Wild animal biologist and TV presenter Liz Bonnin is a passionate conservationist. She talks to Elle Gordon about her new TV show, The Island, how essential healthy ecosystems are and how it feels to be able to call David Attenborough a friend.
Liz Bonnin is filling me in. "I am just back from Wyoming where we were filming with loads of these incredible paleontologists digging up dinosaurs from the Jurassic. We were all like kids in a candy store, so it's been wonderful. I am having a very busy period right now, but after two years of not really being able to do my job, it is an absolute joy to catch up on loads of different projects."
How did she find slower pace of the pandemic? "I had slowed down on my travel for quite a number of years anyway. Not least because I report on the environment and I know we have a responsibility towards that. Having said that, not being able to do my job was really weird. I love being able to immerse myself in nature with the people that I call my heroes; the scientists, the conservationists, the people who work to protect the planet while we go about our daily lives."
"For me, it is an absolute honour and a privilege to learn from some of these astounding people. It helps to renew my faith in human nature, all while being surrounded by elephants, or just being somewhere like Galápagos. I do have an extremely adventurous and pretty incredible work life, so I did miss it."
Did she embrace the pandemic trends like Zoom parties or banana bread? "A lot of my best girlfriends are from my schooldays and we were all on Zoom like everyone else. I remember when lockdown first began, saying to them, 'Guys, if we were being paid to do this, we would be lapping it up; it’s a proper break. I have wine in my fridge and candles, and I am just going to make my place a spa.’ Cut to three or four months later and I was going stir crazy! But I live by a beautiful park in London so that was my godsend. We all had to find a way to make it work but it was hard for everyone."
Now she is back doing what she loves, with a new RTÉ show, The Island, in which he explores the nature of Ireland. As a successful TV presenter, I wonder what she meant when she once said she fell in TV. "I think I say that because it’s something that I never expected to do. But I fell in love with the storytelling and story-making process, years ago at RTÉ when I was working with some amazing producers. I love how creative it is."
"It combines my absolute passion for the natural world and understanding the beautiful complexities of the planet. People say that science is complex but it’s not. Science is a means of understanding the world around us. It’s fascinating. It’s what keeps scientists compelled to find out more."
"Ever since I was a child, I was immersed in nature in different ways, and once you’re immersed in nature like that and then you find yourself doing that for a job… it is hard to put that into words. It is hard to articulate what it feels like to be sat watching an elephant herd for hours on end somewhere in Africa, as the sun sets, and the babies are playing in the water, and with the matriarchs watching over. You’re just watching nature in all its glory. It affects you on a cellular, spiritual level, all sorts of different levels."
It must have felt like a dream come true when she joined that first project? "It was. It changed me forever. I will never forget when I saw my first tiger in India and we got to follow her for a while. It just makes you feel suitably small and in awe and completely amazed by all of these incredible species. It is just extraordinary. I became hungry to tell those stories. I feel very compelled to be part of the change that is needed in this world and tell the stories of what’s happening to our planet. And also to tell the stories of the humans who are doing everything in their power to save it before it’s too late."
Creating a more sustainable way of living can seem like an insurmountable task. To this, Liz says, "It can feel overwhelming but it’s important to remember that what we do as individuals is hugely important because it all adds up, even if you, for example, turn down your thermostat by one degree, turn up your fridge temperature by one degree, mindfully turn off the lights and the sockets, change your dental floss, things like that. I would wholeheartedly encourage people to do all those small changes."
"The more I speak to experts, the more I have learned that we as individuals have a lot more clout than we think. One of the more effective things you can do is to change where you are investing your money. We now know which banks are investing in fossil fuels or petrochemical industries, and so to move your money to a bank that doesn’t invest in those any more is one of the most powerful things you can do as a consumer. That really hits hard where it matters most. There is a lot that we can do to create a change and shift; there is still time. We have to lean into the discomfort of what we all have created."
"A very smart man, Tim Jackson, an ecological economist, said once ‘The antidote to despair is action,’ and it really stuck with me. There is such beauty and potential in the power of us coming together as a global community. Every time I connect with human beings I feel better, especially when I see communities taking little steps towards giving back to our planet, a planet that gifts us so much. It fills my heart with joy. I have learned slowly but surely that we have much more clout than we think."
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A question I am dying to ask: what's David Attenborough really like? "He is absolutely what you imagine him to be and more. When I first met him, I couldn’t put a sentence together. Over the years, we have gotten to know each other, which is still such a surreal thing for me to say. Sometimes he will pick up the phone or comment on something. He actually recommended me for the position I now hold as President of the Wildlife Trust. It is a huge honour to have that role which he held for many years. So we have a lovely relationship now, which is still just beyond me because I can remember watching him on the television as a kid, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this man’."
"It has been an absolutely bonkers experience to get to know him. An example of what I mean when I say that he is everything you expect and more: We did an opening of a museum in Cambridge and we were about to start an‘in conversation with’ and he said, ‘Do you mind if we just run back into the museum… there’s another bone I really want to have a look at and we could talk around there.’ He still has this lovely, awe-inspiring, childish curiosity and joy about the world. It’s absolutely wonderful to see."
Her new show, The Island, allowed Liz to do one of her favourite things – to hang out with passionate scientist and experts.
"It’s an incredible story and I meet a whole group of different geologists who look at Ireland’s rocks, waterways and seabed to put together the puzzle that is Ireland’s history. It really lit me up, not least because I hadn’t been to the West of Ireland in such a long time, so it was really special to take in the views on those beautiful clifftops after being away for so long."
"It added another layer to my love of Ireland. I feel that for me, Ireland is a spiritual, friendship home. The girls that I know there, they’ve known me since I was nine years old, so it is very special to me. I am currently trying to write a book and Ireland is going to be the place that I write it. In that sense, the show helped me reconnect with a place I adore.