Ipswich: Wildlife expert Steve Backshall shares his adventures with the Regent
Adventurer and wildlife expert Steve Backshall talks to entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE about his world travels, helping to inspire the next generation of conservationists and what really scares him.
Deadly predators like boxing mantis shrimp and charging tigers don’t faze Backshall. Inquisitive audiences though…
Most want to know his favourite animal or as he ever been bitten. Then there’s the wacky stuff.
“I sometimes just go completely blank and think ‘oh my goodness, I’ve absolutely no idea’, I’ve been asked what is my favourite animal in Star Wars, why don’t penguins’ feet freeze, how many muscles are there in a giraffe’s neck,” says the BAFTA winning adventurer.
Turns out the muscles and the bone structure of a giraffe’s neck are quite similar to a human neck - we have the same number of bones, seven, for example - everything’s just larger in them.
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Steve doesn’t have a favourite Star Wars animal. I like the Rancor or Wampa, basically anything that tortures Luke Skywalker... in case you were wondering.
He hasn’t been bitten by anything either.
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“A lot of the clich�s about animals are very true, that actually they would much rather run away from us than attack us. If you have an understanding of them, constantly assess the situation and listen to the much more knowledgeable local people around you, the chances of something bad happening are impossibly low.
“Nobody [on his many TV expeditions] has had any injuries from wildlife other than things like ticks, leeches and mosquitos. The danger of wild animals to humans is massively over-stated for obvious reasons, it makes really good television and newspaper articles but it’s just not true.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been a few close calls, but you can ask him about that and more when his latest illustrated talk, A Wild Life, comes to the Ipswich Regent on June 7.
It’s full of behind the scenes stuff, never seen before clips and stories of his encounters with the wild wonders and mysteries of the natural world.
This tour also marks the publication of his debut novel Tiger Wars, which sees Saker and Sinter on a quest to right some of the horrific wrongs perpetrated against wildlife around the planet as they come face to face with the world’s most fascinating, majestic and lethal creatures.
Right now, he’s looking forward to getting his kayak out and catching up on the birdlife which, like him, has made a home for itself alongside a stretch of the Thames.
“It’s the best way to unwind after anything at all,” he says. “It’s really exciting following the fortunes of all the birds.”
He’s not deterred by the lousy weather, adding you can have just as good a day when it’s hammering it down as you can when it’s bright sunshine.
But then this a man who’s faced every climate the world can chuck at you.
“I’m so lucky; I’ve been to 101 countries now which is quite a tally. The only person who has done more is the Queen,” laughs the fearless presenter of the children’s BBC series Deadly 60, Live and Deadly, Deadly 360 and Deadly Art.
“The more places I go, the more I find there is still left to do so hopefully I’ll be able to keep on doing this for a few more years yet. Antarctica is the place I most want to go; I’ve bugged every single boss since I started television to send me there and it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not giving up hope.”
It’s all a far cry from the nearby woodland he used to explore as a child.
“As soon as I could crawl I was absolutely fixated by everything around me. I was lucky enough to grow up on a small farm and able to be outside every single minute of my childhood.
“There were loads of domestic animals, but I was mostly fascinated by the birds, bugs and snakes in the compost heap, that kind of stuff.”
Forget regularly coming face to face with lethal creatures. One of the bravest things he ever did was spending a month or so alone in the Columbian jungle.
He’d been working as a writer and came up with an idea for a programme, so got a video camera and filmed himself catching scorpions, snakes and spiders.
National Geographic bought the footage and he spent the next five years with them.
How to break into the wildlife documentary world is another often asked question.
“If you look at Chris Packham, Simon King, Nick Baker, David Attenborough, they’ve all had very different paths into wildlife television.
“It’s usually come from already having had a strong grounding in the sciences or working in conservation but there is no set path. I think the only thing is they’ve all done something extraordinary and really put themselves out there; they’ve taken a big gamble and it’s paid off.”
Even now, Steve still gets a real sense of excitement every time he goes back to the rain forest. It’s the environment he spends the most time in because there’s just so much living there.
If they don’t find the target animal they’re after, such as the elusive jaguar, they’re bound to encounter snakes, frogs, exciting insects or a few primates.
“I just find it so exciting,” he says, “because you just have no idea what the next thing is going to hold.”
There are downsides.
“One of the great problems of my job, one of the great negativities, is that I do get to see all of the very worst situations in conservation.
“That is incredibly depressing, but at the same time the programmes I’m doing have a part to play in making sure the next generation does something about those problems. The people most likely to do something to help wildlife, to help the environment are people that love it.
“Lots of the kids who are watching them are getting genuinely excited and writing back to me and saying ‘right, what do we do, what is the next step, how can we make a difference’.
“It’s wonderful seeing there is a whole generation of kids now who are much more switched on the environment than my generation ever was at that age.”
One way of getting them involved is by focusing on the treasure trove of wildlife waiting just outside our front doors.
Even on shows like Deadly 60, Steve makes sure the country featured the most is the UK and he’s done entirely British-based series too.
“I think that it’s incredibly important because for the vast majority of people, adventure has to start in your own back garden.
“That’s how it started for me and I actually find the further on I go and the more filming I do the more passion I have for our own native wildlife. It’s ours and there’s so much history with it, it’s the stuff that we should be most proud of.
“There’s no point in people thinking the only way they can have a big adventure is if they go to Antarctica because the vast majority will never be able to afford that.
“It’s really important people know this country has so much to offer in terms of exciting landscapes, places and animals. It’s vital to me that the audience knows that and they’re given the tools to go out and do the things I do themselves.”