Wild Work

This month the BBC's acclaimed Planet Earth returned to our screens a decade after it first aired. UQ alumnus Dr Chadden Hunter talks about filming on location, Sir David Attenborough and his time at UQ.

Having been on the production crew for some of the most recognised and popular documentaries of the past decade, including Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and now Planet Earth 2, Dr Chadden Hunter (Bachelor of Science (First Class Honours) ’95) has seen his share of the extraordinary wonders our world has to offer. Chadden talks about his latest work on Planet Earth 2 as an Episode Producer.

“We worked in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to film flooded grassland. I went down in a little boat with a local cowboy cameraman in this tiny metal dinghy," said Dr Hunter.

"Hours in, we got bogged in these thick reeds, surrounded by hippopotamuses. They’re really aggressive; they kill more people in Africa than any other large animal. As it got close to sunset, we had to start getting out of the boat because it kept getting wedged into this thick mat of swampy reeds.

"The local cowboy told me to take my shoes off because we wanted to be able to react as quickly as possible if we stepped on a crocodile. We’re pushing a boat through the Okavango, surrounded by deadly crocodiles and hippos, at night, barefoot, trying to feel for crocodiles and at that stage, I thought - I’m an idiot, I should have known better, what have I done?"

"Our legs got slashed to ribbons by swordgrass, and our faces were getting eaten alive by mosquitos. From head to toe, we were decimated, and our legs were just bleeding with thousands of cuts.

"Every single step you’re taking in this water you can’t see, you’re feeling for the texture of a crocodile back and getting ready to jump. That was the most hair-raising it got,” said Dr Hunter.

Whilst Hunter’s education at UQ, majoring in Zoology, might seem to have only half-prepared him for a career as a nature documentarian, he suggests communicating research to the masses, in a digestible way, is simply the next step for any scientist.

“If you ask wildlife filmmakers how they got their jobs, every single one of us has a different story,” said Dr Hunter.

“I’d never thought about a career in media until Sir David Attenborough and his film crews started turning up at my PhD field site in Ethiopia."

“As a scientist, I was interested in how we communicate our research to the wider world and how to turn the complexity and subtlety of nature into something that could reach a wider audience.”

Attenborough visited Dr Hunter’s field site for his Life of Mammals series, a visit Dr Hunter counts as a career highlight.

“For so many of us who’ve ended up with careers involving wildlife, he is an inspiration and hero, but I never expected to meet him let alone end up producing films that he’d narrate,” said Dr Hunter.

“It was humbling to introduce him to my baboon troop and have him ask endless questions.

“It was a key turning point in my career drift from academia to media.”

Dr Hunter has since worked with Attenborough on Planet Earth and Frozen Planet and has most recently been filming another Attenborough series, the sequel to Planet Earth.

Dr Hunter worked for three years on Frozen Planet, and a further three years on a documentary called Wild Arabia before his latest work on Planet Earth 2.

“After three years freezing my bits off making Frozen Planet, this Queenslander’s blood needed warming,” joked Dr Hunter.

“I decided to work on a three-part series called Wild Arabia, which was a rare chance to visit and film a part of the world that, despite its iconic and evocative name, very few people knew much about.”

As producer of the series, Hunter was permitted by the BBC to extend on the abundant wildlife sequences and weaved in human and cultural stories, opening both him and his team up to deeper exploration of the soul of Arabia.

“We expected deserts, camels and scorpions, but were surprised to find mist-shrouded forests filled with rare Arabian leopards, wolves and chameleons,” he said.

While Dr Hunter’s career brings him into almost daily contact with genuinely marvellous aspects of our world, he is also privy to first-hand observations of human impact around the globe.

“When I was a Zoology student in the ‘90s, it felt like there was a real global conservation awakening - saving whales, harp seal pups and rainforests seemed so urgent at the time and we have made progress on some of those fronts,” said Dr Hunter.

“But habitat destruction is still one of the most depressing things we encounter when trying to find the last wild animals and places to film.

“One of the key problems driving habitat loss is global poverty.

“It’s difficult to tell an impoverished farmer in Borneo that he shouldn’t cut down more rainforest when his only income is palm oil, or an African local to stop hunting bush meat while his kids are starving.”

Wild mustang horses in Nevada - Credit BBC

Wild mustang horses in Nevada - Credit BBC

Dr Hunter believes developed countries, however, have no such excuse and is keen to see individuals, corporations and governments taking action.

“I think the best way to make a difference is to get political - bug politicians, embarrass corporations, vote responsibly,” said Dr Hunter.

“The internet and social media are powerful new tools, and I hope the next generation of conservationists use them to drive environmental issues into mainstream politics and not just around university campuses.”

“A frightening amount of corporate profits rely on over-consumption when the simplest ethical logic screams for us to live more sustainably.”

In his own role, Hunter and fellow wildlife documentarians are hoping to inspire a culture of conservation around the world, and believe they’re making a genuine impact.

“What David, as a front-man, has shown us is that nature on television can hold its own as mainstream entertainment,” said Dr Hunter.

“Through wildlife films, we can reach the masses and inspire them to care about the natural world.”

“Not many branches of science have been able to do that.”

Follow Chadden's adventures on Twitter or tell us your UQ alumni story here.