Biochemist, biologist, TV presenter and co-host of the BBC’s recent Wild Alaska Live series, Liz Bonnin talks to Rosalind Sack
Where did your passion for adventure come from?
Growing up in the South of France, we had a little wood in the back of the garden at our home. My sister and I used to play out there all the time with our two dogs. There were hedgehogs and snakes and all sorts of insects, and I think that ignited my passion for the outdoors, the natural world and wildlife. It certainly encouraged my curiosity about the world around me.
You were once in a girl band and presented Top of the Pops – what inspired you to go back to university to study Wild Animal Biology?
I was always the kind of person who didn’t put myself under a lot of pressure to know exactly what I wanted to do. I’d always been interested in science and natural history, but when I was younger, I also had many other interests. Whenever I give talks at schools, I always encourage kids to try lots of different things to help them discover what they really love doing. The most
important thing is to love what we do as a job; it takes up so many hours of our lives, we may as well spend them doing something we’re passionate about. Music led me to present entertainment shows and I began to love working in television, but science was always my passion. Everything was leading to what I’m doing now, I was just open-minded enough to try different things, and try to have fun all the way along.
What’s the most incredible place you’ve visited?
I’ve been to Botswana on several occasions and there’s something really unique and magical about that part of Africa. It’s a very special place to spend time observing elephants, so that’s a favourite. I filmed in the Russian Far East for a series about Amur Tigers, which was incredible. The forests were like Narnia – magical snowy landscapes – and the rangers that worked there made a big impression on me. They have so few resources to help them to protect the big cats in the area, but they never take no for an answer and are so passionate and driven. Most recently, I was in
the Galapagos, which is a dream destination for any wildlife enthusiast. Out there, you’re not merely an observer of wildlife, you’re part of it. The animals are not as wary of you as they might be in other parts of the world and consider you part of the landscape.
You’ve done a lot of conservation work with tigers. What makes you so passionate about these cats?
There’s something fascinating about cats to me. Domestic cats are basically still half wild due to the history of their domestication, so I find them so interesting because of how they are still able to
interact with us in a way that isn’t completely down to their domestication. And so there’s a choice being made, and a specific type of skill and intelligence that allows an essentially solitary animal to live amongst us. Then, for me, tigers are the most magnificent of all creatures – there’s something almost other-worldly about them. I think that my fascination for domestic cats spilled over to their wild counterparts and then when I set eyes on my first wild tiger in India, that was it, I became obsessed and I have been ever since.
You’ve studied and presented a variety of programmes on animal behaviour – what are the most surprising behaviours you’ve learnt?
Most recently, I found out about these amazing little crabs, called pom-pom crabs. They’re the size of a penny. How they protect themselves is insane! They take anemones from the sea beds and place one in each claw and shake them like pom-poms to ward off predators. The anemones have these poisonous tentacles so they can injure any fish trying to eat the crab. Also, I’ve learned how testing animal intelligence correctly, using scenarios that come naturally to the species in question, has revealed just what they’re capable of. For centuries we’ve set ourselves aside from the rest of the animal kingdom, and considered ourselves the most intelligent and sophisticated, but that isn’t quite true. We filmed a chimpanzee once that was shown nine numbers in sequence for a smidge of a second, and then they’d disappear. The chimp was able to tap on the numbers in the order that they’d appeared and I couldn’t do it. A chimp in the wild has to spot all the fruits in a tree very quickly before another chimpanzee moves in and steals them from him, so they’ve evolved an incredibly quick visual memory that we can’t match.
You live in West London – how do you readjust to life in the city after filming in remote locations?
After visiting places that are as wild and pristine as Katmai National Park in Alaska, that becomes quite a challenge, as it changes you in ways that are difficult to describe. After spending time in such places, it is a massive readjustment to get back in to city life and I do struggle at times. Sometimes I even struggle to get on the shuttle at Heathrow airport, when everyone’s piling off the plane. That’s quite telling isn’t it, to be surrounded by nature and then surrounded by so many people and to have that kind of reaction?