Should wildlife crews intervene to save animals they are filming?

Latest episode of BBC’s Dynasties ignites fierce debate as David Attenborough weighs in

A whale captured by a nature photographer in Patagonia in 2015
(Image credit: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images))

David Attenborough has waded in to a debate about whether wildlife photographers should intervene to help the animals they are filming.

The veteran presenter backed a decision by the crew of the BBC’s latest nature series Dynasties, to dig steps out of a ravine to save a group of penguins they had been following.

Following Sunday’s episode, Mike Gunton, the series executive producer, told BBC Radio 5 Live that 99.9% of the time it was not appropriate to intervene.

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“It's such an unusual circumstance to do this,” he said, “and there are lots of situations where you couldn't, and shouldn't and wouldn't – but I think in this situation there were so many factors”.

“I was speaking to David about it yesterday and he said he would have done the same too”, he added.

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The Daily Mail described the move as “unprecedented”, but both Attenborough and the BBC have a checkered history when it comes to the issue.

In 2013, Attenborough defended the decision to film the death of a baby elephant in the BBC's Africa series, saying it was “very important” to simply observe.

The Daily Telegraph reported that harrowing scene drew complaints from upset viewers, “some of whom hoped filmmakers would provide the dying calf with help”.

While the latest decision to step in and help the penguins drew praise on social media, others worry it could set a dangerous precedent.

Doug Allan, a cameraman behind some of the most famous wildlife scenes in television history, has said: “For me, at least, my job is to look and not interfere. If I feel my presence is tilting the balance of the predator or the prey, then I'm doing something wrong.”

In 2015 Martin Hughes-Games, who presents Springwatch and Autumnwatch, said there had been “absolute uproar” after the team helped with a flooded birds nest.

Speaking at the Radio Times Festival in London, he said: “Half the people said “why didn’t you intervene,” and others then said, “you shouldn’t have intervened”.”

“You’re damned whatever you do”, says The Metro.

“Step in and save an animal’s life, and you’re interfering with nature, which you’re supposed to be capturing authentically. But the alternative is to watch creatures die in front of you.”

BBC Dynasties director Will Lawson, cameraman Lindsay McCrae and assistant Stefan Christmann said they had unanimously “opted to intervene passively”.

“There’s no rule book in those situations. You can only respond to the facts that are right there in front of you”, he told The Times.

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