Extinction: The Facts – why everyone is talking about David Attenborough’s heartbreaking new documentary

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Anna Brech
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Extinction: The Facts, a new David Attenborough documentary that explores the fragile state of our natural world, has been greeted with an outpour of sadness and anger from viewers. Why are plant and animal species disappearing at such an alarming rate? 

There’s nothing quite like the dulcet tones of Sir David Attenborough to soothe us through troubled times – and yet the veteran wildlife presenter’s latest documentary is far from easy watching. 

In a new BBC One special, Extinction: The Facts, Attenborough uncovers the devastating impact of human pressures on the planet’s shrinking wildlife populations – and what each of us can personally do to help avert disaster. 

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With one million animal and plant species in danger of disappearing altogether in the next decade, this is clearly a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale.

But the new one-hour film aims to take us beyond the emotive tenor of climate change, delivering concrete insights from some of the world’s leading scientists on how each of us can tackle some of the huge challenges that lie ahead for biodiversity.  

Mountain gorillas in Rwanda face a barrage of environmental threats

It follows last year’s broadcast of Attenborough special Climate Change: The Facts, and provides more the same unflinching focus on environmental destruction. 

The new programme came out last night, prompting a rush of sadness and anger on Twitter about the state of the world (along with praise for Attenborough’s flawless storytelling, and dedication to the cause).

Here’s everything you need to know about Extinction: The Facts, available on BBC iPlayer now:

Watch the first trailer for David Attenborough’s new BBC nature documentary
David Attenborough explores why the natural world is disappearing at such a perilous rate

What is Extinction: The Facts all about?

The growth of humanity has wiped out 60% of the world’s wildlife populations in the past four decades according to the World Wildlife Fund, while a 2019 United Nation report predicts that one in eight of Earth’s plant and animal species are now at risk of vanishing – many within the next ten or 20 years. 

Clearly the world is at a stark turning point and, as Attenborough says, “what happens next is up to every one of us”.

We can choose whether we want to carry on mindlessly consuming and developing as the natural world around us shrinks beyond all recognition. Or we can make a conscious decision to step in and take action that will help to save hundreds of thousands of animals in grave danger of disappearing forever. 

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Thankfully, many people want to be in the latter category, but knowledge is still a problem: former BBC factual commissioning controller Alison Kirkham says that audiences have “a hunger to understand how these urgent environmental issues affect them”.

Extinction: The Facts gets under the skin of endangerment, examining why our species are in such a precarious situation and the role of personal responsibility in fighting that threat. Attenborough goes “beyond our emotions to investigate what the extinction crisis means, not just for the planet but for every one of us”.

The wildlife presenter brings his legendary storytelling powers to bear in interviewing scientists on the frontline of the battle for conversation. We’re now in a race against time to shield the natural world before it’s too late. Extinction: The Facts asks what this crisis means for humanity as a whole. 

How have viewers reacted to Extinction: The Facts

Attenborough is well-versed in the production of hard-hitting nature documentaries, and this latest offering is every inch as stark as the title suggests. 

After the show came out last night, “David Attenborough” started to trend on Twitter as viewers rushed to praise the 94-year-old’s vital and moving narrative. 

The programme prompted Greenpeace UK to share a graphic of 18 animals that have already gone extinct over the past century, in a heartbreaking reminder of what is at stake – and how much more we have to lose.

A more uplifting moment of the documentary comes when Attenborough revisits a family of endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

The wildlife presenter first got to know the group 40 years ago, when they were on the brink of extinction due to the disastrous effect of deforestation.

But a huge conservation effort in the region means that the gorillas have since survived and grown in number, including descendents of Poppy, the “mischievous youngster” Attenborough met in the 1980s.

Attenborough describes their survival against the odds as “thrilling”, adding: “It just shows what we can achieve when we put our minds to it.”

The situation is far from happy for many other animals featured in the documentary though, including the northern white rhino; only two of which remain in the wild (and both are females).

Attenborough previously described the death of the last northern white male rhino in 2018 as “another catastrophe, and another warning signal”.

Why are our plant and animal species in such dangerous decline? 

In a word: humans. Across the Earth, plant and animal species are in the direct line of fire caused by human-driven consumption and climate change. In Australia, koalas are dying at unprecedented rates because of dehydration and deforestation: a threat that has also driven the Sumatran tiger, orangutans and rhinos to the brink (along with many other species hit by habitat loss). 

Meanwhile, the destruction of vast swathes of the planet’s shallow water coral reefs are putting the future of an entire ecosystem, including sea turtles, whales and dolphins, at risk. 

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The UN estimates that 75% of the world’s land environment and 66% of the marine environment “have been significantly altered by human actions”: meaning that virtually no animal or plant will escape unscathed from the fallout. 

One small indicator of the pace at which the planet is changing lies within the decline of insect pollinators. 

“There’s actually a newly coined phrase for insect declines — the ‘windshield effect’ — owing to the fact that if you drove your car at dusk 30 years ago, you would need to clean the windshield frequently, but that’s no longer the case today,” says Scott McArt, an entomology professor at Cornell University who led the UN report into species extinction. 

Attenborough's Blue Planet series was credited with bringing about real and positive change

What is David Attenborough hoping to achieve in Extinction: The Facts

Over the years, Attenborough has become one of the animal world’s most passionate and vocal advocates. It’s exactly this energy that he hopes to bear in persuading viewers that they have a real and personal play in averting disaster. 

“Over the course of my life I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals,” Attenborough says. “Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever.

“We are facing a crisis and one that has consequences for us all […] It’s never been more important for us to understand the effects of biodiversity loss, of how it is that we ourselves are responsible for it.”

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It’s not just talk, either: Attenborough has form for translating his programmes into positive action. 

Appearing at Glastonbury last year, he told crowds: “There was one sequence in Blue Planet 2 which everyone seems to remember. It was one in which we showed what plastic has done to the creatures that live in the ocean. They have an extraordinary effect. And now, this great festival has gone plastic-free. That is more than a million bottles of water that have not been drunk by you at Glastonbury.”

It’s only a small step in an enormous battle: but it’s a good illustration of the kind of difference that can be made.

Is there a trailer for Extinction: The Facts?

Yes, it was released earlier this month – take a look, below.

When does Extinction: The Facts come out?

Extinction: The Facts was first broadcast on BBC One at 8pm on Sunday 13 September, and is now available on iPlayer. Needless to say, it’s a must-watch for anyone who shares Attenborough’s passion for our beautiful and fragile natural world.

Images: Sam Barker/ BBC, Getty, Paul Longhurst and David Clode on Unsplash

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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