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Gordon Buchanan talks big cats, wolves, bears and 30 years of filming wildlife: ‘If I’d given into panic, I’d have been screaming’

Gordon Buchanan has been making wildlife films ever since he was plucked from his home on the Isle of Mull at 17 and offered the job as an assistant to a wildlife cameraman.

He would spend the next 18 months in West Africa, feeling dreadfully homesick but learning the ropes of a career that allowed him to explore his passion for the natural world.

Gordon Buchanan. Copyright Gordon Buchanan (63181540)
Gordon Buchanan. Copyright Gordon Buchanan (63181540)

After being thrown in at the deep end of wildlife documentaries, he has been chased by elephants, had a terrifyingly close encounter with a hungry polar bear and captured on film some of the rarest creatures on Earth.

Now he is looking back on 30 years in the business and will be sharing with an audience at Cambridge Arts Theatre some of the highlights from his decades-long adventures. He spoke to Alex Spencer.

You became a wildlife photographer after accompanying a cameraman on a trip to an uninhabited Island in Sierra Leone when you were 17. How did you persuade your mum to let you go?

It was a different time but I think my mum just saw that this was a huge opportunity that I’d been given. So I don’t know - I think she was worried but then I have got two older brothers so she probably wasn’t worrying quite so much. I didn’t grow up in a family where there were any expectations for any of us. I think it was just we’ll go to school, do the best we can do, then leave school and get a job, that was it. My mum didn’t have any kind of big ambition for me. So when I got this opportunity to work for a wildlife cameraman, it was ‘Well, I didn’t see that coming but yeah, go go for it’.

Was it a big culture shock for a teenager from Mull?

I remember vividly what it was like to arrive there because it was such a shock in lots of ways. I had never been abroad before or been on a plane and was not particularly worldly wise and was plucked from a little island off the west coast of Scotland and within a few days was in Sierra Leone, at a time when it was the most poverty-stricken country in the world. My boss, who was 20 years older than me, was really shocked by the level of poverty and how broken that country was back then. I thought I’d made a huge mistake.

Did you miss your family and friends?

As soon as I arrived I thought ‘I have got a year and a half here and I wish I’d made a different decision’, because I was desperately homesick. I think I’d been carried along on this tide of excitement with this big opportunity to do something that none of my friends were doing. But the reality of it was very different. It was a really tough time. I look back and I had to dig deep to last the course because I was away from home for a very long time.

The island we were living on was uninhabited. But I made friends with local people within a village on the mainland.

It would be a two-month turnaround to hear from anyone - you’d have to write a letter that would take a month to get back home and then wait another month to get a reply.

Looking back, did you miss out on any teenage experiences?

It was a very different experience that I was having as a 17-year-old compared with what my mates were getting up to back home when they left school and went to university. I was very gregarious and I liked going out and liked socialising and doing all the things that 17-year-olds do. So that was a real sacrifice and I was kind of deprived from doing all those regular things. But I just thought this was an amazing opportunity because I just hadn’t learned anything really at all in education. I just wasn’t cut out for school and I’d spent all of my time from day one just kind of tuned out. I wasn’t just lacking focus. It was just a complete inability to take in much of what was going on in school. And I would just daydream all the time about being being outside. I think just gravitated towards this job that has meant I have spent my entire career outside and as little time as possible inside.

Gordon Buchanan. Copyright Gordon Buchanan (63181544)
Gordon Buchanan. Copyright Gordon Buchanan (63181544)

What was the turning point when you realised you loved this job?

That homesickness did last for a very long time. And then I went to Brazil for two years after that. And again, I was aware that I was missing so much. But then I think as I got older and then I realised that my friends, once they had left college and university and were part of the real world, that my investment in the early years was paying off because they were having to kind of settle into the nine to five life and a way of life that wasn’t quite as exciting as as I was living.

Gordon Buchanan. Picture: Graham Macfarlane (63181533)
Gordon Buchanan. Picture: Graham Macfarlane (63181533)

You have said in the past that watching big cats was the pinnacle for you. Do you still feel like that are they still the most exciting animal to film?

I must have been caught in a big cat moment when I said that. I’ve been interested in a lot of the big, iconic species since I was a kid watching programmes or looking in books and seeing photographs of gorillas and elephants, chimpanzees and polar bears. But as time goes on I’m quite interested in more nuanced behaviour and while I do love big cats - they’re really exciting to be around - their behavior really is quite straightforward. They get hungry, they see an animal, they make an assessment whether they’re going to be able to catch it. If they can they will catch it, kill it, eat it, go to sleep and then repeat.

I’ve been fascinated by killer whales forever. And I’m really fascinated by their behaviour because it’s really complex and charismatic. So that is an unfulfilled ambition - I have filmed killer whales in the past for little bits and pieces, but I’ve never done anything in depth with them.

The deep ocean is the big unexplored place left on the planet. Is one of your ambitions to do some exploration there?

Funnily enough, when I was young I though I was going to be a diver. I’d become a commercial diver or a scallop diver, locally. That would kind of tick a box with a bit of excitement, a bit of exploration, and give me the chance to to be spending time outside under the water. And then when I actually started to work as an assistant, I wanted to become an underwater cameraman. It’s still an unfulfilled ambition but I’ve just got slightly stuck on land for three decades. Not a year passes that I don’t say I’m going try and do more underwater. But it’s the time it would take to get all the qualifications that you need these days to do that. That’s problematic. I’m not very good at sitting in any classroom. Unfortunately, to be a commercial diver, there’s a little bit of studying and learning and listening. None of which are my kind thing. Watching and waiting, that’s my kind of strength.

Snow Dogs - Into the Wild,18-12-2022,Gordon Buchanan,**STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:00 TUESDAY 29 NOVEMBER** Gordon Buchanan with sled dogs (lead dog ‘Yukon’ on right),Oak Island Films/Hello Halo TV ,Jack Warrender (63181535)
Snow Dogs - Into the Wild,18-12-2022,Gordon Buchanan,**STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:00 TUESDAY 29 NOVEMBER** Gordon Buchanan with sled dogs (lead dog ‘Yukon’ on right),Oak Island Films/Hello Halo TV ,Jack Warrender (63181535)

How long have you waited to get the perfect shot of an animal on film?

I think maybe the longest I have spent in one run was four weeks straight - every single night in a hide waiting to film leopards in India. These leopards lived on the edge of the city of Mumbai. I would come out and sleep through the day and then go back in the night. Then it paid off. We got an amazing two-and-a-half minute sequence, which I thought, given it was something that had never been filmed before, was a good investment of time. The final sequence blew people away.

Everyone has seen you in the perspex cube while a polar bear tried to break in. You seemed very calm - what was going through your mind?

I wasn’t comfortable with that situation but I was aware of how extraordinary it was and there was an opportunity to talk about polar bears in a way that no one had before. It was such close proximity to one of the biggest land predators on the planet. So one side of me was freaking out but then I think I just made that little switch. And I thought ‘Just put your fear aside and try to convey this experience as best you can’. I think in some ways, being seemingly calm and relaxed was a survival strategy. If I had given into my panic, it would have probably been screaming and in floods of tears, but I thought I would just ignore the big polar bear and try to deliver some good content.

Gordon Buchanan (63181555)
Gordon Buchanan (63181555)

Would you ever do that again?

No, absolutely not. We used that as a way to minimise our impact on the polar bears. Generally, if you’re on the ice filming with polar bears and they come within less than 20 metres away from you, you have to get on your skiddoo and then pull out of this area. What we wanted to do is just not to fire off and cause too much disturbance. So we thought if I could be safe in a place where I didn’t have to run away, that would be better. Every other polar bear that walked past or was aware that I was there completely ignored me and I got comfortable. I thought, well, actually, we’re not remotely interested in me they are just hunting seals. But then that particular polar bear realised that there was something inside this cube that she might like to eat.

Do you think TV demands that you push those boundaries?

No, but I do think that things I’m quite casual about can look different in the edit when there is a bit of dramatic music on top. It can seem like a scary moment. I have spent a long time working with wolves. And there were definitely times when I was concerned in the beginning when I was surrounded by six wolves before I was comfortable with them. I wasn’t in fear of my life, but I was definitely very nervous. And I think that obviously if you film something like that, if the editor or the producer sees it, they might see it as a terrifying moment. But I’ve never wanted to push the boundaries. I think it’s always about letting the animals decide whether they are comfortable with you at a certain distance.

Gordon Buchanan (63181560)
Gordon Buchanan (63181560)

Are you in favour of reintroducing wolves to the British isles?

There’s a big concern about the return of any predator whether it’s a real or imagined risk to people’s lives or people’s livelihood, but really, wolves in Europe are a bit of a success story in places like Romania, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy. Wolves have found an opportunity to come back to these places where they once lived. And if there was a land bridge between Northern Britain and Northern Europe, wolves would make a comeback if they could. They just can’t swim that distance. I think we should return them because they play this valuable role in recreating a healthy ecosystem.

Without wolves and lynx we’re always going to have to meddle and tinker to do what these animals do which is to control deer numbers. The deer numbers that we have in Scotland, certainly with red deer and roe deer, have a huge impact on woodland. Then that impacts on a whole range of other other species, so we are having to do these big culls of red deer and roe deer and we have to do the big expensive projects fencing off woodlands and replanting, when if you actually had lynx and wolves back in wild places, they’d do that job for us and would be performing the role in nature that that they evolved to perform over time.

Does the wilderness really exist anymore?

Not really. The truth is that from the South Pole to the North Pole, whether it is in the wilds of tundra or the depths of the rainforest, and the highest mountains on Earth, all of these places are being affected, and are changing because of our presence on the planet.

Places that I once thought were untamed wildernesses, like the Great Plains of East Africa and the Amazon rainforest, these places are shrinking. And if you’re right in the middle of them, you walk out to the edge and you see more and more signs of humanity and then suddenly all of these wild places are ringfenced by the human world and in most cases, they’ve been eaten away on all sides.

And I think it’s really important that we don’t just protect national parks because the majority of wild animals don’t live in national parks. They live in these much bigger areas that are landscapes that are shared with people. So I think the future is all about coexistence and people being able to accept that we cannot just keep taking big chunks of the planet and doing what we want with them. There has to be space for nature. We have to maintain nature’s balance to provide us with clean air, fresh water. A sustainable future has to be about humanity fitting in with nature.

Gordon Buchanan: 30 Years in the Wild is at Cambridge Arts Theatre on Sunday, April 2. For tickets, priced £25-£30, visit cambridgeartstheatre.com

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