The Next Steve Irwin Brings Species Back From the Dead
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Forrest Galante is finding species the world gave up on.
“This is nuts, guys. What a day we’re having.”
Few people have more fun hiking than Forrest Galante. It’s been only a few minutes since the 31-year-old conservationist–biologist–TV star ventured into Toro Canyon Park in Santa Barbara, California, and he’s already flipped over a log to unveil a gorgeous night snake.
“Very cryptic, elusive animal, not seen commonly in California at all. We got very lucky,” says Galante. “This is from someone who finds extinct animals for a living. This is probably only the 10th or 11th one I’ve ever seen.”
It’s just another afternoon with the host of Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive. A special episode for Shark Week runs July 31, and a full season launches in October featuring the adventurer trekking the far reaches of the planet in search of animals thought to no longer exist. For the first episode of the upcoming second season, Galante navigated around an active Galápagos volcano to unearth a Fernandina Island tortoise, a species that was believed lost more than a century ago. His February finding was hailed as a landmark biological discovery.
The adventure doesn’t stop when he comes home.
“During mating season, things can get kind of crazy,” Galante says. “So the turkey and the peacock have been fighting lately.”
A water tank in his Santa Barbara home houses some of the world’s most striking turtles, including a diamondback terrapin. There’s a rare blue-tongued skink, which urinates and defecates all over Galante’s hand the moment he holds the reptile. What used to be a garage has been replaced by a pond for other turtle species. There’s a variety of large rabbits, Indonesian chickens and a potbellied pig named Buttons who was rescued from the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina.
We had guns put to our heads. We were told we had 24 hours to get out, or we would be killed.
Past the giant African spurred tortoises, a donkey (named Donkey) has buddied up with Felice, a mini horse rescued from an abandoned petting zoo. Presiding over it all is Galante’s Havanese dog, Winchester.
Galante was born into this cosmic kinship with the animal kingdom on a Zimbabwean farm 40 minutes outside the capital, Harare. His parents divorced when he was young, and Galante was raised on the farm while his mother, Jacaranda Summerfield, ran the family’s safari business.
“There’s no better childhood a kid can have than growing up on a 200-acre farm in Zimbabwe, catching jackals and having monkeys in the trees and chasing snakes,” says Galante. “When you’re not doing that, you’re in the real bush, with lions and elephants.”
His idyllic childhood ended in 2000 when authoritarian President Robert Mugabe snatched properties from about 4,500 White farmers and redistributed them to 300,000 Black Zimbabwean families. Mugabe argued that the lands were stolen by British colonizers to begin with.
First, the neighboring tobacco farm to the south of the Galantes’ property was seized by squatters and assorted mobs. Months later, neighbors to the east fled. The Galante family and the roughly 200 people employed by the farm stayed until it became abundantly clear that their lives were in peril. “We came home one day and there were people in our driveway. That was it. We had guns put to our heads. We were told we had 24 hours to get out, or we would be killed,” says Galante. “We knew that wasn’t an idle threat because many of our neighbors had been killed.”
Galante, his mother and his sister came to Northern California as refugees. The asylum process was aided by the foresight of his parents: They had both of their children in America before returning to Zimbabwe. (His father is American.) A single mother, Summerfield went from leading safaris to working as a restaurant hostess. Forrest was 13.
Living in a new ecosystem teeming with countless new species, he immersed himself in the local ecology, and at 16 enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The moment he completed his degree, he and his future wife left to travel the globe, visiting 28 countries in 14 months with a loose itinerary they’d planned for years. The pair met as 15-year-olds and both attended UCSB, where Jessica studied zoology.
She is also EMT-certified, which has come in handy. “He did jump off a waterfall and land on his back, and he had temporary paralysis. I had to go in and essentially rescue him, build a stretcher out of bamboo and haul him out of the jungle,” Jessica recalls.
Back in the U.S. and mostly writing grants as a biologist, Galante hit a professional wall. With field excursions scarce, he searched for something — anything — that could revive his passion for the wild. Once again, a solution came courtesy of his now wife, Jessica, who suggested he audition for Naked and Afraid, the Discovery Channel program on which competitors must last 21 days in a remote locale by foraging for food and building shelter, all without a stitch of clothing.
“It was so easy. It was so much fun,” Galante recalls. That “easy” appearance on one of television’s most daunting challenges eventually landed Galante Extinct or Alive, and more programs in production and development — including a History Channel show.
“He’s amazing. He’s kind of like a combination of Indiana Jones and the attitude of Han Solo,” says Eric Evangelista, a producer on Extinct or Alive. “Usually if you’re very knowledgeable about a subject matter, you’re dry and boring. He’s not.”
Before setting foot on foreign soil in search of these rare species, Galante begins his work in his home office, where he researches more than a dozen signs that the animal may be alive — from the habitat to local testimonials to available food sources. “We’re the only people truly looking for extinct animals,” Galante says.
His quest hasn’t come without some close calls. Galante has so far escaped unharmed, despite handling some of the most dangerous animals on the planet. Consider that Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter, died in 2006 after he was stabbed by a massive stingray off the coast of Australia. “I’m terrified because I love the show, and I love Forrest. But there’s a good chance on every episode that something is going to happen that’s terrible,” says Evangelista. “He manages to escape clean every episode.”
And that’s the payoff. Galante never expected to find a platform to reach millions via television, and he intends to make it count. He’s even testifying before the U.S. Senate on July 24, representing Discovery as an expert on ways to combat shark-human conflict.
“I probably get 10–30 messages a day from parents, kids, college students, you name it,” Galante says, referring to fans of his work in rediscovering “lost” species. “I don’t care if my career tanks … What I care about is the fact that those messages are changing the way they live. Not because I’m being preachy, but because it’s ignited a passion in them to do something good for wildlife.”
Read more: Pakistan fights to save the adorable and endangered pangolin.
Correction: A previous version of this story included a photo caption that incorrectly stated Galante was holding a diamondback terrapin. It is a painted turtle.