Tag Archives: the wildlife journalist

The Snakemaster Speaks: A Conversation with Austin Stevens

No one knows snakes like Austin Stevens.

When his program Austin Steven’s “Snakemaster” debuted on Animal Planet a decade ago, wildlife enthusiasts around the world were mesmerized not only with the serpents he encountered on film, but of Steven’s deep passion and knowledge of the subject matter.

Stevens has just released his latest book Austin Stevens: Snakemaster-Wildlife Adventures with the World’s Most Dangerous Reptiles.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Stevens who is currently residing in Australia. From here in the swamps of East Texas to the great expanse of Down Under we have traded emails, exploring all things snakes.

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A recent proliferation of cottonmouth photos on social media as well as a well-publicized incident with a young man being bitten while talking a “selfie” inspired a question about this infamous southern species.

“The cottonmouth, or water moccasin as it is also known is indeed reputed to be a bad-tempered snake when approached. Generally speaking I have found this to be true, though one must also take into account that though a species may have earned a particular reputation, individual snakes may differ within a species,” Stevens said.

“In Florida, in one morning, I came across two specimens within 50 feet of each other. The first immediately deployed the typical defense strategy, with head pulled back into its body coils, mouth wide open with tongue flickering in and out while its tail vibrated noisily amongst leaf litter, producing a sound almost like a rattler. Moving closer with my camera, the snake immediately responded with numerous short, quick strikes in my direction.”

“Not 20 minutes later and just a little further along, I came across a smaller specimen of the same species, basking on a log. This cottonmouth showed little interest in my approach and only moved when I attempted to pick it up with my snake tongs, which I eventually did with little complaint on the part of the snake. Two completely different displays of attitude, but generally speaking, cottonmouths are quick to show their displeasure when approached.”

 

Another common social media-fueled controversy are photos and videos purporting to show massive anacondas and reticulated pythons-usually dead ones. While it is commonly known these are the planet’s largest snakes, the size of specimens living today is open to debate.

“The largest anaconda I have ever come across in the wild was close to 18 feet in length, and the largest reticulated python I have ever come across in the wild measured around 21 feet. The longest reticulated python I have ever seen, however, was a 24 foot specimen raised in captivity. This was a true monster of a snake,” Stevens said.

 

He went on to explain there have over the years been numerous reports of these giant snakes found to be much bigger than this, but no proof has been offered, other than, in a few cases, poorly faked photographs.

“As mentioned before, snakes grow throughout their lives, thus allowing for the possibility that there might be some larger specimens yet undiscovered deep in the jungles of Borneo, or the tributaries of the Amazon. It is unfortunate that such specimens might only be discovered when humans encroach deeper into wilderness regions and the result is usually to the detriment of the snake.”

Stevens is a world-renowned wildlife photographer and has used his skills to show the beauty, behavior and unique attributes of snakes. His favorite species is a bit of a show-off.

“I have a special fondness for numerous snake species, but the one I most enjoy, especially from a photographic point of view, is the black and yellow Asian mangrove snake,” he said.

“This snake grows up to 8 feet in length, is brightly colored in shiny black and startling yellow, and is ever ready to enthusiastically display its discontent when approached. This snake is a photographer’s dream, as it dramatically inflates its throat, opens its mouth wide and coils its body into a series of S-bends in preparation to strike out in self-defense if the need arises”.

 

The mouth is kept wide open for long periods, showing a pure white interior, allowing for plenty of time to trigger off a number of impressive photographs. The snake is back-fanged, but in spite of its size, not considered dangerously venomous to humans,” he added.

Stevens said habitat destruction through agricultural development, urbanization, mineral extraction, erosion, and pollution, are amongst the most important causes that have brought about a decline in reptile species on top of persecution based out of fear.

A prime example is the case of the timber rattlesnake, a species that is on the threatened list in Texas and numerous other states.

“Probably the first snakes encountered by America’s Founding Fathers, and a symbol of defiance ever since, the timber rattlesnake has been persecuted throughout much of its range in the USA,” he said.

In the broader picture, Stevens said if a single person throws down a piece of paper it’s of little consequence. When a million people each throw down a piece of paper it is pollution.

“So, with this in mind, if just one conservation minded person starts the ball rolling, millions can follow, and conservation of the planet as a whole could be achieved,” Stevens said.

“Nature and wildlife education and awareness plays a key role and should be included in the curriculum of every school around the world.”

And what would a world be without chances to encounter amazing animals? At the end of the day that is what Stevens brings across in his broadcasts, writings and photography.

The finest example from his experience is his now famous encounter with a massive king cobra.

“When confronted by this 14 foot specimen in India, it became immediately apparent to me that it possessed a higher intelligence. By comparison, it was like facing an adult, where all snakes before had been children,” he said.

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“At first the snake had charged at me with hood raised, ready to defend its territory, stopping just short of me, where it eyed me out with some apparent curiosity. This curiosity became even more evident when I slowly lowered my camera bag from my shoulder, and the snake did something I had never seen before with any other snake.”

“It focused its eyes on my movement as I bent down to drop the camera bag and it tilted its head, not forward but to the side, at an angle, as though directing its nearest eye for a better look, much like a hawk might do when taking note of potential prey. Carefully it watched my movements, and, when once again the snake looked up directly into my eyes, I realized without any shadow of doubt, as far as snake species were concerned, I was in the presence of higher intelligence.”

Stevens said although he was clearly within its domain, and within striking distance, with every movement being watched and calculated by this giant cobra, it never advanced towards him.

“Instead it released a long, almost continuous rumble from its throat, as though a gentle warning not to push my luck.”

“And when a short while later, while attempting to photograph the snake from multiple angles, I tripped and fell crashing to the ground, startling the cobra into thinking it was under threat, it immediately reacted by lunging forward raising its head to loom over me where I lay in the leaf litter on the forest floor,” Stevens said.

“When it realized that I was in fact not threatening it, it simply gazed down at me with tilted head, more, it seemed, out of curiosity than anger. And as I slowly raised myself up again, the great snake slowly moved back to allow me space. I have never experienced anything like it before.”

These are the kinds of encounters that make Austin Steven’s accounts in his new book a must read for wildlife enthusiasts and that inspire others to respect nature.

Yes, even its most feared and misunderstood creatures.

To purchase the book click here.

You can follow Austin Stevens on Facebook here.

Helping Holy Land Deer

Fallow deer are one of the most beautiful creatures on the planet.

With coats ranging from chocolate brown to snow white and with the bucks sporting heavy, palmated antlers, they are an extremely striking animal.

Did you know that fallow deer are native to Israel and much of the Middle East?

A Persian Fallow Deer in Israel, fitted with a radio transmitter.
A Persian Fallow Deer in Israel, fitted with a radio transmitter.

The endangered Persian Fallow Deer (Dama dama mesopotamica) is the indigenous variety and I was happy to find out that the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens  in Jerusalem (Jerusalem Biblical Zoo) is involved in a captive breeding and wild restoration program of these majestic creatures.

A conservation program to achieve lasting conservation of the  and its habitat. This is a long-term conservation program aimed at re-establishing this species in the Nahal Soreq area of its former range (near Jerusalem in southern Israel) from a breeding core at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem.

In Israel there were approximately 200 individuals in the north of the country (Nahal Kziv area) by 2005 and today this is the world’s largest stable wild group. In addition, a wild group of around 45 individuals now exists in the south of the country (Nahal Soreq area). Captive populations also exist in Israel – 65 individuals at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem and around 150 in the Hai Bar Carmel Mountain Reserve in central Israel.

Here at Kingdom Zoo, we will do a series of articles on this unique project, but there’s more. We will be donating a portion of our donations to help restore these animals that undoubtedly lived in the Garden of Eden to God’s chosen land.

Workers transporting a sedated Persian fallow deer.
Workers transporting a sedated Persian fallow deer.

We are collecting change for the Persian Fallow Deer. All of the funds from the change collected, will be given to the Tisch Famiy Zoological Gardens, earmarked for their fallow deer project.

You can also help with this project. Click here to donate.

Look for more on this unique conservation initiative as we updates from Israel.

Chester Moore, Jr.

 

The Wildlife Journalist?

“I’m the wildlife journalist.”

The term just kind of rolled off my tongue as I walked up to the scene of an unusual depredation of captive feral hogs.

A cougar was the suspect but I ruled that out quickly. Maybe we’ll delve into this old story later on.

Everyone from law enforcement to nearby ranchers were there and after introducing myself and getting that “Who is this long-haired guy with the camera?” look, I said, “I’m the wildlife journalist”.

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Everyone kind of nodded and the investigation continued.

Freud was a weirdo so I hesitate to call it a “Freudian Slip” but maybe it was. I have done many things in the field of journalism and in reality “wildlife journalist” is the best description.

I have (and continue) to work in the fishing and hunting industry as an editor. I have published more than 5,000 articles on various wildlife subjects and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 photos since I began my career in 1992 at the ripe old age of 19.

I have conducted more than 300 lectures on topics ranging from red wolves to sharks in venues as diverse as Nurnberg, Germany to Dallas, TX.

And I have produced two television programs and appeared on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Destination America, The Outdoors Channel and numerous regional networks.

All of that work has been based on getting a story. All of it has involved investigating, interviews, photography and a passion for wildlife and wildlife conservation that just won’t quit.

“Wildlife Journalist” just sort of fits.

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What this site will bring to the table is everything ranging from unique wildlife photos to investigations of animal mysteries and interviews with the top experts and legends in the field.

This will be the only place for my wildlife blogging. The articles posted here will be exclusives and it will always be fun.

It’s an honor and privilege to communicate with wildlife lovers around around the world and I look forward to taking that to new levels beginning now.

I’d love to hear from you and will periodically answer questions at this venue. In addition, we love to see your wildlife photos and videos.

In a little way all of us with a cell phone can be wildlife journalists of sorts these days by capturing those incredible moments in the field and on the water.

Stay inspired and God bless!

Adventures lie ahed…

Chester Moore, Jr.

Monster Hogs lurking in southern cities? Pt. 2

The smell of southern fried seafood hit my nostrils as the car doors opened.

As I walked over to open the door for my then girlfriend (now wife) Lisa, the pleasant aroma hit every hunger button I had. Visions of shrimp and sausage gumbo danced in my head.

Then as Lisa stepped out of the car I heard something move in the tall cane behind us.

As we fixed our eyes toward the racket a huge mud-covered animal emerged.

At first in the dim light at the back end of the parking lot I thought it was a young steer as cattle are common in any pasture, wood lot or in the case chunk of marsh next to the restaurant.

Take a close look at these huge hogs captured on an infrared game camera by Timothy Soli and you will see domestic influence. This is common in some areas and in some southern areas giant domestic breeds are allowed to free range on fenced ranches. But fences don’t always keep them in.

But it was no steer.

This was a hog, one that weighed well beyond 500 pounds.

It grunted heavily when it saw us (we were only 10 steps away) and then went on about its business of rooting up the ground.

The area the animal came from is a piece of marsh probably in the 300 acre range next to a large refinery facility. This is bordered by a large chip channel and a whole bunch of industrial buildings and homes.

Obviously that huge hog, perhaps a domestic set free to graze years ago as used to be common in southeastern Texas. It does not take hogs to go back to their wild origins and integrate into any purely feral hog populations.

This was not the only time I came across evidence of monster hogs in the area.

Early in my writing career a man told me had located a really big black boar in a wood lot behind the Vidor, TX Wal Mart and wanted to know if I wanted to tag along with he and his dogs to catch it.

I declined.

Two weeks later a letter arrives in the mail with a photo of the hog they killed, all 400 pounds of it. I later drove by the area to inspect and saw the 20 acre wood lot the beast had lived in amongst a city of 10,000.

Both of the aforementioned hogs were boars and large, solitary ones that can find enough woods to hang out during the day and vacant field, cattle pastures (common in southern cities) right of ways along highlines and drainage canals can thrive

Throw in the aforementioned practice of allowing domestic hog breeds like Yorkshires and Durocs feed on open range with cattle and you have an even bigger chance of huge hogs showing up. Hogs show little regard for fencing and also need no help from man to survive beyond captivity.

As hogs push deeper into urban territory, certain individuals will find these sanctuary areas that will allow them to grow to epic proportions.

Animal control offices throughout the South (and as far north as New Jersey) are contending with hogs now on a daily basis but monsters like these are unlikely to participate in any trapping program they initiate.

Without the gun as an option in these urban sanctuaries, those hogs with the genetic code to grow huge will, dethroning the coyote as the apex of city-dwelling wildlife.

Young pigs will provide coyotes food but the ones I am writing might just decide to make coyote their food.

They are able and in some cases totally willing.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Strange backyard creatures of America

Most of mammals we see where I live Southeast Texas would be considered of the common garden variety.

Whitetail deer, raccoons, opossums and squirrels are the most frequently seen creatures that thrive in our woodlands, prairies, marshes and urban areas.

In fact, these animals are common sightings throughout North America

There are however some really strange mammals in the region that are very rarely seen by human eyes and yet they can live in suburban backyards.

Take the eastern mole for example.

These burrowing mammals have tiny eyes but they cannot see and spend almost all of their time underground.

Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University
Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

According to the Mammals of Texas, “…moles feed largely on earthworms and grubs, although beetles, spiders, centipedes, insect larvae and pupae, and vegetable matter may also be eaten. In captivity, they have consumed mice, small birds, and ground beef.

“The average daily food consumption is about 32 percent of the body weight of the animal, although a mole can consume more than 66 percent of its body weight in 18 hours. Active prey is killed by crushing it against the sides of the burrow with the front feet or by piling loose earth on the victim and biting it while thus held. Captive moles kill earthworms by biting them rapidly in several places, often nearly cutting the worm in two.”

The saliva of males contains a type of toxin that paralyzes worms and insects. And if that is not weird enough, they can move as quickly backwards as they can forwards.

If the mole isn’t odd enough for you than let me introduce you to the shrew.

These mouse-sized insectivores are arguably the most voracious predators on the planet and East Texas has two varieties: the southern short-tailed shrew and the least shrew.

According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, shrews have an extremely high metabolic rate. This rapid conversion of food to energy requires that these animals consume up to their own body weight in food every day.

“The highly social and gregarious least shrew often cooperates in building burrows or nests, which are sometimes shared with other least shrews during the nesting and wintering seasons. The species uses the runways and burrows of moles, voles and other small mammals but will make its own runways in soft, loose soil. Tunnels under the snow provide protection from wind and intense cold, allowing least shrews to remain active all winter.

Least shrews rely mainly on their senses of touch and smell. Sight and hearing are not well developed.

The least shrew only lives a short time, usually a little over a year.

God created many amazing creatures and although the big ones get most of the media attention, those on the small side are just as interesting.

Chester Moore, Jr.

World’s Scariest Animals Pt. 2

A few days ago we looked at some of the world’s scariest animals and the response was great, so I thought it would be fun to look at some more creatures that inspire goosebumps.

Spotted hyena—Hyenas have a reputation of being sort of a “funny” animal with their strange, “laughing” vocalizations. In reality, however, hyenas are dangerous predators that will gather in packs and taken on animals as large as lions and will attack people.

Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws that can snap bones in a single bite and will eat every single piece of an animal. When a pack of hyenas gets through with a carcass, there is only some blood left and most of the time they lap that up.

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons
Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

Parts of Africa, particularly Somaliland, are seeing a huge increase in hyena attacks on people according to Softpedia news.

“People have become so afraid of them, that families in Ainabo district, situated 300 kilometers away from the Somaliland capital, Hargesia, have been sleeping with guns near to them in order to protect themselves and their relatives. Officials have added that hyenas live in tremendously large packs in this district and have launched attacks on livestock in the past, but moved to humans, mostly women and children, in the last few years.”

”People from Eritrea, also situated in the Horn of Africa, have also reported the fact that large packs of hyenas have made several attacks within the capital, Asmara, which prompted people to form committees to develop a plan to defend themselves and the city against what seem to be predator hyenas,” they reported.

Tiger shark—Garnering its name from the faint stripes that line its body, the tiger shark has more in common with its namesake than coloration. According to the 1961 book, Dangerous Creatures of the World’s Oceans, tiger sharks like the feared cats of the Asian jungles are actual man-eaters.

“Tiger sharks kill a greater proportion of their human victims than do great whites. Whereas whites often spit out their prey after they realize it’s not a seal or some other natural prey, the tiger shark will be quite happy with eating a person and in fact seem to relish it.”

Tigers are second only to great whites in the size department among predatory sharks. There is great dispute among shark experts about the size potential for the species. Most texts list the species as growing up to 18 feet in length and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. Still, there are figures all over the board for their size, including one I found that said “Tiger sharks range in size from 8.8 to 24 feet long. The largest found weighed 6,800 lb.”

That figure seems a bit high as the International Game Fish Association lists a 1,780-pounder caught by Walter Maxwell off the coast of South Carolina in 1964 as the largest caught by an angler. That far shy of the above estimate, but still massive for an oceanic predator.

Fans of the movie “Jaws” will remember the scene where actors Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider’s characters dissect a big tiger shark caught by angler seeking the reward for the man-eater that had terrorized their community.

They pull out a mackerel, a small tuna and a Louisiana license plate that says “Sportsman’s Paradise”. That was a very accurate portrayal of the tiger shark’s eating habits. They are the garbage collectors of the ocean and will eat anything, including people sometimes. And yes, I do mean eat people. Many shark species attack people but tiger sharks are known for actually eating the humans they occasionally attack.

Saltwater crocodile—These super aggressive reptiles were made famous by “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin who frequently tangled with them in his native land of Australia.

Size alone makes these creatures scary as the largest on record according to National Geographic is 28 feet long and was killed by a schoolteacher in 1958. Specimens over 20 feet long are fairly common among the 200,000-300,000 known to exist in the Pacific region.

According to National Geographic, “Classic opportunistic predators, they lurk patiently beneath the surface near water’s edge waiting for potential prey to stop for a sip of water. They’ll feed on anything they can get their jaws on, including water buffalo, monkeys, wild boar, and even sharks. Without warning, they explode from the water with a thrash of their powerful tails, grasp their victim, and drag it back in, holding it under until the animal drowns.”

Chester Moore, Jr.

World’s Scariest Animals Pt. 1

This week, I thought it would be fun to check out some of the animals you would least want to encounter on a cool, autumn night when the wind is howling and the moonlight barely illuminates your surroundings.

Polar Bear—Most bear species kill people out of territorial instincts or to protect their young but polar bears often”do so for dining purposes. Yes, polar bears are maneaters. There aren`t many easy meals in their icy habitat so any human showing up is fair game. Arcticwebsite.com has a great article called “How to Survive a Bear Attack” and it does a great job summing up why the polar bear is so scary.

“The polar bear is the most deadly of all. While his normal food is seal, they have been known, for centuries, to attack humans. Until the introduction of firearms, the native people of the north have lived in fear of them. Many early explorers have told horror stories of polar bear attacks. These bears are known to stalk and hunt humans. If you are in polar bear country carry a firearm or avoid the area.”

Cape Buffalo—Any animal that routinely beats down lions and charges vehicles, hunters and anything else it feels like is scary. These truly bad-ass bovines will actually lie in wait for the hunters who have shot them and according to some professional guides, they have an uncanny ability to pick the shooter out of a group. I once had a run-in with a cape at a 40,000-acre game ranch in Central Texas.

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My wife and I were driving out of the ranch and spotted a herd of zebra feeding in a meadow, so I grabbed my camera and tried to sneak up for a closer shot. When I came up to a patch of cedar trees, I heard something moving through the brush toward me. I was hoping it would be a zebra so I could get a point blank shot, but as it turned out, the animal was a Cape Buffalo! I had no idea they had any on the ranch, but I was looking at one at a distance of 10 feet and the car was about 75 yards away. I`m here to tell the story, so I obviously made it out safely but the buffalo followed me toward the car and made me question my mortality. Scary, indeed!

King Cobra—The king cobra is the world`s longest poisonous snake, reaching lengths of up to 18 feet and can inject enough of its deadly venom to kill an elephant within three hours it strikes it in the trunk. On top of that when coiled up in a strike position, a maximum size specimen can look a grown man in the eye. If that`s not enough to scare you, consider that snake experts consider it the most intelligent of snakes that can recognize their caregivers and according to legend send out distress calls for other cobras to help it in moments of danger. True or not, that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Candiru Fish—Ever heard the stories of the tiny catfish that can swim up a stream of urine into the bladder? Did you think that was a myth? Well, it`s at least partially true. There have been a number of documented cases of this tiny parasitic fish entering both men and women through openings in the body. They can`t swim up a stream of urine but they can and do get into people`s bodies. The good news is they can`t survive long there.

On second thought, that isn`t much of a consolation, is it?

Chester Moore, Jr.

Manta Ray found just off TX beach (Video)

Last week readers Andy Allen and Reggie Begelton captured this video of a large manta ray swimming a mile west of the Sabine Jetties, just off the beach at Sea Rim State Park out of Sabine Pass, TX.

Manta rays are present in the Gulf of Mexico but sightings are rare and sightings with a mile of the beach are virtually unheard of in Texas.

According to Wikipedia, swimming behavior in mantas differs across habitats: when travelling over deep water, they swim at a constant rate in a straight line, while further inshore they usually bask or swim idly around. Mantas may travel alone or in groups of up to 50. They may associate with other fish species as well as sea birds and marine mammals. Mantas sometimes breach, leaping partially or entirely out of the water. Individuals in a group may make aerial jumps one after the other. These leaps come in three forms: forward leaps where the fish lands head first, similar jumps with a tail first re-entry or somersault. The reason for breaching is not known; possible explanations include mating rituals, birthing, communication, or the removal of parasites and remora.

“Manta rays have broad heads, triangular pectoral fins, and horn-shaped cephalic fins located on either side of their mouths. They have horizontally flattened bodies with eyes on the sides of their heads behind the cephalic fins, and gill slits on their ventral surfaces. Their tails lack skeletal support and are shorter than their disc-like bodies.  The dorsal fins are small and at the base of the tail.”

“The largest mantas can reach 1,350 kg (2,980 lb). In both species the width is approximately 2.2 times the length of the body; M. birostris reaches at least 7 m (23 ft) in width while M. alfredi reaches about 5.5 m (18 ft). Dorsally, mantas are typically black or dark in color with pale markings on their “shoulders”. Ventrally, they are usually white or pale with distinctive dark markings by which individual mantas can be recognized. All-black color morphs are known to exist. The skin is covered in mucus which protects it from infection.”

Chester Moore, Jr.