Steve Backshall’s Scariest Animal Encounters

‘Almost all animals avoid confrontation,’ says the TV wildlife presenter. But when they don’t, your life may well flash before your eyes...

Steve Backshall isn’t a man who’s easily fazed. Best known as the host of BBC’s Deadly 60 and other wildlife shows, he’s spent more than 20 years getting up close and personal with the most lethal animals on the planet. And in case that’s not tough enough for you, he studied martial arts in Japan for a year, is a black belt in Judo and has completed the Marathon des Sables, ‘the toughest footrace on earth’. He even calls being stung by scorpions an ‘occupational hazard’ – but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been times when he thought it was all over…




1. Scuba Diving With A Hippo


Steve Backshall ‘The hippo is the most frightening to be around. It’s regarded as being the most dangerous animal in Africa, and all of my closest calls have been with hippos. One incident stands out. I was filming in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, with my cameraman Johnny. We were scuba diving to film crocodiles and had been fine. Then I saw these crater-like footprints on the bank, and when I pointed them out to Johnny his eyes were on stalks behind his scuba mask. Suddenly this hippo appeared from out of the water about two metres in front of me, and I thought we were history. The dive supervisor later told me he could hear the terror in my voice. We were lucky. The hippo was young and instead of attacking, it hesitated. It was probably confused to see us, and that saved our lives because it gave us time to make a break for it. But you could have tossed a coin as to whether we lived or died.’


‘It charged us at full sprint, ears back, trunk down but deadly silent’


2. Being Charged By A Killer Elephant


SB ‘Ninety nine per cent of the time elephants are harmless. Sometimes they make a lot of bluff and bluster – flap their ears, wave their trunks around and trumpet – but if you move away they’re fine. Sometimes they pretend to charge. That’s why I can’t forget the elephant that charged at me and meant it. I was in Nepal and had been around elephants the entire time. Suddenly, as we were setting cameras to film tigers, we saw this elephant coming towards us at full sprint – ears back, trunk down, but deadly silent apart from that. Our guides looked as if they’d been electrocuted, but we managed to run to our 4x4 and power away with the elephant in hot pursuit. It turned out they knew this animal. It had gone rogue and killed several people when it rampaged through a local village. And it had us in its sights, so there was no messing around.’



3. Swimming With A 15ft Crocodile


SB ‘My scariest encounter with a crocodile was in the Okavango Delta, again. Most of the crocs were three to three and a half metres, but then we came across one much bigger. It must have been at least four and half metres. It was huge, on a different scale to all the others. This one was aggressive too, and I felt uneasy when it disappeared into the murky green swamp while we were diving. Suddenly it appeared above the surface right in between us, with a big puff of sand coming up from the water and obscuring Johnny. I was convinced he’d been taken, and in that split second I imagined having to go home and tell his wife and kids. Then I saw his flashlight and realised he was OK, so we scrambled back to the boat as quick as we could, certain it was going to take us under. I’m not sure how we survived that one.’


‘I was convinced he’d been taken – in a split second I imagined having to tell his wife and kids’


4. Being Hunted By Hungry Dragons


SB ‘I’ve done lots of work with komodo dragons, and most of the time they’re slumbering, slow-moving animals with no interest in humans. But back when we were filming the first series of Deadly 60 in Indonesia I saw a different side to them. We were taking out some food to film them feeding. As we were dragging the meat they suddenly rose up and started running after us, far faster than we expected. They began circling us, looking for a weak point. They were hunting us. Luckily we managed to keep them at bay with forked sticks and hang the meat from a tree, and once they realised that was an easy meal they left us alone. But for a time there it was like being hunted by dinosaurs.’



5. Cornering A Spitting Cobra


SB ‘One time when I was tracking animals in Mozambique, this small snake slithered past. It was only about 30cm long. I didn’t see what species it was, so I followed it as it went into a pile of rocks. Then, as I was looking for it, the snake shot up and I felt my face peppered with liquid – it was a baby spitting cobra. The liquid is venomous and if it goes in your eyes it will almost certainly blind you, unless you can wash it off immediately. Of course the snake had aimed directly at my eyes, but luckily I was wearing sunglasses. I’m not usually allowed to because they obscure your face on camera, but they probably saved my sight.’



WHAT NEXT? Watch Steve face off with a hippo from the safe haven of a, er, kayak – precisely the mode of transport he and wife Helen Glover used to complete a 125-mile journey over the Easter weekend to raise money to help save the endangered rainforests of Borneo.