‘Extinct or Alive’: Meet the Man Who Puts His Life on the Line for Wildlife Conservation

     January 14, 2020

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A broken back in Thailand, two different plane crashes, a shark bite, venomous snake bites, a run-in with a lion and more. Who would ever willingly put themselves in situations where these events might be the outcome? The answer is Forrest Galante, who hosts the Animal Planet series Extinct or Alive and frequently puts himself in harm’s way to learn about animals declared extinct.

Pure passion can get us to do some pretty wild things and Galante’s passions are animals and wildlife. During a recent phone interview, Galante told me a bit about his upbringing which put him on his chosen career path at a very young age; “I grew up inundated with wildlife. I’m from Zimbabwe, so I lived in the bush in Africa and I always knew that there was nothing I’d do other than work with wildlife.” The son of safari business owners, Galante actually named a new species when he was just 10-years-old alongside Rhodes Scholar Brian Gratwicke. Then at age 14, he found a California coachwhip snake 250 miles outside of where people said their range ended, a discovery that redefined their distribution.

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Image via Animal Planet

“As my mom says, I’m a cretin; I have a one-track mind. I only care about wildlife.” Galante continued, “She says that lovingly because she wants to go on a family holiday to Italy and I couldn’t be less interested. But if it’s talking about trudging through the swamps of Louisiana to look for mud snakes, count me in.”

Knowing that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Galante was an eager and exceptional participant on Naked and Afraid. “I was a field biologist and I was burnt out on doing that kind of thing, and I plopped down on the couch and my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife said, ‘Hey, look at this silly show. It’s about being naked and surviving in the wilderness. I’ve seen you do this a million times and you’re way better than all of these people.’ So I sent in one very cocky, arrogant email saying, ‘Hey, I’m better than anybody on your show; you should consider me,’ and ten days later I was on a plane to Panama.”

Turns out, that experience marked a defining moment for Galante. “When I was in college, I published a paper. It took me two years to write it, and it got about 400 reads, which is a pretty good number of reads. Four hundred reads by like-minded academics who already knew the subject matter.” He continued, “When my Discovery Channel show came out, it got four million views. That was the defining moment where I saw those numbers, where I said, ‘This is where I can make a big impact in the field of conservation, in media.’ And that was it. I remember reading that number and thinking, ‘This is what I have to do.’” 

And that’s exactly what Galante is doing right now with Extinct or Alive on Animal Planet, a show dedicated to learning about extinct animals and figuring out if there’s a chance that they might still be around. “I have a very lengthy Rolodex of species, and new ones being added all the time, unfortunately.” We’re talking over 1,100 animals that are thought to be extinct that Galante thinks might still be out there. “Literally five minutes before this call, I was adding in a new data point to an area that someone reported a Black Wolf. Every day I’m adding in, I have these massive maps and I’m adding in new data points and I have these spreadsheets to tell me where things have been seen, who’s seen them, what their phone number is, what person it is, what contact. It’s just a huge, huge database of information that I don’t think anybody else has because I don’t know that anybody else has ever been crazy enough to focus on this topic.”

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Image via Animal Planet

How exactly does Galante figure out which species to focus on for each episode? He does get an official sign-off from his financiers over at Animal Planet, but when asked if he considers which species could result in the most exhilarating and exciting television, he admitted, “Exhilarating and exciting – Animal Planet’s gonna get mad that I even say this – is second to me. What comes first is, are we going to be successful in finding this animal and doing something very important in the field of conservation? Even if we think the odds are really slim in finding this animal, which they always are, are we gonna tell a good story about conservation and the part of the world that needs that story to be told?”

As far as actually going to that part of the world, it’s a pretty significant endeavor for Galante and his team. We get hour-long episodes but they spend anywhere from two weeks to a month on location getting the necessary footage. “We usually book one-way tickets because if the leads are coming in hot and it seems like we’re closing the gap, We will stay until – sometimes until I say we’re not leaving until we find it and other times, when we’re just drawing blank after blank, we call it a little bit earlier.”

Who exactly is this “we”? It’s a group that Galante’s wife has described as a “traveling fraternity.” Galante broke it down further; “They’re just the closest group of guys ever. I mean, they are my best friends. We’ve been all around the world.” Galante often works with three camera operators, a sound op and sometimes a field producer. That’s it. A major reason this small crew is exceptional at filming this kind of material? They were outdoorsmen and scientists first. “My director of photography is a true scientist. He’s an environmentalist. My drone op is a hardcore outdoorsman. My AC and main underwater guy is one of the best free divers in the world. These are hardcore outdoorsmen that picked up cameras as a means to get closer to nature.”

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Image via Animal Planet

While it may sound like this kind of work and experience is only for those with a fairly significant and specific skillset, Galante also stressed that thriving on such an excursion really comes down to mindset and adaptability. “Being adaptable and dynamic is the only thing that allows you to be good in those environments.” Galante even referenced the 2015 film The Martian to put this concept into perspective further; “That takes place on Mars; that’s a little extreme, but the point is he never gives up. He’s always thinking. He’s always adapting. He’s always changing his methods to make himself two steps ahead and as comfortable as he can.” Galante also added, “Hardcore survivalists be damned, I don’t care what anybody says; there is no set formula to being a good outdoorsman or a good survivalist. There is just that mentality that makes you good at it. Obviously you can learn techniques and tips and tools, and there are certain things like a knife and a lighter that always come in handy, but the main thing is that mindset.”

Galante’s enthusiasm for his work is truly infectious – during an interview and also on screen in Extinct or Alive. Galante knows that and is also rightfully proud of that quality of the show. “Not to toot my own horn, but I think one of the things that we do well on Extinct or Alive is we show how fun and exciting and interesting wildlife science is and we show how passionate, not just myself, but the whole crew is.” He also added, “It’s that passion and the fact that this real thing, not this fabricated crazy thing, not Real Housewives bitching at each other, this real thing that people do that could be mainstream can save the world in the sense of conservation that I think is so important.”

Catch Galante and his team in action in Extinct or Alive Seasons 1 and 2 right now on Animal Planet!

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