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Amazing life under the microscope – Wild Burma’s Ross Piper

PUBLISHED: 10:26 14 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:26 14 January 2014

life under the microscope

life under the microscope

Archant

Insect expert Ross Piper, presenter on BBC2’s acclaimed Wild Burma series, talks to Sandra Deeble about his scariest jungle experiences, his new book Animal Earth and searching for new species near his Hertfordshire home

‘You see that really long thin thing coming out of its head? It shoots that out like an alien to catch prey. Faster than the blink of an eye. Amazing!’

I am looking at an insect through a microscope in Ross Piper’s home office and laboratory, in a small room next to his kitchen in the village of Aston.

Ross, a zoologist, is packed full of energy and enthusiasm for his subject. This professor communicates knowledge with zest.

‘This thing is tiny but look at the complexity of it. It’s got a brain and it can do things just like you and me. Obviously it’s not capable of going to Starbucks. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s just an incredible thing.’

I have to agree. I admire another iridescent jewel beetle, and I ask to see more specimens. Ross says he is soon to give a talk to school children in Bishop’s Stortford. It’s easy to imagine them being captivated by his passion for insects. I can even feel myself getting the bug.

Ross Piper could be about to have his breakthrough moment. He is recently back from a six-week BBC Natural History Unit expedition to Burma to film the Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom series for BBC2 and his sumptuous coffee table book Animal Earth, illustrated with stunning macro photography (pictured), has just been published to excellent reviews.

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Insect obsession

So how did his obsession with insects start? ‘My mum would take me for these massive walks every day. When I was about four or five I remember finding an elephant hawk moth caterpillar on a canal towpath. I caught it and took it home and it pupated and I didn’t know what was going on. It was doing these jerky movements and I was really scared so I chucked it into the garden.’

Next subject was a violet ground beetle. ‘It had metallic purple edges and I was completely bamboozled by it!’

Ross says he still has that same childlike excitement when he finds something he’s never seen before, be it in the Burmese forests or Benington fields. ‘It’s a deep fascination that I’ve always had from those early days finding things.’

He grew up in the West Midlands. His dad was ‘a pig man on a prison farm’, an estate bought by the prison service and turned into a borstal, where Ross and his siblings had the run of the grounds.

‘We lived on this big old stately home estate. It was massive. Thousands of hectares. It was fantastic for kids ­– all these woods.’

At school, Ross’s predilection for nature led to him being teased by his football fanatic classmates.

‘They used to call me David Bellamy,’ he remembers. ‘I was a bit embarrassed about it.’ Yet, he says, ‘science always clicked in my head’.

His passion led to A-Levels in chemistry, biology and geography and a degree in zoology at Bangor University followed by a PhD at Leeds on the ecology of cryptocephalus beetles.

He could have trodden the path of of other zoologists – following his PhD with post-doctoral work. ‘But it wasn’t for me. I’ve always loved being outside. As I’ve got older, I love it more.’

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Finding Burma

Travelling to Burma, also known as Myanmar, was a dream come true. ‘It was such a golden opportunity,’ he says, eyes gleaming.

Such an opportunity, that Ross left the day after the birth of his first child, Connie, now nine-months-old. His wife Jane, currently on maternity leave, was very understanding and is clearly proud of him.

‘Jane was in labour for two days. All my stuff was ready to go. Connie was born on Sunday morning and the next day, at 11 o’clock, I left for Burma. Jane understood. I just had to go.’

Due to the sensitive political situation in Burma, the crew were chaperoned by officials. ‘The whole time we were there we had government observers with us. It’s still a very secretive country and there are lots of places where you can’t go. There are tourists going to the bigger cities like Rangoon and Mandalay but off the beaten track you don’t see many Europeans.’

The fact that much of Burma has been inaccessible for so long – it’s the first time in 50 years that filmmakers have been allowed access – has resulted in more untouched forest than in other parts of south-east Asia. Ross and the team wanted to prove there are rare species in the jungle – such as a herd of breeding elephants – in order to persuade the Burmese authorities the forests should be protected.

‘When you see a forest that is pristine, life abounds. When you see a forest that has been cut down it’s like a vision of hell. What a terrible thing it would be,’ he says, ‘if we weren’t to have those big iconic animals in the world? If, when Connie is my age, you couldn’t see elephants in the wild?’

Ross got perilously close to elephants while filming. If you missed the first programme, I would urge you to go straight to iPlayer.

‘It was probably the only time in my life that I felt primal fear. They were moving so quickly. The noise of the branches breaking, it was like a bulldozer.’

Other close encounters in Burma included a king cobra and a bite from a tarantula.

Camping for six weeks in a team of 20 people, with help from around 100 locals to help transport their gear, eating ‘thin soups’ and having little contact with the outside world was ‘just brilliant’. But also hard work, Ross says. ‘It was physically knackering. We went to three different locations and the walk to the second camp was a two-day yomp with 
all our gear. What surprised me was that there wasn’t a single whinger.’

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Animal Earth

Coming back home to Hertfordshire, where he has lived for 10 years, was a bit of a culture shock. ‘Although I like this part of Hertfordshire,’ he adds. ‘If you go out towards Walkern and Benington, it’s nice and hilly. And Broxbourne Woods is really good for rare insects.’

Ross wrote his new book, Animal Earth: The Amazing Diversity of Living Creatures during the evenings and at weekends. In daylight hours, he is constantly out, looking for new insects. ‘I found stacks of things in the summer, on this hedge here,’ he says, pointing out of the window to his garden.

He says he has been dreaming about writing a book on lesser-known species for years. ‘It’s a completely up-to-date, scientific account of animal diversity. All the animals we are familiar with – mammals, birds, fish – they account for less than one per cent of total animal diversity. That’s about 60,000 species. There could be as many as 200 million species in total divided among all these other lineages that we know very little about.’

Back at the microscope, Ross shows me another beetle he found in his garden where he has allowed part of it to run wild. ‘If you let nature do its thing, it’s just so much more interesting.’

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