Written by Angus Hamilton
My conservation journey is really a tale of two parts. It starts when I was very young, as most of us have done, watching The Crocodile Hunter and wanting to be everything that Steve Irwin was, and taking in everything that he stood for. I spent hours and hours playing in the back garden pretending to be him. I’d gently hold plastic lizards, wrangle plastic snakes, and wrestle plastic crocodiles (all while family friends, or ‘zoo guests’ watched on). I also spent almost every weekend at the zoo, watching and learning about all of the animals I could.
Over the years, I began to see other interests and focuses start to take priority as I discovered that learning about wildlife was almost impossible within the school system. I discovered that the traditional sciences (chemistry, physics, and even biology the way that it was taught) really did not agree with me. History, politics, and English became my main interests. My passion for animals was still there, but I had no avenue to pursue it at the time. I was too busy playing sport and trying to write essays.
I was able to convince myself that this was all ok and what I wanted. That is, until I starting getting towards the end of my university degree. My friendship group was full of people studying law, business, politics… All of these people seemed to know exactly what they were wanting to do, and had a path towards it. I on the other hand felt like the complete opposite. I was studying international relations, and but I could feel that this was not truly what I wanted (or perhaps even suited). The more I came to understand that arena, the more ill-fitted I felt it was. I felt lost, and like I’d lost myself as well.
When I graduated in 2016, I still was totally in limbo. I was working full time in retail, which was unsurprisingly a totally unfulfilling job. However, it wasn’t long until everything changed. A friend messaged, asking if I’d be interested in backpacking around South America. I don’t know if I could have said ‘yes’ any quicker. But I also saw it as an opportunity to try out something that might provide an insight into something I’d like to do in the long term. I recalled a volunteer program I’d seen once, in Madagascar. Behavioural studies of lemurs, trekking through the forest looking for reptiles and amphibians, and point count surveys for birds. What did I have to lose?
Landing in Madagascar, with a plan of 5 weeks there before 6 months in South America (it wasn’t the most economical plan at the time, I have to admit), I had no idea what was in store for me. Driving from the airport to get on a boat to the small island I’d be working on, a flash of bright green with a splash of red stood out. My very first panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) and I was well and truly hooked. It was several days later though, that I knew I was truly onto something. Trekking up the longest and most difficult trek to the top of the island, to conduct plot surveys turned out to have been everything I could have hoped for. Snakes, geckos, chameleons… I was in heaven, all of that passion for wildlife and nature that had been hidden for so long was starting to re-emerge.
We hiked up and up and up, and got to our first plot survey site. I’d been in Madagascar for three days, and had been trying to learn all of the species. It wasn’t easy, but I was also enjoying discovering how to ID the different wildlife found here. We set up the plot, and began the survey, actively searching through the leaf litter to see what we could find. After about two minutes, as my fingers moved a piece of the leaf litter, a tiny little body fell into the hole that I had left. I looked down in shock at this little grey body as it wriggled and squirmed, almost worm-like. But it was no worm. Instead, it was one of the leaf chameleons endemic to Madagascar, and the second smallest lizard species in the world, Brookesia minima.
That first month in Madagascar changed everything. My friend had to cancel their South American plans, and I was offered a job as I apparently had a bit of a knack for this whole wildlife and working with volunteers thing. Five months later, I left Madagascar with the most important thing I could have had. My passion had flooded back into me, stronger than anything I had felt before. But I also realised that I loved to share my passion with others. One of the best parts of those months in Madagascar was teaching volunteers that arrived about all of the incredible animals found on the island, and what made them so special. It was incredibly rewarding seeing the moment that they went from not really caring about that bright green gecko that was just lying around, to seeing the realisation in their eyes as they noticed that actually, these were pretty cool animals too.
There’s a quote from Steve Irwin that has stuck with me since I was quite young, but has become increasingly relevant since I first arrived in Madagascar.
”If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.”
This idea that people want to save things that they love, but they can’t love what they don’t know really inspired me to try to take my passion further. So I started Life Gone Wild a website to share articles that I wrote about some of the weird and wonderful wildlife that we share the planet with, trying to ensure that more positive stories were told about these species, but with a focus on the efforts that people from around the world were trying to implement to save them from extinction. At the back of my mind, the hope was to one day be able to produce videos to add to this platform, to engage people even further… but there was no way I could do videos. I didn’t know enough, and who would want to watch them anyway?
A year later, a competition asked for a video entry… 1 minute long, and my favourite science fact. While I didn’t win, just entering was enough to start me down the path to video. Forcing myself to just give it a go and see what happens meant that I had to put aside my own insecurities and uncertainty to just do it! And I couldn’t be happier that I forced myself to enter.
Somehow, I’ve been creating videos ever since! Most recently I’ve been producing those while conducting herpetofauna research in the rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia (sometimes the videos are intermittent, given life in the forest and limited wifi capabilities, but they go up eventually). Who knows what the future holds though? I barely know where I’ll be in 6 months’ time considering so few of my plans end up working out how they were meant to…
I’m still a little petrified of putting myself out there, standing in front of the camera, and then posting that online for the world to see. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it. It has to be. The wildlife that we are all working to save don’t have time for my insecurities to hold me back any longer.
For more of Angus, follow @life.gonewild on Instagram