Wildlife Presenter, Naturalist and Photographer
“I’ve always considered it’s me versus the world and I’ve gotta try and win."
As these words leave the mouth of Chris Packham, 51, wildlife presenter and naturalist, it is clear that it is his determination and driving force that has led him to where he is today. I’m convinced of this when he tells me that he spent last night sleeping in his car when he was unable to get home from a gig because of extensive flooding. Looking surprisingly fresh, Chris now sits before me ready for yet another show tonight.
Admitting that he’s “just doggedly determined”, Chris has worked hard for his career since a young age, saying: “I don’t consider that I had any natural abilities, I’m no genius or anything like that but if I say I’m going to do something, I do it and that’s it.” As a boy he would map dens and trails, study insects in his garden and relish in the vast countryside. But it was a school trip to southern Spain that ignited his passion for travel.
“From that point onwards I realised that whilst the water meadows of the Lower Itchen in Hampshire were a rich foraging place for a young naturalist, there was a wider world into which I really wanted to go."
And see the world he has. Travelling around the globe, Chris has gone from an insect lover to an intrepid explorer, seeing polar bears, tigers and even swimming with sharks.
Looking away in recollection, his brow furrowing, he smiles: “I remember one of my biggest thrills doing the Really Wild Show; someone bought a tame cheetah into the studio and I played football with it. It was fantastic! They’re quite keen on football.” Shaking his head with a wry smile he continues: “Not very good; I beat it easily! I was tackling it and it just couldn’t compete, but it was fantastic. That sort of close contact is always amazing.”
It’s not only his skills that have made him a success, but also his professionalism. He confesses: “I’ve learned, and it was a tough lesson, to be a team player. I think I’ve remained employed because I make the tea, and I carry the tripod, I turn up on time, I’m sober, I’m researched and I’m presentable. I take the professional side of things incredibly seriously. As a member of a team, I want to do the best I can for myself but also do the best for the team.”
Testing his resolve, Chris’ work hasn’t always been easy. Shaking his head in disbelief, he says: “I’ve had some nightmare travel experiences!” He goes on to tell me of a rather eventful birthday in a remote part of Guatemala. After digging their cars out of the mud in the pouring rain, he and his team found lodging in a particularly dingy hotel.
Laughing, he goes on: “We turned on the lights and there were loads of these beetles. There were so many of them flying around whilst we were trying to eat that we made this game where we just opened our mouths and the first one that a beetle flew in, won. I won that in about 10 seconds, that’s how many there were!”
It may be tough, but Chris’ job definitely has its perks. As a keen and skilled photographer, going the extra mile to get the perfect shot can be as fun as it is rewarding.
Sitting up in his chair, a mischievous look on his face, Chris recalls: “We did some stuff where we got a trailer and stuck it to the back of a quad bike and bounced across the African bush being chased by cheetahs so that I could get a picture of them running alongside me at about 40mph.
“I smashed my eye in with the camera, we ate a lot of dust, I was really bruised the whole time. One of the cheetahs was particularly nasty; it kept on trying to get me off the back of the trailer. I had to fight if off all the time. If I had fallen off, then I’d have been in big trouble!
“But for me that’s a fair offer. I’d rather be trying to get the picture, I don’t care about getting a few scrapes. I don’t want to be killed, but I don’t mind being cut and scratched.”
Ever the daredevil, Chris has had more than a few hair-raising moments. A mischevious grin spreading across his face, he reveals: “Car surfing. I was a great car surfer for many years. There’s not a country in the world I haven’t car surfed in.”
Despite his bravado and exhilarating stories, Chris has another motive: to educate. A subject close to Chris’ heart he admits: “It’s about getting other people to engage with wildlife. If I’m able to deliver just a small amount of inspiration to a tiny number of people then that’s my job done. I don’t need a round of applause, I don’t need a medal, because for me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about getting people to feel the way I feel.”
Aware that some of Chris’ beliefs have set the world talking, I am keen to ask about his views on pandas. Once saying that the rare animals should be allowed to die out with dignity as the money and time spent on trying to save the species is a fruitless cause, Chris sparked a rather complicated debate.
Assuredly, Chris says: “It is important to help animals in need, but we also have to make some very tough choices. The point of raising the issue about pandas was not because I have any particular loathing against pandas at all. It was to instigate a discussion about auditing the money that we have to spend on conservation, and also consider the methods that we employ to affect it. I happen to think that we don’t have enough money to do some of those projects, and some of those projects are outdated and invalid and we shouldn’t be doing them any longer.
“I’m not the only one who thinks that. But I am the only one sometimes who’s brave enough to say it. I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make a difference.”
Needless to say, Chris is definitely making a difference. Switching to an eco-friendly Skoda and travelling by carbon-offset are just the start of his green issues. As the president of five wildlife charities, the vice president of seven other charities and a patron of even more, it seems to be he is going to make some friends along the way.
Chris will be touring the country in March on his Wild Night Out tour, showcasing his latest wildlife snaps and stories.
If I say I'm going to do something, I do it and that's it.
"The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time" - Bill Bryson