The naturalist and Deadly 60 presenter explains how the thrill and danger element is part of his duty to remind viewers, by ‘stealth’, about the plight of endangered species
Young people in the UK are far more aware of the environment than their parents, believes naturalist and TV presenter Steve Backshall.
Brought up on a smallholding in Surrey surrounded by rescue animals,
Backshall’s wildlife education began young. “It’s all down to my Mum and Dad,” he explains. “They are themselves passionate about the outdoors and about wildlife so there was never any doubt that my sister and I were both going to have a life that was very much all about nature.”
In his 20s Backshall (now 41) traveled solo to Colombia, armed with a camera and the idea for a television series. He sold the resulting video to National Geographic, became their “adventurer in residence”, and now he is one of Britain’s favourite wildlife presenters, having fronted programmes such as The Really Wild Show, Lost Land of the Tiger and most famously, the Deadly 60 series.
The programme, comprising two series and 76 episodes, first aired in 2009 and has been shown in 18 countries, seen by 25 million people, and earned Backshall two BAFTA awards. It also inspired a variety of spin-offs, including a string of live UK events called Live ‘n’ Deadly, attended by over 90,000 people.
We meet at the London Aquarium where he is preparing to dive into the shark tank to raise awareness of No Limits?, a campaign launched by the Shark Trust to highlight the need for science-based catch limits for blue sharks, shortfin mako, tope, smooth-hounds and catsharks – species accounting for over 97% of reported Atlantic shark landings (catches).
“If the world’s oceans have had nearly half a billion years with sharks as the apex predators, then the delicate balance of its food webs must rely on their presence in complex ways we cannot possibly predict,” Backshall wrote for the Guardian. “Lose the sharks, the mighty, mysterious lords of the deep, and our planet’s oceans would be infinitely poorer places.”
But it is not just our oceans that are in danger of becoming poorer places. Habitats and species are being lost the world over, and Backshall sees it all the time.
“I’m actually getting to the stage where places I travelled to for the first time in the early 1990s are now unrecognisable,” says Steve. “I go to coral reefs that I went to ten years ago when they were swarming with fish and sharks, and now they are barren deserts.”
And as a president of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, the Young People’s Trust for the Environment, and vice-president of Buglife, Backshall also tries to , as he puts it, keep a real handle on the issues associated with wildlife in the UK: “We have a lot of tremendous problems; invasive species is a big one. There are a lot of non-native species – such as signal crayfish – that are running riot here in Britain and decimating certain native animals.” But, he says, even though this small nation has challenges we are lucky to have such a well-informed public: “The young people in this country are far more aware of the environment than I ever was when I was a kid – it’s something that’s much more on the agenda.”
It is not surprising then, that when frequently asked what he thinks the planet’s most deadly animal is, Backshall’s answer is always the same.
“It is us, by a mile. There’s no other species on earth that destroys the environment it relies on to survive. We are more destructive and more pervasive than any other animal. If you took us away from the planet right now the result would be wonderful, and there is pretty much nothing else you could say that about.”
As such a well-known wildlife expert, Backshall believes adamantly that it is his duty to highlight these critical issues – as long as he is pragmatic about it.
“First and foremost, it’s about making people love animals, wildlife and nature, and then secondly, getting the message in by stealth,” an approach that has proven to be effective in the past. Many of his programmes highlighting the issues facing sharks today have been broadcast in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, or as he says, “the countries where that really matters”.
“Those programmes have the thrill of the encounter and the thrill of me looking like I’m about to get eaten by a great white shark, so people watch them regardless of whether they would be interested in the message,” he says. “But two minutes later I can say to them: ‘So this wonderful animal you’ve just seen is in danger because of this …’ and even if I only get a minute to pass that message on, it has been heard by people who otherwise wouldn’t listen to it.”
It is these types of approaches, and initiatives such as the No Limits? campaign, that Steve hopes will signal the difference between people cowering behind the sofa, and striding out to make sure something is done.
“There has to be a belief that we can do something definitive about it. There’s nothing more paralysing or more likely to make people fall into a malaise of believing they are powerless than just hearing that everything’s negative and everything’s shot to bits. It’s really important that we know we can change this planet for the better and that every single one of us, no matter how small we may feel, has that power.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 11 July 2014.