WILDLIFE cameraman Gordon Buchanan, who was once nearly eaten alive by a white polar bear while filming from a Perspex box in Norway, has learnt from mistakes about how to navigate the ferocious animals he films.
In 2011, for example, the BBC broadcast a television series, The Bear Family & Me, about the year Buchanan spent living with black bears in Minnesota, North America.
“They’re not the biggest bear in the world, but they’re still big,” he says. “They’ve killed people in the past. To begin with, I was cautious around them, but I got quite blasé, because I thought I knew everything I needed to know to work around them safely, but then, within a couple of weeks, I got a couple of frights where I was too close to them and they didn’t attack, but they made it very clear that they didn’t want me around.
“It was because I wasn’t really paying attention to them or understanding what they were telling me. By the end of the year living with them, I realised that they speak this kind of very subtle language, which you can understand if you tune into how they behave.
“All animals that are hairy and walk around on all fours, it’s easy to treat them as massive big dogs, but black bears are not dog-like. Their behaviour is very unique. If they’re nervous, they yawn. If they lick their lips, it means they’re agitated. These were very clear signals that if you started approaching a bear, and you saw that it was yawning, you knew that it was not relaxed, and if you were right beside one and it started licking its lips, you knew to back off because it might strike out,” Buchanan says.
Buchanan, 42, grew up on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. While still at school and working part-time in a restaurant, he befriended the owner, the late wildlife filmmaker, Nick Gordon, who saw something in the 17-year-old Buchanan, and offered him a job as an assistant on a project in Sierra Leone. Buchanan went directly to school, he says, “to tell them I wouldn’t be coming back”.
He hasn’t looked back since. Over the last 25 years, Buchanan has filmed big cats, and, in 2012, humpback whales and dolphins off the coast of Cork. That was his last visit to Ireland, and he will return next week for a lecture tour. But being recently embedded with wolves in the wild in the Arctic was a highlight of his career. “It’s an enormous surprise how extreme that environment is, and how the wolves manage to survive year round in a place humans struggle to survive. You’ve got five months of darkness, yet the wolves are up there hunting in 40 degrees below-zero conditions, the most horrific weather conditions on the planet, just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. It’s staggering,” he says.
Buchanan is alarmed at the visible devastation from climate change he notices while filming around the world, from Alaska to Borneo, home to some of the oldest rainforests, a large swathe of which have been cut down to produce palm oil, because it is used in everyday foodstuffs.
The damage wrought by humankind on the natural world is even evident close to home, he says.
“Last year, there were winter storms that were very prolonged and it had a catastrophic affect on the seabirds that were out wintering in the sea here. At the start of this year, I was finding thousands and thousands of seabirds in Scotland that had washed up on the shore dead. I was wondering what had gone wrong.
“It was the fact that the birds couldn’t cope with these winter storms that were so long and so harsh. It is completely down to climate change, and climate change is something we all contribute to.”
The Gordon Buchanan: Lost Adventures tour of Ireland runs from November 11-22, including November 18 at Theatre Royal Waterford, 19th at Glór Ennis, and 20th at Triskel Christchurch, Cork, at 7.30pm.
Gordon’s Top 3 Amazing Wildlife Moments
1. Watching a polar bear emerge from its den with its young cubs in the Arctic a couple of years back— following a polar bear family over three seasons was something no one had done before.
2. I’ve filmed pandas in the wild mating. They’d never been filmed mating before. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, we were told famously that pandas never mated — it was all about trying to get pandas in captivity to mate. So to see pandas in the wild doing what they should be doing naturally was great.
3.Working with black bears in North America when I got an opportunity to take my wife and kids out there, and share that experience — when I usually work solitary and only get to bring back stories — was amazing.
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