It takes more than a pretty face to follow in the footsteps of Sir David Attenborough. Wildlife television presenting was once a man’s world. A documentary on baboon behaviour or ocelot extinction would call for a bearded naturalist like David Bellamy, or the cheery anthropomorphism of Johnny Morris. But now this territory is facing a climate change all of its own, as it is invaded by a new breed of presenter: feisty, intelligent, eco-aware – and female. Though a publicist for Sir David Attenborough assures me that he is “obviously not replaceable”, his grip on the title of king of the jungle may not be as firm as it once was.
Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek flings open the door to her Bristol-based home, auburn hair tumbling over her green safari shirt. I have caught up with Uhlenbroek the day before she flies to Uganda to film a chimpanzee series for Channel Five. Great apes are this zoologist’s speciality. She lived in a hut for four years on the edge of Lake Tanganyika, following chimps through the forest and recording their long-distance calls for her PhD, alongside the revered primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall.
Uhlenbroek’s big television break came in the late 1990s. “I’d spent months analysing chimp vocalisations in a soundproof studio back in Bristol,” she explains – work that revealed that chimp communication involves not just one type of call, as was previously thought, but several different long-distance calls. “The BBC heard there was a girl up the road who had been working out in Gombe, and asked if I wanted to go back to present a series called Dawn to Dusk, and that they’d pay me!” Presenting came naturally to the young primatologist. “I was talking about chimps that I knew incredibly well. I was just turning to the camera as if it was a friend. I felt like a conduit.” Her ability to decipher primate behaviour, her blue-chip zoological credentials and look of “an eco-friendly Lara Croft” meant she was soon fronting BBC2’s Chimpanzee Diary. Since then, her eager, breathy tones have become a TV fixture. We have seen her swing through the jungle canopy, scale mengaris trees in Borneo and inspect pink-toed tarantulas in the Amazon.
Male journalists have noted Uhlenbroek’s “athletic, almost innocent sexiness” and her “tight sleeveless tops”; one wished “these frivolous young females dancing about” would stop making wildlife programmes. She appears unperturbed. “I’m a scientist. I’m coming in from a point of some expertise. Otherwise audiences think, ‘Why is she telling us this; how does she know?’ ” She doesn’t have a game plan. “I’m very much here and now and take things as they come. Television is a very fickle industry.”