds – in a mosquito-infested swamp. The ground was really squelchy, it was hot and sweaty, and there were all sorts of biting insects; it wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
But in Scotland, even in the winter, I’ve been out and slept in a hide for a couple of days; once you’re warm and got something to eat, it’s perfectly comfortable.
So camera traps are making life easier?
They’re definitely making life easier. But I didn’t feel that way when I had to run for 17 miles beside a dog sled up a mountain the other day to go and put some camera traps out!
Although wildlife filmmaking is a traditional TV genre, it’s always been at the cutting edge of technology; I remember thinking when I first started ‘what’s going to happen when we run out of animals?’ But then there’s some new piece of equipment that will allow you to see more or do more, or a new format like HD coming along – suddenly everything we shot 20 years ago seems like a home movie.
Is there a particular animal you’d love to film?
I’d absolutely love to film polar bears in the Artic. They are just one of the most iconic animals on the planet and they’re big and they’re scary so, for that reason, it has to them.
When you Google your name, the third most popular search term is ‘Gordon Buchanan wife’ which suggests lots of people are wondering whether you’re married!
I did the immodest thing of googling myself a short time ago. I told my wife ‘it’s all these young women out there wondering if I’m married’ and she said ‘nah, it’s all the gay guys!’
Have you got a family of young wildlife enthusiasts?
My son and my daughter both really love wildlife. I’ve tried to instill in them that wildlife isn’t something that you necessarily have to go out and look for. Whether it’s a bird or a fox in the garden, or just the leaves changing colour in the autumn, it’s something we should try and appreciate in some way as often as we can.
Are you optimistic about the planet they will inherit?
I have good days and bad days; sometimes I think it’s a great place to live and other days you read something and think ‘well, what hope is there?’ I thought my children were going to grow up in a world where there weren’t any tigers left in the wild, but I think I’ve completely changed my view on that. I think there still will be tigers living in the wild in 50 years – we just have to work really hard to make sure that does happen.
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