In search of a Komodo dragon

Between the years of 1954 and 1963, in what was his first major presenting job at the BBC, David Attenborough fronted Zoo Quest, a documentary series that saw him traipse around the globe in search of various animals; the objective being to bring them back to London Zoo where they would then be homed. Viewers quickly warmed to both Attenborough and the concept, and the show was a hit. Below: a letter from a frustrated Attenborough, written from Indonesia in May of 1956 to his boss at the BBC back in London, in which he describes the many obstacles currently faced by his production crew in their quest to film, and capture, a Komodo dragon.

Indeed the problems persisted and, although a Komodo dragon was eventually caught on camera, Attenborough returned to London empty-handed.

Transcript follows. Image courtesy of the fantastic BBC Archives, where you can also watch Zoo Quest for a Dragon.


c/o British Embassy
Djalan Modjopahit 9
9th May

Dear Leonard,

How I wish I were doing Party Politicals in London (please do not take this as a permanent wish – it will fade in 3 months time). We are however having a frightful time. In spite of all our letters and assurances from the Indonesian Embassy in London, everyone here is being as difficult as possible.

On arrival, our travellers cheques and English pounds were confiscated and all our gear and film impounded in customs. The Australian airline baggage officer who was looking after us told us with a forced smile that it would be cleared the next day, whereupon we should be ‘set like a jelly’. That evening he changed his tune a little and implored us to go somewhere else as we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. As illustration, he quoted the radar equipments which QANTAS airlines had given to Djakarta airfield only to find that they had been charged 200% import tax. That, he said, was typical of the general attitude. Forms, regulations and restrictions are everywhere. So far we have encountered the following problems:

a) import duty on the equipment and film of £2,600

b) absolute refusal to allow us to catch the wretched dragon.

c) A state of terrorism in most of the places we want to visit.

d) a warning that each island has its own customs department which resents any instruction from Djakarta.

e) an artificial exchange rate which trebles the price of everything.

These at the moment are our major worries. We have, of course, numerous minor ones which need not detail.

To date we have visited apart from H.E. The British Ambassador, the Ministries of Immigration, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Agriculture, Finance, Education with many of their numerous sub-departments, and Indonesia Radio. As a result, we have achieved a total remission of import duty (on paper – we haven’t yet got the stuff), permission to catch birds of paradise and a plan to fiddle an expedition under Indonesian aegis to catch the dragon (which is permissible). As fast as we hobble over the hurdles, however, new and more formidable ones rise in front of us.

If all we had to do was to bash through jungles and catch a few animals, our lives would be easy.

I know I am in no position to complain (“Well, the boy would go”) and in fact I am not doing so with any seriousness for I feel sure that we shall at last get free of officialdom and into the islands. When we do I am convinced we shall get material which will knock ants into a crocked hat. Meanwhile, I am afraid our expenses are going to be more than I anticipated and we may be sailing close to the limit of our bank balance by the time we approach the end of our trip. For safety’s sake, would it be possible for Lynt to arrange for another £500 to be put to our credit in the bank. I don’t think we shall need it, but we should assuredly be in a frightful mess if we did and didn’t have it.

Remember me to anyone in the department who still recalls me – I feel we’ve been here for years.

Yours as ever,