A walk on the wild side
Conservationist Stephen Le Quesne tells David Edbrooke about his battle with depression, his love of the natural world and what it's like doing yoga with Springwatch presenter Michaela Strachan.
When conservationist Stephen Le Quesne ventures out into the wilds of Namibia later this month, he will likely do so with an air of trepidation.
The African nation’s four-legged inhabitants include lions, cheetahs and hyenas, and scattered across the arid sub-Saharan plains are the bleached-white bones of their prey.
However, Stephen does not fear becoming carnivore fodder – the only thing that concerns him is falling victim to his own brain.
‘I went to Namibia a couple of years ago, but my mental ill health reared its ugly head and I came back after only a week,’ explains Stephen, who lives in St Ouen.
‘When I came back it was just total and utter despair – a feeling of complete hopelessness. For three months I was seriously depressed and I didn’t want to do anything.’
Stephen (34) has suffered on and off with depression for much of his life, although he first had something akin to a formal diagnosis eight years ago.
‘I got back from working on a meerkat conservation project in Africa in 2010 and that was the first time I thought something was really wrong. I went to see my doctor, then I went through the system and it’s been a journey since then – in and out of different therapies, using counsellors, trying to find out what works.’
He is remarkably candid – ask him if he has ever had suicidal thoughts and he does not hesitate to answer.
‘Yep, totally,’ he responds. ‘In the past I’ve seriously questioned what I’m doing here and it was literally hell on earth.’
Among the therapies Stephen has tried in attempting to address his issues is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the psychological process of paying attention to the present moment – to thoughts and feelings – without placing too much importance on them. It focuses people’s attention on the immediate moment, rather than letting their brains run riot.
‘I did a mindfulness meditation class and really enjoyed it, although my friend had to force me to go. ‘I knew it would be good for me but my mind loves to self-sabotage. If I know something is good for me, my mind will create reasons not to do it and it constantly attacks me – “you’re rubbish, this is s**t, why are you doing this?”
‘What I’ve realised is that sometimes I get trapped in my mind and at those times, nothing is enjoyable, so I’m trying to “be present” now and I think things are gradually getting better – but I still have blips.’
Stephen is due to leave for Namibia at the end of this month to undertake lion conservation work for three months with the AfriCat Foundation – a Namibian organisation which promotes the conservation of large carnivores.
Among the items in the backpack he will take with him will be a pair of trainers and a football – for Stephen is hopeful that sport can help in his struggle to master his mind.
‘I’ve had to be more aware of my health in planning for this trip and I’m taking my running shoes and a football with me – playing football really helps me.’
He believes football is a universal language and has enjoyed shirts-for-goalpost games with scientists, researchers and locals in Namibia, South Africa and Sumatra over the past few years.
‘I was helping with orangutan conservation out in Sumatra some time ago and played football in a village next to the rainforest. The Sumatrans are really skilful – it is amazing how football is the same language everywhere you go. I get frustrated with the money in top-level football these days, but playing it in those countries shows that the heart of the game is still intact.’
From next Monday he will be positioned in the heart of Namibia’s conservation environment, near Etosha National Park.
‘I’ll be based near a town called Kamanjab. You can actually see where I’m going to stay on Google Maps.’
So what does it look like?
‘Remote,’ he laughs, ‘very remote. I’ll be living on a farm where the founders of the AfriCat North branch live. There’s a wild population of lions living in the surrounding area. They roam in and out of the park and the main issue is with human-wildlife conflict.’
The problem, Stephen insists, is not one of lions attacking humans – but the other way around.
‘Lions don’t really attack people. The only animal that would actively hunt a human is a polar bear.
‘It’s about trying to keep the lions safe from being killed or shot by farmers – at least three or four lions were shot last year in the region because people were trying to protect their livestock.
‘So I’m going to be helping with AfriCat North’s work in finding out where the lions roam and how close they go to farm land. A few have radio collars so there might be the opportunity to put a tracking collar on a lion, too – which I’d love to do – and we will monitor their movements using camera motion traps.
‘Then we can visit the farmers in those areas [where the big cats roam] and hopefully reduce the conflict by suggesting where would be best for them to put their cattle out to graze. In a worst-case scenario you would maybe have to sedate and relocate a lion if the situation got too problematic.’
Stephen has plenty of wild-cat experience already – he focused his lens on lions when he undertook a filmmaking training course in Botswana some years ago – and he has also worked with cheetahs.
‘I was a volunteer for the Cheetah Conservation Fund ten years ago in Africa. They had 52 cheetahs that couldn’t be released back into the wild due to injuries they had previously suffered, and my job was to make sure they were all fed and were all in good health. I also gave conservation and biology talks on them.’
Did he ever feel scared when he was in close proximity to the world’s fastest felines? After all, it is not as if he could have turned and fled had a cheetah’s temperament changed – they can accelerate to 75 mph.
‘Cheetahs are harmless.’
Harmless – really?
‘Well, they are so lightweight because they are purely built for speed. They hiss and they spit but they are generally fine. You don’t turn your back on them because they might give you a bit of a swipe, but apart from that they won’t do much.’
The only close scrape that Stephen says he got into in the bush was with a much slower, heavier animal.
‘I had a close call with an elephant once in Botswana six years ago. I wanted to get a low-level [video camera] shot of it, so I went out on a safari truck with my camera gear. I got a great angle on an elephant that was drinking at a watering hole so I started recording.
‘Then it turned around and charged straight for my group. I realised that my teacher, Khanyo, was wearing a bright T-shirt and elephants don’t like bright colours, but I was so focused on the shot that I didn’t look up from the camera – and didn’t realise that it got to within ten metres of me.
‘It only stopped when Daryl, our safari guide, made some kind of signal to it by tapping the bonnet of the safari truck.
‘Afterwards Khanyo was like, “Stephen, you have no idea how close that was”.’
Stephen has also got up close and personal with meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, as part of a research project for the University of Cambridge.
‘In terms of their social behaviour, Meerkats are fascinating. The dominant female has all the power and when they are pregnant, they kick out their female siblings because their sisters will potentially kill all their pups. They kick them out ruthlessly.’
He says the dominant female will regularly pursue clandestine affairs, too.
‘The dominant female will mate with more than one male if they can and they will do it secretly.’
BBC Springwatch often captures the amorous advances of animals on camera, and all being well, Stephen will work on the wildlife television programme when he returns from his latest African adventure, in three-months’ time. It would be his fifth season on the Springwatch team.
‘I’m a story developer for BBC Springwatch, so I help look after and study the footage from all the remote cameras that the team use. If they want certain clips and camera shots, I make it happen.
‘We work in a filming truck for 12 hours or more a day and that can be anywhere in the country.’
He enjoys an easy-going camaraderie with the programme’s on-camera presenters, Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham and Martin-Hughes-Games.
‘I know Chris really well – he came over to Jersey a few years back and I gave him a bit of a birding tour and showed him around the Island. They are all really nice.’
When he was growing up, Stephen admits to having been transfixed by the telly whenever the Eighties children’s nature programme The Really Wild Show – which was presented by Strachan – aired.
Did working with one of his childhood idols take a bit of getting used to?
‘Nope, actually! I think the weirdest thing was doing yoga with Michaela once. Working on BBC Springwatch can be really stressful and quite an intense environment because you are working 12-plus hours every day for three weeks, so the BBC got a yoga teacher in one afternoon.
‘We all did yoga and Michaela is really good at it, but it was quite a surreal experience.’
When spring turns to summer, Stephen will reconvene his business activities. He runs Wild Days: Outdoor Learning, a company he founded which provides educational programmes for families and children, with a focus on outdoor play.
‘I put on lots of activities in summertime. I did two weeks with Jersey Heritage last year running wild play days. We put up loads of tents and built dens and held stick workshops. It gives children freedom to create or make whatever they wish.
‘And I show them how to make things like whistles out of elder wood.’
He adds: ‘I love the people interaction. The real nice thing is when I get to know families and see them year after year, I feel like I’m a positive influence on the children.’
Stephen, who has been working as a pastoral care key worker in Island schools for the past two years – providing one-to-one support for children who require extra help – first developed an interest in the natural environment during his own school days.
‘I grew up right behind Jersey Zoo on a farm in Trinity,’ says Stephen, who currently lives with his mum and has two sisters – Sarah and Claire.
‘My dad worked as a potato-grower and I would roam free in the countryside at the weekend and after school.’
He was 17 when he first dipped his toe in the waters of conservation work – and found the temperature to his liking.
‘I started as a volunteer at Jersey Zoo and really enjoyed it. Later I volunteered with the National Trust for Jersey in their ranger team while I was doing my degree.’
He graduated from Bangor University in Wales with a BSc in zoology and went on to attain his MSc in zoo conservation biology from Plymouth University.
‘Since then I’ve gone in is so many different directions: I’ve worked in education, I’ve done filmmaking, practical field work and wildlife research. With conservation work, I like the fact that every day I get to do something in a practical way.’
Although he cannot be 100 per cent certain that the gremlins in his mind will not return in Namibia, he hopes to relish the splendid isolation that comes with taking a walk on the globe’s wild side.
‘I do worry that depression could define me. It’s a part of me, but it’s not who I am.
‘I’m someone who gets a lot of peace and satisfaction if I know I’m doing something that contributes to communities, and doing a little bit to protect and save animals – doing some good.
‘I enjoy being in remote locations and travelling – there’s less pressure. Sometimes I feel a bit out of place in Jersey because I’m not married and I haven’t got the house and all those things that society expects. I think I’m still trying to find my place and in Africa I feel more free.’