When he's not climbing the Alps, rowing across the Atlantic, ski-trekking in Greenland, canoeing in the Yukon or cycling through Asia, Niall McCann walks on the wild side, getting up close and personal with the scariest, most dangerous creatures on Earth. The Canada-born British-bred adventurer and explorer is also a conservation biologist who has made it his mission to learn as much as possible about the largest species, and he goes in search of them in the Nat Geo Wild series "Biggest & Baddest," premiering June 5 with an episode about giant anacondas.
It's fitting because McCann's obsession with wild animals, and snakes in particular, started "as far back as I can remember. By the age of 6 I had confidently announced that I was going to pursue a career as a biologist. When I was 15, on a walk in the Australian rain forest with my dad, we found a 7-foot-long carpet python, and he urged me to pick it up. Feeling its strength and seeing its grace and beauty at such close quarters had a profound effect on me," says McCann.
The son of biologists and grandson of a professor of geography, he naturally gravitated toward natural history, and his early experiences with wildlife — seeing whales up close, watching an eagle hunting a kangaroo and encountering strange Australian creatures like platypus, echidna and emu — made a lasting impression. He earned a bachelor's in zoology from the University of Bristol and a Ph.D. in conservation biology from Cardiff University.
McCann's TV career began when he went to Brazil to film "Lost in the Amazon: The Enigma of Colonel Percy Fawcett," a 2011 documentary for History Channel UK and that led to "Biggest & Baddest." Besides anacondas, the season's 12 episodes focus on Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, cassowary, salt water crocodiles, Nile crocodiles, feral hogs, mountain gorillas, lions, alligator gar, the Burmese pythons invading Florida "and the plethora of venomous species living in the lost world in Venezuela, including the fer-de-lance, bullet ants and Goliath bird-eating spiders."
Species were chosen in part for their size or ferocity "but also because they have an obvious conflict with people, either by attacking and/or eating us or by affecting us economically," says McCann. "In each case, I try to tell the story from the perspective of both the people and the animals that are affected by this conflict, and inevitably I emphasize the importance of conserving these species, who have just as much a right to life as we do. I'm hugely motivated by the plight of our wildlife and wild places as I consider it a moral imperative for people to safeguard the future for our wildlife as well as for ourselves."
McCann had several dangerous encounters filming the show, including being charged by a tiger — twice! — being 'treed' by an elephant, being dragged down a riverbank by a 16-foot anaconda and having a lion wake up early from anesthetic. He also captured and released two man-eating crocodiles to a national park, far from any villages. But what scared him the most was when a bull elephant charged right at him. "I wasn't sure I was going to get out of it alive."
McCann helps to radio collar a lioness.
Fortunately, McCann avoided illness and injury on his travels for the series, which he attributes to being well conditioned from all the conventional and extreme sports he does. In addition to biking to work and two or three rock climbing and gym workouts a week, he enjoys mountaineering, hiking and speed flying — running or skiing off a cliff and parachuting to the ground at 40 mph.
Of his extensive accomplishments so far, he's proudest of crossing the Atlantic, "a feat that took 63 days, after planning and training for 16 months. As a biologist and conservationist the thing I am most proud of is having convinced the government of Honduras to commence military patrols in Cusuco National Park to protect it from poachers, illegal loggers and drug growers. I am still heavily involved in the ongoing protection of this park, and hope to continue this kind of work in Honduras and other countries. I want to establish and protect national parks, and to enthuse the next generation of conservationists in whose hands we will leave the fate of our precious wildlife and wild places."
McCann feeds a crocodile in Venezuela.
His concern for animals and their well-being came forward while filming the show as well. "The most challenging single aspect of the show was dealing with the ethical dilemma I was in while working with the hog hunters in Louisiana," McCann says. "Hogs are highly intelligent, and hunting them with dogs is undeniably cruel. That being said, the hog infestation is out of control and needs to be addressed. What upset me most was that this situation, like so many, was entirely of our own making, and now the hogs have become the innocent victims of our carelessness in allowing the feral hog population to explode as it has. Understanding this, and then witnessing and taking part in the hunts that attempt to control their numbers was the most challenging thing I faced during filming."
Not surprisingly, McCann doesn't have any exotic pets. "I'd rather see them in the wild. I'd love to have dogs when I'm older, but I travel too much at the moment for it to be ethical to have one," he says.
McCann handles an anaconda in Venezuela.
He's already thinking about animals to include if there's a second season of "Biggest & Baddest." "We simply have to have a big bear in there, either grizzly bears or polar bears, plus a venomous snake and another large constrictor. There are so many places I want to go."
Meanwhile, he hopes series viewers get the message that he's trying to impart. "The world is a fascinating place filled with interesting things that deserve our respect and attention," McCann says. "It is also filled with terrifying things, but we should see this as a good thing and not a bad thing, because the world is so much more interesting because of it."
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