Levison Wood is back with a brand new documentary Walking With Orangutans! Talking to us exclusively after returning from his latest expedition traveling into some of the most remote places on Earth, soon to be aired on Channel 4. From Borneo to Namibia, and Greenland, Levison Wood encounters the struggle for survival of both animals and humans as they coexist in worsening conditions caused by climate change. With many species close to extinction, Levison Wood takes us on a journey across the planet to see for ourselves the tragic destruction to wildlife and mankind. Meeting locals along the way, Levison explains how he adapts to new cultures on his quest to track down the most iconic and endangered animals on the planet.
Levison Wood interview by Ben Farrin
Hello Lev, it’s great to see you again. Please tell us how you’ve been. You obviously just got back from Greenland, can you tell us how the trip was for your upcoming documentary; Walking With Orangutans?
Yeah! Course! It was amazing actually. It was the final journey in what’s been really a yearlong series of expeditions, going off in search of endangered species. So, following on from my last documentary series which feels like a lifetime ago now – it went out in 2019: Walking with Elephants. Following my conservation theme, this new series Walking With Orangutans, we went to Borneo to go to look for Orangutans in the wild. Then Namibia looking at Desert Lions, and Polar Bears in the Arctic. It was amazing actually because we were looking at the real front lines of conservation and climate change. And seeing how wildlife’s adapting and how indigenous communities, which are often the guardians of these wild spaces and the animals that live there, live alongside and protect the animals. So, yeah, it was really interesting, particularly in light of everything that we see on the news about how endangered species are really facing this pivotal moment. So, hopefully, it will inspire and educate people to take action.
Was this one of the most emotionally challenging expeditions that you went on for the reasons of the mission?
Well, it was. I won’t give too much away but in one of the series we came across an example of what happens when human greed takes over. It was very sad to see actually and I saw a lot of devastation of habitats, particularly in Borneo, where you’ve got a lot of palm oil plantations, which is just destroying the Orangutan’s habitat. Then the effects of drought in Africa, and of course global warming and the ice melting in the Arctic, so it was emotional, but really it was trying to find little glimmers of hope amongst all of the doom and gloom. And it is. It showed both sides of the story. It’s as much about hope as it is about what’s going wrong.
What was the most shocking part of the series whilst filming?
Like I say, I think I’ll leave that for the viewer to decide, because I don’t wanna spoil it, and there are some really emotional and quite shocking things in there. But also there’s a lot of beauty and joy.
Having returned now from this expedition, has anything changed in your own life, and having learned what you’ve learned, do you do anything differently now?
I do actually. I’m just a bit more conscious about where my food comes from for certain. I eat a lot less meat than I used to. Certainly, I’ll go out of my way to not buy palm oil products, for sure. When you see where it comes from, it’s gonna shock a lot of people.
Obviously, that is something people can do on a day-to-day basis. Are there any other tips that you could give people that, on a smaller day-to-day level that can help the climate crisis?
Well, it’s just being a bit more aware of your own actions. Of course, it’s down to each and every one of us to do our little but also to put pressure on the governments, and corporations, they’re the real big problems here. We can all turn our lightbulbs off, but you look over to Canary Wharf and the lights are all turned on in all the offices. They never go off. So we need to put pressure on the big players to do their bit as well.
During the filming of this series, I was interested to know – did you ever have a connection with an animal in the eyes whether they were looking at you as food, or needing your help?
Both actually. When I was in Namibia we got charged by a lion, which was very very close. That was filmed and in the series so you can see that. Seeing a Polar Bear from about 50 metres away, staring that in the eyes as well, that was pretty amazing. But also going to see the Orangutan orphanage in Sabah, in Borneo, that was amazing. Being very close to these orphan amazing creatures.
In terms of the food that you ate, did you eat anything different from normal, and can you share any experiences of the food that you tasted?
It depends on the environment. I try and eat very healthily and mainly vegetarian in the UK, but obviously, if you’re in Africa and you’re sat around a campfire with a tribe, you eat what you’re given. Often that is bushmeat or in the case of the Inuit in Greenland, then you’re eating seal because that’s what they eat so you kind of have to eat what you’re given.
And what’s it like… seal?
You connected with the locals during this expedition. What sort of place would you say had the toughest living conditions?
Oh… Greenland for sure. I don’t mind jungles and deserts, I quite like them but the Arctic is minus 20 at times and just brutal, brutal conditions. It’s amazing that anyone lives there but these Inuit’s seem to thrive, go out hunting, and do their thing day in, day out.
After experiencing these tough conditions, what do you think we take for granted?
I think we take a lot for granted in this country. When you literally have to go outside in all your gear. There are literally no trees on Greenland apart from a couple in the south. This is an island the size of Australia – bigger in fact. It’s huge. And just to get around you’re either on dog sleds. People still use dog sleds to go hunting. You can go on a ski-doo, but it’s not going to get you very far because the fuel is gonna run out, and then if you’re stuck, you’re dead, it’s that simple. Equally, there are dangers about getting in a boat and going out fishing, and the ice literally freezing around your boat. Then you’re stuck on a boat for about a week. So these are real challenges for people in the Arctic. There’s no running water because it all freezes so you have to literally keep a fire going 24/7 in your house. It’s a brutal tough life yeah.
What about the preparation for this expedition – because it’s a different expedition to your previous ones so did you have to prepare in a different way, and how did you best prepare for the risks involved?
It was less physical this time. But mentally and emotionally you gotta be prepared to see some pretty shocking things. And also to learn about the countries before you go to them. Learn about the history. Try and understand why people behave the way they do. I try and show a balanced viewpoint. It’s not “palm oil is bad”, it’s like well actually, “it’s the least bad out of all the oils”. If it wasn’t palm oil it would be another form of plantation. But palm oil is actually the most efficient crop. Now the fact remains in the world that there is a huge demand for vegetable oil, and oil for all the products that we use in our supermarkets. So we just need to be more efficient and find different ways of doing this. But it would be ridiculous to ban palm oil products straight out because it will put millions of people out of jobs. Then what happens? They’ll go into the forests because they’re desperate and they’ll go and hunt all the animals to extinction. It’s about balance. It’s about understanding the complexities of the places that you go to and try and just be balanced.
You’re also a keen photographer, do you have any favourite pictures from this recent expedition?
Oh, I do! I’ve got this amazing photo of a Polar Bear which I’ve not published yet, but I will when it comes out. Photographing wildlife is just a dream. It’s amazing. There will be some great photos coming up on my social media and website. I’ll probably sell some as prints as well if people are interested.
Amazing, thank you, I can’t wait to see them. Brilliant. Looking back at this quest, how do you feel about the challenges we are facing to protect our planet and life, and the likelihood of humans coordinating a successful route out of the climate crisis before it’s too late?
It’s a tough one really. I think we’re deluded if we think we’re gonna reduce warming to the 1.5% target – it’s not gonna happen. I think we might, if we do something now, reduce it to 2% increase but that in itself is gonna have a huge impact. The thing is, we’re still on the upward curve in terms of population growth and carbon emissions so we need to do something very quickly to reverse that trend. It will reverse eventually. Within 50 years the population will plateau and then decline which will have a huge effect then on emissions and outputs but until that, it’s what happens in the next 30 years that matters. You know, in our lifetime, it’s gonna be a huge pivotal point. I don’t think people quite realise how close we are to having huge massive extinctions. Biodiversity loss, and people think “Oh well, do I really care about the bees?”… well if the bees disappear, then it’s the bottom of the food chain, everything else falls apart, the whole bottom falls out of it. And the fact that we are still using GM (genetically modified) crops, monocultures, and chopping down forests. It’s absolutely insane.
How do you think this plays out then, over the next 10, 20, 30 years?
Well, it’s down to us really in the West, to lead by example. It’s a bit rich for us in the West to tell India and Brazil and China to behave when we’ve chopped down all of our forests and we’ve had our industrial revolution. We need to be the ones really leading by example and that involves sacrifices. That involves us consuming less, being more sustainable, and not always having what we want, for the greater good.
And… when is the Walking With Orangutans series out?
6th August, so, very very soon in under a month. It’s gonna be out for 3 Sunday nights on Channel 4.
I absolutely can’t wait, and I can’t thank you enough.
Thank you, Lev.
You’re welcome, thank you for putting this out.
WATCH OUR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH LEVISON WOOD HERE:
Levison Wood interview by Ben Farrin
Walking With Orangutans