How sports is Seven Worlds, One Planet: Episode 7?

948057056.jpg.0 - How sports is Seven Worlds, One Planet: Episode 7?Christophe COURTEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

David Attenborough’s new show is epic … and sports.

We continue our extremely important mission to conduct a scene-by-scene review of the BBC’s new nature documentary, Seven Worlds, One Planet, in order to see how sports it is. We determined that Episode 1, which focused on Antarctica, was reasonably sports. Asia was very sports, as was South America. Australia was more drinking than sports, and both Europe and North America were extremely sports. Now it’s time to wrap things up with …

Episode 7 Africa

Scene 1: Nutcracking

I don’t think we appreciate how important the invention of writing is. Not only does it allow you to transmit facts (as far as I know, bookkeeping was, more or less, its original use) writing also allows the transmission of culture across time and space. Without that, animals are left passing along knowledge through direct demonstration, generation by generation. The requirement for direct contact, as you might imagine, drastically slows down the spread of knowledge.

In the Congo, a chimpanzee mother is teaching her daughter how to crack a nut. This is a relatively delicate operation. It requires finding a suitable anvil, with a nook to prevent the nut rolling around. The hammer must be the correct hardness and weight. The mother chimp makes it look easy.

But this is the ease of experience. It can take up to a decade to master the skills required to reliably crack nuts, and the five-year-old has an idea of the basic mechanics and nothing more. Trial and error is the solution, and there’s plenty of error. She tries a pebble, a boulder and a stick, to no avail. Eventually she settles on the right answer: going back to mother and having her do it.

The little chimp is too young to be a millennial but these are some highly millennial vibes.

Aesthetics 6/10

Chimpanzees are pretty cool and there’s something beautiful about watching a child learning a new skill. Even if I was worried about the poor little chimp crushing her fingers the whole time.

Difficulty 6/10

I have gone through literally hundreds of hours of wilderness survival training, and would still definitely injure myself at least twice if you gave me a rock and told me to crack nuts with it. I’m pretty confident I could eventually eat it though.

Competitiveness 0/10

No contest.

Overall 12/30

Tools are sometimes used in sports, but do not, in and of themselves, constitute sports.

Scene 2: Cuckoo Catfish

Sometimes nature documentaries show me things that totally blow my mind. This is one of those times. Lake Tanganyika’s ecosystem is dominated by cichlids, which are some of fishkind’s best parents. That may seem like a low bar, but they’re actually not bad at it. Some of the more hardcore cichlids are mouth-breeders — after laying their eggs they take them into their mouths and let them develop in a safe place. Even after the eggs hatch, the young cichlids use their mothers’ mouths as a refuge.

Nature being nature, this creates an opportunity for some dastardliness. The cuckoo catfish, like its avian namesake, is a brood parasite. And while cuckoos parasitise nests, their catfish friends manage to get their hosts to raise the catfish’s fry inside their mouths. As the cichlids spawn, the catfish eat a few of the eggs and spawn themselves. Their eggs are ingested by the mother cichlid.

A few days later …

Yep, that’s a baby catfish. And guess what it’s going to do to its adopted brothers and sisters?

Aesthetics 2/10

I’m really quite disturbed by those baby catfish coming out of that poor mother fish’s mouth.

Difficulty 8/10

A cuckoo waiting for birds to leave their nest so that they can sneak in and lay eggs is one thing. Pulling the same trick on a fish which uses its mouth as a nest is quite another.

Competitiveness 3/10

There’s not really much of a fight here. Once the catfish arrive the little cichlids are screwed.

Overall 13/30

Cuckoldry is also not sports.

Scene 3: Cheetah Brigade

In Kenya, a cheetah family hunts as a pack. Five-strong, they can bring down prey many times larger than would be possible for a lone cheetah, but with five mouths to feed they must also hunt much more often. Using scrub as cover, the gang tries to ambush a herd of topi.

Cheetah are the fastest land animals alive, but they’re not fast enough to overcome a head start of more than a few dozen feet. That means that, once out in the open, detection could ruin the hunt. That’s what happens here: the topi scatter, the cheetahs switch targets to a nearby herd of zebra, and one promptly gets bulldozed by an angry mare.

Botched hunts aren’t just individual, momentary failures. They set the entire savannah on high alert. If the grazers know predators are on the hunt, they’re much harder to ambush. The cheetahs you can see aren’t the ones that will get you.

The fifth? Well, that one is behind them and about to … yeah. The topi run away from the ambush, but they’ve let the lead cheetah get too close. The four other cheetahs join the fray, and the gang can have a nice meal. Pretty clever.

Aesthetics 9/10

That running form is really something else. Cheetah hunts are special sequences.

Difficulty 10/10

The topi hunt is difficult enough — they’re fast and beefy critters — but the use of a decoy group to catch their attention while the trap is set really elevates the whole hunt. That takes a lot of careful thinking. Good work by the cheetahs here.

Competitiveness 9/10

It takes a gang of five cheetahs plotting carefully to bring down one topi, which makes this pretty well matched.

Overall 28/30

Obviously sports.

Scene 4: Vampire Birds

Big animals (and small animals, although theirs are mostly less obvious) come with parasites. Lots of parasites. This creates a niche for parasite-feeders, which is taken up on the African savannah by the oxpecker. These little birds are more than happy to keep any big animal as free as possible from ticks, lice, and whatever else they can find.

Oxpeckers will go pretty much wherever food is.

But while you might think that having oxpeckers around to clean you up sounds quite pleasant, there turns out to be a dark side to these otherwise benign little assholes. When they eat ticks, they also get a snack of the host animals blood — and they’re more than happy to cut out the middleman, if they can.

If an oxpecker finds an open wound, they’ll peck away at it, drinking blood and preventing the wound from healing. Hippos, territorial, aggressive and armed with dental sabres, are quite good at giving each other open wounds, and oxpeckers therefore are big fans of hippos.

The hippos try to dislodge their vampiric guests by splashing water on them, which fails to deter them. They also try a hippo special: the poop helicopter. No, I’m not embedding that gif. Don’t be gross.

Aesthetics 1/10

Every creature in this scene is pretty ugly, and then we get the hippo poop storm. Why!?

Difficulty 10/10

Being a hippo-annoyer sounds like just about the most dangerous job in the world.

Competitiveness 10/10

An oxpecker against a hippo is like David vs. Goliath except also Goliath throws his poop at people.

Overall 21/30

Disgusting sports, but sports.

Scene 5: Desert Hyena

In the Namib, an abandoned mining town still has one reclusive inhabitant. A brown hyena ghosts through the broken-down buildings, using them as shade against the desert sun. And she’s not quite alone. Her twin cubs await her in their lair, four months old and hungry. The mother hyena needs to bring back some meat.

While a dead town might provide good shelter, it’s not much of a hunting ground. The Namib itself isn’t much of a hunting ground either. It is something like the oldest desert in the world, bedecked by endless dunes of sand, blasted by the tropical sun and wind. How can there be enough food to support predators of any kind?

The answer lies with the Benguela Current, off Africa’s western coast. The Benguela brings up cold, Antarctic waters, which are nutrient rich and capable of supporting a vast quantity of marine life. Some of that marine life comes to the shore.

The shore is exactly where the mother hyena is heading. Fur seals congregate here, and she’s able to pick off a baby seal and flee back towards the dunes. She’s not the only one who wants possession of her kill however; and she has to face down a jackal pack to return her prize to her family.

Aesthetics 10/10

Everything about this scene is wonderfully dystopian. Brown hyenas are also surprisingly pretty animals, with long shaggy hair which looks extremely snuggly.

Difficulty 8/10

Killing a baby seal is obviously rather trivial, but making the trek back and forth from the desert lair in scorching heat is not.

Competitiveness 10/10

The jackal pack’s late intervention really makes this scene. Five jackals against one hyena trying to bring food back to her cubs makes this very interesting indeed.

Overall 28/30

It’s official: killing baby seals is sports. If you’re a brown hyena and live in the desert. Otherwise it’s just being an asshole.

Scene 6: Termite Quest

The Kalahari, adjoining the Namib, is slightly less hostile ground. Here there is some food, if you know where to look. A lot of it is underground, in the burrows where termites make their homes. Getting in there requires some specialist tools. Some of those tools belong to the pangolin.

With an acute sense of smell to detect their prey and strong, claw-tipped front legs to dig them out, pangolins are specialist insectivores. (The protective scales probably don’t help them as much with their food, but they’re also pretty neat so I am listing them as well.) When a pangolin cracks upon a termite nest, that gives other critters, like small birds, a chance to get in on the action too.

But a pangolin can’t go properly underground, so they can only really scratch the surface of termiteville. Getting to the good bits requires an even more specialised termite-hunter. Say hello to the aardvark.

Aardvarks are big, hungry and more than capable of digging to depths of ten feet or so, enough to root out even the most well-protected termite colony. They need to be, as well — an aardvark needs to eat tens of thousands of termites a day. Climate change, however, is impacting the Kalihari’s aardvarks. Droughts have reduced termite numbers, and that has placed their predators on the verge of starvation.

Aesthetics 10/10

Pangolins are objectively some of the coolest creatures on the planet and I enjoy watching them very much.

Difficulty 8/10

You try digging ten feet down with your bare hands and get back to me.

Competitiveness 2/10

It’s not shown here but soldier termites are capable of giving some pretty impressive bites, even if they’re outgunned by the pangolin and aardvark.

Overall 20/30

Probably sports.

Scene 7: Elephants

An adult bull elephant needs to eat something like 200 lbs of food per day. That would be difficult enough in times of plenty, but during droughts, when there’s little food to be had, they have to get inventive.

There is still food about, in the dried-out forests of Zimbabwe, but it’s hard to get to. Trees are producing seed pods, but they do so up on their highest branches, well out of reach of even the elephants. Packed with protein, these pods are good eating. But how to get them?

Some elephants have learned a good trick — albeit one that requires incredible strength and balance:

That is some impressive stretching.

Aesthetics 8/10

Elephants are cute, but the parched forest doesn’t really do them justice compared to more verdant shots.

Difficulty 10/10

That’s a five-tonne elephant rearing back onto its hind legs. What? How?

Competitiveness 0/10

It’s not shown here but soldier termites are capable of giving some pretty impressive bites, even if they’re outgunned by the pangolin and aardvark.

Overall 18/30

Difficult enough to be a de facto sport.

Scene 8: Well This Is Depressing

To close out the series (this is our last scene!), BBC takes us on a tour of what’s going wrong with the planet. Climate change is already impacting every continent on earth. Habitat destruction is causing animal numbers to plummet. Poaching has all but wiped out some of Africa’s most majestic creatures. We are, in many ways, killing the rest of the world.

This is not merely an aesthetic question or one of being morally good versus morally not. Ultimately this is a world we all rely on, and we are contributing to its sickness. As the climate crisis deepens — climate change has been settled science since before I was born, incidentally — we will not only impact the animals showcased in this series but also deepen crises that materially affect our own communities.

Cities are starting to get close to running out of water and crop failures look increasingly likely. Sea level rise, caused by melting ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, will render coastal communities increasingly vulnerable to flooding. We’re already in the shit and nowhere near the worst of it.

It is our collective responsibility to mitigate this crisis as best we can. We must dismantle the structures which have allowed this to happen without consequences. We must accept that personal choice alone can’t save us in the face of rapacious behaviour from corporations. We must force our governments to confront the problem head on.

And we must also hold those responsible to account. For generations, fossil fuel companies have suppressed scientific knowledge about the damage they have been engineering and spreading misinformation instead, all in the name of profit. This is a crime against the rest of humanity, and the decision-makers involved then (and involved now) must be prosecuted and made to repay society.

The crisis is here and we cannot avert it. But there is hope nonetheless. We can lessen the damage it will do by mobilising to de-carbonise the economy, to move away from waste and greed and destruction in the name of “growth”. Mitigation now will save our children and our children’s children from the real brunt of the storm. We live in depressing times, but we ought never to forget that something can be done about them.

A better world is possible, and it is up to us to build it. Will it be hard? Obviously. Is it the only way? Yes.

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