Chris Packham is a TV presenter, conservationist and all round wildlife enthusiast who has presented TV’s The Really Wild Show and more recently BBC’s Springwatch plus its assorted offshoots. With his enthusiasm and unapologetic focus on propagating the outcomes of good science he can count a lifetime achievement award by the Wildscreen wildlife film festival, dubbed “The Green Oscars” amongst his various awards and has written many books on wildlife across the years.
Now he’s featuring in the presenting team, alongside Emmy award winners Phil Keoghan and Jane Lynch, for the new Nat Geo WILD show “Earth Live” which will connect to live cameras across the globe to present a compelling live view of important wildlife habitats. Describing it as “ground breaking” Chris will provide the factual support for the team and describes being part of it as being “an enormous privilege.
We ranged across a number of diverse areas in the interview, just a few of which include
- The pioneering UK expertise that is making this event possible
- What “Earth Live” has in common with sporting events
- The effect of neonicotinoids on pollinators
- Why he never watches football matches he’s recorded
- Why he’d like to shake the hand of a man who crashed his McLaren
CH: How did you get involved with Earth Live in the first place?
CP: Well, a lot of people that are facilitating the wildlife aspect of this show are from the UK and basically there’s a lot of UK expertise here in terms of rigging the cameras and getting the locations to work because we’ve got this enormous number, more than 30 live cameras all round the world, and that’s an expertise which the Brits, if you like, through programmes like Springwatch and Big Blue Live and so on and so forth have pioneered. So Nat Geo came to the UK looking for that sort of expertise so they could guarantee that the technical side of the programme would work, and then they figured out that they’d need someone who has the experience to do live TV with unpredictable animals for an hour or so without an autocue and without a script and be able to respond spontaneously to what they’re doing with a small degree of authority. So they’ve asked me, and I’m very pleased to have accepted the job and I’m very excited about the whole project, the likes of which has never occurred before. So yes, this is pioneering stuff and to be a part of it is an enormous privilege.
CH: So what is it that appeals most to you about the project? Is it the scale or are there some specific things going on that you’re very excited about?
CP: Well it is ground-breaking stuff this, it’s never been tried before. I mean I don’t think it would have been feasible even in the recent past because of the technological advances that we have needed to happen, I mean we’re beaming satellite signals from all around the world but we’re not beaming them from major cities, we’re beaming them from the middle of nowhere where the animals are so that’s enormously technically challenging and pooling them all together in New York to then send them out to more than 100 countries live, yes the scale of it is previously unknown, so that’s exciting. But of course it comes down to the usual thing, what do they say? Never work with animals or children? Well there are no children involved as far as I can ascertain at the moment but there are a lot of animals that may be involved and it’s that risk, it’s that live not knowing what’s going to happen which is just constantly exciting. It’s the same as Springwatch or any of those programmes, the programme starts, they roll the credits and at that point in time you still don’t know what’s going to happen and I find that tremendously challenging, you know it keeps you awake for a couple of hours whilst you try and stay in touch with what is actually happening so I think it’s the challenge and the scale of it that appeal to me.
CH: In many ways Springwatch has led the way for this kind of thing, do you think that’s what they’re doing, Springwatch for a global audience
CP: Yes, this is Springwatch ramped up isn’t it? It’s similar technologies in terms of what we’re trying to do. We’re looking at not just the big and exciting animals, yes we’re looking at Lions and we’re looking at Humpback Whales and we’re looking at animals that people like a lot in terms of macaques and languor monkeys but also we’re doing some deep sea material, we’ve got a guy diving with Bull Sharks and we’re also looking at a colony of weaver ants so we’re not just focusing on the cute and the cuddly. We’re looking at as much of life on earth and beneath the sea right the way through terrestrial and to some extent airborne, we’re doing some stuff with birds as well. We’re flying with a Golden Eagle, we’ve got a camera on the back of a Golden Eagle that’s going to be in the air, so we’re going from deep ocean to high skies with this and we’re doing it all in two hours! It’s going to be quite a challenge!
CH: Normally with Springwatch you’ve got at least a week and the Unsprungs as well so packing it all into two hours…
CP: Well, this is just one programme. From my point of view I’ve got from now until Sunday to sort of get my head around it. Typically when we’re in Springwatch run, so if I’m doing Unsprung which is half an hour earlier, which is entirely unrehearsed and unscripted and un-autocued, so I get an hour and a half to do and I’ve got to do that every day! I get a few days run-in but once the run starts that’s it, it’s every 24 hours we’re in that one and a half hour pattern, so I’ve hopefully managed to get my head around that and deliver so with a few days of preparation hopefully this won’t be too onerous. I think that what it is is that we’ve got an enormous number of species of a much greater variety so I’ve got to get my head around at least 40 different species of the world’s wildlife to the extent that I know more than I already know about them. I mean some of the things I’ve been reading about the last few days, I could have told you quite a bit about two-toed sloths I suppose because I’ve met one and thought about them in the past but what I want to do is raise the bar when it comes to that information so I’ve been ‘genning up’ on my two-toed sloths over the last couple of days.
CH: Are there certain things about working with Nat Geo Wild that wouldn’t happen if you were working at the BBC?
CP: I think that what the approach is here, which I’m going to be very interested in, is that it’s being run much more like a sporting event. Part of the sense of the excitement of live sport, you know what it’s like… I frequently actually record football games and I never watch them… it’s one of those bizarre habits that I have.. if there’s a game on that I may want to watch, if I record it and know the score I will NEVER watch it! What we’re capitalising on here is a real sense of excitement, of not knowing what’s going to happen, of the unpredictability and also the sense that it’s only ever going to happen once. It’s a bit like a game of football, a game of baseball from the American perspective or a 100 metres dash, you need to be watching it to really care about who the winner is so we’re hoping our audience will be caring about what’s going on because it’s live and that’s going to be tremendously exciting. I think that the pitch and the speed of presentation is going to be much higher, it’s going to be a lot more entertainment, although obviously I’m here to provide information as well so that’s not being neglected in any way, shape or form, but I like the mix. We do it on Springwatch too. Springwatch is not a programme, it’s a show and this is very much a show, it’s about entertainment and education combined.
CH: As you touch on the different animals in their different environments across the globe it probably won’t be long before you get onto the subject of climate change so how do you think that’s going to work out because obviously there are different opinions in different audiences shall we say?
CP: Our programme, rather like Springwatch, is largely celebratory. We’re here to celebrate the diversity of life on earth and what it’s up to during the course of one 2 hour period. You’re absolutely right, there’s no escaping the fact that I think it’s important to get a conservation message over. Many of the species that we’re going to be featuring are imperilled in some way or threatened, not all of them actually but some of them are, and I will allude to that there is no question I can’t ignore that in an audience of this size. I think we’ve got to say to people that “as much as you’re enjoying this you’ve got to care about it and then you’ve actually got to take some action”. In terms of the threats that they face climate change is obviously one, that’s a global problem, but there are more specific threats to some of these creatures as well and I think that this is not a conservation programme but I don’t think you can make a wildlife programme without touching on conservation these days, at least not responsibly.
CH: One of the things you touch on, one of your big messages is about local action so is that one thing that you’re hoping that people will take away from the programme, is that they’ll become more actively locally for their wildlife or even globally?
CP: I think so. Look, what are we doing essentially? We’re sort of ‘peeping toms’ aren’t we on the world’s wildlife with this programme. We’re looking into other people’s back yards and showing it around the world but the people who share their lives with these animals are those people out there in the field, all the way from Australia to Alaska. Those are the people that are principally for the health and well-being of that wildlife, they’re the ones that enjoy it first hand every day. We’re visiting to get a snapshot of it and what we need to convey to them is the fact that overall it’s their job to look after it and if they do so they’ll enjoy it, so yes, what I call ‘community conservation’ is very much a global thing. As I said we’re there to celebrate it and that’s fine but at the same time we must also point out that people who live in these environments have a responsibility to look after it.
CH: Obviously you’ve had the recent experiences in Malta and then in the UK we’ve got things like fox hunting and grouse hunting, it’s almost difficult to frame a question as there’s also insecticides affecting bees so what do you think are some of the most pressing issues that you thing we’ve got in the UK?
CP: Well I think that you’re right, we can’t always be looking overseas and telling other people to sort their problems out when we’ve got plenty of problems at home ourselves and we mustn’t forget that our own back yard is not the best place in the world to be wildlife. There’s a complete portfolio of problems, as you say, from illegal raptor persecution to the continued habit of fox hunting right the way through to the neonicotinoids which only this last week the science has been reaffirmed again, peer reviewed science, that these insecticides are damaging our pollinating populations including bees and that’s a very serious threat to not just wildlife but our own future. So all of these things need to be addressed, I mean to be quite honest with you being a conservationist at this time in the 21st century is fairly exhausting. You get up every single day and you’re on to something else, but what we must do is communicate effectively between those people who do care but make sure that they equally recognise that caring is no longer enough, they actually have to take some action, and that can be petitioning on the Government websites which we’ve used successfully in the past, or it can be lobbying through any democratic means basically. They have to make their voice heard and their voice ultimately will be heard because what we’re campaigning for here are from platforms where we’ve got sound science. Peer-reviewed science shows that neonicotinoids are dangerous to pollinators, illegal persecution of birds of prey is illegal, there’s no ambiguity about it! It’s a criminal activity and it’s taking place in the UK so from that standpoint it’s not a question of opinion, I’m not voicing my opinion, these are established facts so that means that we have an enormous strength when it comes to campaigning against them, we just have to seize that strength more fervently because we can’t let these things continue.
CH: HeyUGuys is primarily a film website and I think films haven’t done most wildlife many favours, I’m thinking specifically of Jaws here which is a film series which has done probably more harm to the public perception of sharks than anything else in western culture so what, if any, films have represented wildlife positively and do you have any favourites on that list?
CP: Do you know I’m going to struggle to think of one. To be honest with you I think that’s why we make some of the programmes that we do, TV programmes. Earth Live we’ve got someone who’s diving with Bull sharks and Bull sharks are probably up with Tiger and White sharks as the most dangerous, they’re certainly probably responsible for more attacks than the other two across the world but what we’ve got to keep in perspective is that for every one person killed by a shark a hundred million sharks are killed for the fin industry so what our message will be, and we’ll be very much on message with Earth Live, is that these are wonderful animals, they play a very valuable part in the marine eco-system. We cannot continue to afford to kill millions and millions of them, it will disrupt the world’s oceans and we’ll pay the price for that. I think that very often we make programmes as a rebuttal to some of the misinformation that is perpetuated in sensationalist TV or sensationalist films. As you mentioned Jaws did enormous damage in the 70s and has continued to do so when really we ought to be celebrating these animals, but we’ve come a long way. I think that when you look at social media now a lot of people are campaigning against shark finning, there’s a lot of backlash against that, and when recently the Australians started to cull sharks there was a global backlash. People’s awareness of the importance of these animals and their beauty is growing and it’s growing rapidly.
CH: Speaking of social media I notice that last Friday you retweeted something about National Badger Week and braking for badgers and then on Sunday a man wrapped his McLaren supercar around somebody’s house which he’s now claiming was to avoid a badger so I’m wondering… has his insurance company been on the phone?
CP: No, not to me. McLaren supercars have got an enormous capacity when it comes to braking. I can’t think that I’ve ever been in a car which has got brakes as phenomenally good as a McLaren and obviously let’s hope that the gentleman who was driving the car was driving within the speed limit and I can’t imagine, therefore, why he wasn’t able to stop if he saw a badger. I think if I saw a badger and I was driving a McLaren within the speed limit and I was paying attention to what was on the road I might be able to stop it [laughs]. Who knows? I hope he’s not injured, I hope no one in the house was injured and I hope the badger wasn’t injured as well. Ultimately if a man prangs his McLaren to save a badger I’d like to shake him by the hand!
Earth Live is on your screen on 9th July in the US and 23rd July in the UK on Nat Geo WILD