“We started making the very first Planet Earth series just over 20 years ago. Since then our camera teams have filmed all over the world and have visited its wildest and most remote corners. But the truth is, most of the animals we’ve filmed over the past two decades are now rarer than they were and the places they live are in greater danger of destruction. But I’ve seen another change in those years. A hopeful change. A new generation of remarkable people are stepping up to save wildlife. They’re overcoming huge obstacles, travelling to dangerous places, and sometimes even risking their lives. To me they are true heroes. This is the story of some of them”.

Sir David Attenborough

Episode synopsis

Sir David Attenborough introduces the conservation heroes fighting to save the world’s wildlife, from exploring remote jungles to going undercover to catch criminals in the illegal ivory trade.

In numbers…

Total Shoots: 14

Number of remote shoots: Two

Number of filming days: 132

Meet Our Conservation Heroes

Dumisane Zwane transports a precious cargo…

Species: Black rhino

Heroes: Dumisane Zwane

Locations: KwaZulu, South Africa

In South Africa, Dumisane Zwane is part of a team saving black rhino – a species poached for its horn. To help save them they are setting up new breeding populations in safe havens. The only problem is how to move rhinos that live in dense and remote areas. Dumi’s ingenious solution is to safely sedate them and put them in a sling under a helicopter – and soon the one tonne rhinos are flying to their new home!

Jaime Culebras and the laboratory of forgotten frogs…

Species: Atelopus halihelos, a species of harlequin frog

Heroes: Jaime Culebras and his partner Francesca Angiolani

Locations: The laboratory is Centro Jambatu in the outskirts of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The search for Santiago’s mate was in the cloud forest 40km east of the town of Loja, in southern Ecuador.

In Ecuador Jaime Culebras is devoting his life to saving his beloved frogs. “I fell in love with them when I was just seven years old,” he says. “How can you not love them? They are so beautiful.” But now frogs are the most threatened group of animals – principally due to a fungal disease which is decimating them all over the world.*

His favourite frog of all is Sad Santiago – perhaps one of the rarest frogs on the planet. He may be one of the very last of the morona-santiago harlequin frogs,* and Santiago is kept in captivity in a secure laboratory in the Andes.  Jaime wants to find a partner for him so he can set up a captive breeding colony and try and save his species. To do it Jaime must trek to a remote cloud forest high in the Andes and spend every night exploring the remote mountain rivers for a mate for Santiago.

Trang Yuen tackles the illegal wildlife trade in Cote D’Ivoire…

Heroes: Trang Nguyen

Locations: Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire

In Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, Trang Nguyen is working undercover to catch criminals trading in illegal ivory. Forest elephants have declined by two thirds in the last twenty years – and this trade is a major cause.* Working with a group of local activists, Trang pretends to be a Vietnamese buyer of ivory. Just as the deal is done – she gives a secret signal and the police swoop in. It’s dangerous work and hidden cameras tell the story.

Katherina Huchler fosters northern bald ibis..

Species: Northern bald ibis

Heroes: Katherina Huchler and Helena Wehner. The founder of the project (and microlight pilot) is Johannes Fritz.

Locations: The first scene is in a container at Vienna Zoo. The rest of the story is filmed in the countryside of western Austria. The aviary is based in a field near the village of Seekirchen. The ibis were flown over the Zillertal Alps which separate Austria from Italy.

Northern Bald Ibis are amongst the rarest birds in the world. They were hunted to extinction in Europe over 300 years ago.* Now there’s a daring plan to bring them back. In Austria,  Katherina Huchler is taking eggs from a zoo and rearing the chicks so they believe she is their mother. She is with them all day, every day, feeding them and talking to them. It is a process called imprinting – so that the young birds will follow her everywhere. There’s an important reason for all this as these are migratory birds. To survive they must fly south in the Autumn over the perilous Austrian Alps to the warm feeding grounds of Italy. Normally they would follow the natural mothers – but now Katherina must show them the way. She uses a microlight to teach her young birds to fly to safety – but will they follow her over the mountains?

Fun fact: Since filming another 60 of the birds have successfully been taught to migrate.

Alessandra Korap stands up for the Amazon…

Heroes: Alessandra Korap Munduruku

Locations: The village of Sawré Muybu, on the southern bank of the River Tapajos in the state of Para in Brazil, Brasilia.

To save species from extinction one must first save the habitats where they live and increasingly our wild places are disappearing. This is seen most clearly in the Amazon rainforest – the most diverse terrestrial habitat on the planet.

Alessandra Korap is a leader of the Munduruku – an indigenous group from the Amazon. Its future is now under threat as the government discusses new laws to open it up to mining and agriculture. To try and save her ancestral home Alessandra and other indigenous community leaders are organising the biggest ever demonstration of indigenous people to make their voices heard. “I see us as little ants,” she says, “when we get together – then we start to bother them.”

Fun fact: The crew was on hand to film the largest ever gathering of indigenous peoples in Brazil. 8,000 indigenous peoples attending, from 200 indigenous groups, brought together to oppose laws that threatened indigenous land. Since filming a further six territories have been protected.*

Mohamed Nasheed takes action on climate change…

Heroes: Mohamed Nasheed

Locations: COP26 Glasgow, and the Maldives.

Mohamed Nasheed is the ex-president of the Maldives. He attends every climate conference, trying to persuade fellow politicians and leaders to take action. We follow him to COP26 in Glasgow where he says, “If we cannot have a legally binding agreement, where countries agree not to push global temperatures above 1.5 degrees, my country will be gone, as will all the world’s coral reefs, and most of the rainforests.” As climate targets look more and more likely to be missed, Nasheed believes there is a solution. “The more the environment becomes an election issue, the more there will be action on climate. Every time you vote – in every election – please tick the planet.”

Q&A with Producer and Director Steve Greenwood

Why did you feel it was important to have an episode about conservation heroes?

As I’ve travelled around the world making wildlife films over the last (almost) 30 years I have been touched by the extraordinary people who I have met who dedicate their lives – and sometimes even risk their lives – to save the wildlife and wild places they love. They are true heroes to me and I have always wanted to make a film about them.

Some of these heroes have risked their lives to conserve wildlife. What do you think compels them?

I think it is because they truly love the animals they are trying to save. Often that love for a type of animal or habitat develops at a very young age – with Jaime it was when he was seven years old and he first saw a frog! With Nasheed it was when he was a small child and first put a mask and snorkel on and saw the coral reefs of his native Maldives. It shows the vital importance of getting children out into nature and experiencing first hand contact with wildlife and wild places.

What would you say to people at home, who are watching this episode and want to help?

There are so many ways that people can become involved!  Getting involved with local wildlife and nature is a great start and helps inspire the next generation of conservation heroes. Being aware of the food you are buying can really help. Some people have a favourite type of animal or habitat and then get involved with groups that do great work conserving them. I think that everyone has a skill or a talent or experience that can be useful in helping the threatened wildlife of the world.

Your crew had the opportunity to film with 28 of the world’s rarest birds in a rewilding programme conducted by Waldrapp. What was it like to witness this rewilding programme?

This was the most remarkable experience for me and the crew – and quite surreal. The birds could never see or hear us, so we sat in a small darkened hide on the edge of the aviary with just the lens of the camera poking out. We couldn’t speak to the ibis foster mothers when they were with the birds so we interviewed them by writing questions and sending them by WhatsApp. It shows how professional Helena and Katherina were that they could ‘chat’ with us so informally.

Sad Santiago’s search for love is a tale as old as time. Did his species have a happy ending?

It is fantastic news that there is now a breeding colony of that species in the research centre. One day in the future I hope they will be released back into the wild. There are also a lot of biologists working to try and understand chytrid, so I remain hopeful. But it is a very tough time for amphibians as it is not only the fungal disease but the loss of habitat and the changing climate and seasons which all work as a triple whammy for the poor creatures.

Meet the team

Steve Greenwood, Producer and Director

Steve has been directing and producing documentaries for the BBC for almost thirty years. He led many of the BBC Expeditions – Lost Land of the Jaguar (2007), Lost Land of the Volcano (2006) and Expedition Borneo (2005) – which took teams of scientists into remote rainforests to search for new species. They memorably discovered the largest rat species in the world while searching an ancient volcanic crater in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.

In 2009 Steve became the Series Editor of the BBC Two Natural World strand, commissioning over thirty films and concentrating on the relationship between people and wildlife.

Itching to get back into the field, Steve then made a three part series Shark for BBC One (2015) followed by Mountain (2017) and most recently Endangered (2020) a feature documentary on conservation.

Stuart Dunn, Director of Photography

Stuart was born in Newcastle 1977. He studied at the Northern Media School where he gained a Master’s Degree in Screen Arts. During his time there, Stuart embarked on his first filming expedition with fellow student and friend Pandula. On a shoestring budget, they travelled to the Tamil Tiger controlled regions of Northern Sri Lanka, in an attempt to tell the story of the civil war that had raged for over 20 years, and give voice to the 500 thousand refugees displaced by the conflict, a baptism by fire to say the least.

With over 20 years’ experience, filming in the world’s toughest environments, ranging from the Amazon jungle to the Himalayas. Stuart has shot programmes for all the major broadcasters and various independents, with credits in documentary, factual entertainment, commercials and drama. He most recently collaborated with Director Steve Greenwood on the feature documentary Endangered.

A talented stills photographer, Stuart’s most recent book Only Us won the Photographic Travel Book of the Year 2022.

Camera Talent

Vianet Djenguet filmed the illegal ivory trade sequence.

Craig Hastings filmed the rhino move.

Fabio Nascimento filmed the Brasilia demonstration.

Leave a Reply