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© Richard Boll Photography / National Portrait Gallery Commission
David Attenborough
Veteran TV naturalist David Attenborough loves humans as much as other wildlife. But not when global populations are out of control, he tells Alison George

"I'm not doing anything exciting right now, like wrestling with gorillas. I'm working on radio scripts," says David Attenborough, a bit apologetically. Yet while his home in the leafy London suburb of Richmond is no longer full of the woolly monkeys, bushbabies or other exotic creatures his autobiography had living there, it's still a rich habitat. His collection of tribal art dominates the walls, a tribute to human inventiveness.

He has stopped keeping pets since his wife died, more than 10 years ago. "You can't, when you go away filming for weeks," he says. But his home is not entirely devoid of animal life. "I have great crested newts in the pond, and a darling robin that comes in the kitchen."

The latest venture for this veteran of wildlife documentaries is as controversial as anything he has done in his long career. He has become a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a think tank on population growth and environment with a scary website showing the global population as it grows. "For the past 20 years I've never had any doubt that the source of the Earth's ills is overpopulation. I can't go on saying this sort of thing and then fail to put my head above the parapet."

There are nearly three times as many people on the planet as when Attenborough started making television programmes in the 1950s - a fact that has convinced him that if we don't find a solution to our population problems, nature will. "Other horrible factors will come along and fix it, like mass starvation."

Trying to pin him down about the specifics of what to do, however, proves tricky. He says it involves persuading people that their lives and the lives of their children would be better if they didn't exceed a certain number of births per family. And that dramatic drop in birth rate rests on providing universal suffrage, education - particularly for women - and decent standards of living for all. It's a daunting task, but the first step, he argues, is to acknowledge that population is a problem.

But isn't the problem solving itself, as people have fewer children and population growth rates slow? Yes, he says, if you discount immigration, the UK's population is more or less static, but it is not so elsewhere. This troubles Attenborough: sounding off about high population and fertility rates in other countries can sound patronising - or worse.

The world at the start of Attenborough's career half a century ago was clearly a very different place. His passion about population seems to connect to a feeling that part of the joy of living rests in the natural world - a world without too many people, where seeking out wildlife means hard days canoeing rather than watching tourist boats arrive twice daily.

As a species, he says, we need to learn modesty, that we can't overrun everything. "If I had more intellectual athleticism I would tackle the problem of why I think other creatures have a right to live. I do think that, but can't justify it in a very convincing way."

For all his love of wild animals and places, Attenborough does not want to be immersed in them full-time. That's why he has chosen to live in London for more than 50 years. "I would go mad if I lived in the rainforest," he laughs. "I like what human beings do, I'm fascinated by them, and if you want to know any of those things, a big city is the place." He would miss libraries, concerts, theatre - and the chance to wander into the British Museum "just to have a look at something".

Talking exactly as he does on TV - breathily, enthusiastically, gesticulating to emphasise certain words - Attenborough is old-school charming. He seems at pains to be even-handed, to see both sides, an attitude he attributes to his early years at the BBC. In those days, it was a public-service monopoly and its broadcasters thought they knew best - a mindset he kicked against.

This even-handedness also allows him to be sanguine about the re-editing of one of his programmes by Dutch creationists, who changed the original narration that the dinosaurs disappeared "65 million years ago" to "a very long time ago". "I don't think I can object to that," he says. "If they imposed a positive creationist message and said 'God killed the dinosaurs', then I would object."

While Attenborough has no truck with those who attribute the wonders of nature to a creator (see AskAttenborough: Your questions answered), he is reluctant to call himself an atheist. "I'm not, because, with due respect to Richard Dawkins who is a friend and who I admire, that doesn't seem to me a scientific statement. Often when I open a termite's nest and see thousands of blind organisms working away that lack the sense mechanism to see me, I can't help thinking maybe there's a sense mechanism I'm missing, that there's someone around who created this. We cannot discount that. But I don't know."

Though he alludes wistfully to his younger days, he also seems to be enjoying the chance to relax more. "When you get to your 80s, the lust to stir your stumps isn't as great as it was. I think, 'Great, I don't have to do anything today'." Even so, later this year he will be off to the Antarctic and the Arctic to film his next epic for the BBC, The Frozen Planet.

As for retirement: "No, I will go on. It's having things to do that have grit in them, and unpleasantness - and people who want you to do them because they want to see the results. That's what work is. The thought of not having anything to do like that is awful."