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Gulf Times - 4th Feb 2011

 

Film director Mark Strickson had the audience either laughing or gasping in horror at his stories of his adventures while making documentaries on wildlife. Addressing a packed audience of Qatar Natural History Group members at its monthly meeting on Wednesday evening, Strickson showed some enthralling footage from the series of Qatar wildlife films he is currently making for the National Day Committee.

Strickson began his career as a film and TV actor, including a role in the BBC cult TV series Dr Who, before emigrating to Australia where he took a degree in zoology and turned to making wildlife documentaries for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, BBC and Channel 4, including The Ten Most Poisonous Snakes in the World.

For much of the past two years he has been based in Qatar and has made a full-length film on birdlife and shorter films on the Lesser jerboa, the Oryx, Sand skinks and marine life.

Appropriately it was the jerboa that was chosen as the mascot for the AFC Asian Cup last month. In 2011 there are plans to make five more films, including one on the big Spiny-tailed Agama lizards usually known by their Arabic name dhub.

The Lesser jerboa, a tiny rodent with a long tufted tail often known as a ‘kangaroo mouse’ because of its metre-long leaps, was difficult to film because of its shy nocturnal habits and its speed: “They cover as much as 10km a night in search of food,” said the speaker. “To film this little animal,” he continued, “we constructed a huge enclosed set and put together two lines of rocks with a channel in between them and a camera at each end.  When released the jerboa headed down the channel and that’s how we got the unique footage – no one has previously filmed it making its spectacular leaps.” 

He explained that they used several animals but never filmed an individual for more than five minutes at a time, to minimise stress. 

It was the film crew, however, who suffered from stress and heat exhaustion as the film was made in July in temperatures of well over 50 degrees C! 

Another desert film, and one of which Strickson is particularly proud, is a superb footage of rolling sand dunes in the south of the peninsula and the intriguing little lizards which inhabit them, the Sand skinks, also dubbed ‘Porcelain skinks’ for their beautifully marked shining bodies or ‘Sand fish’ for their habit of diving into the sand at the first hint of danger and ‘swimming’ beneath the surface. (See picture above taken by Drew Gardner)

The footage included a unique shot of a skink actually locating and nabbing its prey – a grub or insect – in what appears the be the most barren and sterile terrain imaginable.

Strickson quoted the greatest of all wildlife documentary film makers, Sir David Attenborough, who once remarked of his long series of highly acclaimed films, “If people don’t see nature how can they care for it.”  This, he said, is the feeling here too and the reason why the National Day Committee has commissioned these films: to make the people of Qatar more aware of the unique beauty of their landscape and the astonishing diversity of the animals which inhabit it.

Only then, he said, can people be expected to truly care about and take action to protect Qatar’s fragile environment.