Travel Magazine

Frontier Meets: Austin Stevens – Part 2

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

Welcome to the second part of our fascinating interview with Austin Stevens.  In this concluding part Austin tells us about his most embarrassing moment when he was bitten by a snouted cobra, his hopes of seeing a snow leapard in the wild and he tells us which Frontier project he would most like to go on!

Frontier Meets: Austin Stevens – Part 2

Frontier: What has been your biggest scare on your travels so far?

Austin: In spite of the occasional accident, I still consider myself one of the more fortunate herpetologists claiming few dangerous snake bites. This, considering that I have ‘milked’ thousands of snakes, performed hundreds of public shows and lectures, and have spent years in the field catching and photographing venomous snakes. However, of these accidents, without question, the most embarrassing remains the snake-bite I endured from the snouted cobra encountered on my very first shoot as, Austin Stevens… ‘Action Presenter’. (Seven Deadly Strikes)

My first rule while filming has always been, keep filming, no matter what. I feel it is important to record every incident, planned or unplanned. Even in the case of a life threatening occurrence, (as the snouted cobra bite incident turned out to be) it is important to keep one camera rolling. Otherwise it will all be for nothing. There are enough members in the team to lend assistance while still having one cameraman operating. I am very serious about this.

What the viewers watching my shows do not realize are the dangers that exist outside of potential snakebite poisoning. While filming in Komodo, I fell down a shaft in a cave landing on jagged rocks below, tearing ligaments in my left foot and breaking four ribs. This stopped filming for 4 months. Filming in Australia I almost drowned after being knocked off a cliff ledge by a helicopter skid, landing me in a powerful stream of white water rapids, where I was sucked under by a whirlpool effect. I am still today terrified of drowning, though I continue to enjoy swimming in wild places.

In Borneo I contracted a mystery disease that affected me for months, making continued filming a strain, until finally the symptoms abated of their own accord. I have also contracted cerebral malaria, a most unpleasant disease that affects me still today, as does Ross River virus, another mosquito-borne disease that affects my muscular performance. In my latest manuscript I discuss these happenings, and more, in detail.

I believe it stands to reason that if you do a lot of stuff there is obviously more likelihood that a lot of stuff can happen to you. Those who swim in the sea are most likely to be bitten by a shark, for example. By the same token, those living in cities and crossing the street everyday are most likely to be hit by a car. So it is not unrealistic to expect that those working with venomous snakes on a regular basis are most likely to be bitten. If one were to dwell on this, and the many scenarios potentially presented, one would not get out of bed each day for fear of some or other accident taking place. 

Frontier: Your career has obviously taken you all over the world and you have previously said of how Peru is your favorite country. Why Peru?

The fertile Selva region of Peru, which includes the Amazon jungle, lies between the Andes Mountains and the jungles of eastern Peru. This was largely unchartered territory until as recently as the 1970’s. The Amazon River itself actually originates in Peru, and at some locations measures up to forty kilometers in width. In the Peruvian stretch of Amazon River alone, the jungle is home to over two thousand species of fish, some four thousand species of birds, and at least sixty species of reptiles and frogs, with as many estimated to be as yet undiscovered. Mammals include some larger species such as the jaguar, the anteater, the three toed sloth, tapir, giant otters, as well as a variety of monkeys and other smaller animals. There are even reported sightings of the rare pink river porpoise in certain stretches of the river. Insect species number in the millions, many not yet named, classified, or studied.

These jungles have existed as they are, hot and humid and undisturbed, for thousands of years and are the home of an almost unbelievable diversity of life forms. The source of the Amazon lies in the highlands of Peru, and it is possible to travel from the tops of the majestic snow covered Andes Mountain peaks to the humid warmth of the Amazon jungle in a matter of days. To add to this, the colourful culture and customs of the Peruvian people is fascinating and uniquely exotic. One can hardly imagine a more exciting place for a photographer to visit, and it is little wonder that I eventually ended up filming two episodes of my series in Peru.

Frontier Meets: Austin Stevens – Part 2

Frontier: Is there a particular country you have not been to that you would like to visit?

Austin: An area that I am most keen to visit one day actually spreads across the boarders of three countries in South America. I am of course referring to the Pantanal, a wilderness wetland of immense proportions and filled with an astounding array of unusual wild animal species. These include some of my favourites, the green anaconda, the black caiman, the elusive and beautifully marked jaguar, the hyacinth macaw, and the giant anteater.

Most of the Pantanal lies within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso du sol, but portions reach into Bolivia and Paraguay, sprawling over an area estimated at between 140,000 square kilometres and 195,000 square kilometres. About 80 percent of the Pantanal floodplains are submerged during the rainy seasons. The Pantanal is a huge, gently-sloped basin that receives runoff from the upland areas and slowly releases the water through the Paraguay River and tributaries.

The Pantanal ecosystem is home to many hundreds of bird species, possibly as many as a thousand, some four hundred fish species, three hundred mammalian species, an estimated four hundred and eighty reptile species, and invertebrates numbering in the many thousands. There are areas where literally hundreds of caiman can be seen basking on the exposed banks at any one time. This is a unique wilderness, and a place high on my must-see and photograph list.

Is there a particular species you would love to see that you haven't already?

Austin: There are endless species of wild animals I would still like to see and photograph in the wild, but I am resigned to the fact that there will never be enough time or money to ever achieve even a small portion of these. However, should I be forced to choose one animal high on my list, it would most probably be one of the snow leopard species of the high mountain areas of central Asia. The reason I have not more actively pursued this ambition is simply because I have a strong aversion to cold, generally avoiding these areas where and when possible. In the case of seeing a snow leopard in the wild I would be prepared to tolerate this discomfort.

Ranging through twelve countries from Russia in the north to Bhutan in the south, there is a ‘guesstimated’ 3500 to 7000 of these magnificent animals left in the wild. Because of the animal’s elusive nature and its remote habitat, where conditions for study are extreme to say the least, this is a vague figure suggested by researchers. China holds about 60 percent of the range and is estimated to have more of these leopards than any other country.

Like so many other animals in the world they are of course seriously endangered, in spite of their remote locations. I have endured the cold of some far northern Canadian areas to photograph grizzly bears (animals which I am not particularly partial to) so for the chance to see, and in my wildest dreams, actually photograph a snow leopard in the wild, it would be well worth enduring the extreme cold and the discomforts associated with it.

Frontier Meets: Austin Stevens – Part 2

What would be your advice to someone interested in following your footsteps into a career in wildlife television?

Austin: There is no great market for herpetologists and it is just by luck that I got my first opportunity to work in a large reptile park, where I learned more, discovered wildlife photography, and was then able to attempt making my way further on my own.

I should point out firstly that anyone intending to follow in my footsteps would have to be prepared to accept the inconsistency of work opportunities and the financial anxiety that goes with it. As a free-lance agent one is never sure where the next dollar will come from, and indeed, there will be long periods, even years, of no financial gain at all. It might all depend on how confident you are of your ability to create your own ideas, and then hope that there is someone out there who is willing to back you.

Suffice it to say, no matter how desperate matters might sometimes get, nothing will ever get me back in a shop working for a salary, not while there is breath inside of me, a last few bucks in my pocket, and a tank full of petrol to head out into the wilds. There is no adventure as great as the adventure of not knowing what lies around the next bend of life. Try it…if you dare.

Which Frontier project would you most like to go on and why:

Considering my interest in herpetology and wildlife photography, my choice of Frontier project has to be Madagascar Wildlife Conservation Adventure. In spite of the fact that I have lived in Southern Africa for the greater part of my life, and have otherwise traveled around the world to many exotic locations, I never made it across to Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa.

Madagascar has evolved as an island for the greater part of eighty million years. The animals have evolved in complete isolation. 80 percent of the plants and animals are endemic. The few families of reptiles and amphibians that have reached Madagascar have diversified into more than 300 species. Two thirds of the world’s chameleon species are found here. Now, more recently, since the arrival of humans on the island some 2000 years ago, Madagascar has lost more than 90 percent of its forest, one third of this since 1970. More than 90 percent of the reptiles found on Madagascar are endemic, making up a unique collection of lizards, snakes, turtles, tortoises and crocodiles. Amongst the snake species there are a few mildly venomous back-fanged species, while all the others are harmless toothed species, including species of tree dwelling and ground dwelling boas. There are no elapids present (front-fanged highly venomous species). Madagascar is a herpetologists/photographers exotic dream, and I know that one way or another I must visit there with my camera, before it’s too late.

Interviewed by Alex Prior

You can find out more about Austin at his official website www.austinstevens.net.


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