Alison Jane meets Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski, a wildlife photo journalist and presenter for SZtv, with the charisma, chutpah and energy to make wild life tv as thrilling as watching The Fast and The Furious! Could Bertie become the next David Attenborough? Let’s find out.
One day, sitting in an office in the heart of London, Aaron dared to dream of a different life. Swapping the high octane world of fashion and helming a model agency, for documenting and reporting on endangered species from sharks to pygmy elephants and lions to giant rays.
Life changed after a eureka moment one Christmas, when he was playing the game ‘Alter Ego’ with his family. “It just hit me that what I really wanted to do was follow in David Attenborough’s footsteps, not just pretend to be him. He is the godfather of natural history presenting, and my absolute inspiration,” he declares. So Bertie swapped sharks in suits, for the real thing! He trained to become a diver, took up photo journalism, and embarked on the greatest adventure of his life – to tell the stories from the front line of the war on nature, from poaching, deforestation and the threat of many iconic species becoming extinct within a generation. As David Attenborough, declares elsewhere on this magazine – ” We have to fight for nature” – and Bertie is part of the new generation, leading the charge.
Now, in his latest wildlife adventure, Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski, joins boot camp, to become a ranger with Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit, a team of local vets and rangers who deal with human-animal conflict. Featuring elephants, orangutans, sun bears, pangolins and much more, the series is as thrilling as it is informative, with breathtaking relocations and rescues of critically endangered animals. The world needs to know about these fascinating, yet threatened species and ecosystems – before it’s too late.
1. The loss of species and habitat is one of the greatest crises facing mankind – how do you hope to inspire the kind of city dweller you used to be to care, and to act before it is too late?
The loss of species and habitat affects us all. Jungles and oceans provide us with the air we breathe – if these ecosystems are destroyed we cannot survive. Therefore we have a duty to protect them – not just now, but for future generations. We also have an ethical obligation to protect species. What will our planet look like without great whites, mantas, tigers and rhinos? Don’t we want our children, and our children’s children to enjoy them? If we continue with ‘business as usual’ we are going to live on a very crowded, yet incredibly lonely planet.
Watch highlights from the latest episode now, where Bertie is put through boot camp training to become a wild life ranger in Sabah
2. Who are your conservation heroes?
I interviewed Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd last week. Whilst he may be too ‘hands on’ for some, he’s an inspiration and gets shit done. However, David Attenborough is my greatest inspiration. He opened up the natural world in a way that will never be replicated; he’s the Godfather of wildlife film-making. I doubt there’s a more popular Englishman alive. Whilst the BBC’s flagship, bluechip productions (like Planet Earth, Blue Planet etc) are notorious for being light on conservation, through great storytelling and peerless visuals, they inspire us to protect.
3. What made you turn you back on the modelling industry to become a naturalist, photojournalist and adventurer? What compels you to live a nomadic, and often dangerous life reporting on wildlife crime?
I’d been feeling unhappy in the modelling industry and in London for a while. Tax returns, demanding clients, moaning models, a mortgage – it was all a bit much at the tender age of 28. Then I remember playing the ‘Alter Ego Game’ with my family at Christmas. In a parallel universe I would have been David Attenborough, or another of the great explorers. It was a lightbulb moment: why spend your life fantasising about someone else’s? So I went away and then discovered diving. I never looked back.
A Critical Moment in History for Our Planet
The lifestyle is very seductive and has become something of a drug. The more you travel, the more you learn, the more you realise what a critical point we’re at in history. Our oceans are rising, warming, used as dumping grounds, and catastrophically overfished. Every year we chop down billions of trees and we lose thousands of species due to the activities of mankind. My goal is to take these complex issues, package them up, and make them accessible to global audiences. Many view conservation as depressing or for anoraks – however it can be exciting and entertaining. That’s the concept behind SZtv and the series we’re producing. We’ve a very talented team here, creating compelling stories that matter.
5. Describe your greatest dive?
That has to be on Cape Kri in Raja Ampat a couple of years back. This site has been labelled the most biodiverse on the planet, with over 300 species counted on a single dive. I got separated from my group during a dive (naughty, I know) and was left amongst a vortex of fish: barracuda, tuna, surgeonfish, sharks, turtles. The schools were so large they blocked out the sun. I remember thinking this must be what it was like diving hundreds of years ago before our oceans were raped and pillaged. I was shaking for hours afterwards, it was so thrilling.
6. What documentary are you most proud of? What are you working on now?
I’m very proud of the entire web series we made during 2015-16, Borneo from Below (can be seen on www.scubazoo.tv). The series was produced on a shoestring budget but was a huge success. Most dive shows are pretty lame, but this was quirky and unique. Diving can have a reputation for being geeky and uncool – this is something we’re trying to rectify.
Another show I’m very proud of is our newly released Borneo Wildlife Warriors – a series where I train to become a ranger with the Wildlife Rescue Unit in Sabah. This elite team of vets and rangers are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to deal with human-animal conflict involving elephants, orang-utans, sun bears and more. It was a tough year – physically and emotionally – dealing with some of the issues they face such as deforestation, the illegal pet trade and the traditional medicine trade. I’ve so much respect for these guys – they do an amazing job under extreme pressure. We’re hoping the series throws light on their work and the problems they encounter…whilst entertaining at the same time, of course.
We are also currently editing a pilot for a broadcast series, On the Brink. The pilot looks at human-elephant conflict in Borneo. Bornean elephants – the world’s smallest sub-species – are losing their home due to deforestation and development, are being poisoned and shot, dying in manmade quarries, and leaving behind their babies in plantations. It’s a complex, multifaceted issue and people need to know what’s happening here.
7. What animal would you be and why?
A dolphin. They are intelligent, sociable, spend their lives underwater, and just love to have fun. Plus they can stun prey using low frequency sounds…what could be cooler than that?
8. How has your life as a naturalist changed you and made you a better human being?
Before embarking on this career in 2009, I was fairly green. I’d chosen the higher education-university-corporate job route, and had done little travelling. Whilst I dearly miss friends and family, (who have been so supportive) the move was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s not all roses by any means. I lived out of a bag for about three years, travelling Africa as a photojournalist – by the end of it I was broken. Once I was robbed of all money by corrupt police and nearly thrown in jail; a week later I’m swimming with humpback whales and their calves, and a week after that surrounded by hundreds of elephants at a watering hole. It’s the ultimate highs…with some extreme lows thrown in. I believe this lifestyle hardened me up a little, for better or worse. And it’s made me more empathetic towards others.
9. What is the most imp conservation, hot topic you want to cover?
Along with the ongoing projects listed above, we’re currently researching a series on wildlife crime, and also a film on the exotic pet trade with my good mate, environmental film-maker Chris Scarffe. Animals are being shipped from all over the world into Hong Kong, the hub of the exotic pet trade. This is rendering many species critically endangered, or extinct in the wild. The sums involved are astronomical. There’s a species of tortoise in Madagascar I once wrote about that can fetch $40,000 on the black market. It’s a shady business often involving corrupt governments, cartels and the mafia. It’s a story we’ll have to be careful about covering as it would be very easy to disappear…but that’s all part of the excitement.
10. What is the greatest natural spectacle you have been privileged to cover?
I once snorkelled with feeding killer whales and sharks in Mozambique. Orcas are seldom seen there. The thrill of being rushed by sharks, as killer whales ate chunks of dolphin flesh in front of me cannot be described. These unexpected moments are better than any organised tours to famous natural phenomenons, where there is often too much expectation and large crowds. Give me spur of the moment any day.
11. What would you like to say to people about getting involved in protecting nature and animals? How can we make a difference?
Start by making socially responsible tweaks to your everyday life, in order to be a more responsible citizen: you don’t have to ram ships, or chain yourself to a tree. Use a little less water, recycle, turn your lights off, eat less fish and beef, or ask questions like “where does this fish come from and how was it sourced?” These small changes will make all the difference. Then after that, consider some more radical changes…you’ll be smashing ships and hugging trees in no time.
Research and Interview by Alison Jane Reid Copyright March 2017