Liz Bonnin’s passion for nature: A call to action to reconnect with the natural world.
In April, Liz Bonnin returned from a three-month trip to various islands in the Caribbean with a surprisingly positive attitude. The 47-year-old presenter, who specializes in science and wildlife, is aware that this statement might seem absurd. She is careful not to refer to her job – which often takes her to exotic locations in search of the world’s rarest and most adorable animals – as tedious. However, it does come with a cost: loss of innocence. It is impossible to work in this field, read academic papers, and witness the deterioration of nature firsthand without coming to the conclusion that our planet is on the verge of being in serious trouble.
However, this journey was unlike any other. While enjoying coffee in west London, she reveals, “I returned feeling fulfilled.” Her friends were surprised and commented, “Usually when you come back from shoots, you’re exhausted and in a bad mood. You can’t even form proper sentences. But now, you’re glowing! What’s the secret?” She responds, “Just wait until I share it with you…”
The radiance, surprisingly, was not caused by the change from winter in the UK to Belize, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Venezuela. Rather, it was a result of spending time with dedicated conservationists and experts in the region who are committed to preserving the local species and vulnerable ecosystems. Bonnin’s interactions with these people and the animals they work with – such as white-fronted capuchin monkeys, Guiana dolphins, and a stunning flock of scarlet ibises – are featured in a vibrant and optimistic four-part series on BBC Two called “Liz Bonnin’s Wild Caribbean”, which premiered last Sunday.
Bonnin reflects that meeting incredible individuals can give us a sense of self-awareness. However, she also believes that there are still people in the world who know how to be compassionate and empathetic, and many of them reside in developing nations. These individuals have a stronger connection to nature as they live in harmony with it, unlike many of us in the Western world. Bonnin admits that living in London for an extended period has caused her to lose touch with this connection. She acknowledges that this is not a criticism, but rather a realization that when all hope seems lost, there are still inspiring individuals to be found.
Bonnin is a rapid and passionate speaker who maintains a positive outlook on the potential for resolving our environmental issues. She strives to convey this attitude in the programs she produces, such as Blue Planet Live, Galápagos, Super Smart Animals, and Our Changing Planet. These shows are consistently visually stunning. However, her ultimate goal is to influence behavior and encourage viewers to consider the world outside of their own homes. Bonnin sees finding and sharing the stories of conservationists in the Caribbean as a powerful means of providing inspiration. She states, “That is my life’s purpose – to transform perspectives and attitudes.”
Maintaining a positive attitude can be challenging. In 2018, Bonnin created a full-length documentary, titled Drowning in Plastic, for BBC One. The documentary was difficult to watch as Bonnin was seen crying on camera while observing a three-month-old shearwater chick regurgitating 20 pieces of plastic, despite never having been in the ocean. The impact of her experiences stayed with her even after returning home. A poignant moment in the film captures her emotional state as she watches a plastic net being removed from a deceased grey seal pup, tearfully questioning how such events can continue while we carry on with our lives.
“I suffered from insomnia for several months,” Bonnin shares with me. “It’s extremely difficult to predict our future and witness us turning a blind eye to it. I had to seek therapy because I was struggling immensely.”
According to Bonnin, therapy is surprisingly prevalent among individuals in the environmental field. She believes that it is important to openly discuss and normalize these conversations. In the past, she would try to suppress her emotions and distract herself, but through therapy, she has learned the value of facing discomfort and how it can ultimately lessen its impact.
Bonnin continues on to say that she still has difficult days, despite her progress. She shared an awkward realization with her therapist, questioning if all the effort put into therapy would ultimately lead to an easy life and constant happiness.
Although Bonnin finds humor in the situation, there was a particularly difficult moment in September when a report, based on 2,000 studies, revealed that the Earth’s condition was severely compromised and no longer considered a safe environment for humanity. Despite Bonnin’s efforts to stay positive, the recent weeks have been a challenge. “We are causing irreparable harm to our life-sustaining systems,” she explains. “If we don’t find a solution, we will not only cause the extinction of countless species, but also put our own survival at risk. However, the remaining species will persist and the planet will continue on.”
You may have also seen Bonnin on the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are?, a show about family history. Her episode in 2016 was particularly fascinating. Prior to the show, Bonnin had some knowledge of her background: her mother was from Trinidad and had ancestors from India and Portugal, while her father was from French Martinique. However, she was not fully prepared for the discoveries made during her research. One of the most shocking revelations was that her great-great-great-great grandfather, François Alexandre Gros Désormeaux, was a slave owner in Martinique. Another unexpected turn was when Bonnin found out that he had freed one of his slaves, Pauline Zoé, with whom he had children. In the end, Pauline inherited François’s estate, including his slaves, and received compensation from the French government after slavery was abolished.
Bonnin characterizes the experience of Who Do You Think You Are? as “absurd” and it continues to impact her today. “One of the few good things that came out of it was that for months afterwards, while brushing my teeth, I would see in the mirror – and it’s probably idealized – the eyes of my ancestor who was a freed slave six generations ago and ended up managing a plantation in Martinique. It made me feel empowered and I realized that my determination probably stems from that.”
Bonnin’s personal path could be deemed “ridiculous.” She was born in Paris, but at the age of nine, her mother relocated her to Dublin in hopes of providing her with a convent education (although Bonnin was not enthusiastic about the idea). She pursued biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin and, upon graduating, had to make the decision between pursuing a PhD at Oxford or joining an all-female pop group called Chill. She ultimately chose the latter, but the band did not find success and was dropped by their label, Polydor, before releasing any music. However, this experience eventually led her to a career in television. After moving to London in the early 2000s, she became a presenter on Channel 4’s hectic morning show RI:SE, where she had the opportunity to interview big names such as Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. She then went on to host Top of the Pops.
She exclaimed, “I had a great time!” while talking about hosting Top of the Pops, a show she used to watch regularly. There were moments where she couldn’t believe her luck, but deep down it wasn’t her passion. Despite attending parties and living the lifestyle, she no longer found enjoyment in it. She simply missed the academic world and wanted to dive back into reading research papers.
Bonnin found herself sitting across from DiCaprio and pondering if she wanted to browse through scientific journals. Despite her initial thoughts that DiCaprio was not her type, she was impressed by his charisma and understated charm, which caught her off guard. The experience left her in awe and questioning the aura that seemed to surround him.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Bonnin pursued a masters degree in wild animal biology at the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Veterinary College. Her original goal was to become a scientist in India and focus solely on tigers. However, she soon realized that in order to truly make a difference for the planet, simply collecting data as a biologist was not enough. The necessary data already exists.
Bonnin made the decision to return to hosting as it was the most effective way to create an influence. Her timing was ideal, as BBC One was seeking presenters for their new science series, Bang Goes the Theory, in 2009. Bonnin was chosen for the role and hosted the show for eight seasons until 2014. During this time, she also appeared on various other programs such as Stargazing Live, Horizon, and Tomorrow’s World, and co-hosted ITV’s Countrywise with Ben Fogle starting in 2013.
However, Bonnin’s busy schedule began to take a toll on her and in 2015 she experienced burnout, which she now recognizes. The first indication came while she was live on television, working on Big Blue Live at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The show, which received a Bafta award for best Live Event, had just aired incredible footage of a blue whale when the cameras cut back to Bonnin. “And I was completely checked out,” she remembers. “I was standing on the pier, reading from the Autocue on live TV and all I could think about was jumping into the water and going for a swim. I was so exhausted… On the outside, I was smiling, but internally, I was falling apart.”
Despite being aware of the indications, Bonnin continued to work and experienced another panic attack while diving in the Bristol Channel. She recalls the incident and admits that she realized it was not a laughing matter. Even so, she chose to disregard it and ended up injuring her back, which she attributes to burnout.
Currently, Bonnin is experiencing more joy and better health than she can recall. She has reduced her workload in line with her resolution to only travel when it is necessary. Through the assistance of a physiotherapist and consistent yoga practice, she has resolved her back issues. Although she does not have children and chooses not to disclose her relationship status, she relies on her friends and therapist for support. According to Bonnin, “I have gained a lot of insight from this experience. I even consider my burnout to be a blessing in disguise.”
Can you explain further? She responds, “I gained growth, self-awareness, and self-care from it. And as I’ve gotten older, it’s true what they say: you stop worrying about others’ opinions. It’s truly freeing! If I were to assess myself right now, I’d think, ‘I am content with who I am.’ Does that sound conceited? But my closest friends tell me that too. Not that I have changed, but that I have embraced who I am.”
Professionally, everything is falling into alignment. In November 2020, Bonnin was chosen as the president of the Wildlife Trusts, which oversees conservation efforts in the UK’s nature reserves. “I was recommended for the role by the incredible David Attenborough, and when they approached me, I was overwhelmed with emotion,” she shares with a smile. “I am the first woman and person of color to hold this position, which presents a wonderful challenge.”
Although Bonnin plays a groundbreaking role, she still experiences the occasional feelings of impostor syndrome. Her expertise is in high demand from major corporations like Unilever for advice on sustainable strategies, but she doubts if she is the best fit for delivering those presentations. When asked why she feels like an impostor, she playfully responds, “Why are you asking me that? You already know the answer.”
Who is the intended speaker for that presentation? “It is worth noting that men are often chosen to give these talks over women. There is a significant amount of unconscious bias present, and as a woman in this field, I can attest that my voice is not always given equal weight.”
Bonnin is prepared for the upcoming battle ahead. This battle aims to empower women and people of color in the wildlife industry, and to continue producing programs that inspire change in society. I inquire if she envisions herself following in the footsteps of Attenborough, working and advocating well into her nineties. Bonnin responds without hesitation, referencing inspirational figures such as Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, Sylvia Earle, and Chris Packham. She believes that retirement is not necessary as it leads to physical and mental decline, and one should continue pursuing their passions and contributing to the planet until their last day.
Bonnin pauses, realizing she has forgotten something important. “Also, make sure to do plenty of yoga to maintain flexibility and be able to effectively perform your duties.”
The next episode of Liz Bonnin’s Wild Caribbean will air on BBC Two at 9pm on November 12, and will also be available on BBC iPlayer.
Jo Jones, an editor in the fashion industry; Jade Bird responsible for makeup and hair using Giorgio Armani and Innersense; assisted by Sam Deaman in styling.