In his 1952 travelogue Golden Earth, writer Norman Lewis describes Burma (as few writers have been able to do since) as a place of breath-taking natural beauty, and writes, in the book’s concluding pages, of his high hopes for the country’s future. Unfortunately, in the decades that followed the publication of Golden Earth, Burma instead suffered at the hands of a military junta, and consequently the astonishing wildlife that Lewis saw during his travels was closed to the world.
Now, for the first time in fifty years, Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom introduces viewers a side of the country that camera crews have long been forbidden from filming—vast stretches of verdure that have been explored by very few travellers. In the first episode of this three part series, the focus is on the Asian elephant, a species known for its grumpy demeanour, which poachers are speedily hunting to the brink of extinction.
Scouring an almost impenetrable strip of jungle are experts Justine Evans, Ross Piper and Gordon Buchanan, whose aim is to create a diverse species list with which they hope will persuade the country’s policy makers that Burmese wildlife is worth saving.
It seems miserably unlikely at first that the team will be able to ascertain such information: elephants, it is explained, are notoriously hard to track, especially in such thick forest. To therefore increase their chances of finding them, Gordon and Justine take to searching the valleys and ridges while Ross follows up rumours of a second elephant herd.
The team search with some urgency; they must find whole herds of elephants with young, not merely ones on their own. Only by finding groups of them do they have a chance of preserving these wonderful creatures for future generations. And to make matters much more difficult, they must also be careful not to spook the elephants, for Asian elephants in particular have a habit of charging when approached unexpectedly.
This alone makes for gripping television; but then there is also a strangely erotic element to it all, brought on by the programme’s effortlessly seductive narrator Paterson Joseph, who at times sounds as though he not only wishes to save the elephants, but also prepare them a fancy meal while wooing them gently with the smooth, ethereal sounds of Seal.
Once the connection has been made that Joseph is in fact Alan Johnson from Peep Show, it’s near impossible to focus on anything else — or at least this would be true, if the subject of the programme wasn’t so imperative. For anybody with even the faintest interest in wildlife, Wild Burma is essential viewing, offering a rare glimpse at a country that has long been closed to the world. Yet for the animals featured in the series, it could very well be a matter of life or death.
Wild Burma is on BBC Two on 29 November at 9.00pm