The Last of Mammals

culture

I watched the last in the series of the Life of Mammals yesterday. Regular readers will know that I've watched this series avidly. Despite the impression given by the utter tat that makes up the majority of the output on BBC1, they can still make a mean wildlife program. The quality of the photography has been superb, and they managed to capture some genuinely astounding behaviour (I speak as a biologist who has seen her fair share of Amazing Things).

There was an odd warning before this episode to the effect that the programme would depict nature in the raw, "which some viewers might find upsetting". Since the last episode focussed on the great apes, I suspected that they were going to show chimpanzees hunting monkeys. People are happy to watch a lion rip an antelope apart, but get all queasy when one humanoid animal tears another limb from limb. They also followed San tribesmen hunting in their traditional way. Basically, they track their prey down, isolate an individual, and then pursue it on foot — for hours on end — until either the human or the animal drops from exhaustion.

By the time the hunter caught up with the eland to finish it off with a spear, it had crumpled to the ground and was close to death. In a very moving moment, the hunter sprinkled sand over the eland’s body, stroking it into the fur tenderly, and thanking the animal for its life. The beliefs and attitudes of the hunter make no difference at all to the hunted — they still end up dead. But it seems to me to make all the difference in the world to how the hunter treats his environment and its resources. None of the eland would be wasted: both for practical reasons (they had to work so damn hard to get it), but also for spiritual reasons, because life is too important to be squandered. Food is just to easy for us now. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should go back to hunting and gathering, but we do need some way to get back some respect for what we eat. Prayers to the spirit of the cow in the frozen beef section of Sainsbury’s, anyone?

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