Meet Patrick Aryee - biologist, wildlife tv-presenter & filmmaker

In this interview we touch on his path from scientist to wildlife tv, the hidden human face of animal conservation efforts and the world after COVID.
Now Reading:  
Meet Patrick Aryee - biologist, wildlife tv-presenter & filmmaker

Ella: Can you tell us a bit about your path from molecular biology graduate to wildlife TV presenter and filmmaker? 

Patrick: I love science, always have always will. Growing up, I used to be fascinated by shows like Tomorrow’s World, on the BBC, where they would showcase technologies of the future, things we use in our day to day lives right now, but back then would be considered science fiction for the most part. That show was one of the first things that got me interested in the different fields of science. 

On the other hand, I also loved being centre stage. I took part in theatre performances at school and always enjoyed being on stage, the lights, the nerves before a show, the standing ovation for a performance well executed.

I ended up going to Bristol University where I studied cellular and molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry. Though I enjoyed that, by the end of my degree I realised that I didn’t like being in the lab. I loved reading science, but the day to day practice turned out to be very repetitive, and for me, doing the same experiments over and over again got very repetitive and boring quite quickly. 

I was looking for a way to combine the scientist and the performer in me, and that’s where the idea to become a “science presenter” came to mind.

After doing more research I figured that becoming a wildlife TV presenter might be a better option. I could call upon my knowledge from the biology section of my studies, travel the world, see amazing places, meet great people and come across some of the most amazing animals in the world, things I wouldn’t be able to do where I to become a general science presenter. 

With this in mind, I started by being a runner in several small production companies, to get myself out into the world of TV. When the opportunity came, I applied for an internship through a media charity in Bristol, and that led me, out of a pool of 500 applicants, to be selected alongside 5 others to be a part of a placement program at the BBC. And the rest is history. 

Patrick Aryee - Photographed by Aaron Price for The Black Explorer
Patrick Aryee - Photographed by Aaron Price for The Black Explorer

What are some of the most memorable places wildlife TV presenting has taken you? 

Wildlife TV has taken me all around the world, to pretty much all the continents except for Antarctica, which has been great because this has given me a great experience and appreciation for different cultures, people as well as the animals. 

One location I am quite fond of is Montana in the north west of the USA. It’s unlike any other part of the country, in that you’ve got these magnificent sceneries and mountains that seem to dominate the sky. Montana, more specifically South Western Montana, is also close to the Yellowstone National Park. It’s a part of this incredible location also known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, that stretches across parts of three US states, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Getting to see Montana and film in Yellowstone was an incredible experience. The area is a hotbed of volcanic activity and you can see how that affects the wildlife in fascinating ways. 

Take the bisons for example. Because the area they roam is so geothermally active, they’ve got a larger amount of green space to graze, and those areas remain available for most of the winter, even though it gets brutally cold. The only problem however, is that because of the high level of sulfur and gasses bubbling through the earth, subsequently through the grass they consume, the bison’s teeth decay pretty rapidly. They end up losing their teeth earlier in life and they die sooner than bison in other parts of the country. They have more food available, but they die earlier because their teeth get destroyed and they can’t eat anymore. So yeah, that’s pretty interesting. 

Another of my favourite locations are deserts. Deserts are one of those landscapes that surprise me the most. They’re constantly shifting and changing because of the power of the wind. The wind carves these huge towers, disp and waves in the sand, and you’ve got these magnificent colours, red, golden, darks, just vast array of hues, like a living painting. 

There’s so much wildlife in deserts as well whether that’s insects, invertebrates and the different plants. Deserts appear so desolate at first, but if you look close enough you’ll see that there’s a surprising amount of wildlife going about their day/night. I never tire of deserts, no. 

A lot of your work is currently focused on conservation efforts. Tell us a bit more about that. 

At the moment, I’m working with Ol Pejeta Conservatory in Kenya and a charity called Helping Rhinos. I’ve had the chance to visit the conservatory and see the work they’re doing to preserve the last two white rhinos on the planet. I’ve also spent time with the rangers looking after the rhinos, seeing how they get trained like an army basically, to face the poachers who in most cases are members of the local community. 

What people need to understand is that the issue of poaching is very complex and not as clear cut as seeing poachers as these terrible people. There is an enormous amount of money involved in poaching, in fact, illegal wildlife crimes is one of the most profitable sectors of crime. That being said, for the poacher, killing that rhino and selling the polished could mean earning a year’s worth of salary in one go. With medical bills to cover, loved ones to look after and not many other options to make money, we need to ask ourselves what would we do if we were in that situation. Before judging ask ourselves, how far would WE  really go?  And when you look at poaching you realise very quickly that the bulk of the money isn’t being made by the poacher, but by the client, usually in Asia (China, Vietnam,...) that sources it to resell at higher values to people that want it for their entertainment and as a status symbol. 

Conservation is as much about human aid as it is about saving the wildlife. You can’t just go in and say you want to save the rhinos if you don’t take into account the reality of the local community that intersect with them. To care for the animals we need to equally care about the people. 

You’ll also hear a lot of people say they love orangutans and want them free in the wild and to be able to see them in their natural habitat, but very few of us think of the fact that our households products are filled with palm oil, the farming of which is responsible for the decimation of the of the rainforests that said orangutans live in. 

When Pancake Day comes , are we going to think about maybe not spreading ours with Nutella which is made with palm oil or will we go look for a more sustainable alternative? 

Conservation is not a simple save the animal deal, the entire ecosystem in which the animals exist and are endangered needs to be taken into account as well. Ol Pejeta are doing some amazing things in that respect. 

The main draw for tourists to visit the conservatory is to see those two last white rhinos in the wild. What Ol Pejeta also does, is that they open up the conservatory to cattle farming, allowing the cows to graze on wildland and manage them in a way that they don’t overgraze. So you have these cows grazing in the same areas as the rhinos, the zebras, elephants and so on. The land of the conservatory is used both for tourism and to help the local community, who are able to produce a premium free-range meat product which will bring more money into the local community. It’s the highest level of free-range you can think of, basically like eating meat that has grazed freely in the Masai Mara.

Both the local community and Old Pejeta have an incentive to keep those last two rhinos alive because the revenues generated from tourism are helping to fund the infrastructures that are much needed in the local community. 

Looking at the world of wildlife TV, I can imagine that you’re often of the few if not the only Black person in the room, on an expedition, in all these remote places where they don’t see many Black people, etc… What kind of impact has this had on you and on your experiences thus far? 

P: For me, no matter where I am, I like to live my best life and bring my best self forward. I see myself as an ambassador for my people, and yes we would go into a discussion about how I shouldn’t have to do this, but this is the real world. And in the real world, it just so happens that some people haven’t been exposed to other cultures. 

If anything, I get excited at the opportunity to be an ambassador. For me it’s about meeting people, putting a smile on their faces, finding out about their stories. As a bearded Black man rocking up to these remote locations, I try to put myself in the locals’ shoes, seeing this new unknown face. I’ll walk up to them and start a conversation, ask them questions about themselves, their lives, what they do, what’s going on in their world and so on. You’re there as a visitor, you’re there to explore and find out about the place you’re visiting. What better way to do this than to talk to the people that live there? 

Once you sit down and take the time to talk to people, then the barriers come down and they see that you’re just a human being like them with stories to share. A lot of prejudice is based on fear, fear of the unknown. But I think that if you approach these encounters with a spirit of compassion and willingness to learn other people’s stories, you’ll get a long way towards demolishing the prejudices. 

Patrick Aryee - Photographed by Aaron Price for The Black Explorer
Patrick Aryee - Photographed by Aaron Price for The Black Explorer

Finally, and even more so in the wake of COVID 19, we can’t deny the impact we have on the world as travellers, evidenced by the quick bouts of recovery seen across the world due to our forced lack of movement this past year. Do you think there’s a way our needs for exploration as human beings can coexist with our attempts to save the planet that is sustaining us? 

The short answer is yes, I think it’s possible. The legacy of this lockdown period is that we’ve now all seen that we can make an impact and affect change very quickly if we decide to do so. 

Our focus now should be to make better informed decisions about how we move in the world. You shouldn’t stop travelling, but maybe instead of going to the same destination three times, go once and spend more time there. Travel deeper. Look at offsetting your carbon footprint wherever you can. Vote for the right people, the ones that care about preserving the planet. Read the labels of your products and find out where they come from, how they are made and choose the sustainable options. COVID and these last few months has shown us that we have the power as a people to change things very quickly and that things can change very quickly. The proof is there, the date is there. 

Travel is great and awesome, it takes you to lots of awesome places and experience lots of cool cultures. And when you do travel, I’d encourage people to interact more with the locals of the place you’re visiting and step out of your comfort zone. Break through the initial wall of fear, because on the other side is a great world filled with amazing people. 

The Black Explorer logo small black