He has been called the successor to Sir David Attenborough, but I discover naturalist Chris Packham isn’t afraid to be outspoken…
Chris Packham is not one to pull his punches. We’ve been chatting mere minutes and the stalwart of Springwatch has already condemned the perils of overpopulation, ruminated on oppressive regimes and faced up to the imminent extinction of tigers in the wild. I can barely keep up. Yet the most striking thing about the presenter is his passion – this is not a chap who is afraid to be heard in his quest to make a difference. I ask what is the greatest wildlife crisis affecting the world today.
‘It’s not just a wildlife crisis, it is a world crisis. Overpopulation – there are too many people for the resources that we have and we are not organised, either socially or politically, to make that sustainable,’ states Packham. ‘And it’s the sort of thing that people don’t like to talk about because as soon as you mention controlling the human population, they think you mean killing people.
‘But we don’t mean that. We mean offering people incentives, whether it’s the emancipation of women so they can choose to have children or not – a lot of the world is still ferociously chauvinistic, or offering tax incentives – child benefit for the first child and not for any more. It’s about incentivising, rather than restricting.’
Packham has been passionate about wildlife since he was a boy (one of his early memories is of collecting ladybirds by the gate in his garden and putting them in jam jars). A nature photographer as well as a naturalist, he has travelled the world capturing the beauty of our planet. And while there are many places he still yearns to visit – the Atacama desert in Chile, for example – there are some places that he will never go to. ‘I wouldn’t go to China, I wouldn’t go to Burma and I wouldn’t go to Israel,’ he says, matter-of-factly.
‘For purely political reasons. I can vote with my wallet and I choose to do that. I remember Tiananmen Square. I know that 75 per cent of all the world’s wildlife crime goes through China and as much as I would love to see the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army and the Great Wall, because I love a good old ruin, I just can’t bring myself to go and support that regime of oppression.’
He pauses and then adds, ‘I’ll tell you one of the other places I wouldn’t go: Malta. Their bird crime is the worst in Europe. They are absolutely out of control.’
Packham certainly can be outspoken. In 2009, for example, he was criticised for suggesting that the giant panda was too expensive to save. But despite the flack that followed, he has remained firm in the belief that we shouldn’t try to save all animals from extinction.
‘Some species are just too expensive to try and keep them going,’ he says.
So which beasts does he think will become extinct in our lifetime?
‘Many: tigers, rhinos, bluefin tuna,’ he says. ‘All of them are plummeting to extinction fast. There are as many tigers in America as there are in the rest of the world, so we’re not going to have a world without tigers, but we are going to have a world without tigers in the wild.
‘Things that we can’t keep in captivity, such as the bluefin tuna and maybe some of the whale species, will go. Some whales are recovering, but others won’t. If we don’t get serious about protecting these animals and stopping those people who are hunting them, then we will lose them. And we can’t keep them in captivity, like you can tigers, so we will lose them altogether. We’ve lost animals before, but it’s very sad to be alive at a time when we’re losing them and we know better.’
It was his appearances in The Really Wild Show in the late 1980s that cemented Packham’s place as a very natural nature presenter. But his role does come with its disadvantages.
‘People send me [animal] poo in the post,’ he confesses. ‘To identify it. And I am sent dead birds and all sorts of things. My poor agent sometimes gets Jiffy bags that don’t smell right; and the BBC as well!’
But while he can deal with these suspect packages, Chris Packham is eminently frustrated by the lack of modernisation when it comes to conservation efforts.
‘We just don’t modernise quickly enough,’ he sighs. ‘We are still pursuing policies that were thought to be good ideas in the past, but the world has moved on, the pressures have got greater.
‘Conservation is very conservative – with a small ‘c’ – and it’s very reluctant to gamble, take risks or change. Unfortunately, as we know, in any form of business that’s not how it grows and is successful. You have to implement the latest thinking and you have to do it with gusto and sometimes you have to stick your neck out, but I’m afraid they’re not doing it quickly enough.
‘People think that all life is sacred and of course it is, we’re trying to protect life, but that doesn’t mean that in the process you don’t get things wrong.
‘I remember when people first started to breed water voles and tried to introduce them into the wild in the UK. They were catastrophically unsuccessful – all the voles got killed and eaten – but that was because we hadn’t done it before. No one wanted to harm those animals but now, we’ve perfected the technique of breeding them in captivity and putting them back into the wild with high survival rates. So we can’t be upset about those sorts of things. The first bouncing ball didn’t bounce, I should imagine.’
So what little things can we all do?
‘Each one of us can make a difference,’ he says. ‘My garden’s full of nest boxes. Birds breed here… it’s a very simple thing that lots of people do. All my table scraps go out on the table for the badgers and the foxes that come every night. I mean, it’s tough out there, and if we can offer something, in terms of shelter and food, then it does make a difference.’ And if he could be an animal? ‘I’ve always wanted to fly, so I’d be a swallow. Summer in this country, then back to their summer in South Africa. Relatively long-lived. Not too many predators because you’re a bit quick. Beautiful.’
And with that, he stands up, says his farewells and leaves me to go and top up the bird feeders.
For more on Chris go to: chrispackham.co.uk