Why do you feel Madagascar is such an important location, in terms of ecosystems and wildlife?
Our Madagascar guide was the first ever guide in English, published in 1986. The full guide was preceded by a 12-page booklet called A Glance at Madagascar. I wrote this for my clients when I was leading trips to Madagascar for the American company Wilderness Travel, and also sold them to the handful of UK companies which had started offering Madagascar but with very little background information available. I wanted people to know something about the history, culture and, of course, wildlife before they went. I followed this with The No Frills Guide to Madagascar, to fill the gap while I wrote the proper guide that has now gone into 11 editions.
I always knew how special Madagascar was, and felt enormously privileged to be leading trips there before anyone knew much about the island. It is literally unique; of the 200,000 species of living things on the island, at least 150,000 are found nowhere else on earth. Isn’t that extraordinary? I’ve learned more at every visit (and I’ve been around 35 times now) but still feel I’ve only scratched the surface. There is so much more to see, and species to find!
What has been your most memorable natural world experience to date?
Each time I think about this question I come up with a different answer! Here’s one example. When we travelled from Cape Town to Cairo, we passed through Rwanda in 1976, thinking how nice it would be to meet Dian Fossey (I don’t think she would have been equally thrilled!). We were deflected from meeting her but did hire a guide to try to find the gorillas. No luck and the untrained guide got fed up and went home, leaving us to explore Virunga National Park on our own. We camped for the night and while descending the mountain the next day we heard distant drumming. Across a gulley, in a clearing, was a silverback gorilla, on his hind legs, beating his chest. Without binoculars we wouldn’t even have seen him he was so far away. I’ve since had the modern, thrilling, gorilla encounter in Rwanda, but the excitement of finding one for ourselves is still tops.
What high priority conservation challenges do you feel the natural world is facing at the moment?
Poverty. If we can address this problem in the developing world we will help stop deforestation which is the biggest threat to rainforest wildlife.
Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?
I’m surprised at how often I’m asked if it’s ethical to travel by plane. To me it’s a no-brainer. The flight will happen anyway, but the traveller’s experience in the country visited – assuming his/her visit is to see the wildlife – may be life-changing. And a person whose life has been changed by a wildlife encounter is going to spread the word. Wildlife needs visitors: they pay their park fees, boost local employment, buy local handicrafts, and make the local people aware of the value of their natural world. If they also donate to a small, local charity, then that’s the icing on the cake. Just being there is enough.
When did you decide to develop your passion for the natural world into a career? What would you say to people looking to do the same?
I never intended to make travel my career; it just happened. But there were some defining moments that created my determination to visit places with spectacular nature which eventually led to books. One was a lecture in 1970 by Roger Tory Peterson about the Galapagos and another was an illustrated talk that I went to while living in Cape Town. It was by a zoo collector (in those days people like David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell collected wild animals for zoos; thankfully that no longer happens) and it was about Madagascar. So when George and I travelled north through Africa I was absolutely determined to get to Madagascar. I did, and it was life-changing. My advice to others looking to do the same? Seize the day. Be open to serendipity.
How does the natural world inspire your artistic subject matter? What are you working on at the moment?
I love sculpting wild animals because I love watching animals in the wild. It figures. I’m working on a stalking cheetah at the moment. I work in a variety of media, but because I don’t have a proper studio (just a much-abused conservatory) I don’t work with clay at home – I go on courses for that. So I’ve developed a technique with wire mesh and Jesmonite, which is a sort of slow-setting cement. It suits me very well since I’m usually too busy to spend much time sculpting, but I can do an hour here and there, wait for the Jesmonite to harden, and then do a bit more. That gives me time to really look at the creature and correct any mistakes before it’s too late. I made a cheetah in clay at one of my courses in Yorkshire (with the wonderful wildlife sculptor, Brendan Hesmondhalgh) but it’s not right and now it’s fired it’s too late to make changes. But ever since Attenborough’s latest TV series I was obsessed with the shape and elegance of a stalking cheetah, and although it may not be perfect it’s pretty much how I want it.
If you could pick any Natural World Hero, who would it be and why?
Well, David Attenborough because he’s given so many people a love of nature. But I think I would choose Gerald Durrell because his books about collecting animals in strange parts of the world were so funny, and so interesting, with the people of the countries playing as big a role as the animals, that I longed to go to those places and see those creatures – and people – for myself. And his My Family and Other Animals is the book I would take to that desert island.
Who or which organisation do you feel is doing important work ‘on-the-ground’ ?
Something that has changed during my lifetime is the recognition that you can’t just save the animals, you have to work with the whole ecosystem and that includes the people. So my vote for the most important conservation charity is Blue Ventures, led by the enormously effective and charismatic Alasdair Harris, which works on marine conservation in Madagascar.
Rainforest, desert, mountains – where do you feel most at home?
I like them all, really, since that’s what travel’s all about. But if I can only pick one, then rainforest.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
Think global, act local.