Dangerous pursuits

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deadly Steve Backshall with a boa constrictor

What possesses three hearts, has blue-green blood, can change colour as a lethal weapon of camouflage, and is one of the 60 deadliest killers on this planet? Naturalist Steve Backshall, who hits TV screens on Saturdays, at 9.30 pm, from August 20 with Animal Planet’s new season of Deadly 60, is the perfect person to answer that. It’s the cuttle fish, he says, explaining that it uses camouflage to sneak up on its prey. Steve has been introducing animal lovers to some unlikely killers for some time now. From the black rhino to the blue whale, leopard seals to giant hornets, he has been searching the world for animals that most sane people would happily avoid. And then he has been going about showing people how each animal has developed deadly characteristics that help it survive in the wild.

According to Steve, the deadliest encounter he had in this season was with sea lions called Stellar Sea lions in British Columbia. “I went diving with them, an experience which is more dangerous than diving with sharks,” he says, confessing that he did get nervous when they started nibbling on his wet suit. Another wonderful moment was when he managed to go kayaking with killer whales. “I’ve been trying to do that for so many years, but because of the very nature of killer whales, because they’re always on the move, always travelling and very fast, I’ve just never managed to actually capture it. To get it for the first time was an extraordinary experience.”

The kind of work they do puts Steve and his crew at risk sometimes, but they have been lucky to get out of it safe. One episode that he likes to recount is what happened with cameraman Johnny in Corbett National Park when they were trying to film tigers. After a few days of not seeing any tigers, suddenly there were tigers everywhere and the crew started shooting. “Johnny hopped into the vehicle of one of the locals, and the driver drove what must have been too close to the male tiger, and it obviously felt it needed to assert its dominance, and so it did what is known as a mock charge towards the car. It put its ears back against its head, snarled and leapt forward a couple of times. Everyone was very frightened, but actually it was just the tiger saying, ‘listen, you need to give me a bit more space, back off, I’m not comfortable with you being there’,” he says.

Naturally, the job is fraught with risks. “There have been some moments where we found ourselves cornered by a couple of hippos in South Africa, and hippos are known for being quite unpredictable and aggressive and we found ourselves in a situation that could have gotten very dangerous, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t very scared at that moment. Luckily, the animals just wanted to try and get around us with as much avoidance of stress as they could.”

Steve says that a considerable amount of work goes on behind the screen in programmes like Deadly 60. “We keep the crew to a small, manageable number and they are all very, very talented. They all know the job very well. It generally tends to be myself plus three others. There is a sound man, a cameraman and perhaps a researcher or a director. We keep things simple and everyone knows his job very well. They’re all very good friends and people I really trust as well. We have a good time on the road. We work very hard, but everyone really enjoys it.”

The new season of Deadly 60 will cover in its 26 episodes unexplored deadly animals including the tarantula hawk wasp, desert snakes, the mole lizard in Baja, wolf eel, giant Pacific octopus, anaconda, whip spiders and even the longest venomous snake in the world. If there’s one thing Steve has learnt from this show, it is that animals try to avoid conflict. “Animals that people consider to be the most dangerous to human beings, actually, just want to avoid conflict. Their danger to us is generally overstated.” So, it does seem that the most dangerous animal on the planet is the human being. Steve has, however, not included him in his Deadly 60.

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