The Damage Forrest Galante Has Done to Conservation Biology
By Branden Holmes (16 August 2020)
Forrest Galante grew up in Africa, a grandson of Gerald Summerfield whom Galante claims helped prove that the Coelacanth isn’t extinct (Provost, 2016). However, a quick Google search does not bring up any results that indicate this is true. Rather, the discovery of the first living specimen encountered by humans is well known and omits the mention of any such person. It was caught aboard the trawler of Captain Hendrick Goosen in December 1938, bought by a provincial museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, and recognised as the long extinct coelacanth by eminent ichthyologist J. L. B. Smith. Judging by Galante’s own comments, it’s clear that his grandfather played a role in securing one of the later specimens caught in the Comoros islands (Ibid.), which is still a significant association with the species.
“At age 14, Galante was the youngest person to ever lead an international canoe safari down the Zambezi River.”
And with his rise to public notice since moving to the US, first as a tv contestant, he is now best known as the host of the two seasons of his show ‘Extinct or Alive’ on Animal Planet. Which includes, according to the Discoveries page [archived version] on his website, the rediscovery of two species previously thought extinct. With Galante being credited with, or claiming, even more rediscoveries since the page was added or most recently updated. However, not all is as rosy as it seems.
The First Red Flags
Forrest Galante’s first television foray as co-host was a one-off documentary aired in 2016 in search of the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in Tasmania, called Extinct or Alive: Tasmanian Tiger. It evidently was the inspiration for the title of his most well known television project, ‘Extinct or Alive’. However, my good friend Mike Williams2 reminds me that one scene from that documentary has Galante interviewing a descendent of a man who shot a thylacine in the 1950’s and shows Galante a photo as proof. The problem is that this is actually one of a series of photos taken in May 1930 depicting the thylacine shot by Wilf Batty on his family’s property at Mawbanna. The last ever wild killed specimen. The fact that Galante does not pick up on this is disconcerting as it comprises one of the most famous series of photos of one of the most famous recently extinct species. And one which he evidently has a special interest in.
However, I first became suspicious of the credentials of Forrest Galante as a whole just prior to the airing of the first episode of his tv show Extinct or Alive. The episode list contains several species whose taxonomic validity is disputed at best (Zanzibar leopard, Newfoundland wolf and Formosan clouded leopard). That is, they may never have existed in the first place. Which is worse than looking for a ghost from the point of view of aiming to rediscover species. Though this needs to be qualified lest I be guilty of the kind of superficiality that I am accusing Forrest Galante of. In reality the notion of a ‘species’ is an artificial construct. Evolution proceeds relatively slowly (e.g. phyletic gradualism) such that there is no specific point at which one species literally gives birth to another3. A far better system of categorisation would be ecological niches, which are objectively quantifiable. But the important point here is that what really matters from the point of view of conservation biology is genetic diversity. And hence a population needn’t represent a unique (sub)species to be of conservation value.
But the greater concern was a deeper one. The list of target species (n=8) were without exception large-bodied, including six carnivorous mammals, one herbivorous mammal, and one seabird. Perhaps if there were a reason to suppose that such large-bodied species deserve special emphasis, such as by having suffered catastrophic rates of recent extinction compared with smaller-bodied animals, then this bias might be justified. But such a bias is not sustained by the evidence. So for a wildlife biologist to ignore the greater portion of wildlife, to concentrate on large species, is quite unjustified. And I cannot see the show’s bosses being so rigid as to not allow as least one invertebrate to be searched for during the show’s first season.
He also makes several basic errors in his two appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast, such as stating that the leopard (Panthera pardus) is larger than the jaguar (Panthera onca). In reality the relationship is precisely the opposite, with the Jaguar being the third largest big cat in the world. He also strongly implies that since tortoises cannot swim, inter-island travel is impossible. In reality it is well known that giant tortoises float (Patterson, 1973), and can even be found hundreds of kilometres from their home (e.g. Gerlach et al., 2006). And while their travel direction is thus contingent upon currents, such nuance is superfluous to the point, since he wholesale rejects the potential for inter-island travel.
Extinct or Alive? Episodes in the Forrest Galante Saga
But the biggest indications that Forrest Galante is incompetent as a conservation-orientated figure, are related to the episodes of his tv show ‘Extinct or Alive’. Encompassing not only his choice of target species (including a number with recent records that he omits to mention), but also claims made by him regarding species that he has allegedly rediscovered, and his singular failure to have followed through with any of these alleged rediscoveries by publishing them in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. He thus maximises his public image by constructing a rediscovery narrative that the public are not likely to question, while easing the burden upon himself by not putting it out there for the scientific community to properly vet.
There are certainly instances in which a single individual has genuinely made multiple rediscoveries, such as the South African botanist Brian du Preez (see Wild, 2019). But those successes are dwarfed by the failed efforts of those same scientists to search for those same taxa previously. Not to mention that most scientists never rediscover a single taxon despite years of trying. The fact that Galante rediscovers species so frequently in such short search windows should immediately raise eyebrows.
Season 1, Episode 1: Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi)
The Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) was described by Reginald Pocock in 1932 (Pocock, 1932), and was endemic to the island of Unguja in the Zanzibar archipelago. However, the species was officially persecuted for it’s alleged links to witchcraft (Walsh & Goldman, 2012), with the last confirmed records seemingly dating to the 1980’s. However, the validity of the subspecies has also long been disputed (Pakenham, 1984). And was subsumed into the nominate subspecies by (Miththapala et al., 1996). However, no genetic material seems to have been acquired to help put this synonymy beyond dispute (Ibid.; Uphyrkina et al., 2001).
Given the serious questions over the validity of the subspecies, it is not a good choice for a target taxon. Since it’s not clear that it ever existed, let alone still persists. Yet he still embarked on a search for it, and according to the Discoveries page [archived version] on his website:
“In 2018, Galante captured multiple compelling pieces of evidence of the ongoing existence of animals believed extinct, including trail camera footage of a Zanzibar leopard, a big cat that had been classified as extinct for over 25 years. During that same expedition, Galante also captured the first known video footage of a servaline genet.”
A blog post by Helle Goldman and Martin Walsh, the foremost researchers of the Zanzibar leopard over the last couple of decades, however, tells a very different story (Goldman & Walsh, 2018). I apologise for quoting almost the entire blog post, however it is important to do so as the full context needs to be understood here:
“The quest for the Zanzibar leopard is the running theme of the premiere of the Animal Planet infotainment series, “Extinct or Alive", which airs in the US on Sunday, 10 June. We participated in the production of this extended episode by providing background material about leopards and other wildlife on the island, as well as the island’s history and culture. Travelling to Zanzibar a week in advance of the film crew, we scouted filming locations, lined up interviews, liaised with local forestry staff, and obtained access to recent photographs of alleged leopard pugmarks and leopard kills (eviscerated goats).
In addition, we deployed 10 camera traps in various locations, getting excellent video footage of some of Zanzibar’s small carnivores in the wild: the Zanzibar servaline genet (Genetta servalina archeri), the African palm civet (Nandinia binotata), and the Zanzibar bushy-tailed mongoose (Bdeogale crassicauda tenuis). To our knowledge, none of these has been filmed on Unguja island before, so this was exciting.
They did, however, use footage of an interview with us and many clips of the other animals that we had camera-trapped, including superb daytime (and therefore colour) video shots of a servaline genet.
In the absence of verified evidence, like most authorities we now presume the Zanzibar leopard to have been extirpated, despite tantalising reports and claims to the contrary. But this shouldn't stop people from enjoying Animal Planet's expertly crafted and highly entertaining narrative.”
The fact that Goldman and Walsh did not capture a Zanzibar leopard on camera trap despite 10 of them being deployed for a week, while Galante and crew managed to capture a leopard, is indicative of the extreme luck that seems to permanently surround Galante. Especially since it almost certainly doesn’t exist (as a valid subspecies). But the more pressing issue is the conflicting accounts of who was the first to capture the endemic Zanzibar servaline genet (Genetta servalina archeri) on film. In retrospect, given the totality of evidence cited in this article and that of (Wight, 2020), I have no doubt that Goldman and Walsh are the rightful recipients of the honour. Especially as well respected scientists over a long period with nothing negative said about them as far as I can tell. While it is fitting that the unscrupulous Galante would slip up with the very first episode of his show.
Special #1: Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon)
The first criterion for a target species should be that it is actually missing, and hasn’t already been rediscovered. Unfortunately, the narrative spun as part of Galante’s first Extinct or Alive special, aired during Shark Week 2019, is that the species hadn’t been recorded since the 1970’s. And therefore, while Galante himself admits that he didn’t personally rediscover the species, he nonetheless attributes that honour to his wife in a clear case of nepotism. In his team’s research he has seemingly based the date of the last record on the IUCN RedList entry for the species (Compagno et al., 2003). Which is a strange move since he disregards that same source when it says that species he targets as missing have actually been collected many times in recent years and hence are not missing in the first place (see Special #2).
In reality the Pondicherry shark was recorded several times during the mid-to-late 1980’s, and was photographed in 2016 (Rodrigo, 2016). While a specimen was caught in 2018, with the article on the catch stating that it was also recorded in 2007 as well (Sankar, 2018). So either Galante has simply not done his research, or he has chosen to ignore local (and) scientific knowledge. This poor target choice is all the more acute since there is a systematic failure to target smaller species, particularly invertebrates. Galante would rather, it seems, search for a large animal that is not even missing, than shine a light on one of the many missing invertebrates that get short shrift as it is. And if you think that there are no invertebrates that could make an exciting episode of the show, I challenge you to go through the REPAD database on this website and not be fascinated by at least one taxon such as ‘the Duke’ (Megadytes ducalis) (Hendrich et al., 2019).
Season 2, Episode 1: Fernandina Island tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus)
The Fernandina Island tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus) was described in 1907 based upon a specimen collected the previous year (Van Denburgh, 1907). However, it had never been seen since, partly because nobody had specifically looked for it. And even though there were occasional signs over the years that tortoises still inhabited the island, it was assessed as possibly extinct by the IUCN (Rhodin et al., 2017). Subsequently an expedition was planned to search for the species on Fernandina Island to confirm it’s persistence. A television crew tagged along, but when an individual tortoise was found the host of the television show, who had nothing to do with the planning, seized the opportunity and took public the credit for the find. The specific details of this highly unethical behaviour by Forrest Galante are given by (Wight, 2020).
Season 2, Episode 3: Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus)
The Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus) has traditionally been considered one of the earliest megafaunal victims of the European colonisation of southern Africa (last record 1858). Along with the Bluebuck (Hippotragus leucophaeus) (last record c. 1800) and Cape warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus aethiopicus) (last record c.1865). However, a revised taxonomy of the entire family Felidae concluded that the Cape lion is in fact extant in virtue of an extant subspecies being a synonym of it (Kitchener et al., 2017). The same conclusion was reached about the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo). Thus even if you don’t accept the proposed taxonomic changes, it is more likely that the status of the Cape lion will be resolved in the laboratory rather than the field.
Therefore, again it is a wasted opportunity to search for an invertebrate, such as the equal largest moth known from New Zealand, with an almost 15cm (6 inch) wingspan. Buller’s moth (Aoraia mairi) was collected only once, in the summer of 1867, by Sir Walter Buller and his brother-in-law, Captain Gilbert Mair, in the Ruahine Range of the North Island (Meads, 1990). Sadly the specimen is now believed lost.
But the most important point related to this episode is one of Galante’s claims as a guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast (#1403). Therein Galante states that a particularly large lion with a black mane that his team tranquilised and took a genetic sample from had DNA with a 14% discrepancy from other southern Africa samples. This may not seem significant, but consider the oft-repeated claim that Chimpanzees and humans share somewhere between 96-98% of their DNA. So this would mean that the lion sampled is not merely a subspecies or even species of lion but a new genus entirely separate from Panthera (which includes the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard). But instead of talking about a new genus of big cats, which would be one of the greatest zoological discoveries of the 21st century, he goes on about a “14% discrepancy” which demonstrates that he pretends to understand genetics5.
Season 2, Episode 7: Rio Apaporis caiman (Caiman crocodilus apaporiensis)
I have absolutely nothing new to add here to the fantastic investigative journalism piece by my fellow Australian Andrew J. Wight (Wight, 2020). Galante tried to steal credit for the discovery, and has not been forthcoming with the support he promised scientist Sergio Balaguera-Reina in return for helping Galante make the episode a success:
“According to Balaguera-Reina, Galante promised to help fund the Colombian scientist’s caiman research. “But I never saw any of it,” Balaguera-Reina said. Then Galante vanished off Balaguera-Reina’s radar.”
Special #2: Whitetip weasel shark (Paragaleus leucolomatus) and Flapnose houndshark (Scylliogaleus quecketti)
The latest episode of Galante’s show, technically a Shark Week special in the spirit of the previous year’s, was the last straw for me. It features the rediscovery of not one, not two, but three species! An amazing feat since two, and probably all three, of those species were never missing in the first place. It’s a bit like kidnapping someone and then claiming you found them when you release them. In the first special Galante did for the show, he claims that the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon) hadn’t been seen since the 1970’s. The only reasonable conclusion to draw as to his source for this claim is the IUCN’s RedList which is available online.
Yet for this latest episode he not merely dispensed with this legitimate though fallible source, he deliberately ignored it. The two species he implies he helped rediscover are the Whitetip weasel shark (Paragaleus leucolomatus) and Flapnose houndshark (Scylliogaleus quecketti). Which he claims were last recorded 36 years ago (1984) and almost 120 years ago, respectively (Georgiou, 2020). Yet the respective last records for those two species are later than 2007 (Pollom et al., 2020) and later than 2011 (Pollom, 2019). Galante is now simply making up the last records of (sub)species, because he has never been sufficiently called out on his claims. Scientists are either too busy, or reluctant to get in a public tangle that might affect their careers. While the public are simply unaware of such things. Thus it is up to a citizen scientist like myself, who knows enough about these things, isn’t too busy, and doesn’t mind copping the negative feedback, to call out Galante.
There are a couple of instances of dishonest or otherwise unethical behaviour by Galante, namely those relating to the relocation of the Fernandina Island tortoise and Rio Apaporis caiman. But the most insidious thing about his impact is rather the general sense that he has rediscovered so many animals that scientists have systematically failed, over a much longer period, to find. Forrest and his tv crew only search briefly and yet have a far greater rate of success. And therefore conservationists proper are at best ignorant, and at worst incompetent. And that has profound ramifications for how members of the public decide to spend or donate their money.
The generosity of the public in donating to conservation and environmental causes is not something to be taken for granted at the best of times. People work hard for their money, and have the right to spend it as they see fit. While the greed of humanity as a whole has meant that there are so many species, subspecies and populations in danger of extinction that the resources required to adequately to save them all will almost certainly not be forthcoming. So whatever funds can be secured are all the more important.
Television shows are for entertainment purposes, and therefore do not always have technical accuracy in mind when presenting their material. And of course such shows are the products of many people, not just the host. While there is no doubt that Forrest Galante is a passionate individual who is knowledgeable about wildlife. However, when one’s public impact creates such a negative perception of conservationists and conservation organisations, then one needs to seriously consider a complete rethink about one’s public role. Conservation biology is hard enough without charlatans making it harder.
The show Extinct or Alive itself is a laudable attempt to bring attention to the world’s missing and possibly extinct species. However, it suffers from a common problem lately: lack of diversity. The public are more enlightened than ever about nature, thanks to people like Sir David Attenborough who can make any form of life (or death) interesting for the viewer. It would therefore be reinvigorated by a major shift in focus away from large animals to include invertebrates and smaller vertebrates, and even plants which are invariably simply left out of the discussion. And most importantly, a new host.
1 He has six spearfishing world records according to his Facebook page.
2 Mike, along with Gareth Linnard and myself, co-discovered the latest known footage of the species (1935) which went viral around the world earlier this year.
3 As a general rule. Again there can be exceptions such as reproductive barriers, e.g. due to karyotypic differences. But this article will be complicated enough as it is without going into such minutiae.
4 Galante claims to have rediscovered one other species not discussed here: Miller's (grizzled) langur Presbytis canicrus. However, I have not satisfactorily looked into it to report my findings. However, even if this were to prove legitimate, it would not placate the host of criticisms that may be levelled against him in other instances, such as highly unethical behaviour.
5 If the 14% "discrepancy" relates only to the mitogenome then the genetic distance would be considerably smaller. However, his lack of such a nuanced qualification still sustains the criticism.
Compagno, L. J. V., White, W. and Fowler, S. (SSG Australia & Oceania Regional Workshop, March 2003). (2003). Carcharhinus hemiodon. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2003: e.T39369A10185838. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2003.RLTS.T39369A10185838.en. Downloaded on 16 August 2020.
Georgiou, Aristos. (2020). Shark Not Seen for Over 100 Years Rediscovered in 'Land of the Lost'. Newsweek, 10 August, available at: https://www.newsweek.com/shark-not-seen-over-100-years-rediscovered-1524094 [Accessed 16 August 2020]
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Provost, Stephen H. (20 May, 2016). Animal Planet’s ‘Extinct or Alive’ TV special stars Coast Union grad. The Tribune (online), available from: https://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/community/cambrian/cambrian-arts-events/article78878307.html [Accessed 15 August 2020]
Rhodin, A. G. J., Gibbs, J. P., Cayot, L. J., Kiester, A. R. and Tapia, W. (2017). Chelonoidis phantasticus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T170517A128969920. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T170517A1315907.en. Downloaded on 16 August 2020.
Sankar, K. N. Murali. (2018). ‘Pondicherry shark’ spotted near Kakinada. The Hindu, 10 September, available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/pondicherry-shark-spotted-near-kakinada/article24910627.ece [Accessed 16 August 2020]
Uphyrkina, O., Johnson, E. W., Quigley, H., Miquelle, D., Marker, L., Bush, M. and O'Brien, S. J. (2001). Phylogenetics, genome diversity and origin of modern leopard, Panthera pardus. Molecular Ecology 10(11): 2617-2633.
Van Denburgh, J. (1907). Expedition of the California Academy of Sciences to the Galapagos Islands, 1905-1906. I. Preliminary descriptions of four new races of gigantic land tortoises from the Galapagos Islands. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 1(4): 1-6.
Walsh, Martin T. and Goldman, Helle V. (2012). Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar. Journal of Eastern African Studies 6(4): 727-746. [Abstract]
Wight, Andrew J. (2020). In the Bombast of an American TV Host, Colonial Science Lives On. Undark, 3 April, available at: https://undark.org/2020/03/04/colombia-reptile-parachute-science-forrest-galante/ [Accessed 16 August 2020]
Wild, Sarah. (5 November, 2019). Cape student rediscovers third “extinct” plant species – and expects to find more. Business Insider South Africa, available at: https://www.businessinsider.co.za/extinct-plant-species-sweet-pea-stellenbosch-student-nature-2019-11 [Accessed 15 August 2020]
Two sentences that cited criticism of Galante were removed three times from IPs near Galante's residence & Animal Planet offices. The source, Undark, does not attempt to appear neutral on the topic of its criticism, but does have editorial control on pieces published and cites significant figures in relevant fields on the topic. The sentence referencing the Galapagos episode in particular cites an extremely relevant source that was present at the filming.Especially considering much of the article reading like an advertisement, this does not seem like good-faith editing. The removals appear to be based on hiding criticism of Galante rather than removing unreliable or hidden-bias sources."