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Jeremy Wade exclusive interview: From River Monsters to new series Mighty Rivers

Extreme angler and biologist Jeremy Wade is probably best known for investigating stories of giant fish and other mysterious creatures on Animal Planet’s River Monsters.

Now he has taken his expertise and is using it help draw attention to the plight of some of the world’s greatest waterways — many of which are in distress.

His new Animal Planet series, Mighty Rivers, premieres in the U.S. this Sunday, April 8.

There’s a small fraternity of western men who are known the world over thanks to their television personas — among them Anthony Bourdain, Mike Rowe, and Jeremy Wade.

An Englishman by birth, this vicar’s son left England soon after becoming a biologist, matriculating at the University of Kent, and headed to India in 1982 in search of a much-discussed native fish.

Trained to be a teacher in the biological sciences, Wade’s approach in filming the iconic TV series River Monsters for his many millions of fans over the years was with an educator’s patience, calmness and passion which never failed to inspire viewers to care about what lies beneath.

And, as we learned watching his exploits across the globe, below the surface of the world’s rivers there is a lot! Fanged, feral and ferocious beasts abound but also we learned why each river, estuary, and marshland spawned such creatures and why they are so important in the big eco-picture.

Jeremy Wade
Jeremy in Gosaba Town, Sundarbans, India, on the Mighty Rivers premiere

In essence, Wade was our biology teacher, as he gamely caught and released a non-stop selection of showy gargantuans while explaining the local ecosystems in a way that always made him a welcome visitor in each land he traveled to.

Unfailing polite and keenly observant, Wade treats every destination with respect and observes and honors local customs, as you will see in his new Animal Planet series Mighty Rivers.

This almost to the point that he endangers his own life in his premiere, which takes him to a segment of the great Ganges river fouled by human waste. During the episode he is invited to partake in a Hindu bathing and drinking custom by a holy man, and he obliges.

The premiere shows the mystical Ganges as both a marvel and a mess, as it drops more than two vertical miles from the pristine headwaters of the Himalayas.

Sadly it is sullied and poisoned as we make our way to the holy city of Varanasi where the fecal counts are off the charts from raw sewage flowing into it directly from the toilets of millions of people.

Add to that occasional corpses floating by and massive amounts of industrial waste — chromium, arsenic and lead from tanneries flow into it from the city of Kanpur, up the river.

The beloved Ganges, once a haven for sturdy man-eaters and epically large fish, is now filled with invasive Tilapia fish from Africa which can exist and flourish in waters depleted of oxygen from pollution and filth.

Nature’s majestic freshwater giants are disappearing at an alarming rate because of unchecked mass pollution. As dire as this all sounds, Wade offers hope as he shows us some scientists and activists who are engaged in trying to remedy this horrendous situation around the world. Of course, we get some giant fish shots too!

Wade’s purpose with this incredible new Animal Planet series is to remind us that fresh, clean water is life and it’s to our advantage to pay attention and to heed his warnings and support those making the efforts to heal these magnificent rivers.

We spoke to Jeremy yesterday about his new show and what to expect.

Monsters and Critics: You really take your life in your hands in the first episode — you didn’t want to offend the Hindu holy man to bathe and drink in the river you knew was off the charts with fecal counts. Tell me about why, culturally, you did not want to offend him, and instead put your life at jeopardy in that particular part of the Ganges?

Jeremy Wade: I think it’s a bit of a statement. It’s a sort of a statement of hope. I think that there is a real sort of disconnect there amongst people.

For them it is sacred. They also know that it is filthy, but they carry on doing what they’re doing. And I thought, if I’m professing to care about rivers, it’s sort of an act of solidarity, even though I’m not Hindu obviously, but it’s sort of…and it’s maybe my respects, I suppose, to the river.

Another thing, though, in terms of context, is that I do tend to have a pretty cast iron constitution. Obviously, if we’re on a shoot and somebody, particularly me, goes down for a day or two or three, because of health problems, that’s pretty serious, so we didn’t want that to happen.

But, I have spent a lot of time in a lot of other places, very often just drinking water out of the river, out at lakes where people are living. In the past, I used to get ill, but I tend not to these days.

So, not saying I was completely confident there, but having a certain amount of faith in my system as well.

M&C: How long does it take for a river to heal?

Jeremy Wade: You know, I’m not sure that anybody knows. I’m not sure if that’s ever been tried, as such. I don’t know. There’s actually some good…the US, actually, has a certain amount to be proud of in certain places.

I know that there’s been a very impressive clean-up job that’s been done on the Hudson, and I think what was happening there…there was sturgeon running up there, and they were getting very scarce, and they’re now back.

The other interesting thing about rivers is that they do have this incredible self-cleansing ability. I think that’s the thing that encourages people to abuse them so much. Because you have got that flow. A lot of pollution will dilute, it will dissipate.

The Yangtze’s quite a good example. The main river, the water quality is not as bad as it is on some of the tributaries, because you’ve got that flow coming through.

But that’s quite some concern, with the multiple sources of the Yangtze up on the Tibetan plateau. A lot of the springs are drying up. It’s like a tap, like a faucet. If someone gradually turns that off, the flow is reduced. So obviously, it’s not going to absorb so much.

The thing is, a river can take an awful lot, but the impression I get is they suddenly reach…the actual collapse can be quite quick. But I think, the question is an interesting one, because you almost end up, over the course of making these programs, I almost ended up thinking of them in sort of personal terms.

I think actually, in India, I think the Ganges has just been given the legal status of a person, which is interesting. I don’t think they’ve fully tested the implications of that.

A person…if you assault somebody, you’re going to suffer the consequences. But the Ganges is under continual assault from polluters, and particularly from industrial waste.

The thing about rivers, is if you work with them, if you give them a little bit of help, it’s surprising how much they respond. And I think that is cause for hope.

If we can just change our attitudes just a little bit, from being out-and-out exploitative to just sort of drawing back a little bit, and just giving them a little bit of thought and help…they do have this incredible regenerative power.

M&C: Americans, overall, we have a high esteem for Indians and their accomplishments in general. But when we watch a show like yours, and we see this schism between people that just seem complacent, even though you interview some scientists who are quite concerned and using technology to hold corporations accountable. But we wonder, does the Indian government protect these corporations, or is there a level of…I hate to use the word corruption, but…in America, we’ve got so many lawyers, and when people get wind of something polluting at that level, there’s tremendous lawsuits and media interest…

Jeremy Wade: Yeah. Very interesting. The prime minister there, he’s declared there’s a mission to clean up the Ganges, but what they’re…what appears to have happened is, that’s been very much cosmetic.

It’s cleaning up the trash from the banks. It looks a bit better. It’s better now, see where we went. It’s not as filthy as I was expecting, possibly, but that’s a big tourist destination. But it looks almost as if that’s where the effort has been put in, and the effort elsewhere…

M&C: The city of Kanpur! They’re getting away with murder!

Jeremy Wade: Exactly. They have been…we spoke to the activists there. There have been factories that have been closed down, but I think part of it is almost like it’s too big a problem.

It’s too…you get the sense that they’re almost sort of…they just ignore it and do this as a cosmetic job, so it will maybe go away. I don’t know.

M&C: In England and in America, we have these tremendously proactive conservation groups and environmental watchdogs and whatnot, and it just seems like, where are they in India, I was still taken aback at the general overall complacency.

Jeremy Wade: Yes. It’s interesting because the…it is hard for an outsider to understand what’s going on, because there they are, this is their sacred river. Surely, you must know what’s happened to it, why isn’t there more outrage?

But, to be honest, I feel this worldwide. The amount of pollution, for example, is a worldwide issue, and what pollution is really about…it’s people who have dirty industries.

Instead of spending money, actually cleaning up your production process…it’s actually cheaper to pay a politician to ease up on the regulation.

What you’re doing, is you’re actually, you are then putting those costs on to the population without them really knowing this, which is…it’s happening in India, but India is no means unique in that respect.

M&C: Do you think China is worse or better at handling their great rivers and pollution overall?

Jeremy Wade: China is very interesting…I was really surprised by what I saw in China, because the view that I had of China before I went…I’d never been to China before, because River Monsters is all that catching fish, and there’s nothing really left in China.

There’s no point in us making a River Monsters episode there because I’m not going to find anything, catch anything, to show the camera.

For this new season, these new programs…yes, China is very much the destination to go to. The perception of China that I had, I think a lot of people had, it’s development at any cost. So, they’re going to industrialize, they’re going to…it’s construction, it’s dams, you name it, they’re just going to do it.

But what seems to have happened, is that comparatively recently, they have changed. They have realized that they have to factor in the quality of life.

For example, there’s an environmental activist there, he’s developed an app. It’s a water quality app. You can go and you can check the quality of the water near you. You can report cases of pollution. This is all the government data available to the public. You can report pollution, and you will get a reply within seven or eight working days.

I think that in China, they’ve realized that allowing your industries to poison the citizens is not a long-term great strategy. I think what happened is that they industrialized so quickly that they were hit with really big problems — Air pollution, tremendous problems.

You couldn’t…the people living there just couldn’t fail to notice that something was badly wrong, and it’s affecting their health. And so, the Chinese government have doing something about it, and they’re doing something about the water as well.

The problem with a lot of pollution is that it’s fairly low level. You’re not aware of it. People in America, 90-95 per cent have plastics residues in their urine, it’s actually flowing through them, but they have no idea that that’s actually happening.

M&C: Wow. Your show covers six major waterways. So, you’ve got the Ganges, the Yangtze, what are the other four rivers?

Jeremy Wade: The Danube, Zambezi, Amazon, and Mississippi.

Jeremy holding a huchen in a breeding pond in Rossatz, Austria, which feeds the Danube
Danube bound: On a moving speedboat in Gemenc Forest Hungary

M&C: So, you do come to America?

Jeremy Wade: Yes.

M&C: What’s the major illness with the Mississippi?

Jeremy Wade: I think that probably, the one thing that’s been in the news quite a lot is this whole Asian carp invasion, which is an interesting one. It’s one of those things of unintended consequences.

They were imported to keep the water clean in fish farms, and then there was a slight escape there in the Mississippi, and in places they…just the density of them is incredible, almost more fish in the water than water.

But, some years ago, I did actually have a look at that problem on the Ohio River, way back in Season 2 of River Monsters. That’s eight-nine years ago.

There’s no way they’re going to eradicate [the carp]. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to control the population there, basically. There’s lots of commercial fishermen who are paid to just net them and dispose of them, and they seem to be holding the line. They seem to have stopped the increase in the bad areas.

What you’re seeing in some other places is very interesting. Again, this is a surprise for me. I think the popular perception of Asian carp is, if they get in anywhere, the population is going to explode. You’re going to see these situations where you just drive along in a boat, and these things are all jumping out of the water and they’re knocking people in the head. An absolute population explosion.

There are other parts of the Mississippi system where the Asian carp are there, but they haven’t taken over in the same way. And what that seems to boil down to is healthy populations of native fish. So it seems that, if you have a robust ecosystem, then the Asian carp can’t get a foothold.

It seems that they…and this is totally just hypothesis, but it seems that they will exploit a vulnerability.

If you’re talking about fish and healthy fish populations…what I’m trying to get across from all these programs is the relevance to people. The thing is, the whole thing of trying to control Asian carp is just hugely expensive. Millions of dollars are being spent just to try and keep the numbers down in places.

But, if you actually take care of the native fish that are there, then they might not even get established in the first place.

In certain parts of the Mississippi, that does seem to be the case. That’s one really good reason for just looking after the fish that are in a river. It’s going to save you having huge bills down the line when someone brings a species that gets in.

M&C: My last question for you…I’ve always wanted to ask you this. You’ve been all over the world. I’ve watched your show for years. You’ve been to all these exotic locales, and you’re an Englishman abroad, as they say. Where are you going to spend your retirement?

Jeremy Wade: Retirement? It’s funny, quite a lot of people thought I had retired anyway with the end of River Monsters — they thought I was sitting by the fireside with my bedroom slippers on and a cup of cocoa.

I don’t know. It’s quite interesting because I have been to lots of pretty far-flung, mostly jungles like the Congo, Amazon…I don’t actually know Europe very well.

My country at the moment has very controversially decided that it wants to have less to do with Europe than it used to. But, I’ve got a lot of time for other European nations. I like the UK. I like the climate, the countryside. It could do with being a little bit warmer. If it was towed a few degrees further south, the climate would be a bit better.

Spain already has that nice climate, so maybe Spain…Portugal, actually. Portugal is a possibility. I speak Portuguese from spending a lot of time in the Amazon. Portugal is a little less full of English/British ex-patriots for one thing. I suppose, that’s probably one good reason to go there.

M&C: You pride yourself in picking up the languages of where you go pretty quickly. I noticed you spoke Urdu…I don’t know if it was Urdu or you were speaking one of the dialects?

Jeremy Wade: Yeah, Hindi. It’s basically the spoken form. It’s very similar to Urdu. I attempted a bit of Bengali as well on the Ganges Delta.

I always try and get a little bit of the language before I go anywhere. Any effort is really repaid.

Mighty Rivers premieres Sunday at 9pm ET/PT on Animal Planet.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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