Forrest Galante, the host of the Animal Planet show Extinct or Alive, has overcome political turmoil and looked into the eyes of some of the deadliest animals on Earth. But he’s now facing a new peril — like many others around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has stopped Galante’s fieldwork as a wildlife biologist. However, he also thinks changes forced by the pandemic could help stop other diseases jumping from animals to humans in the future.

Galante did not have an ordinary childhood. While most kids were riding bikes and watching television, he was playing with monkeys and handling cobras. He spent his childhood adventuring deep in the African bush, having run-ins with lions, elephants and crocodiles, quickly developing a passion and fascination for wildlife.

“Zimbabwe was an incredibly wonderful place to grow up. I had the best childhood that anybody ever had and I am exceedingly grateful for that. My family owned safari businesses and my mother was one of Zimbabwe’s first female bush pilots and first female Safari guides. My granddad was a great outdoorsman, adventurer, explorer and those two people are big role models in my life. They have certainly shaped my upbringing and I think inadvertently shaped my future,” Galante says.

Galante lived in Zimbabwe until he was 14 when his family fled the country in the middle of the night due to political unrest. In the years and months leading up to that night, Galante could tell that his dreamlike childhood was coming to an end.

“I was ready to dig my heels in and grab my gun and fight for what was mine. In my opinion as a young boy, you know a quite mature 14-year-old, I would rather die than give up my home and my land and everything I’ve ever known there to help. But, as a 14-year-old boy, when my mother slapped me across the face and said, ‘Get in the car, we’re leaving,’ you do as you’re told. So it came as a huge shock to me when we left.”

“We got kicked out of Zimbabwe. We had no money. We had no support. We had nothing.”

He says he had to mature fast and face challenges unfathomable to most people.  

“We got kicked out of Zimbabwe. We had no money. We had no support. We had nothing. We left Zimbabwe with $400 and three cases of clothes,” says Galante. “It was just my mother, my sister and I.”

Galante and his family moved to California where they had to reset and restart their lives. As a result, he was forced to adapt to new customs and mannerisms.

“I got in trouble constantly, but not because I was a bad kid. I never stole anything, I never broke anything or vandalized anything. I was just a wild, rough and tumble African kid, like carrying knives and I threw fists. I climbed up things I wasn’t supposed to climb up, and jumped off things I wasn’t supposed to jump off,” Galante says. “I was a very hard African outdoor child and all of a sudden I was shoved into Northern California and it’s confined by human infrastructure. It was very shocking on many levels. The habitat level and the people level, as well.” 

At the same time, Galante continued developing his passion for wildlife. But instead of megafauna in the African bush, his new obsession was salamanders. Galante would take the bus to Tilden Park in downtown Berkley, California, where he would jump chest-deep into the pond in the center of the park just to catch a glimpse of a rough-skinned newt.

As Galante grew older, he became especially passionate about rare wildfire and demonstrating the importance of conservation. When Galante was in college – working on a degree in biology at the University of Santa Barbara – he found a California coachwhip 250 miles from where scientists thought their range ended. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who discovered one of the first non-rotten specimens of Coelacanth — a prehistoric fish, thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago.

Forrest Galante, who always had a sense of adventure, spent most of his childhood adventuring deep in the African bush and developed a passion and fascination for wildlife. Photo courtesy of Forrest Galante

“I was a biologist and I was planning on being a biologist working with wildlife. I never planned on doing television,” says Galante, who specialized in marine biology and herpetology.

Galante found himself on his couch one day watching Naked and Afraid, a show all about surviving in the wilderness with nothing facing extreme adversity. It was something Galante had done his whole life. So he sent in a “half-assed” email to the Naked and Afraid producers and, 10 days later, he was on a plane to Panama to film his episode. 

“The day that my Naked and Afraid episode aired, I looked at the ratings online and it got four million views. When I was younger, I published a paper that I worked on for three years. That paper got 400 reads — or it’s 400 reads by like-minded academics that already knew the subject matter. So you tell me what you think is more important, right?”

Through the Discovery Channel, he got a television show, Extinct or Alive on Animal Planet, where audiences get the opportunity to follow Galante on his expeditions to find animals that have been declared extinct.

“I have my dream job, my perfect career and I work with wildlife. I travel the world. I see things nobody else gets to see.”

On the show, he has traversed some of the world’s most extreme environments in search of these creatures — from the world’s largest cave Son Doong in Vietnam in search of the saola to the Australian Outback in search of the thylacine.

On Extinct or Alive, Galante captured a trail camera photograph of the Zanzibar leopard, an animal thought to have gone extinct over 30 years ago, and he found the first living specimen of the Fernandina tortoise, an animal thought to have been extinct since 1906.

“Through political turmoil, and through displacement, all the things that happened to myself and my family — to get to a place now where I can tell you I lived my dream every single day — well maybe not while on quarantine — but other than that, I lived my dream every single day. I have my dream job, my perfect career and I work with wildlife. I travel the world. I see things nobody else gets to see,” says Galante.

Coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted people all over the world. Even in dense rainforest, hundreds of miles away from the closest city in Indonesia, the virus forced Galante to end an expedition early — something that getting mauled by lions, bitten by sharks and attacked by wasps never did. 

“By the time I landed and got the permits and everything else had happened, the governments were shutting down. I couldn’t get vehicles to get into the places that I needed to go to. I couldn’t get permits because governments were in complete chaos over managing the pandemic. And then I had to get evacuated from Asia.

“I thought it was going to be like SARS, or Swine Flu, that kind of spikes, it peaks and its valleys very quickly within a few weeks. Most people like myself are completely unaffected by it, but it was not,” says Galante.

There is no denying that this pandemic has been life-altering for everyone, including Galante. But he is encouraged by public health changes that have resulted from COVID-19, which is believed to have jumped from animals to humans at a Wuhan wet market, an open-air site where live animals of all kinds are butchered and sold.

“These are zoonotic diseases. It’s gone from a species to a host to human beings. The fact that the people are getting aware of this, is the silver lining. The fact is that it could ultimately result in having some positive impact on nature,” says Galante. “For the first time in my lifetime, people are taking zoonotic diseases seriously. Understanding that these things are caused by wet markets and wildlife trafficking and honestly bad places for the world and species diversity. The fact that it takes a pandemic to actually shut these down in China is awful, but the silver lining is they are being shut down.”

“The pangolin [for example] is the most trafficked animal in the world if we keep fucking eating it — excuse my French — but we shouldn’t be killing, eating or trafficking them. Nobody is getting coronavirus by leaving pangolins in the wild. They’re just not,” Galante says, referring to the fact those animals are known to carry viruses closely related to COVID-19.

Since returning from Indonesia, Galante has put 11 upcoming research expeditions he had on the books this year on hold indefinitely.

“We can’t go. Planes are not flying on where we need to go. It would be irresponsible. If I happen to have an illness, I don’t want to spread it and I don’t want to catch it and take it elsewhere. It’s affected my work a lot, as I think it has affected every industry pretty much around the world.

“That being said, they won’t always be on hold. When this ends, whatever the outcome is, I will return doing the work that’s important. While on hold, it gives me a chance to catch up on some of the paperwork that I need to do, some of the consulting and research for biological jobs. You know. I’ve got things to do, but my field time is non-existent right now,” says Galante.

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Editor: Nathan Woolridge | nwoolridge@cjournal.ca