TV blog: Saving Africa’s Elephants

Benjie Goodhart / 20 October 2016

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on a mission to save Africa’s elephants from the ivory trade. Plus, the best of the rest on TV over the week ahead.

Saving Africa’s Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War, Monday 24th October, 9pm, BBC One

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a man with a mission. He’s always a man with a mission, mind you. It must be exhausting being Mrs Fearnley-Whittingstall – not only because you get RSI whenever you sign your name, but also because every time you walk in the front door, there’s Hugh, on a mission to alphabetise the tinned goods or arrange the grains of rice in size order.

Not that Hugh’s missions aren’t a very good thing. Whether it’s getting us to eat more ethically, or solving the shameful waste of fish thanks to byzantine policies, he fights the good fight with passion and gusto. And his new two-part series is a case in point. This time, though, he’s moving away from the dinner plate, as he tackles the ivory trade, and the barbaric slaughter of elephants.

At the start of the 20th century, there were over 10 million elephants in Africa. It was one big pachyderm party, with more trunks on display than at a Mr Universe contest. By 1989, there were 600,000 left. The world belatedly took note, and a trade ban was imposed on all fresh ivory. For a while, numbers improved. But a burgeoning Asian market has spawned a new, devastating wave of poaching. There is a very real prospect that in the coming decades, we could see the African elephant wiped off the face of the planet.

Enter Hugh. Travelling from a nature reserve in Mozambique to the ivory shops of Hong Kong, he witnesses first-hand the problems officials face in the battle to eradicate the trade in fresh ivory. In Mozambique, border guards are complicit in letting poachers over the border from Tanzania to hunt and kill elephants. In Mombasa, ivory is exported in huge quantities, smuggled into vast containers, while conveniently remunerated officials look the other way.

In Hong Kong, Hugh and an accomplice secretly film as they visit jewellery stores. Not surprisingly, the jewellers all claim that their ivory is pre-1989 (and therefore legal). You’d hardly expect them to say otherwise, especially to the well-spoken Englishman who’s come in asking all sorts of questions. So Hugh employs some Chinese colleagues to film undercover. 

Their investigations yield somewhat more information, and it takes Hugh in an unexpected direction. It seems that a good deal of the problem lies rather closer to home than he’d imagined.

As ever, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, this is an important project, meticulously researched and carried out with vigour and rigour. It seems slightly odd to see Hugh going secretly filming – he seems rather too diffident to be the new Roger Cook – but you can bet that he will leave the world a better place than he found it, and that is an achievement of elephantine proportions.

Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild, Tuesday 25th October, 9pm, Channel 5

Hurrah! It’s time for one of our very rare forays into the peculiar world of Channel 5. It is not somewhere I venture often, being as how I’m not particularly interested in programmes about bailiffs or police chases or nightmare neighbours. But Ben Fogle’s series, wherein he travels to some of the most obscure outposts on the planet to meet people who have made a life there, is an absolute gem.

In this series opener, he is visiting a woman who calls herself Lynx. This is presumably after the mountain lion, as opposed to the deodorant, particularly as Fogle observes that “I don’t think it’s rude of me to say that there’s a unique odour to Lynx.”

Lynx lives in the mountain forests of Northwest USA. Decades ago, she turned her back on her dangerously hedonistic lifestyle and started to live more simply. And, when I say more simply, I mean vastly more complicatedly. She travelled the world, learning techniques for living off the land and moving away from the trappings of modern life. Today, she lives a prehistoric life – she doesn’t even use metal tools.

Fogle arrives in mid-winter which, I would suggest, is a mistake. Lynx lives in a hole in the ground. Literally. “It’s usually warmer than outside,” she says cheerily, as they trudge through four feet of snow. Ben’s first meal with Lynx is that old favourite, chunks of bear fat. “The texture’s quite dog-foody,” says Ben. “I mean that in the nice sense of the word.” Um… riiiight.

Lynx turns out to be a remarkable individual. I mean, obviously she’s remarkable – it’s not like we all kill and eat our own dinner, brush our teeth with sticks and sleep in an underground freezer – but she’s remarkable in that she’s in no way lost her enjoyment of other people. She is fun and funny and brave and completely fascinating.

As ever, the interest is both with the practical side of her daily life, and the psychological insights. It turns out, for example, that while she is sleeping in a hole in sub-zero temperatures, she has a perfectly delightful log cabin with solar power, wood-burning stoves, and a satellite dish, right on hand. It’s there for her in case it gets seriously cold (apparently four feet of snow doesn’t qualify). This precaution seems sensible, but then, so would living in the hut all year round. Or in, you know, a flat in Seattle.

Her daughter, now a university student, comes to visit (and sensibly opts for the cabin). She recalls an eighth birthday, spent in the family home, a yurt without electricity or running water, where she was given earthworm soup instead of cake. I don’t know whether that’s character building or just plain mean, but it makes Lynx the riveting person she is.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 22nd October

The X Factor, 8pm, ITV: The competition moves into the live shows format. ‘Live’ is  matter of opinion. I think the last rites may soon be required for this tired format, increasingly dependent on execrable novelty acts.

The School that Got Teens Reading, 8pm, BBC Two: Actor and comedian Javone Prince and presenter Helen Skelton visit the Ripley Academy in Lancaster to showcase a ground-breaking scheme to get more teenagers sticking their noses into books. Admirable.

Sunday 23rd October

Virginia McKenna’s Born Free, 7pm, Channel 4: The actress returns to Africa, where she made the 1966 film Born Free, and formed a bond with lions that would change her life.

Great Canal Journeys, 8pm, Channel 4: Lovely Timbles and Pru-pru return with their endlessly charming, funny, and occasionally melancholy journeys along the canals of Britain and Europe.

Monday 24th October

Autumnwatch, 8pm, BBC Two: Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games get dangerously excited about otters and curlews and whatnot at a Dorset Nature Reserve. On every night this week, otter fans. (Warning: programme may not contain otters).

Addicted to Spending: Channel 4 Dispatches, 8pm, Channel 4: Personal debt is at an all-time high in the UK, and some families seem addicted to spending. Should more be done to help people learn how to treat money with a little more care?

Be Your Own Doctor, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Dr Tamal Ray, familiar to Bake Off fans (that’s everyone, right?) presents a brand new programme, and not a cake tin in sight. Instead, he and presenter Kate Quilton help to dispense a little knowledge, and banish some medical myths, in this new pilot.

Tuesday 25th October

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Wednesday 26th October

Maybe go out for dinner?

Thursday 27th October

Britain’s Benefit Tenants, 10pm, Channel 4: Depressing look at how some people are forced to live in Britain in 2016.

Friday 28th October

QI, 10pm, BBC Two: Aaargh! I managed to miss the fact that episode one of the new series was on last week, marking the debut in the host’s chair of the inestimable Sandi Toksvig. Rhod Gilbert, Jason Manford, Lucy Beaumont and, of course, Alan Davies are the panellists. Gorgeous.

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