In 2009 Springwatch presenter Chris Packham was controversially quoted as saying, “I’d eat the last panda if I could have the money we’ve spent on panda conservation back on the table for me to do more sensible things with.”
It’s that sort of idea which inspired conservationist Simon Watt to set up the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, which is coming to this year’s Brighton Science Festival to champion some of the world’s lesser-known species.
“I do lots of talks and lectures to try to make science more understandable and comprehensible,” says Watt who presented Channel Four’s gory Inside Nature’s Giants.
“One of the questions I kept getting asked was what my favourite animal was. I would end up ranting about how selective we are about the problems facing conservationists – that the ecological world is greater than we are aware of.
“As soon as you tell somebody about the lesser-known weird and wonderful beasts they are hooked.”
The first society show was held in London last October, with Watt and six friends from the scientific community all championing a different ugly animal to become the symbol of the UAPS.
“I give them free rein, they are allowed to pick whatever animal they see fit,” he says.
“All the stories about these animals are ultimately related to humans – it is the only way we have to imagine them in some way. For example some days you feel like a Surinam toad – you feel so hungover you’ve been flattened.”
Joining him for the Brighton event will be Dan Shrieber, a former QI “elf” and creator of BBC Radio 4’s Museum Of Curiosity; Steve Cross, billed by Watt as “the funniest geneticist I know”; Helen Arney of Festival Of The Spoken Nerd; primatologist Lewis Dean; and the Science Museum’s resident comedians Punk Science.
Watt believes looking into the uglier side of the world gives us a wider understanding of nature.
“The world is much more interesting than the chocolate box we would like to believe,” he says. “Our approach to the natural world is that it is beautiful – but often it is out to get you. Smallpox is natural, as is the parasitic wasp, which lays its eggs in living things so when they hatch the larvae eat the host alive.”
The choice of ugly animal often points to wider concerns too. For example, the winning animal in the first UAPS meeting was the endangered proboscis monkey, which shares a habitat with the much better-known orang-utan in the jungles of Borneo.
“The way to save a species is to protect its habitat,” he says. “The World Wildlife Fund, by having a panda as a poster boy, is saving the bamboo forest.
“You wouldn’t believe how many pharmaceuticals come from the rainforest. There are so many species going extinct without us knowing about them or seeing them. There could be a cure for cancer in there.
“Every living species is an on-going biological experiment – and so many are wiped out before we can come across them.
“We are in the middle of an extinction as big as the one which wiped out the dinosaurs. We are a force for extinction as big as the meteor strike.
“If you’re going to have an interest in conservation you’re a masochist – it turns into another thing to be depressed about.
“We are trying to get some of this information across, but make it fun and fascinating.”
- Sallis Benney Theatre, Grand Parade, Brighton, Friday, February 22. Starts 8pm, tickets £9/£6. Visit www.brightonscience.com