Filming Dangerous Animals

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King Cobra with Austin Stevens

Use knowledge to minimise risk

When filming, photographing, or otherwise working with potentially dangerous animals, there is of course always some element of risk. But although certain scenarios may indeed present real danger, to the inexperienced, the danger involved may seem greater than is real, when under the control of a specialist. My history, for example, lies largely in the field of herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, and so naturally, when I am confronted by a venomous snake, the risk factor is less than what it would be for an inexperienced person, simply because I have accumulated knowledge of the species and know what to expect and how to react.

Snakes and other reptiles, and of course even mammals, are not so easy to locate and approach in the wild. And when found, I am bound by their natural rules of behavior and it is up to me to read the messages correctly when I approach for a photograph. To get up close to any animal in the wild, be it a venomous snake or a black rhino, there will always be an element of danger, and one’s best protection invariably is knowledge of the subject in question, and the natural habitat in which it resides. 

So when I am seen on film taking “death defying” risks to get a series of close-up photographs of a striking cobra, to the layman this seems incredibly dangerous, while in fact I am controlling the shoot with my knowledge of the subject in my view-finder. This of course does not mean that my knowledge eliminates danger, only that I am aware of all aspects of the danger, have tried and tested my methods, and am secure in my personal ability and knowledge concerning my subject. Again I emphasise, this knowledge does not make me invulnerable to harm, and I would be wise to consider each and every encounter with an open mind, as no two animals, even of the same species, ever react in identical fashion.

Austin Stevens with Asian Cobra

A good example is when I was bitten on camera by a snouted cobra simply because I used my standard tactic and manoeuvres to avoid a strike, as I had done so many times before, only to finally come across a cobra that did not react the same as others, but extended it's lunge in active visual pursuit of my retreating hand… and got it!  A reminder that each animal and situation must be weighed up and considered individually.

Distraction is the biggest danger

When working in close proximity with a potentially dangerous snake, distraction is the biggest danger. A micro second of distraction is all it takes,  a trap that even an experienced herpetologist might fall into, especially when having to cope with not only the snake in question, but also the intrusion of work.  I was bitten while attempting to show how a venomous cobra reacts when defending itself, while at the same time attempting to deliver a piece to camera. When I work with a venomous snake in the wild, all else surrounding me disappears, and it is as if I am alone in the world with this snake. I am fully aware of the snake's potential capability, and I am fully concentrated on what I am doing. When presenting a piece to camera however, this is not entirely possible, and the risk is always there. That split second of distraction that might end it all.

 Some important facts

  • Only 10% of all living snakes are potentially dangerous to humans. (Highly venomous) 
  • Snakes do not attack anything that they are not interested in as food, unless forced to defend themselves. (This goes for venomous and non-venomous snakes) 
  • Only the few species of giant snakes that exist may be able to eat a human. (The Anaconda of South America, or the Reticulated Python of Asia, or possibly a Burmese Python) Rural children playing in murky river water would be more likely to fall victim. An extremely rare occurrence, and is likely to be a case of mistaken identity rather than attack, as these snakes prefer their natural prey, such as wild pigs. 
  • 80% of all snake bite cases recorded is in the lower leg area. Rural populations with bare feet being the most at risk of stepping on a snake.
  • Anti-snake-bite serum is available for most snake species around the world, and is ultimately the only sure treatment to save a seriously snake-bitten victim.

Get advice from an expert local guide. Lives may depend on it.

When filming wildlife adventure documentaries concerning dangerous species of animals it is imperative to employ a good and knowledgeable guide who should be carefully chosen according to past resume. While filming grizzly bears in British Colombia, Canada, I was especially nervous, as the little practical experience I had previously gathered with bears, was with captive specimens. My impressions gleaned from this was that bears are powerful, omnivorous predators, capable of out-running, out-swimming, and out-climbing any human, under any conditions, and are animals totally indifferent to anything except that which they can eat… humans included.

Grizzly Bear Canada

Arriving in Canada, I expressed my concerns to our appointed guide for the month long shoot, knowing full well that as ‘adventure presenter’ I was inevitably expected to get as close to a grizzly bear as possible. Unwittingly, far from reassuring me, the guide in question, a First Nations local with years of field experience, further confirmed my misgivings by handing me a can of bear spray “repellent”, apparently the only defence against a grizzly bear, a half ton animal easily capable of out-running, out-swimming, and out-climbing any human..., under any conditions! As matters turned out, when a potentially dangerous situation did arise, finding me unprotected and stranded between a huge female grizzly and her sub-adult cub, my guide and “protector”, who was positioned to be watching my back in the long grass, was too busy taking his own personal photographs to recognise the seriousness of the situation until too late!

Finally alerted to the pending danger my guide now suddenly emerged, desperately fumbling with the bear spray can, which, as it turned out, had not been serviced in years and was rusted beyond working condition. And it is a fortunate thing that for reasons best known to herself, the female bear side-stepped me by just a few metres, venting a warning growl as she did so, before heading on down to the water where she set about the task of catching salmon.

Needless to say, I was furious, knowing full well that the lack of awareness and responsibility on the part of our guide could have ended the expedition in disaster. It is imperative, when setting out into wild animal country that the chosen guide, or guides, be the best in the business, selected by proven experience, with knowledge of what might be expected of them under the not-so-usual working conditions that is the norm for wildlife adventure documentary film making. Lives may depend on it!

Written by

TV Presenter, Film maker, Photographer, Author and Herpetologist, well-known for TV series 'Austin Stevens Most Dangerous/Austin Stevens Adventures.'
© Copyright Austin Stevens