Walk on the wild side
World’s deadliest towns,
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.”
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.