An Interview with Steve Backshall

An Interview with Steve Backshall – Science Student

You may know Steve Backshall as a wildlife presenter, adventurer and world traveller. But did you know he is also a student?

“I am not a scientist” says Steve, who has presented shows such as the BBC ‘Lost land’ series and ‘Deadly 60’, but he’s certainly getting that way.  Steve is currently working on obtaining his MRes (Masters by research) through the Falmouth branch of Exeter University. He also works with Canterbury Christ Church University in order to complete the lab work section of his masters, with the assistance of Dr Carol Trim, known for her work with venoms (https://www.canterbury.ac.uk/social-and-applied-sciences/human-and-life-sciences/staff/Profile.aspx?staff=a30217523807c70c).

Steve is studying the Iberian sharp-ribbed newt in order to determine which toxins it may be able to produce. This fascinating creature presses its ribs through its body and into the mouth or skin of its attacker. It is currently unknown whether this species is venomous, however there have been reports of redness, inflammation and itching upon wounds caused by these newts, which may indicate the presence of a toxin. If Steve does discover a venom present, this will be the first newt or salamander venom ever found. Through the use of MRI scans, Steve is searching for the presence of anything akin to venom glands, from which toxins may be secreted. If a toxin is discovered, he will be investigating what substances it consists of, and how the venom affects its victims.

Steve studied English at university. This will come as no surprise for those of us who have enjoyed reading his many books, such as ‘The Falcon Chronicles’, ‘Deadly’ series and my personal favourite, ‘Looking for Adventure’. In the interview, Steve explains why he has chosen to study science at a postgraduate level. “It’s a case of making sure that I understand properly the science behind the kind of things that I talk about on tele every single day of my life.” Steve however thinks it is unlikely that he will go on to do a PhD, due to his busy lifestyle. He writes at least two books a year, films television programmes and does a lot of work with wildlife and conservation charities. “If you try and do a doctorate on top of that I think it would take me at least ten years, and I don’t think much more than a couple of months down the line let alone years!”

An Interview with Steve Backshall – Becoming a Wildlife Presenter

Steve began his career as a writer and was sure it was what he wanted to do as a career, but was soon drawn in by the multi-tasking opportunities offered by the television industry. “When I had my first television project commissioned it offered me so many different opportunities… editing, filming, presenting, researching it was fantastic.” His last TV project alone involved travelling to six different countries and filming about fifty different species of animals. “I don’t underestimate how lucky I am” says Steve, “I always knew that whatever I did with my life it would be in the outdoors with travel, with adventure, most of all with animals. That’s always been my passion ever since I was a kid… Wildlife is the thing that switches me on more than anything else and I think always will be.”

Wildlife presenting is an extremely niche field with only a handful of presenters in England. It is known to be very competitive, and Steve recommends that if you want to go up against those odds, there are several things you need to do:

  1. Set a goal of getting any experience in any area of wildlife television.
  2. Study science at university and focus on a career in research. This will help you to understand your subject as thoroughly as possible, and enable you to develop a specialisation.
  3. Learn how putting together a television programme works. “There is no better way of doing that than by doing it, by going out and making stuff” says Steve.

He encourages any would-be wildlife presenters to get out there and start making short films. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an exotic location or any old city, get in your back garden or down your local park and give it a go. “If you’ve got an eye for telling a story then there’s no reason that couldn’t be just as appealing” says Steve.

An Interview with Steve Backshall – More about the Man

Steve reveals that his favourite animals are wolves. It seems the challenge of actually locating them in the first place adds to their appeal for him, as they have been so strongly persecuted by human beings. They are shy, naturally cautious and mostly active at night. Steve is intrigued by their methods of hunting and communication.

As a fellow victim of the notorious bullet ant stings, I had to enquire further into how he felt when he stuck his arm in a glove full of them. I quickly felt like quite a wimp. Whereas my one measly sting knocked my hand out for a solid week and made me feel very sick and faint for a couple of hours, Steve was stung hundreds of time repeatedly and after a few hours of fading in and out of consciousness, he was fine! What can I say, my pain receptors are clearly more precious…

The bullet ant glove was all part of an initiation ceremony which takes place in the Sateré-Mawé tribe in Brazil. As Steve says, one of the most fascinating aspects of bullet ant venom is that it is so pure, containing very few allergens. This means it is unlikely that you will have a histamine reaction when stung by one. It is simply a toxin which causes pure pain and leaves no long-lasting side effects.

When asked whether any encounter with an animal has ever frightened him or made him feel unsafe, Steve says “People tend to perceive big cats and snakes and scorpions as being out to get us, that’s definitely not true. If it was true then I wouldn’t be here now. Most of the time wild animals would rather move away from us than attack us.”

An Interview with Steve Backshall – His Next Adventure

This summer steve is heading off to New Guinea, and will attempt to be the first person to run from source to sea along an extraordinary river with many different environments to explore. I am looking forward to Steve’s next project on TV, “It’s going to be a mad, wild ride”, says Steve, and I certainly believe him!