TV wildlife fans queue up to be zoologists boom

Charles Arthur and Fiona Sturges on 'Attenborough's children'
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The Independent Online
Aubrey Manning is quite clear about what to call the booming numbers of people taking zoology courses in Britain's universities: "Attenborough's children."

It's a simple yet remarkable fact: by using television to take enraptured viewers from sweeping vistas of the African veldt or close-up conversations with gorillas to the freezing isolation of male Emperor penguins caring for the eggs laid by their mates, Sir David Attenborough - the man whose voice is synonymous in British minds with wildlife programmes - has inspired a generation.

Professor Manning, of Edinburgh University, even recalls being upbraided by one student who was resisting his urging to take a course in parasitology: "'Don't forget,' she told me, 'we're all children of David Attenborough.'"

Admissions tutors have noticed the upward pressure for 10 years. Applications to do zoology hit a record of 7,767 in 1994, and the universities, keen to meet this unexpected demand in a science subject, last year took a record 6,509 zoology undergraduates.

"I can actually remember, in the first year of my degree, using the book of Life on Earth as part of the various essays we had to hand in," says Charles Jackson, 24. His degree was in human biology at Oxford Brookes University; he is now doing a PhD in neurophysiology, investigating the effects of toxins on nerves.

"What led on to my study of venoms and toxins was the programmes regarding poisonous snakes, animals and plants. It sparked off a burning interest in why things are poisonous.

"The programmes are rather fundamental to biological theory anyway. They're definitely an influence in instilling a way of thinking in biological thought."

Such effects have been observed before, says Professor Manning. "There was an upward blip in the number of people wanting to do botany after David Bellamy first appeared as the bouncing botanist 20 years ago," he recalls. "And entries to veterinary school became very sought-after following the first James Herriot series. Generally, successful TV programmes do have an influence on the number of applications for a subject."

But what's different about "Attenborough's children" is that they have been inspired for so long. David Attenborough made his first natural- history series, Zoo Quest, in 1954. An interlude as controller of BBC2 did not quell his enthusiasm for bringing viewers closer to wildlife and in 1973 he returned to programme-making with Eastwards with Attenborough, a natural-history series set in South-east Asia.

But the tour de force was Life on Earth, the 13-part series he wrote and presented in 1979, and followed in 1984 with The Living Planet. In 1990 came The Trials of Life, about the hazards of reproduction; in 1993 Life in the Freezer, about polar species; and in 1995 The Private Life of Plants.

It's not only undergraduates who cite him as an inspiration. Stewart Thompson, aged 37 and senior lecturer in ecology at Oxford Brookes University, says: "He is head and shoulders above everybody else. He did more to inspire me to be an ecology lecturer than anybody else. At a time when there were few wildlife programmes on TV of any great substance, Life on Earth was a ground-breaker. He is the guru of natural history."

Some lecturers, however, feel that the popularity of the Attenborough approach may have drawbacks in the modern world of science, where analysing an animal's DNA can reveal as much, or more, as its habitat.

Ken Simkiss, professor of animal and microbial science at Reading University, comments: "There is a slight problem, in that most of the research funding tends to be in molecular science, but students want to do the Attenborough stuff.

"You can see why - it's more interesting to study, say, the behaviour of bees, and whether they can learn where to go if you move a pot of honey from place to place predictably from one day to the next, than analysing the change in output from a spectrophotometer doing a chemical analysis."

Professor Manning prefers to tell students outright that "I'm not going to be a poor man's David Attenborough. I have to go into the science beyond that". But he says he has borne his telling-off by that undergraduate in mind when trying to encourage them to do courses.

In fact, he is looking forward to the next few years, when he expects an intake from another Attenborough effect: "It's an interesting question whether The Private Life of Plants will have an effect on botany, and people applying for that."

However, what Britain really needs, he says, is someone who can work the same magic as Sir David, Herriot and Bellamy - but for the life of equations rather than life around the Equator. "We want a couple of utterly charismatic mathematicians to do TV," he says. "We would find them helpful in zoology, you know - they could help with the problems of ecology."