He is the world’s most famous defender of the natural world – but for years, Sir David Attenborough harboured a secret guilt about it.
On his early expeditions from the 1950s onwards as a travelling naturalist for London Zoo and the BBC, he had amassed a stunning collection of spectacular tropical butterflies, which he retained into the years when butterfly-collecting became socially unacceptable.
They included exotic swallowtails, fabulous blue morphos from South America and even more impressive, several New Guinea birdwings, which are the biggest butterflies in the word – including a specimen of the famous Rajah Brooke’s birdwing, whose wings are black with electric-green triangles and measure seven inches across.
When Sir David began, in the 1950s, many people in Britain collected butterflies and mounted them in cases in a tradition dating back 200 years, but as time went on views changed and collecting became taboo. So Sir David banished his collection to the loft, but remained anguished about what to do with it.
“I had collected a great number,” he said, “and when it became apparent that this was a terrible thing to have done, I put them in the loft. And I thought, what do I do with these ..they were marvellous things! I had ornithopterans [birdwings].” He said: “This was a great guilt in my life.”
Twenty years ago, however, his guilt was eased. Sir David said: “I happened to meet an entomologist from Cambridge University, and looking deep into the glass of wine, I said I’ve got this problem…
“And he said, I will solve your problem. I will save them for science and they will be used for science. And I gave him the whole lot, and with his students from the entomological department, they mounted them properly, and he put them to good use. I don’t necessarily know that they went into any important collection, but they went into academia. They went into scholarship.”
Sir David, president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, spoke to The Independent about his collecting earlier this week after launching The Big Butterfly Count, the annual survey of the insects, whose British populations are likely to have been very hard hit this year by the excessively rainy weather.
“In my early expeditions I was collecting animals for London Zoo, so it was part and parcel of the same thing,” he said. “I got armadillos, and snakes and boa constrictors, and butterflies.” He said his collection amounted to “maybe a hundred”.
He said he loved butterflies so much because “they are something that is a spark of wonder of the natural world which can fly into anybody’s life.”
He went on: “You don’t have to be wealthy. They come into everybody’s lives once a year, and a buddleia bush covered in butterflies, which I remember as a kid, was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful things anybody could see.
“A whole host of people across the entire social spectrum used to collect butterflies. They can’t any more, quite right, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t as enchanted by them as they ever were.”
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