Steve Backshall likes to get up very close to very dangerous animals. In the first episode of his new series for ITV, he’s chased by the world’s largest lizard, rescues a venomous king cobra and seeks out the world’s most poisonous fish on the islands of Indonesia. He tells us why he’s so fond of fearsome creatures…
So why do you do it?
What I do, which is unique with wildlife, is that I am dealing with animals that are fierce predators but it’s not about them being dangerous to us as human beings. Because the last thing I want to do is demonise animals. It’s about making them intriguing and fascinating. It’s about dealing with how predators interact with their prey.
The last thing I want is for people to be frightened of animals. I want them to be fascinated. It’s more about how the animals interact with each other in nature.
Where was your favourite location?
The Komodo National Park in Indonesia. I’ve been there five or six times already so I’ve filmed there lots before. How I wanted to make it different this time was to visit the Bajau people, often known as the sea gypsies. I wanted to investigate their relationships to and interaction with the animals that live there, in that part of Indonesia.
Under the water you’ve got these venomous and poisonous fish and invertebrates. You’ve got the dragons, the largest lizards in the world on land. So to find out how people live, day to day in a world where they are surrounded by things that are the most poisonous in the world, was intriguing. It’s just very, very special.
Steve with the world’s largest living lizard, the Komodo dragon
What was the most surprising thing that happened while making this series?
We had a sequence working with the Komodo dragons where I was going to drag a bit of meat and get the dragon to chase it, so we could see them running and in full on locomotion.
The park guides in Komodo suggested I hang the bit of meat in a tree about 400 metres away and we all thought the dragon would run after me for 40 or 50 metres. That we would see it running and then it would slow down and walk the rest of the way to the food.
But it sprinted after me for the full 400 metres with me having to run at full, flat out, pace. For a reptile it’s absolutely unheard of. They have a limited bank of energy, which is dependent very much on basking in the sun.
They have short bursts of energy. To see a lizard running for 400 metres at human sprinting speed is something that took all of us by surprise, including the park guides who work with them every single day.
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You met some of the people who live alongside the predators and have survived being attacked by them. Who made the biggest impression?
There is one thing that is the interesting about all of them. We spoke to local people who live on rivers where there are massive crocodiles, near waters where there are sharks, or who are surrounded by potentially lethal snakes. And when those animals are around them all the time they learn the rules, they have respect for them and they learn to live with them.
There is no more fear before or after an attack. It’s just one of those things, it’s part of life. That seems very alien for us but in many ways we can liken it to living in a big city. You learn the rules of living with cars thundering past you every day, which are far more dangerous than any wild animals could ever be.
I’ve been in a minor car crash but I still go out and drive and I still walk the streets. The people who live in environments where there are venomous snakes are exactly the same. We all learn the limits of our lives and how to live with them.
Steve with a green iguana in Mexico
Bullet ants have been given their name because a sting from them feels like a gunshot. In Guyana, we see you let a bullet ant walk on your hands despite your previous experience of being stung by them many times in an initiation ceremony. Were you nervous?
When I did the bullet ant ritual before, I was stung hundreds of times. After that the threat of being stung once by a single ant felt like nothing.
I’ve never been shot so I can’t compare it. I must say when I did the ritual I’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s not the 10 minutes of stings, it’s two or three hours later as the venom is really building in your system.
There is no treatment, there’s nothing you can do. There was nothing else in my world apart from pain, I wasn’t aware of anything else going on around me.
The thing that’s really interesting about bullet ant venom is that’s very, very pure. It’s evolved solely for the purpose of causing pain and has almost no allergens that we are aware of. So no matter how much pain you’re in, you’re actually in less danger from a bullet ant sting than you would be from a wasp or a bee sting.
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We see you roughing it. What home comforts do you miss the most when you are away filming?
When I’m on big expeditions and I’m away for a long time, it’s all about food. We sit around the campfire at night and you can tell how far into an expedition you are by how long it takes before people start talking about food. We miss roast dinner on a Sunday afternoon, French bread or good coffee. The things you definitely can’t get in the jungle.
Helen Glover and husband-to-be arm-wrestle for a Radio Times shoot
Have you and Helen (Glover, Steve’s fiancée) been on any adventure holidays or do you prefer to relax when off duty?
We have. At the moment Helen is training for the Olympics in Rio so she doesn’t even get one day off a week and there is no chance of a holiday. At the moment she has to be obsessive, there is no other way to be. But hopefully once the Olympics is done, we can do more together. We both love the outdoors.
We did make it out to Namibia last September where I proposed and I’ve just been back there, to exactly the same place, to film for Fierce so she was hopping mad about that.
But yes, whenever we get any free time we are out paddle-boarding, kayaking and once this crazy, professional athlete thing comes to an end, we have a whole life of adventure ahead of us.
Fierce begins on Tuesday 19th April on ITV at 8pm
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