Austin’s animal magic powers
AUSTIN STEVENS was playing with snakes when other boys his age were still into dinosaur toys. “I was 12 years old when I brought my first snake home,” he says.
“I had a natural instinct for it ... I can’t explain it, but I knew this was something I’m going to do all my life.”
That’s exactly what Pretoria-born Stevens, now 60, has done.
He became a professional herpetologist (an expert in amphibians, reptiles, turtles and crocodiles) in his early 20s, training at a South African reptile centre before a move to a second centre, which also kept big game animals, triggered a new love.
A progression into wildlife photography led to a TV show, Austin Stevens’ Adventures. The first series focused on Stevens’ first crush, snakes, while the second, which has just started on Discovery Channel, covers animals like elephants, leopards and rhinos.
Stevens couldn’t resist throwing some snakes in, though, so he filmed a couple of very special ones: the quetzalcoatl or neotropical rattlesnake – the only snake he hadn’t yet met in real life. He also encountered the Giant Python Invader, Burmese pythons which breed in Florida’s swamps.
Stevens has been bitten many times, mostly by non-venomous snakes, but admits he had a near-miss with a Egyptian cobra that bit him in a desert about 100km from medical help. “It was very frightening because I didn’t know how much venom had entered into my system and we just got back as fast as we can... I spent a couple of hours in hospital... and then went back out and finished the shoot.”
Strangely, it’s not the snakes that make Stevens quake in his hiking boots. He is terrified of small spiders, “that can just sneak into your bed or climb into your hair” and his most nerve-wracking moments have come filming bears, black rhinos and elephants. “Two elephants got into a battle... right in front of me and I was hidden behind a tree and I had these elephants charging straight at me...”
He credits an old broken branch, which he was cowering behind, with saving his life. The elephants veered around it and missed him.
At least Stevens was familiar with elephant behaviour. Bears, not so much. “I was extremely nervous about making the bear film,” he says. “Bears are very unpredictable animals.
“They’re very big ... they have no fear of human beings.”
While filming grizzlies in Canada, Stevens found himself in a terrifying situation – alone, stuck between a mother bear and her cub. The cub reared up to his 2.4m and looked straight at Stevens for an awful moment before moving on.
The grumpy, rare black rhino was more decisive. “The second that the black rhino spotted me, the very second he spotted me, he charged me. There was no warning. There was no reason. He just picked up my scent, saw movement and charged.”
Again, it was a tree that saved Stevens. “I was close to a tree, which was growing out of a termite mound, and I ran up the tree. I was just out of range of his horn because he nudged at the tree and pushed his horn up and it was just, like, 12 inches below my feet.”
Stevens, known as the “Snakemaster” has recently married an Australian woman who is also crazy about snakes and has moved to Australia.
Austin Stevens’ Adventures screens on the Discovery Channel tomorrow.