[Nature/Sustainability] An interview with: Forrest Galante
In celebration of his new book 'STILL ALIVE: A WILD LIFE OF REDISCOVERY' we spoke with conservationist, wild life biologist & TV host: Forrest Galante.
At the age of 33, Forrest Galante has established himself as the worlds leading figure in wildlife conservation. Having appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, as well as hosting his own TV show 'EXTINCT or ALIVE' on channel Animal Planet, the American born and Zimbabwe raised adventurer has incredibly discovered 8 species previously thought to be extinct to science.
In his search for lost species he has visited over 60 countries, been bitten by a venomous snake, in a plane crash, mauled by a lion, charged by a hippo, stung by a man-of-war jellyfish, bitten by a shark, in a car wreck, tumbled off a waterfall and stabbed by a stingray. It would not be an understatement to say Forrest Galante is the most important figure in wildlife conservation since the late great Steve Irwin, perhaps even surpassing the great man himself.
Nicknamed 'The Indiana Jones of Biology', most recently Forrest Galante once again made huge waves in the world of conservation when he discovered the long lost Fernandina Tortoise, thought extinct for 114 years. You can watch the discovery below from Animal Planet's Youtube Channel:
We had the absolute honour of speaking with Forrest Galante on a variety of topics including: his new book, childhood inspirations, resurrection biology, animal cognitive science, environmental destruction & the future of conservationism. Read the full interview below to discover more...
How did the inspiration for this book come about ?
I was in Indonesia exactly a year ago, when covid really kicked off, and we got evacuated and shut down on the work we were doing by the president. The rug got pulled out from under our feet and I was kind of sitting here with some free time. I was supposed to be in about 14 countries in 2020 and I went to two. So things got fully shutdown, and I had a lot of time on my hands where I wasn't travelling and doing production and I realised there was a lot of intricacies to what I do, where I come from, my background & the stories behind what happens on TV.
For every hour you see on TV, that's weeks on the field, months of preparation, years of research. So it's pretty safe to say that a lot of things get left out. Even though we were all locked indoors socially distancing and quarantining, 99% of people didn't understand why, and how this came from the mistreatment of animals and wildlife. This blew my mind ! It's a huge problem. So I also put all of that into a book with a call to action at the end. I also told my story of where I came from, how I came into the position of tracking down critically endangered and extinct wildlife. Every single day I ask myself what can I do to help today ? And I know that sounds pretentious, but really my whole life is dedicated to wildlife and conservation. So when I was not able to share that through media and television, I figured here's the next best thing, a book. How do you continue to propel the message when everything goes tits up...
Could you name the extinct species you have discovered ?
The animals that I work on originally was all based off the IUCN extinction label, and then I branched out from that quite a lot to the point where there's a lot of lost species, that haven't been seen, that aren't technically declared extinct. Just to be crystal clear I don't work off the official extinction, I work off the list of any animals that are lost to science. So....The Zanzibar Leopard, an incredibly large cat that hadn't been seen in 40 years... we captured trail camera footage of that which made us ecstatic...The Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise, monumental to the cover of this book, the poster child of conservation, the rarest animal in the world .... we found here in the island on the Galapagos after a few days of crazy tracking after nobody else had been able to find one after 114 years...humble brag.
...The Rio Apaporis we found hadn't been seen in 40 years, lost to science, living in a territory where nobody could go because of the gorilla warfare taking place, a beautiful crocodilian....The Millers Grizzly Langur; we managed to capture video of that which was super exciting, also known as the dracula monkey...The Giant Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, the biggest in the world in Vietnam... we got video footage of that incredible creature in addition to DNA confirmation...We got a Pondicherry shark confirmed by Sri Lankan scientist's, last seen in 1970...Last year myself and world renowned lost shark expert Dave Ebert went to South Africa and found 3 lost shark species, the Flat Nose Cannon shark, The Ornate Sleeper ray and White Tip Weasel shark... all 3 animals lost to science, one for over a 100 years. We found them hiding in in South Africa...
Thats not a bad life's work for 33...
I think so. I mean shit man, there's a scar from a shark bite and my bodies covered in bruises and bangs. I'd say I've lived a lot for 33 years old, ha ha.
What inspired you to work in wildlife conservation ?
So I grew up in Zimbabwe, the greatest country in the world when I was growing up, nowadays maybe not so much. I first hand witnessed the decline in megafauna, from when I was a little year 9 years old, to age 15 I witnessed a very real human expansion and growth of population and footprint on the environment. Where there used to be herds of impala, there were cornfields. Where there were elephants roaming, there were highways. I watched this first hand and hated it.
I grew up witnessing widlife shrinking and even as a little boy I remember aged 10 thinking I need to stop this or help the animals, it's not fair for all of them to go away so we could have more food to eat or roads to drive on. So yea it's been deep rooted in me since I was basically a baby. I noticed it through observation, I took it to academia through university then decided to try and take that to the masses through media, so it's been something thats stuck with me from the very beginning.
There's even a sense of destiny in your name, how was 'forrest' decided ?
Because my mums a hippie, I don't think there's much else to it. My sisters name is summer. My mum just liked the wild names I guess. That said, she was a great bush person herself, grew up in Africa and everything else. My sister Summer works in makeup, so it's definitely not down to the name, ha ha.
Thoughts on cognitive science developments in animals ?
You have to be an absolute nit wit if you think animals aren't conscious, you really do. Like have you ever had a dog or a cat ? That should tell you everything you need to know. You can't tell when your dogs happy or sad or feeling sick ? I mean come on, get out of here, you're an absolute buffoon in you think animals don't have consciousness. I mean there's varying levels of that, a starfish doesn't have the emotional range of a chimpanzee. As we begin to understand and appreciate animals consciousness, intelligence, and mental capacity, I would hope we become more compassionate towards the plight of animals.
There's a fine line and somewhat dangerous one to walk when it comes to anthropomorphising things, there's a difference between an animal being intelligent, and being human like. We can't apply human feelings, emotions, and social + cultural norms to animals. They're two very different things. There's a phenomenal book called Listening To Whales by Alexandra Morton. She dedicated her life to studying Orca emotion. Their level of intelligence is arguably the greatest on the earth aside from perhaps human beings, maybe even greater, they're just confined by their bodies.
We now know they're insanely intelligent, speak their own languages, have their own social dynamics, and now we don't capture Orca's as much any more. That's because over a god damn glacial pace, we figured out 'hey these things are smart, it's not fair to keep them in a little fish tank'. Now why we've only applied that to a couple creatures like marina mammals I couldn't tell you. However it's a step in the right direction, we have to start somewhere. Even if we're behind the curve, start with Orca's and go to everything else. Undeniably we're now seeing a social trend of people beginning to understand and appreciate that wildlife deserves to be here.
We're becoming more and more aware of animals abilities and I'll tell you something else, a lot of this information comes from people who spend time in an around these animals, not guys that write papers and sit in a lab, and have 15 undergrads working for them to publish a paper with a bunch of graphs... that really does fuck all for understanding how an animal feels or behaves. I don't want to knock hard science because it's incredibly valuable, but there needs to be a bigger place in the world for observational science. The reality is; not you, not me, not these scientists understand these animals, as much as people in these environments that live with the animals and interact with them all day long, those are the best scientists in the world.
People may argue the statistics of climate change, but how can they still argue the reality of habitat loss and environmental destruction ?
It's all tied into one thing really. There's a lot of off shoots and sub-sects whether its hunting, poaching or consumption, but at the end of the day it's habitat loss, that's what it boils down too. Global warming, species decline, bio-diversity decline, bio-abundance decline, it all boils down to habitat loss. Too much space taken up by humans and not enough space allocated to wildlife and that's the reason we have to manage our wildlife.
We've chopped it all up into little squares and said here's a little reserve or game park. In those microcosms you have to manage it. Most of our wild life spaces in the world we've put them into these little fish tanks metaphorically speaking, and now we have to manage them. That sucks and it's really bad, a lot of people have dedicated themselves to that management because it's the only way wildlife continues to exist. For every body that says climate change isn't real and animals are fine, or who cares, why feel that way when it costs you nothing to care ?
Why not just be aware and conscious and make good decisions ? The opportunities in the USA and Europa, the opportunities to be more environmentally friendly are massive and it's a choice that doesn't affect you negatively in any way. You don't have to get beat up by animals like I do, you could just chose the paper bag in the store rather than the plastic one?
Thoughts on resurrection biology ?
The issue there is the lack of understanding. If you're a dumb dumb who says "It doesn't matter, we'll just jurassic park them back", that isn't real yet. You're betting on the future that doesn't exist. You're betting on Dr. Delorian from Back To The Future. Why are you betting on something that isn't real, it's stupid. Is there a dangerous side to de-extinction? People are stupid. The person is smart. The problem is people will always find a way to make things dangerous or bad.
There is space for Elon Musk to colonise mars, and for Leonardo Di-Caprio to save the planet. We can do both ! More power to them. There are biologists like me who go out there playing hide and seek trying to save these things, and there are guys in a lab working to bring them back. I'm trying to find the Thylacine (Tasmanian Devil), I might never find it.... There's a guy in London who might be able to bring back the Thylacine from a fetus in 25 years. Why shouldn't we both exist ?
Could you tell us about the talk you gave to the United States Congress ?
The point of the talk was to find non lethal human wildlife conflict mitigation strategies. In other words, put in English, how do we not kill animals when people and animals are fighting over something. The reason I testified in congress was to release money to allow universities to develop technologies to mitigate human wild life conflict. They did release money which I was happy about. There are smart people with the minds and vision to come up with anything that could stop human wildlife fighting, whether that's types of electric fences or AI programmes that detects when a Leopard is coming into a village.
People have the ability to create these things in universities all over the world. So the idea was 'hey let's release some money to help people figure these things out'. Usually when we have a fight with animals we end up killing them, we're not in a time or place in history now where we can afford that from a bio-diversity stand point. So instead we have to come up with better ways to be better inhabitants of this plant and live as much as we can in harmony with animals as we expand. This was what I spoke in congress about and it worked ! Now people are developing these new strategies.
How does it make you feel when people say you've inspired them to get into conservation or wild life biology ?
That is the number one reason I do what I do. Yes I love saving a tortoise or a crocodile, but when I get (between 300-500) messages every day from people saying that their volunteering in animal rescue or even the kid going out doors just to look for bugs, that's what ma