Jun 02, 2021
At Home in the Food Chain
In a series of narrow escapes, Forrest Galante takes animal conservation to the extreme on his remote expeditions to find proof of species thought lost and gone forever.
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Wildlife biologist and conservationist, Forrest Galante, checks in only one day removed from his recent excursion to Mozambique, where he narrowly escaped a bounty on his head from a local politician. It’s business as usual for Galante, whose day-to-day life in the field is perilous not only from the dangerous animals that he’s tracking but more so from the human threat.
“I’m kind of like a cat with 9 lives and it feels like I’ve used up 5 or 6 of them.”
Galante, the world’s leading rare species expert and host of Animal Planet’s “Extinct or Alive”, is a noble character in wildlife conservation, yet he’s unwelcome in many of the places that need his help with a killer croc or a stealthy leopard – places that have skeletons in their closets – because government officials often think that Galante is a journalist coming to expose their illegal operations.
“These things happen when you work in these nations where money talks the most and corruption and politics supersede conservation. And I don’t just mean developing nations, it happens in the US as well.”
Galante’s missions to uncover long-lost species read like nail-biting spycraft, complete with speed boat chases, last-second charter plane rescues, and AK-47’s. After darting a lion or chasing down a rogue elephant, Galante then has to evade local officials by leaving decoy gear and fake footage or even by dumping thousands of dollars of drone equipment into a swamp. [Galante’s book Still Alive comes out June 1, available here.]
“You shouldn’t read this book and think, ‘That guy jumped in the water with crocodiles, I’m going to do that.’ You will get killed.”
One might think that hosting a travel show on Animal Planet might sound like a sweet gig, consisting of first-class flights and five-star hotels. But there are no hotels on Galante’s expeditions, only tents. Galante’s film team must be small, fast, and nimble. A larger production would get flagged at the airport or stuck when there are only two canoes to get to the remote shooting location.
Galante is not just the host and animal tracker, but he’s also the showrunner, so when an unplanned event happens on expedition, and it almost always does, Galante has to improvise on behalf of the team’s safety. For example, the entire team didn’t make it back from Mozambique in one piece – the producer got struck with African tick bite fever, and the audio guy is still stuck in Mozambique with an African variant of Covid.
“These are decisions I have to make on the fly, who’s getting treatment and where, when are we evacuating, when are we medivacing, etc.”
In the line of duty, Galante has been bitten by sharks and venomous snakes, mauled by a lion, charged by a hippo, stung by a man-of-war jellyfish, and stabbed by a stingray. [Read more here].
Although he has amassed dozens of wild stories from the desert to the bush, for his first book, Galante selected those stories that put him at a crossroads.
“The stories that I chose are stories that are part of a linear progression for me that led to choices and decisions for me to continue my career or they gave me forks in the road where I had to pick one or the other.”
For example, after Galante witnessed a horrific whale slaughter tradition in the Faroe Islands, he had to fight tooth and nail against a mega-corporation in Discovery to keep the footage in the show. This theme runs through the stories like a thread, as there are several examples of Galante following his moral compass to do the right thing in his heart regardless of the consequences (such as decisions that result in poor ratings or getting stuck deeper in dangerous situations.)
As a host, he educates his viewers on the critical need to treat nature with respect.
“I believe that if you put good out into the world, you get good back. I like to think that the work that I do in trying to promote and spread conservation is good and I think that the Earth, Mother Nature, God, energy, whatever you want to call it, rewards me for that by letting me have these narrow escapes when I put myself in stupid positions.”
Although Galante used to count ants under a microscope for a living, his conservation efforts are second to none. He was even asked to testify in front of the United States Congress to promote legislative change and increase funding for conservation.
“We’re consuming so much media in our daily lives that our eyes glaze over and we don’t pick up the message but when you’re sitting in DC in front of the Senate testifying to Congress about human-wildlife conflict mitigation, you’re making a real difference. You’re fighting for legislative change. It was a true pinnacle moment for me, like a golden moment.”
My expectations about reading Galante’s story were only limited by my own imagination, and by comparison, my own vanilla upbringing story of homogeneity.
Galante’s childhood was plucked straight from The Rescuers Down Under, like some idyllic, animated fairytale, that is, until its violent end. Galante grew up on a family farm in Zimbabwe. He left home each day without a packed lunch because he could fish and forage for his own food in the wild.
Although his family uprooting from Zimbabwe was traumatic, it gave Galante an insight into an opportunity to see that people around the world need to be presented with wildlife, so he is thankful for the spark to make an impact globally.
Galante is most comfortable in the food chain, hunting to survive and avoid being eaten. His incredible life story includes the violent removal of his family from Zimbabwe, suspenseful run-ins with drug cartels, witch doctors, and vengeful government officials, miraculous rediscoveries of species that were thought to be extinct, and life-threatening bites, fights, falls, and jungle illnesses.
In this episode of The Outdoor Journal Podcast, Galante discusses his fish out of water experience as a young teenager moving from Zimbabwe to California, his rise from counting ants under a microscope for a living to making a speech about human-animal conflict mitigation to the Senate committee, and why Galante has the confidence to follow his personal moral code even when it clashes with local customs.
Still Alive comes out June 1, available here.