Former RTE star Liz tipped as new David Attenborough
Liz Bonnin is not just a woman in a man's world – she's a woman in a mammals world.
Irish TV presenter Liz Bonnin is taking the BBC by storm. The Trinity College graduate has a degree in biochemistry and hopes to one day hold a PhD in zoology, and while her education has taken her to the heights of tv fame, she's been labelled "tv gold" by the harshest of critics.
She is a rarity: an attractive, engaging, science geek. Think Lara Croft meets David Attenborough but with fur jackets and snowmobiles instead of guns and hot pants. She still packs a punch – but it's in enthusiasm and knowledge rather than kung fu high kicks.
This Sunday you can catch her on BBC 2 in the midst of her latest adventure – saving the Siberian tiger from extinction. No mean feat when you consider that there are only 300 left in the wild.
Liz never planned on a TV career. Having studied biochemistry at university she took a year out before her PHD and through a contact was put up to present the IRMA Music Awards in Ireland. Never expecting to enjoy it, her TV career took off culminating in presenting Top of the Pops. She returned to university to do a Masters in Wild Animal Biology – but TV called.
"I had been bitten by the TV bug," she admits. "But after my Masters I wanted to use my broadcast contacts to highlight the plight of something I cared deeply about – the natural world."
Liz says she has always been fascinated the world around us, from domestic cats and dogs to volcanoes and astronomy. But she is most passionate about big cats and in particular, tigers.
"The tiger population has been dwindling at an alarming rate for sometime. After building up a relationship with the BBC through other presenting jobs I started to beg them to let me do a programme on the Siberian snow tiger – I banged the drum for years. I think they sent me in the end to shut me up, but I am so glad they did."
The Siberian tiger is one of the most rare mammals on the planet, more scientists have been to space than have seen one in the wild. They are famously elusive – in the 50 years since the BBC Natural History Unit was set up, Liz's project was the first time they had ever been able to film Siberian tigers in their natural habitat. Not bad for a former TV DJ.
On embarking for Russia, Liz says that she felt like all her career had been leading up to that point.
"Tigers are very powerful animals but they want nothing to do with you. There is a lot of detective work involved in tracking them," she said. "They go out of their way to avoid you. I think in part this is because they are solitary creatures but also because they have evolved to fear us. They will not attack you unless they feel threatened."
This sounds a little naive to me – built to hunt, these animals could take out a human with one swipe. They weigh around 220kg and while I am not going to be rude enough to inquire as to Liz's weight it is sufficient to say that if there was a fight – I'd not put my money on her. Yet she insists that she never feels afraid.
"Maybe I am naive – it certainly isn't bravado," she said. "You should never be irresponsible – these are powerful animals, but I can pick up on their subtilties. I am not an animal whisperer, I am not trying to show off, but I feel I understand them."
I ask her why it is that she feels such affinity with tigers, does she consider herself a solitary person?
"Part of the appeal of animals is their absolute independence. I understand that. No matter what you are studying – primates or elephants, I am so fascinated by animal behaviour that I forget to be afraid.
"They are not as dangerous as you think. If you are not afraid or aggressive they aren't either."
Liz says that despite the fulfilment of a life long dream, Siberia was a bittersweet experience. On their second trip to Russia, Liz and her team rescued three tiger cubs – 1pc of the entire surviving population.
"There were a lot of inspirational moments in a truly magical place but everything we did brought home the peril these animals are in," she said.
"Knowing that poaching is still happening – it reminded me of what we have forgotten, what we have let slide in the natural world. The reality is it is very likely this animal will be extinct in a couple of years. "
Liz is seeking to raise awareness, so that as a mass they can influence governments to change policies. But it is an uphill struggle.
"Sometimes I feel powerless and totally overwhelmed. There are the poachers, loss of habitat, demand from Chinese medicine – and then the corruption that allows it all to happen," she sighs. "We need to be more aware of what it means to be a human on this planet. We may be highly evolved but other animals have just as much right to life as we do."
The word role-model is bandied about quite easily – but as a crusader for the future planet – Ms Bonnin seems to deserve it. Does she like this idea?
"I see it as my job to inspire the next generation. I am not the only woman working in this field – I am inspired by Michaela Strachan, Kate Humble and so many other fantastic female scientist – but science in schools has been on the decline, and I want nurture that natural curiosity that children have in the outside world. Everyone needs more wanderlust in their lives."
She stops, conscious of sounding righteous, like a woman on a soap box.
"I know it is a cliché. But once you set foot in the wild you are changed forever. We are just one species among millions of species. We are supposed to be the most sophisticated species – let's prove it."