01x04 - Deserts

Episode transcripts for the TV show "Planet Earth II". Aired: November 2016 to December 2016.
"Planet Earth II" is a nature documentary presented and narrated Sir David Attenborough.
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01x04 - Deserts

Post by bunniefuu »

Imagine a world where temperatures rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Where there's no escape from sun, wind and dust.

Imagine a world with almost no food or water.

These are the conditions in one third of the lands of our planet.

To live here demands the most extraordinary survival strategies.

This is the oldest desert in the world.

The Namib in south-west Africa.

It's been dry for 55 million years.

Life here for a hunter is as hard as it gets.

A pride of lions.

One of the very few that endures this desert's scorching temperatures and lack of water.

Hunting here presents special problems.

A herd of oryx, the only prey within 20 miles.

Out here, there is no cover for an ambush.

It'll have to be a straight chase.

They have failed and each failed hunt brings the lions closer to starvation.

To find enough to eat, the pride continually searches an area the size of Switzerland.

Three days and 100 miles later, and still no k*ll.

These are desperate times.


A dry riverbed on the edge of their territory.

The only animals here are giraffe, but these one-tonne giants could k*ll a lion with a single kick.

Lions seldom tackle such formidable prey... but this pride can't go on much longer without food.

The whole pride must work together as a team if they're to succeed.

Two lionesses lead the chase.

Others race to cut off possible escape routes.

The giraffe has the speed and stamina to outrun the pride... but it's being chased into a trap.

Up ahead, the lead female waits.

It's now up to her.

Most lion hunts end in failure.

But no lions fail more often than those that live in the desert.

Once again, the pride must continue their search.


It does, sometimes, rain in the desert.

Here, in the American West, storms can strike with devastating force.

After ten months of drought, millions of tonnes of water are dumped on the land in under an hour.

Over millions of years, sand and gravel carried by the rampaging floods have carved channels through the solid rock.

Slot canyons, 150 feet deep.

In some places, these canyons have widened until the land between them is sculpted into tablelands and isolated pinnacles, some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet.

The rain may be long gone... but there is water here... locked away within the tissues of specialist desert plants.

Cacti are unique to American deserts.

They all hoard water, storing it in swollen stems and protecting it behind a barricade of spines.

They're so successful that they dominate these deserts.

But this forest of spikes can cause problems for the animals that live here.

A Harrisxxx hawk.

It has developed special techniques for hunting amongst the cacti.

Ground squirrels.


At the first sign of danger they bolt for the safety of the thorns.

But the hawks have a tactic to flush them out.

These are the only birds of prey that hunt in packs.

Flying in formation, they try to drive their quarry into the open.

But this squirrel is staying put.

So now the hawks continue the hunt... on foot.

They're closing in from all sides.

Soon, all escape routes are cut off.

The squirrel is trapped.

The spines that cover almost every plant in this desert can provide protection and shelter for many animals.

So, why should these spikes be hung with corpses?

What kind of creature could be responsible for creating such a gruesome scene?

There's a mysterious k*ller at work in this desert.

It's a butcherbird.

This little songbird uses the spines as a butcher uses his hook... to hold its prey as it dismembers it.


And with chicks to feed, he also uses the spines as a larder.

He's been stocking it for weeks.

Hanging his prey out of the reach of scavengers on the ground ensures that his newly hatched young will never go hungry.

An ingenious solution to making the good times last in the desert... if a little macabre.


Some deserts are so arid, they appear totally devoid of all vegetation.

Yet even these landscapes can be transformed in a matter of days.

The deserts of Peru are amongst the driest in the world, but just add a little water and plants that have lain dormant for months will burst into life.

And when a desert suddenly turns green, even the most seemingly desolate can become a land of opportunity.

No creature exploits the greening of a desert more quickly or more dramatically than a locust.

Madagascar's arid south-west has received its highest rainfall in years.

Now, an army is on the march, attracted by the smell of newly sprouting grass.

Locusts are normally solitary creatures, but when food becomes suddenly plentiful they come together into an unstoppable force that devours everything in its path.

But this devastation is about to get a lot worse.

The locusts now transform into winged adults, and with conditions as good as this, they do so three times faster than normal.

Now they are at their most voracious... and with wings, they can take to the skies.

Once airborne, the locusts can travel over 60 miles a day in their search for new feeding grounds.

A super swarm of this scale may only appear once in a decade.

This one extends over 200 square miles and contains several billion individuals.

Between them, they will devour 40,000 tonnes of food in a day.

Nothing can strip a land of its vegetation with such speed and thoroughness as a plague of locusts.

When the food eventually runs out, the whole army will die... but not before it's devastated the land.

With no plants to bind them, thin soils soon turn to dust and blow away.

Now, these barren lands are left to the mercy of the elements.

Scorched by the sun and scoured by windblown sand, desert rock is shaped into strange, otherworldly landscapes.

These rocky deserts may have a beguiling beauty, but when they become this barren, very little life can endure.

For many animals, the only way to survive the most hostile times is to keep moving.

In the Kalahari, brief rains have given way to the dry season.

Food and water are becoming increasingly scarce.

For these zebra, it's time to leave.

They're setting off on the longest overland migration made by any mammal in Africa, marching towards the scent of distant rains.

As drought intensifies, desert-living elephants must also undertake long journeys in search of water.

The older females can remember where, even in times of extreme drought, there may still be water and sometimes lead the herd to a water hole they may not have visited for decades.

These zebra are almost at the end of their journey.

This is what they've been heading for... a rare water hole.

In deserts, most water holes are short lived.

They appear after rains, but then vanish almost as quickly as they came.

Animals have come here from many miles around.

Yet this can be a dangerous place in which to linger.

60 miles away, in the heart of the desert, sandgrouse chicks are hatching.

It's safer for them to be here.

But being so distant from water is a gamble.

With only their mother to shield them from the sun, if they get nothing to drink, they will be d*ad within hours.

Their only hope is their father.

Every morning he makes the 120-mile round trip to get water for the family.

Grouse from all over the desert visit this oasis, arriving together in large flocks, and that is important.

There's safety in numbers.

The male snatches a drink, but he also needs to collect water for his chicks.

Using specially adapted breast feathers, he can soak up water like a sponge.

But it takes time, and he is in danger.


Sandgrouse here are their main prey.

Again and again, the male sandgrouse risk their lives in order to collect water for their chicks.

This is why sandgrouse nest so far from water holes.

At last, he's soaked up as much as he can.

Carrying a quarter of his body weight in water, he can now set off on the long journey home.

He's back, and just in time.

He can give the chicks their first ever drink.

But he will have to undertake this perilous journey every day for the next two months until his chicks can finally make the flight to the water hole for themselves.

It's July in the deserts of Nevada in the western United States.

The hottest time of the year.

Bands of wild horses, mustang, are converging on one of the last remaining water holes for miles.

Now, water not only offers them the chance to drink, it can also bring power.

If a stallion can control access to water, he will have secured mating rights to the entire herd.

So stallions try to dominate these pools, fighting off rivals who venture too close.

A stranger.

He's travelled ten miles to be here because the pools where he's come from have already dried up.

With him come his females.

If he can't provide them with water, they will leave him for the white stallion who already dominates this pool.

So, he will have to fight.

There is everything to lose.

A broken leg or a shattered jaw would mean a slow and painful death.

A missed kick, and it's all over.

The new arrival has won... and his prize is more than just the chance to drink.

He has provided for his herd, and in the process, stolen his rival's females.

The white stallion's rule is over.
Desert life is not only shaped by the scarcity of water, but also by the relentless power of the sun.

The highest temperatures on Earth have all been recorded in its deserts.

Changes in the climate mean temperatures here are rising more than the global average and, as deserts heat up, they are also expanding.

Every year, a further 50,000 square miles of grass and farmland are turning into barren stretches of dust and rock.

In the heat of the day, surface temperatures can reach 160 degrees, far too hot to handle for most.

But not for this shovel-snouted lizard.

Raising its feet off the ground in turn... enables each to briefly cool.

But even this dancing desert specialist can't stand the heat for long.

One option is to find shade.

Dune grass, the only vegetation here, provides virtually none, but just an inch beneath the surface of the sand, it is several degrees cooler.

Avoiding the extreme heat imposes a rhythm on desert life.

And many animals here choose the simplest option of all... staying hidden all day, and only venturing out in the cool of the night.

As darkness falls, animals appear from seemingly nowhere.

And, among them, inevitably, are hunters.

One of the most voracious nocturnal predators is also one of the hardest to see.

This mysterious creature hardly ever appears on the surface of the dunes.

But there are signs on the sand that can give it away.

It lives only here, where the sand grains are so perfectly dry and polished, that they flow almost like water.

It's no bigger than a ping-pong ball.

A golden mole.

It's totally blind, but there's nothing to see underground anyway.

Instead, it has superb hearing.

Its entire head acts as an amplifier that picks up vibrations through the sand, so, to locate prey on the surface of the dune, it has, paradoxically, to thrust its face into the dune.


Not easy to catch when you're blind.

Far better to go into stealth mode.

Once below the sand, it can detect the slightest movement... allowing it to strike with pinpoint accuracy.

Well, most of the time.

They can travel two thirds of a mile a night in search of its dinner... and right now, it has just detected its main course.

Little wonder it's sometimes called "the shark of the dunes".

Food can be so scarce in the desert that, even at night, animals can't afford to be choosy about what they eat.

Israel's Negev desert.

Otonycteris, the desert long-eared bat, is on the hunt.

Most bats catch flying insects on the wing, but there are so few of these in the desert that this bat must do things differently.

It has to hunt on the ground.

But what really sets it apart is what it's hunting... a deathstalker scorpion.

The venom of this species is potent enough to k*ll a human.

Tackling it seems madness for a bat weighing just half an ounce.

In the pitch-black, both predator and prey are effectively blind, but the scorpion has one advantage... he can sense the approach of the bat through vibrations in the sand.

Otonycteris must rely entirely on its hearing.

If the scorpion doesn't move, it won't know it's there.

The battle is on.

Armed with crushing pincers and a sting loaded with venom, this scorpion is a dangerous opponent.

A direct strike on the head.

Is it all over?

Not for this bat.

Otonycteris clearly has some immunity to the venom, but repeated stings must still be extraordinarily painful.

And if the bat is not to go hungry, it must catch another three scorpions before sunrise.

Desert animals have developed remarkable strategies to make the most of the rare opportunities that come their way.

Although some deserts may not see rain for several years, most will hold a little water in one form or another.

The trick is simply knowing how to reach it.

Dawn in the dunes of the Namib, and something magical is happening.

Moist air lying over the neighbouring Atlantic is cooled and bl*wn inland, forming fog banks that shroud the desert in mist.

This precious moisture lies tantalisingly out of reach at the top of the dunes, and it won't last long.

It'll be burnt off by the sun just hours after it rises.

Darkling beetles race to the top of the dunes to reach the fog before it vanishes.

Some of the Namib's dunes are 1,000 feet high, the tallest in the world.

For a beetle no larger than a thumbnail, this is the equivalent of us climbing a dune twice the height of Everest.

But even more impressive is what it does next.

Standing perfectly still, facing into the wind, the beetle does a headstand.

Fog begins to condense on its body.

Microscopic bumps on its wing cases direct the water to grooves that channel it towards the mouth.

Before returning down the slip face, it will drink 40% of its body weight.

This little beetle has learned how to conjure water out of the air in one of the driest places on earth.

And it's not alone on the top of the dunes.

Web-footed geckos use a similar trick.

Surely, few animals go to greater lengths to get a drink.

Unfortunately, Namaqua chameleons know that on foggy mornings, the beetles coming down the dunes are juicier than those going up.

The diversity of life that thrives in a world almost totally devoid of water is truly remarkable.

Success in the desert depends on an extraordinary variety of survival strategies that have evolved over millions of years.

But our planet is changing.

The world's deserts are growing bigger, hotter and drier, and they're doing so faster than ever before.

How life will cope here in the future remains to be seen.

Finding animals in these vast empty landscapes was a persistent problem for the Deserts team.

But surely this wouldn't be the case when they set out to film one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife on earth.

It can't be hard to find a billion locusts, can it?


With news that freak rains have triggered a mass emergence of locusts in a remote part of Madagascar, the team sets off in pursuit.

We've got some young hopper locusts just crossing the road in front of us here. We've just had to stop the cars.

Here they are, here, all on the side of the road, look.

It looks promising.

But though finding hoppers is easy, filming them proves more of a challenge.

Can we rethink this? Because it's not really working.

The locusts are really skippy.

Any kind of movement, they just freak out, So we're now doing our best locust-herding techniques to try to get them to go in front of the lens, which is proving harder than anticipated.

This is my Monday morning locust-herding jazz hands.


What? What's that?


It's a wasp nest.

Soon, the crew find themselves surrounded by locusts.

No need for jazz hands now.

It's a good start, but the team still need to film the winged swarms that complete the story.

But, once airborne, they can travel 60 miles a day, so finding a swarm won't be easy.

Fortunately, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation are here, too, to help.

The FAO are on a mission to eradicate the plagues decimating crops across Madagascar, and if anyone knows where the locusts are, it's the local expert, Hasibelo.

He thinks that they are moving this way.

Time to go swarm-chasing.

But chasing is the operative word.

The locusts always seem one step ahead.

It's amazing, really, because this plan's completely radically changing, hour by hour.

We now have to travel several hours further north, which is... a bit of a pain.

It's a bit of a pain.

As they venture into the unknown, it's clear it's been a very wet year indeed.

Traffic is one thing, but boats on the road?

Unconventional traffic.

Progress is slow, and soon stops altogether.

The locusts are just across the water, so the team must follow... on this.

What could possibly go wrong?

We're now stuck on, possibly, the world's most antiquated raft trying to cross a very fast-flowing river.

But, onwards and upwards.

We've now got an hour-long river crossing, and we'll just have to see what's on the other side.

With the river behind them, it should be plain sailing.

But once across, the team discovers that, yet again, the locusts are nowhere to be seen.

And, after two weeks on the road, the local street food is beginning to take its toll.

So Ed's not very well. Been yacking up and...

And not very nice stomach.

We just need to do whatever it takes now to get us to where the swarms are.

The next day, the team forges on.


Here's Jamal, our driver.

What do we think? Yeah?


The road has turned into a bog.

The cars can go no further.

We need to cross this area of water to get to the savanna and find our locust swarms.

And it's amazing to think that, with the combined might of the United Nations and the BBC, we are eventually defeated by a puddle.

Back to the drawing board.

Once again, it's Hasibelo to the rescue.

Well, we have a plan.

Taking to the air was never on the cards, but thanks to the FAO's helicopter, the team can now play the locusts at their own game.

More smoke?

This time, it's a billion locusts... and one very relieved producer.


Against the odds, the team has located a super-swarm.

This is exactly what we've been looking for. We've driven halfway across Madagascar to one of the most remote parts there is.

It's just been a nightmare, but, finally, we're here.

I mean, this is the biggest swarm we could have even hoped for.

It is just amazing.

Look at here, I'm going to film here.

It's incredibly exhilarating, and yet totally shocking, to think of the devastation that swarms like this are causing.

It just makes you realise how important the FAO are in getting this under control.

I'm just going to run through it.

I should be naked for this, but...

Thankfully, Rob kept his clothes on, and, more importantly, this plague has now been halted, but not before the team had witnessed one of the biggest swarms ever recorded on film.

Next time, we journey to the world's great plains, where spectacular gatherings of wildlife cope with extreme change... and surprising creatures survive in unexpected ways.
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