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Thursday
Nov102011

Into the Wild Meets: Austin Stevens – Part 1

In the latest installment of Into the Wild Meets…today we speak to Austin Stevens, a man made famous by his fearless and dramatic adventures in search of some of the world’s most dangerous creatures: snakes. In the first of a two-part interview with Into the Wild, Austin talks us through how he first became interested in snakes, an enthralling tale from his past travels, and much more.

Photo courtesy of Austin Stevens

Into the Wild: Where did your passion for snakes and wildlife in general come from?

Austin: I was just 12 years old when I brought home my first reptile, a juvenile red-lipped herald snake. Though this species is not considered dangerous to humans, my parents were unimpressed, and forced me to dispose of the luckless reptile. I was very upset, having now seen the forbidden fruit and not allowed to eat of it! It is not easy to explain why snakes and other reptiles affect a young child so. It might be the unusual way in which they move, or their incredible colour patterns displayed on shiny scales, or it might be because these creatures are so secretive and mysterious. All I know, and what I have witnessed with many people I have introduced to snakes, is that once they have touched a snake, felt its smooth, cool and glossy body move effortlessly through their hands, they are never quite the same again.

Needless to say, my parents did eventually succumb, and by my late teens I had a collection of snakes housed in my room. These included gaboon vipers, spitting cobras, Cape cobras, ringhals, black and green mambas, puff adders, night adders, horned adders, rhinoceros vipers, rattlesnakes, saw scaled vipers, green tree vipers, as well as a variety of harmless species such as boa constrictors, African pythons, American bull snakes, water snakes and house snakes, to name but a few.

Though I was obviously strongly inclined towards wildlife and especially reptiles at such an early age, I knew that work opportunities in that field were rare and sought after by people more qualified than me at the time, and so I did not imagine that I would ever be fortunate enough to actually become a professional herpetologist. I turned to hardware and hardware sales. Though I handled it well, I hated being cooped up in a shop wasting away my life and was very unhappy.

At one stage, in my very early twenties, I lost direction even further, getting involved with motorbikes and motorbike gangs, an exciting but hazardous period which ended in catastrophe and almost cost me my life. In 1991 I relocated to Namibia where I set about writing and photographing and eventually filming reptiles.

Into the Wild: What is your favourite memory from your career working with snakes?

Austin: There are just simply too many memories accumulated over the years of my adventures with reptiles to select a single most memorable event…enough to so far have filled two books, with another just now being completed. However, in a broader context, with the creating and making of my first adventure film, filming reptiles became my passion, and this remains one of the most memorable happenings and life changing scenarios concerning my career with reptiles. Though I am thrilled in one way or another by each and every one of my filming experiences, the most personally satisfying was probably the very first shoot, Seven Deadly Strikes, simply because it was me, Austin Stevens, for the first time exposed to the world to show what I can do. I created the concept, marketed the idea, and was taken seriously. Until then I had always been looked upon as some kind of a nutter, risking my life with highly venomous snakes. I was the ‘Snake Man’, somewhat of an enigma, someone who was considered obviously crazy, but could be tolerated for the entertainment value.

Now suddenly I was a TV celebrity, my show being viewed around the world. Now suddenly I was not such a ‘nutter’ after all, and everybody wanted to associate with me, be seen with me, do me favours, buy me drinks. Now I was not just the ‘Snake Man’… I was, THE SNAKE MAN ON TV! A whole world of difference, apparently. Not all the years of doing public shows and lectures, nor the 150 articles I had written, had ever brought me the recognition derived from just that first one hour TV special.

And now that I had everybody’s attention, at last I could say to the world; My name is Austin Stevens… and this is what I do!

Photo courtesy of Austin Stevens

Into the Wild: You have said in the past that the Black Mamba is the snake you fear most. Tell us about this species and why it demands such respect.

Austin: The black mamba is the longest venomous snake found in Africa and the second longest venomous snake recorded in the world, next to the king cobra. Black mambas have been measured at over four metres in length. They are fast moving, fast striking snakes, with long fangs positioned far in the front of the mouth for maximum penetration. Their powerful bodies allow them to raise one third of their length into the air with the result that many recorded human bites from this species are in the chest area.

The venom of the black mamba is of the most virulent neurotoxic type, of which one drop would be sufficient to kill an adult human being. The venom is so toxic that a victim would feel the effects within five minutes of being bitten, and without anti-snake-bite serum, might succumb within thirty minutes.

To round this off, the black mamba is a ‘no-nonsense’ snake, with a nervous disposition, and is quick to retaliate if threatened. This is one extremely dangerous reptile, not to be randomly fooled with for no good reason. At the same time, as is the case with all snakes, the black mamba will not go out of its way to attack a human, as humans are not considered prey, for obvious reasons of size.

Through personal experience I consider the black mamba to be of above average intelligence, as snake intelligence goes, and if you leave it alone it will leave you alone.

Into the Wild: Your career must have thrown up some strange and interesting scenarios. Tell us a tale from your travels.

Austin: Once again, there are so many tales to be told, but there is one that I often reminisce about. While travelling through Ethiopia to find out more about the hyena populations reported to exist there, I wondered how on earth I was going to get up close enough to photograph these elusive nocturnal animals. That is until I discovered the particular clans of hyenas that were regularly raiding the ancient and crumbling city of Harar, where they actually moved amongst the human population in search of scraps of food. Becoming accustomed to this, the people of Harar would throw their left over scraps to the hyenas. Thus the hyenas became unafraid of the humans.

Having previously thought I might be lucky to get close to one or two of these hyenas, one night, while scouting an area close to an abattoir where carcass remains were dumped off the edge of an embankment, I suddenly found myself surrounded by at least 50 hyenas! Presumably thinking I might offer them scraps, the hyenas closed in on me, out of the dark.

Knowing the terrible potential for hyenas to attack and kill their prey, I was more than nervous, and armed only with my camera and flash unit. Nervous as I was however, I did get some really close up pictures, and in one reckless moment, I stuck my hand out and touched the closest hyena on the scruff of its mane. The hyena reacted immediately, pulling back with a howl and leaping into the air in panic, before taking off into the night with most of the others startled and scrambling off in hot pursuit. Within seconds I was alone in the dark, not a hyena in sight.

In retrospect, I know this was not the cleverest thing I have ever done, and the reaction from this powerful carnivore could easily have been more aggressive and dangerous, and may have excited the others into aggression. However thinking back on this moment always makes me chuckle as I recall the startling reaction that my simple touch brought about, and the hastily retreating rear views of all those potentially dangerous animals spooked by my simple gesture, speeding away in a cloud of dust, to disappear into the dark of the night.

Photo courtesy of Austin Stevens

Into the Wild: Snakes are obviously your big passion. Which other animals fascinate you?

Austin: As a naturalist, I am fascinated by so many species of wild animals other than reptiles. The African Cape hunting dog is one, spotted hyenas another, while my all time favourite wild animal is the desert elephant of Namibia. These desert-adapted elephants are physically no different from inland elephants. They are the same species, but due to human activity and encroachment reducing their home range, they have been forced to adapt to the desert environment.

Surviving in such a harsh place is an incredible feat considering the amount of food and water an elephant must consume each day. Desert elephants must cover vast distances in search of water. Their waterholes can be a few days journey apart and in times of drought the elephants often find themselves having to dig for water in dry riverbeds. Because of the desert heat these elephants travel mostly by night and are able to communicate with each other over long distances using sounds outside the range of human hearing, and in this way the herds can avoid converging on the same scarce resources.

For desert elephants, every day presents a new battle for survival, and I admire their courage and tenacity, and I have spent as much time as possible out in the desert with them. These elephants, and the magnificent surrounding desert-scape where they live, are what I miss most since having relocated to Australia.

Into the Wild: Are you involved in any conservation projects?

Austin: There is now a greater awareness of the plight of wildlife around the globe, thanks in part to the fantastic number of documentary films being produced each year. Here I hope that my television film contribution concerning reptiles and other animals has played a part, and that by introducing the facts about reptiles, and bringing their images into the lounges of the general public at large, I have in some small way contributed to the awareness of the need for the conservation of all the species. Also the trend towards keeping reptiles as pets has led to a whole new world of interest, and promoted breeding programs, thus alleviating the strain on wild populations.

Considering wildlife conservation in general, I am not the right person to ask about saving the planet and all its species, as I am resigned to the fact that ultimately there is no long-term hope, one way or the other. I have been to many parts of the world and seen much over the period of my life. Although there are many good people and causes out there desperately trying to save species, or at least slow down the destruction of habitat, my opinion is that without the very first consideration being dedicated to that of world human population control, there is no hope. I am too aware of the long term implications to throw all my efforts into the flogging of a dead horse…as the saying goes. Thus, sadly, I will not feel totally motivated to fully participate in the conservation of the planet until the day that human population control measures are seriously considered, and urgently implemented, thus presenting me with the notion that people really are aware, and do really care enough to make sacrifices, and that there really is indeed some hope. Unfortunately, it is a dream that big business will never allow to become reality. People en mass, no matter how good, bad, or miserable their existence is forced to be, generate financial opportunities for others, one way or the other. It has become abundantly clear to me that even those aware of the planet’s dire predicament, and in a position to lend assistance, are not prepared to make sacrifices or do with less.

Photo courtesy of Austin Stevens

At this time our lagging space program technology does not allow us to migrate to other planets, so when the last tree is cut down and the last slab of concrete poured, where do we go? Already most of our rivers are polluted, the ground poisoned, our seas have been raped and are now being used as a dumping ground, while our air becomes less breathable by the day, and the ozone layer destroyed to the point of it being dangerous to go outside unprotected. Where wilderness and wild animals are concerned, barely a species can be mentioned without the word “endangered” being present, while in this supposedly modern and ‘enlightened’ 21st Century there still remains primitive beliefs that animal parts such as rhino horn have aphrodisiac properties… presumably to aid in the making of more people? And then, to top it all, from the same organisation that declares that 50% of the world’s population survives on less than 2 Dollars a day, and that 22,000 children die each day in poverty, the UN releases a ludicrous statement to the effect that the world will ‘thrive’ with 7 billion people…then one can do little more than hang ones head in shame, disbelief, and disgust at the selfish ignorance of it all.

It is not hard to do the maths. When I was in my twenties, the human population of the planet was less than half of what it is now, just 3 billion. (Already too many) This has now more than doubled and will double again in another few years. What hope is there of any space being left to conserve wildlife species when another thirty years has passed? I have consciously witnessed and noted the devastating effects brought about by the rampant, unchecked, growing human population over just my short lifetime, and been witness to the deterioration in the quality of life that comes with it. It is a fact that each and every problem facing the planet today is either directly or indirectly connected to human overpopulation.

Every few seconds of every minute of every hour of every day, somewhere in the world a woman is giving birth. As my mother used to comment…Somebody find that woman and stop her!

Be sure to read part-two of our Austin Stevens interview tomorrow, in which he tells us all about his favourite country and which species he would love the chance to photograph. In the meantime, check out some of his amazing work in his Snake Master series.

By Alex Prior

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