Still Alive

A Wild Life of Rediscovery


By Forrest Galante

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Experience the thrilling adventures in wildlife conservation from "the Indiana Jones of Biology" (Entrepreneur) in this action-packed and educational memoir filled with danger and intrigue.

Very few individuals can truthfully say that their work impacts every person on earth.  Forrest Galante is one of them. As a wildlife biologist and conservationist, Galante devotes his life to studying, rediscovering, and protecting our planet’s amazing lifeforms. Part memoir, part biological adventure, Still Alive celebrates the beauty and determined resiliency of our world, as well as the brave conservationists fighting to save it. 
In his debut book, Galante takes readers on an exhilarating journey to the most remote and dangerous corners of the world. He recounts miraculous rediscoveries of species that were thought to be extinct and invites readers into his wild life: from his upbringing amidst civil unrest in Zimbabwe to his many globetrotting adventures, including suspenseful run-ins with drug cartels, witch doctors, and vengeful government officials.  He shares all of the life-threatening bites, fights, falls, and jungle illnesses. He also investigates the connection between wildlife mistreatment and human safety, particularly in relation to COVID-19. 
Still Alive is much more than just a can’t-put-down adventure story bursting with man-eating crocodiles, long-forgotten species rediscovered, and near-death experiences. It is an impassioned, informative, and undeniably inspiring examination of the importance of wildlife conservation today and how every individual can make a difference.



It was hot. Early summer. The temperature had been in the mid-nineties all day as I caught as many Southern Pacific rattlesnakes as I could. I was barely twenty years old and working as a biological field tech for the University of California, Santa Barbara, and my job was to handle large, venomous pit vipers. I would catch them, put some paint around their tails, and insert a radio transmitter so we could find them later. I could not have imagined a better job. I was out on my own in a beautiful place, catching rattlesnakes and working as a real biologist.

On one such day, running around the Chimineas Preserve, a transitional landscape where the rolling grasslands of Southern California meet the granite outcroppings of the western Sierras with scrub oaks dispersed between them, I was looking for my final snake of the day. I had banded eleven so far. Most of the other techs had already knocked off with three or four. But I was relentless. I was motivated. I wanted my even dozen. As you will come to see, I am never one to head home early. I was looking in every crack and crevice, beneath every log and shrub, but I wasn’t finding anything. It was getting late in the day, so I decided to climb up a rocky outcropping jutting up from the ground. I figured I would get to the top, look around for the car, and see if I had to make my way home before dark. I started climbing up this crumbly cliff. I probably could have gone the long way around. I probably could have just guessed the direction of where my car was parked, but, again, I was twenty. Why wouldn’t I scramble up this rock face? It was about twenty feet high and full of cracks, fissures, and all sorts of hidey-holes. I was about halfway up the cliff when I came to a ledge jutting out slightly above me. I reached up with my left hand and took hold. I reached up with my right and did the same. I pulled myself up slowly, searching with my feet until I found a firm place to plant my boot, and as my hairline, then eyebrows, and then eyeballs crested the ledge, I beheld a perfectly coiled Southern Pacific rattlesnake centered between my two hands. As I said, it was hot. The snakes were fired up. My hands had agitated this venomous viper, and even before I came eye level to it, the snake was in motion. All I saw was the inside of a rattlesnake’s mouth, a fresh pink gullet with four needle-like fangs flying toward my face. The top two fangs pointed at my eyebrows and the bottom two brushed against my eyelashes. And in an instinctive effort to escape, I pushed off the ledge with all of my strength and flew backward into space.

I should probably introduce myself. My name is Forrest Galante. I am a wildlife biologist and, on my show, Extinct or Alive, I bring species back from the dead. But my work doesn’t take place in a lab. Instead, I venture into some of the most remote and wildest places left on Earth to find animals that humanity has given up for extinct. This book is my story so far, my chance to share how I grew from a barefoot boy in the Zimbabwean bush, to a young biologist working along the coast of California, to a pioneering adventurer with a grand mission and a host of unprecedented discoveries.

But back to the snake. I fell about eight or nine feet straight onto my back, knocking the wind completely out of me. I rolled over and heaved myself up onto all fours, taking big, noisy, desperate gulps of air. As soon as I recovered, I started touching my face (this was before cell phones with selfie cameras), searching for where the snake had caught me. I kept thinking my eyes were swelling shut, that my vision was blurring, but it was all a panicked reaction. I was, by some miracle of timing and physics, perfectly fine.

And now I knew where the twelfth snake was.


I remember the moment clearly: the stabbing pain, my skin peeling against the restrictive leather, and my toes packed against one another within my miniature oxfords. I was six years old, and this was the first time I had ever really worn a pair of shoes. I hated them straightaway and asked my mother if I could take them off. I couldn’t believe it when she said I had to wear them all day at school. My discomfort with those shoes was only the beginning of my discomfort with formal education. I’ve always learned better in the wild.

At age thirteen, I entered Form One at St. John’s College. It was all brick, all boys, and all very strict rules, an antiquated school system left over from the days of colonial government. Students walked in straight lines and always said, “Good morning, sir. Good morning, ma’am.” Everyone in the school had to have the same haircut, uniform, and tie. I had my head shaved in front of the whole school because my hair was touching my ears. We sang war cries, which were like the pre-match haka chants of New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, except we were hundreds of schoolboys packed into a gymnasium, dressed in green and gray. Our school pride was fierce and total, and we took tradition seriously.

I was known as a “squack,” which meant I was the personal servant of a prefect, charged with greeting him every morning, carrying his books, making his tea, and otherwise making myself available to meet his every whim. If I failed to uphold the requirements of this relationship or, worse, if I out and out defied them, the punishment was severe. Once, in retaliation for I don’t know what, I spat on the prefect’s lawn. He gave me a caning so bad I couldn’t sit down for a week.

Although I managed to keep up my grades, I did not do well under the heavy structure. I did not enjoy being told what to do. Who does? And so, I would watch the clock and count the hours until school was over. The moment we were released, I would kick off my shoes, loosen the tie around my neck, unbutton my shirt, and run for my ride back to the farm. Once there, I’d sprint toward the compound where all my friends lived, gather them up, and then run down to the dam to fish and catch animals. Every now and again we’d break from routine, like the time we built a jackal pit, intending to trap a jackal, but trapping an unsuspecting farm kid instead. We were so nervous about getting in trouble that we never told anyone, and he was stuck in the hole for hours. I blame Robinson Crusoe for that bright idea.

Kicking around the lake and chasing animals is good fun for any kid, but even at a young age, I knew I owed nature something in return for all I so enjoyed. I recall the morning before school when my sister playfully, or maybe not so playfully, threw a pair of pruning clippers at me. She meant to stop me from teasing her, which she did, in addition to filleting my calf open. My mother took one look at the wound and said, “You need to go to the hospital.” Normally, on the farm we would stitch ourselves up, but we had just recently run out of antiseptic. As we prepared to leave, the groom, Fani, came running up and said, “Madam, madam! One of the cows is dying.” It turned out that, in the field, Daisy the Friesian cow was trying to give birth, but the calf was stuck in the birth canal, and both mother and calf looked to be moments away from expiring.

I had torn my T-shirt into strips to bandage my gash and slow the bleeding. I was sitting there, nine years old, wondering, do we stay or do we go? My mother then left the decision to me: “Forrest, you have a decision to make. We can either go to the hospital and get your leg fixed right now, or we can wait and try to save this cow and save the calf.”

Of course, I decided to stay, to save the cow. It took hours, but we helped a beautiful, little, patchy black-and-white calf into the world. Its mother, unfortunately, died after the lengthy birth, and the little calf lived in our garage, where I bottle-fed him every day until he was big enough to join the herd. We named him Stitch, after the stitches I had foregone to save it. I remember thinking then that it was much more important to protect life than to worry about my own temporary pain. I still have the scar as a reminder.

MY FATHER LEFT US WHEN I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD, LEAVING THE responsibility of raising two children while earning a living to my mother. Her farm was one source of income, but her ability to manage the farm was complicated by Shona culture, wherein men do not take orders from women. In their culture, women are commodities to be traded as wives in exchange for livestock. But when a boy turns ten or eleven years old, he is considered a man. So, I became my mother’s mouthpiece, delivering her instructions and essentially helping to run a farm of 200 workers. I would receive the days’ orders from my mother and then stand, dressed in my school uniform, on a crate or stump to direct different groups of workers to one field or another. The instructions may have been my mother’s, but I was expected to see them through, supervising from one phase of a job to the next. I often didn’t understand what I was doing, but, in Africa, you find a way to survive.

My mother’s other source of income, and something that brought immense joy into my life, was her work as a professional hunter/guide (PH). To be clear, a PH is the term for a safari guide in Zimbabwe. My mother was not stalking animals to kill. Like me, she was a conservationist. She spent years studying to become a PH as well as to earn her pilot’s license. She was one of the first female bush pilots in southern Africa and one of the first female safari guides. School in Zimbabwe is three months on and one month off, so every break we’d take off for the bush, usually either to the Limpopo Valley on the border with South Africa or Mana Pools on the border with Zambia, the latter being my favorite place on Earth.

There is no place else on the planet where you are more a part of the food chain or where you see what Africa should be like. Mana Pools is full of megafauna. At every turn, there are elephants, cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, and impala. At night, the air comes alive with the sound of lions roaring across the valley. There are leopards. There are hyenas. The food chain is perfectly intact. Because Mana Pools has been a national park for so long, the animals are not negatively conditioned against people, unlike everywhere else where they have been hunted. We’d go on foot through the bush—Mana Pools is one of the last places in Africa where you can still go on a walking safari—and the animals wouldn’t dart away or flee out of fear. They just go about their business. It is a wild land of fierce innocence. Not only that, but it is stunning. The savanna teems with animals small and large, living together on the banks of the Zambezi River, which, for my money, is the most remarkable piece of water on Earth. The river sweeps over the landscape, brimming with huge, toothy tiger fish. Massive crocodiles are so abundant that they can line both sides of the river from head to tail. Pods of hippos call to one another, filling the air, alongside the calls of lilac-breasted rollers and guinea fowl, with the busy noise of life. They say creatures and civilizations alike crawled out of Africa. But I think they all crawled from the Zambezi Valley. It is a place out of time, an Edenic jewel, a prism through which we can see what the whole world should look like. If I could live there, I would. But a month at a time had to do.

During our month in the bush, I would be stuck at camp a lot of the time, washing dishes, setting up tents, and the like. If my mom wasn’t busy, she would teach me how to shoot, how to track. When she guided clients, she led them on walking safaris, which is not what most honeymooners sign up for these days. She wasn’t driving a Land Rover in circles like a tour at Disneyland. She was flying her clients in her Cessna aircraft to a dirt landing strip, meeting a safari vehicle that drove them to camp, and then leading them to wildlife on foot. And when she was afield with clients, I would sneak off whenever I could, flipping logs and catching cobras, tracking lions when nobody was looking, baiting hyenas, and doing all kinds of naughty things that are likely to get little boys killed. Without a shadow of a doubt, those are my happiest memories.

Once, back when my mother was still training for her PH, we traveled to the bush with my mother’s parents. I was obsessed with fishing (still am) and wanted to catch a tigerfish in the Zambezi River. Tigerfish are voracious predators with a mouthful of overlarge teeth. My grandpa gamely volunteered to take me. He was a good bushman—no PH or accreditation, just someone with a sure sense of how to conduct himself in the wild. We walked down to the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park and began casting spinners into eddies swirling off the main current. The action was slow until we were soon joined by some unexpected company: a giant bull elephant coming down the same gully we had taken to the riverbank, cutting us off from camp.

As the elephant approached our position, my mother called out to warn us, keeping her voice steady and calm, knowing that any signal of panic would immediately translate to the animal. My grandfather said to me, “Don’t move. If you run, you will die.” And this big, wild bull elephant, an animal not used to people, continued down to the water for a drink and looked over at us. We were both dead still. We were watching for the worst, unsure of what we would do if the “elly” decided to charge. “Don’t do anything,” my grandfather repeated. And we didn’t. Or I didn’t do anything except for what I was already doing, which was fishing. I cast my lure back into the water, probably about three feet from the gray monolith’s trunk. My grandfather chuckled as we all continued to calmly go about our business. We were only fifteen or twenty feet away from the elephant and somehow, slowly, the danger of the moment evaporated so that we could sit there and enjoy the spectacle of this creature. He seemed to have decided that we weren’t posing a threat and so languidly drank his fill. Afterward, my grandfather commended me for being so brave because if I had run, the elephant would have come over and trampled me. That is what animals do in the bush. But I held my ground, not threatening the animal and not cowering, either.

People like to joke about Australia being dangerous. Those people have obviously never been to Africa. Australia has a few snakes and a lot of kangaroos, whereas African fauna, at every level of the food chain, has the size, speed, and ferocity to trample or eat you at will. Still, while Africa is exceptional in many ways, there is a generic truism that applies even here: you can count on an animal to act in its own interest. Its behavior expresses the rationality of survival. But only the actions of your fellow man can truly surprise you.

AFRICA ISN’T A GENTLE PLACE, AND OUR FARM WAS NO EXCEPTION. The workers would drink scud—lumpy, disgusting, corn-fermented beer brewed by the locals—every Saturday night. And every Saturday night bad things would happen.

For my tenth birthday, I received a PeeWee 50 Yamaha dirt bike. This sweet machine, called a mdudu bike in Shona, was my new ride to the dam, when previously I would ride a horse or just run. One weekend, not long after I graduated to this new mode of transportation, I was riding the PeeWee on a dirt track off the main road, through one of the grass fields. I saw in the distance a branch of one of the big mahogany trees hanging strangely, as if being weighed down. I noticed because I was always looking in trees for snakes, birds, or Chippy. I rode my bike toward the strange branch, all alone on a little foot trail, as the shape began to materialize into someone I recognized. “Oh, there’s Wireless,” I thought. He was the carpenter, whose job it was to cut all the wood for small projects around the farm. As I got closer, I realized Wireless was hanging by his neck on a piece of wire. I was confused. I stared up at him. At ten years old, I couldn’t quite conceive of someone being dead, but I remember a sinking feeling of wrongness. I shouted up to him, “Wireless, wake up! Wireless, wake up!” But he didn’t. I grabbed his leg and shook him. He didn’t move. I got back on my mdudu bike and went to find my mother. Wireless never woke up. Everyone on the farm said he killed himself. No one paid much attention to the fact that Wireless’s shoes and wallet were missing.

Zimbabwe was a trying place at the best of times, even when food was abundant, and things like what happened to Wireless were a regular occurrence. I remember hearing stories about farmers turning up murdered, even years before the chaos of land reformation. These crimes were isolated, unsolved events. Understandably, we were wary when two slick-looking city guys arrived at our farm, hoping to buy $10,000 worth of oranges. This was a highly unusual request. On average, we sold bags of oranges for five or ten dollars. But my mother said she would be happy to sell them that amount and asked how they would be paying. They provided a check in the name of a Mr. A. Johnson. A simple look at the buyers could tell you that neither one of them was a Mr. Johnson. They were more likely a Mr. Tendai or a Mr. Mapfumo. My mother went to her office to determine the whereabouts of Mr. Johnson and quickly learned that he had been murdered the day before. These two thugs had been going from one farm to the next, stealing what they could and then using their gains to barter or worse at the next farm. My mother called the police. This being Zimbabwe, the police assured her they would be there in one or two hours, so we had time to kill with two dangerous guests on our doorstep. With a revolver now tucked into the back of her waistband, my mother reemerged to assure the gentlemen that we were getting their oranges ready.

At some point during the wait, one of the buyers decided to expedite the process by pulling out a sizeable panga, which is like a curved machete, and lunged to slash my mother. Before he could, my mother shot him in the thigh with her revolver. His associate, thinking better of the deal, made to run; but our security guard, along with my mother, persuaded him to stay until the police arrived. We restrained the pair with ropes to a fig tree in our front garden.

I had been watching the action from my bedroom window, where I had spears and bows and arrows hanging on my wall, collected by my mother from all over the continent, as far as northern Kenya to the tip of southern Africa. So, thinking that I would help the cause of defending our home, I ran out of the house and shot an arrow into the other thigh of the already wounded would-be killer. The terrible scolding I received from my mother was well worth the memory of seeing this man tied to a tree with a bullet hole in one leg and an arrow, shot by a nine-year-old, in the other.

As I have said, in Africa, you do what you must to survive.

IN 2000, THE OVERALL STABILITY OF THE COUNTRY NOSE-DIVED when President Robert Mugabe enacted “fast track” land reform, in which white farmers had a matter of months to relocate. Land reform wasn’t something new to Zimbabwe. Even before its independence in 1980, when the country was known as the British colony of Rhodesia, land was a source of political conflict. After independence, there were tensions across all sections of society: between white landowners and Mugabe’s government, between the government and the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of independence, and, less directly, between white landowners and an impoverished Black underclass. But as Mugabe’s government was coming under criticism from all sides, he decided that a renewed call for land reclamation would solve a lot of his political problems. He opened the door for the radical redistribution of farms, giving the all clear to the war veterans to forcefully occupy desirable land. It was haphazard, disorderly, and violent.

I am not a political historian or an economist, and when this all began to happen, I was just a kid and simply recall the national atmosphere turning angry and chaotic. Suddenly, we had to drive to school with guns—and thank goodness. On two separate occasions, we had to fend off attackers who attempted to follow us onto our property. But more-forceful incursions had been succeeding all around us.

Ours was only a 200-acre farm. The farm to the west of us was one of the largest farms in Zimbabwe, comprising thousands of acres. In comparison, we were a speck. We were a tiny, high-end concern that produced fancy oranges, fancy avocadoes, and fancy flowers. We weren’t harvesting millions of kilos of tobacco. Therefore, we weren’t a primary target for “land reformers.” However, any sense of our immunity quickly diminished one night in early 2002. By this time, the mdudu bike had become a well-known fixture on the farm, and I was riding the motorbike down to the dam on patrol when I heard gun shots. This could be my imagination—I cannot tell if I’ve made this up or if I actually perceived this—but I heard a bullet pass right by my ear, missing my head by inches. I looked up toward the neighboring fence line where approximately one hundred kids—for they weren’t but a troop of teenagers with guns, on marijuana, and drunk as can be—were chanting, screaming, and firing at me. I got out of there on my motorbike as fast as I possibly could, zipping to the house, and told my mom, “The war vets are right on the fence. It’s getting bad. They’re getting close.”

Although this policy of land reformation relied on pitting whites and Blacks against one another, we were no less African, and Africans don’t flee. They dig in their heels and fight. All of our neighbors had done just that, and several of them were now dead; but it didn’t matter to us, we would prepare and defend the farm. I was thirteen at the time, burdened with the responsibilities of a man, with no father to help, but still with boyish tendencies. And I was ready to go, armed, staring out my window, waiting for them to come, prepared to fight to the death. I find it hard to explain the reality of that mentality, its intensity, focus, and resignation.

The next day, having listened to their drumming until I fell asleep, I went to school, proceeding as normal, as you do in Zimbabwe. Toward the end of classes, my mother arrived early to pick us up, telling us, “Don’t say anything to your friends, just come.” Driving back home, she told me, “Everything’s packed up, and it’s time to go.” I was furious, thirteen, and committed to dying for what was mine and what was right. My mother had spent the day gathering up our valuables and moving them to my grandparents’ house. She told my sister and me that after we had gone to bed, a handful of the drunks from the fence line had fought their way up to the house and communicated, with their guns trained on her, that if we weren’t gone by the following night, they would murder us all.

So be it, I thought. I was ready to fight, to die if I must, and said as much to my mother. Her rebuke felt like a slap: “You wish,” effectively bursting any notion of heroic resistance. I got into the car with my sister. The three of us drove the half mile to the gate, and the fight within me turned to anguish. I cried as our dogs ran behind the car, chasing us to the road the way they always did. The farm workers’ kids lined the drive. My friends, with whom I had spent a childhood marauding about the dam, knew we were leaving, and they waved. I would never see any of them again.

The dogs, the horses, the cows, everything, we left in an instant. We spent the night at my grandparents’, but we weren’t safe there. The recent elections were so charged with violence that all flights were overbooked, full of fleeing political refugees. After harrowing delays, we boarded the first flight out of Harare to London, where we stayed with cousins until we found our feet. When we arrived, we had US$400 to our names; because of foreign currency regulations, our Zimbabwean currency was useless abroad. We stayed a few weeks there, in a state of limbo, my mother having intense conversations with our cousins, while my sister and I looked around ourselves for some sense of normalcy. As I often do, I went fishing, walking barefoot down the English streets to Hampstead Heath in my safari shorts. Having grown up in a former British colony, where white people were an extreme minority, there was something exciting about seeing all of these people who shared similar traits, customs, and qualities with the people I had known growing up. But instead of being hardened, grizzled, English Africans, they were these soft, delicate, London butterflies. I was no doubt an odd sight as I tromped across the manicured lawns of Hampstead Heath looking to catch native pike from one of its famous ponds. But our London layover abruptly came to an end when my mother decided to move us to California. I’m not sure where the money came from for the plane tickets, but there wasn’t much left after we landed. I know our situation is a sight more comfortable than what many refugees around the world face today, but it was world-shattering to us. We had lost the life we had always known, our farm, our house, our friends, and our animals. We lost the beautiful and wild country of Zimbabwe, which, for all its dysfunction, was a setting made for adventure, for living to the fullest. And now the three of us found ourselves moving into a one-bedroom, public-housing apartment in downtown Oakland, California.


As a family, we were in shock. We were crammed


On Sale
Dec 6, 2022
Page Count
272 pages
Hachette Books

Forrest Galante

About the Author

Forrest Galante graduated in 2009 from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in biology. His hands-on approach to wildlife and passion for nature led to the development of his own television show, Extinct or Alive, on Animal Planet. The show follows Galante as he uses science to track and photograph animals that have wrongfully been deemed extinct. Since 2018, Galante has captured evidence of the existence of eight animals once lost to science. He continues to conduct field expeditions and surveys, working not just with believed-extinct animals but also with a wide range of other wildlife. His mission is to inspire and educate people about animals and adventure through the media, including hosting programs on Discovery Channel, on-camera expert interviews, and production of his own wildlife and natural history shows.

Learn more about this author