Walk on the wild side

World’s dead­li­est towns,

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MUM­TAJ BEGUM

SPO­RAD­I­CALLY, one hears or reads about a wild an­i­mal at­tack­ing hu­mans. In cer­tain places, how­ever, clashes be­tween hu­mans and wild an­i­mals hap­pen on a daily ba­sis and of­ten they end up with ter­ri­ble out­comes on both sides.

Dave Sal­moni has heard of such tales in his trav­els for the past 10 years as zo­ol­o­gist, an­i­mal trainer, lover of large preda­tors and pre­sen­ter of pro­grammes on Dis­cov­ery and An­i­mal Planet.

Con­cen­trat­ing on just three geo­graph­i­cal ar­eas, Sal­moni brings to Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel the World’s Dead­li­est Towns, which pre­mieres tonight at 9pm.

In three episodes, he em­beds him­self within a com­mu­nity’s way of life to wit­ness first­hand just how volatile these peo­ple’s lives are and also to fig­ure out why the an­i­mals at­tack hu­mans – in some cases, with ex­treme fe­roc­ity.

In the first episode, he goes to West Bengal, In­dia, where de­for­esta­tion of the area for plan­ta­tion pur­poses has forced ele­phants to share their space with hu­mans. The byprod­uct of this is a vi­cious cy­cle of hu­mans chas­ing ele­phants away from their crops and ele­phants re­sort­ing to ag­gres­sion in or­der to sur­vive.

In an in­ter­view with Sal­moni who was in Kuala Lumpur last week, the 35-year-old ex­plained that he wanted to present both sides of each story even though this went against his goal in life as an an­i­mal con­ser­va­tion­ist.

He said: “If I tell it from just one point of view, it would be do­ing the story a dis­ser­vice. You look at the poor peo­ple com­pet­ing for every­thing – space, food – and you think, ‘That vil­lager should do every­thing for his fam­ily.’

“Then you look at an ele­phant mother and you think, ‘Man that ele­phant should do every­thing she should for her calf.’ And those two things are in con­flict with each other.

“This was some­thing I wanted to do be­cause the rest of the world has no idea there are still places like these, that deal with these kind of pres­sures ... where ev­ery sin­gle day you go to bed won­der­ing if an ele­phant is go­ing to knock the walls down and drag you off your bed. It seems like a fairy­tale to most of us. This show is an at­tempt to show how it is to live like that.”

From In­dia, Sal­moni trav­els to Zam­bezi River in Africa, where one of the lesser known dan­ger­ous an­i­mals of Africa – the hip­popota­muses – ter­rorise fish­er­men in a vil­lage. These peo­ple have no choice but to live along­side the hip­pos as there is a close con­nec­tion be­tween hip­pos and fishes – hip­pos’ ex­cre­tion is the food source for the fishes, which in turn is the main source of in­come for the vil­lagers. “Guys like these, they go fish­ing say­ing ‘Well, I hope I don’t die to­day.”

Sal­moni learned that one way these peo­ple try to stay ahead of the hip­pos is through witch­craft in which a rit­u­al­is­tic hippo ex­or­cism is per­formed.

“The hippo story is prob­a­bly the creepi­est thing I have ever done. It’s quite some­thing to put the sci­en­tist in me aside in try­ing to un­der­stand how they feel about the sit­u­a­tion. It was dif­fi­cult and Dr Moomba (a witch doc­tor) scared the crap out of me. I got five cam­eras on him to try and fig­ure out his trick and ei­ther there is magic or he tricked me.”

Fi­nally, he trav­els to Sun­der­bans, In­dia, where the Royal Bengal tigers have ac­tu­ally changed their stripes to hunt hu­mans as food.

“Here, some­one dies ev­ery day,” said Sal­moni. That em­i­nent dan­ger is un­doubt­edly pal­pa­ble, es­pe­cially when he vis­its a vil­lage that houses all the women whose hus­bands have been killed by tigers.

To de­ter the at­tacks, the lo­cals re­sort to wear­ing masks at the back of their heads and leav­ing dum­mies that give out elec­tri­cal jolts upon touch.

“Sun­der­bans is a place I have been read­ing about since I was 14 years old. When I was given, by Dis­cov­ery, the chance to do a show like this, it’s a dream come true be­cause I love to un­der­stand what hap­pened to the species In dave Sal­moni im­merses him­self in places where peo­ple and an­i­mals co-ex­ist in a com­bat­ive life­style. where not only are they man-eaters but they are taught by their moth­ers to kill – it’s some­thing you don’t see any­where else.”

Amaz­ing drive

Ask Sal­moni how his pas­sions for large an­i­mals started and he reck­ons he was born with it. Grow­ing up in Sar­nia, On­tario, Canada, he was no dif­fer­ent from the other chil­dren.

He had a Golden Re­triever named Snug­gles, cats and ham­sters as pets. While life in that “nice, calm, lit­tle city” didn’t in­clude any preda­tory an­i­mals, he dec­o­rated his rooms with posters of wildlife and was con­stantly check­ing out an­i­mal-re­lated books from the li­brary.

“I wasn’t the kind of kid try­ing to fig­ure out what I was go­ing to do with my life. I just fol­lowed my path, sort of liv­ing the mo­ment.”

That path led him to zo­ol­ogy at the Lau­ren­tian Univer­sity in Sud­bury, On­tario, and then an­i­mal train­ing and con­ser­va­tion and, fi­nally, tele­vi­sion. “It was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. It was never my in­ten­tion – they just popped up in my life.

“I got the kind of job that I’m al­lowed to do what­ever the heck I want,” he said re­fer­ring to his host­ing gig. “Ev­ery year (Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel) says what do you want to do now? And I go and do it. Get­ting paid to do your hobby is pretty great.”

What he likes about tele­vi­sion is that it has the abil­ity to reach a lot of peo­ple, al­low­ing him to share his con­ser­va­tion mes­sage.

“Con­ser­va­tion is some­thing you have to sell to peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand and don’t

Driven by pas­sion : (clock­wise from top) dave Sal­moni with rob­bie the Tiger at the bow­manville Zoo, canada; in Nyanga with voodoo dolls used at chirundu, africa, to keep hippo at­tacks at bay; in West bengal mak­ing chili bombs with a vil­lager to de­ter ele­phants from eat­ing crops; and in Sun­dar­bans, In­dia, with wi­d­ows whose hus­bands have been killed by tigers. know why there is value to hav­ing tigers or ele­phants around. And I think the best way is to ex­pose them to wildlife and wild spa­ces. They will recog­nise its value, then they want to pro­tect it.”

On TV, the an­i­mals he sur­rounds him­self with pretty much dwarf him. In per­son, Sal­moni is a tall and mus­cu­lar guy who keeps him­self in top shape for quick re­flexes. Although he has worked with an­i­mals close to 15 years, he knows from ex­pe­ri­ence to al­ways be pre­pared – an adult African lion he once worked closely with at­tacked him. But he takes it as part and par­cel of the pur­suit of his pas­sion.

Al­most non­cha­lantly he shared: “I do get bit­ten a lot, of course. You can’t do what I do and not get bit­ten. But get­ting bit­ten and get­ting at­tacked are two dif­fer­ent things. All an­i­mals like to bite. I got bit­ten by a griz­zly bear two weeks ago in my shin – didn’t re­ally draw too much blood, it’s fine – but yeah, that type of stuff hap­pens. That time with the lion was the worst in my ca­reer. Hope­fully, I’ve learned my les­son.”

His pas­sion for these preda­tory an­i­mals is what fu­els him to do shows like Liv­ing With Tiger (in which he taught two cubs to hunt and surive in the wild) and Into The Lion’s Den, where he lived with African lions for three months.

“Pas­sion is a word that peo­ple throw around quite a lot. Once you fig­ure out what your pas­sion is it’s very tough to turn your back on that. When you are truly pas­sion­ate about it, it’s part of who you re­ally are. And then, not hav­ing that in your life any more you ba­si­cally try to change your per­son­al­ity, which is not an easy thing.

“Yes, peo­ple do it all the time, get forced to stop chas­ing their pas­sion for one rea­son or an­other but it’s some­thing that I couldn’t do.

“Of course, af­ter the at­tack, I con­sid­ered it but even now as I get older I won­der if I should keep do­ing the dan­ger­ous stuff. But the cu­rios­ity pops up and I’m back to where I was.” n World’s dead­li­est towns pre­mieres tonight on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel (Astro chan­nel 551) at 9pm, with re­peats on Wed­nes­day at mid­night, 8am and 2pm. The re­main­ing two episodes are shown on Oct 18 and 25.

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