Meet the man who lives above the rainforest

He’s been attacked by eagles and stung by bees. But the rainforest is James Aldred's natural home.
A Korowai treehouse built on the top of a very high tree.
Korowai treehouse © James Aldred
By Tarquin Cooper

The name James Aldred won't immediately resonate. That's because he's the guy behind the camera. Working for wildlife documentaries, he's climbed into the world's rainforest canopies to bring back remarkable footage of the wildlife that lives there. Hazards include angry elephants, aggressive eagles and an orangutan who tried to undo his knots. But it's all worth it, he says...

Riot gear was no match for a Harpy Eagle
Riot gear was no match for a Harpy Eagle © James Aldred

Why?
It's immersion in life. To go up into the rainforest is a voyage into the unknown. It's an overwhelmingly emotional experience of being in a world that precious few people get to visit, let alone know about. You might as well be visiting another planet.

How do you get up there?
I use a large catapult that goes on the end of a 10ft (3m) pole. That will throw a 200g sack 160ft (50m) which toes a lightweight line. When that comes back down you attach your rope and haul that up. You then use mountaineering techniques to get into the tree.

Silverback lowland Gorilla
Silverback lowland Gorilla © James Aldred

Climbing skills helpful?
I do 'get' rock climbing but it's never done anything for me. Rocks aren't alive. A tree is a living entity, you're entering its space, moving through an infinitely more three dimensional environment that you don't get on a rock face.

Any forest stand out?
They're all phenomenal. The canopy in Central America is particularly lush. The Congo is also incredible. Nothing quite beats being 200ft up in a tree and having a silverback gorilla come up alongside. That was pretty epic.

Are you seen as a kindred spirit?
When primates are on the ground they tend to get away pretty quick when they see someone. But in the canopy they see you in a different context. Their natural primate curiosity very often outbalances their reserves. It's almost as if they know they have the advantage. It leads to these bizarre encounters like when a mature orangutan tried to undo my knots in Sumatra.

 

Collecting samples from the worlds largest Orchid
Collecting samples from the worlds largest Orchid © James Aldred

Any serious encounters?
A few years back we made a series on Harpy Eagles in Venezuela. That was pretty full-on. I had it in my mind that they might be quite aggressive. I took no chances – I got a police riot helmet, neck guard, wore a stab vest and all the gaps in between I had stuffed with rawhide leather.

Her talon was so sharp I didn't feel it go in.

I'm glad I put it on. She came in and punched me in the back and the kidneys with her talons. Once I got up into the canopy she really went for it. She was about 30ft above me and had been watching the whole time and clearly worked out the gap between my neck protection and stab vest. For a split second as I was turning around she pitched forward and got her thumb talon, which is the big killing talon into the gap between my neck and knocked me off the branch. I was left spinning on the ropes while she flew off. Her talon was so sharp I didn't feel it go in, it was like a hypodermic needle.

Anything else?
I've been chased by mambas. I had a king cobra rear up literally 3ft in front of me. How it didn't bite me I'll never know to this day. I almost trod on it. I've also climbed into a few bees' and hornets' nests which was pretty traumatic. I've been charged by elephants more times than I can remember and once spent a couple of nights in a tree with an elephant trying to push it over. Things like that happen from time to time.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home © James Aldred

But the pros outweigh the cons?
I couldn't imagine not doing it. When you're in there it's just great to see that environment from such a new perspective. We are designed to live in the trees. Ok, we're not as good climbers as primates but we've still got a lot of physiological features such as binocular vision for judging distances, opposable thumbs – the ability to grip. It just feels like coming home.

What's next?
It's festival season and I've just done Glastonbury. I fly cable cameras over the top of concerts so it's a case of one jungle to another. It's a mental contrast.

James Aldred hanging high on a tree.
“Being in the rainforest feels like coming home.” © James Aldred

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