Michaela Strachan interview: the wildlife TV host talks conservation, sustainability and travel
You might best remember TV presenter Michaela Strachan from The Really Wild Show or Springwatch, but now she's on an all-new mission: helping save the kiwi in New Zealand
With more than 25 years' experience in wildlife, conservation and travelling the world seeing the planet's most mind-boggling animals, it's fair to say English TV presenter Michaela Strachan knows a thing or two about rare and endangered wildlife. That's why she's teamed up with New Zealand cider brand Old Mout, and the charity Kiwis for Kiwi to raise awareness about the plight of island nation's iconic emblem.
Ever since humans introduced predators like stoats, dogs, cats and rats to New Zealand, kiwis have been in decline. Now, a creature that's been around for 50 million years could be extinct in the next 50 if we don't intervene and change things. That's why Michaela Strachan has got on board. She tells us how it's all panning out.
The kiwi is the most memorable emblem of New Zealand, does that make it even more important to protect?
Absolutely: New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis, if you go to New Zealand you see the kiwi on everything. It's an iconic animal, and yet it's in serious trouble: as a flightless bird it's very vulnerable. It's been around for millions of years – since the age of the dinosaur – and yet unless something's done it'll become extinct in the next 50.
If we want to save the kiwi, it's something that our generation has to do. It's not something where you can think, "Oh yeah, we'll do that in a couple of generations' time". Old Mout are behind the campaign, and what they're asking everyone to do is pledge their support for the kiwi, and for each person, Old Mout donates 20p to the conservation charities.
Recently, we went to a small island called Kapiti Island which is now predator-free, and it's been a huge success. If you put the kiwi on a predator-free island, its chances of the survival rises to 99%, which is astonishing: it's a really positive project that is making a difference and is saving the kiwi.
What makes the kiwi important to people in the UK?
The kiwi is important because iconic species get people's attention. You're not going to be able to get that much attention for a small beetle that no one's ever heard of. But by raising awareness and campaigning for iconic species, you're also helping that little beetle as well, or whatever animal is part of that ecosystem. If you're saving an environment, you're saving all the wildlife within that environment. Translate that to a habitat in a whole country like New Zealand, and you're saving so much of the other wildlife as well.
A lot of people say 'why should we care in the UK about an animal in New Zealand?' I think we should care about all wildlife, really. It's great when you can connect people with animals on their doorstep, and that's really important because they can be familiar with it, and feel empowered to make a difference themselves. They can go out and make a hole in their garden fence to stop a hedgehog getting trapped – it's a simple thing, it's doable and it makes people feel empowered.
How can the average person do their bit for conservation?
It's all about awareness. It's all about consciousness: we need to start shifting our consciousness as a species, and we need to stop being selfish, and stop being so consumerist. We've become so successful as a species because by nature we are very selfish – we want to get to the top and it doesn't matter what it takes to get there, but I think that has got to change. That starts with consumerism: do we need to replace things? Do we need to buy things all the time? No, we don't.
In the UK, one of the things that's numbers dropped is the hedgehog. That's an animal that's we're all familiar with, but have you seen a hedgehog in your garden recently? Probably not. We're so familiar with something like a hedgehog that it could almost go extinct without us noticing – we just assume they're out there, even though numbers are declining – and that's when you have to be really careful. Now is the time to save them, and there are a lot of campaigns going on right now to save them, as well.
People talk about reintroducing lynx, wolves and brown bears to the UK – how do you feel about that?
Brown bears?! That'll never happen: lynx might, but not in England, I don't think. With animals and farming, if there's any animal that's perceived to be a threat or a predator, we seem to just kill. Look at the badger problem... Can you get your head around the fact that the government are thinking it's ok to cull badgers? I just can't.
we need to start shifting our consciousness as a species: we need to stop being so selfish and consumerist
The tolerance of the government, of farmers; of people that make a lot of money out of shooting, hunting and killing animals suggests it's definitely going to be a long time before we accept brown bears in Scotland. The wolves have been discussed for decades, but again, it's the farming thing – they're a threat to sheep, so I doubt it'll happen unless big changes happen first. Let's all become vegetarians and introduce wolves.
Does technology make us more and more disconnected with the outside world?
My generation has a responsibility to make sure that the younger generation doesn't become totally disconnected. We already see a lot of kids that are so into their screens, whether it's social media, games or television programmes, and it's very difficult to compete with that. Gone are the old days where if you had nothing to do you went outside because there was nothing else to do. We are all going to have to take responsibility if we want our children to be connected to the outdoors and the natural environment.
If you disconnect with the natural environment, it makes you an unhappy person: you've only got look at how many people are on antidepressants, how many people are just not happy in their life, and I think it's because they're not connected anymore.
What's the most amazing wildlife experience you've had?
The most amazing place I've ever visited is Antarctica. It's a wilderness like nothing you've never explored before. It's just out of this world. What I love about it is that nobody owns it: it's the only part of this planet that nobody owns, nobody lives there – just scientists. It just feels like you're in the last wilderness on the planet.
The most amazing experience I've ever had is diving with sharks. I'm a real shark fan. I've hand fed them – not everyone agrees with it, but I must say it was an incredible experience. I've dived with hammerheads, I've cage-dived with great whites: all my shark experiences I think have been the most full of adrenaline.
Which three destinations should be on every wildlife lover's bucket list?
I'd say the Masai Mara, Sipadan near Borneo and the Arctic. If you want to see African wildlife, nothing beats the Masai Mara. If you're only going to do one safari in your life you know you're going to see amazing stuff there: these days, you might be seeing it with 20 other vehicles, but you know it's going to be a great safari.
Every wildlife lover should get underwater, partiuclarly as a lot of places aren't going to be as good to dive in a few years' time. Do it now. One of the best places I've ever dived is a place called Sipadan – an island just off Malaysian Borneo – and it's like diving in an aquarium. You can't stay on the island anymore, it's just a dive centre, but you could walk off the beach and there was a mile drop-off coral wall. It was just astounding.
For a third place, I'd say try and go up to the Arctic and see polar bears. I've been three times in the last six months, and it was amazing. We went to Norway recently and saw loads of herring in the fjords. All the orca were coming in and the sea eagles were coming down, and the light was amazing. It was just an incredible experience.
I went to Costa Rica recently actually, too – can I put that one in there? If you're a birder, Costa Rica is fantastic. It's also really progressive because they cut their army in 1948 or 1949 and decided to put all their money into education and health. So it's really progressive and there's loads of wildlife, but loads of adventure and culture there, too.
Where do you go on holiday?
I try to go on one big family holiday a year. We went to Costa Rica last year. The year before we went to India: wow, that was an attack on the senses. Seeing tigers in the wild – especially for my son, who was 11 then – was phenomenal. But it's quite a shock, it attacks every sense you've got. You go out in Delhi and the sights, the smells, the sounds, the poverty… it all just hits you like a brick in the face. But it's a really interesting cultural experience that I'm sure my son will never forget.
What do you always carry in your bag when you're travelling?
A pair of binoculars... that's always useful. But also a bird book for the place I'm going. I'm not a fantastic birder, but I really enjoy it while I'm away. I guess it's a kind of game, seeing something new, looking it up and learning something about it.
To join the fight to save the kiwi, pledge your support at oldmoutcider.co.uk/help-save-the-kiwi – Old Mout will be donating 20p for every sign-up.
When I'm on holiday with my son Ollie, I take a book and try to do an A to Z of animals – finding an animal for every letter of the alphabet – and that's where birds become really interesting: when you're trying to get a U or a Y is quite difficult with mammals, but there are loads of 'yellow-headed whatevers' or 'yellow-crested somethings', and then you can go to Latin for the 'Xs'.