But he has a unique boast that’s likely to top any other. “I’ve got 40 children named after me,” smiles the globe-trotting adventurer. You could be forgiven for wondering how he knows about all these little Levisons, given that he never stays in one place for long. But he’s quick to point out that he’s never actually met his tiny namesakes, or their mothers. “I get Facebook messages about them from around the world – little African babies called Levison Katanga,” he laughs. “There are 40 that I know about. I’ve got one in Vietnam, three in Australia and dozens in this country. It’s great.”
You can see the appeal. Ruggedly handsome, this former major in the Parachute Regiment fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan, then forged a new career exploring some of the world’s most dangerous territories, including Syria and Iraq.
Millions have been glued to the 37-year-old’s epic Channel 4 walking expedition documentaries across Asia, Africa and Central America.
His first was Walking The Nile in 2013, a 4,250-mile-long trek lasting nine months. Since then he has crossed the Himalayas, avoided drug smugglers in South America’s notorious Darien Gap and circumnavigated 5,000 miles of the Arabian Peninsula.
He’s encountered cannibals and lived off maggot stew. But his closest call was six years ago when he plummeted more than 150 yards down a Nepalese mountainside after his car’s brakes failed.
“I thought I was about to die and it was going to hurt,” he said afterwards. Miraculously, he escaped with nothing worse than a broken arm.
The drama continues in his latest three-part Channel 4 series, Walking With Elephants. But gentle wildlife documentaries are just not his style.
At one point he’s not so much walking with elephants as being charged by them. “When you’ve got a six-ton beast coming at you, then you need to know what to do,” he smiles.
For the most part he thrives off the fear. “I find it exciting and exhilarating to become more attuned to nature and to be on foot, always thinking,” he says.
“Actually, it’s oddly stress-relieving, so instead of worrying about stuff that may or may not happen, whether that’s emails or what’s going to happen next week, you’re focused on the here and now. It’s almost like a sort of enforced mindfulness.”
Filmed last June, Walking With Elephants focuses on conservation, as Levison tracks elephants during their annual 650-mile migration across Botswana to the vast wetlands of the Okavango Delta.
Poachers and lions are not the only predators of this endangered species, he says. When they pass through remote villages, plundering crops and trampling to death subsistence farmers trying to protect their food, they quickly become targets.
“Most natural history shows are about the animal, usually looking at them in a pristine environment,” Levison says, sprawled across a leather armchair in his publisher’s London office.
“They rarely turn the camera around and show you what’s going on behind the scenes, whereas that’s the important bit – how people and nature can inhabit the same space.
This is what this documentary does.
“It’s remarkable when you talk to people about how elephants can destroy an entire year’s crop in one night. Ultimately, this increased human-elephant conflict comes down to competition for resources.” Until recently, Botswana had been applauded for protecting its elephants, which now number fewer than 415,000.
But Levison is keen to show what happens when rural communities, excluded from their country’s tourism boom, take matters into their own hands. In one scene, a village elder tells him in no uncertain terms that elephants are his people’s enemies.
Was he surprised by that? “Yes, particularly because the perception there is that there are too many elephants, which isn’t true,” says Levison, who has written a book, The Last Giants: The Rise And Fall Of The African Elephant, to accompany the TV series.
“There is a big concentration of elephants in Botswana, about 120,000 or so, but a lot of that is because of poaching in neighbouring countries like Angola, Namibia and Zambia, so elephants are crossing over into Botswana.”
He’s been a champion of the species since he was 11 when he met the artist and conservationist David Shepherd at one of his exhibitions. Levison, an ambassador for charity Tusk Trust, writes in The Last Giants that he “decided there and then that I wanted to become an artist too, and see for myself the wild elephants in Africa”.
Can they be saved? “It’s hard to contemplate the scale of the challenge but there is hope, it’s just whether or not we can do it in time,” he says.
“People need to make that a priority but it’s often difficult when you’re competing with coronavirus or whatever else.”
We meet just a few weeks into the Covid‑19 outbreak, before the nation went into lockdown. He’s deeply tanned and sporting a full beard.
We ponder what closed borders might mean for his future expeditions. “Walking the Thames?” he offers. Even that seems impossible now. Until now, Levison has not spent two weeks in the same place for a decade. He was raised by his teacher parents in a small village near Stoke-on-Trent. Early heroes, aside from Shepherd, were TE Lawrence, and David Livingstone.
Aged 21, Levison, hitchhiked through India and parts of Africa for his gap year. Then came five years as an officer in the Parachute Regiment.
“It’s given me the right sort of network of people,” he says of his service. “There is always some ex-Para lurking around who I can ask for advice or help wherever I want to go in the world.”
As for one special person, that vacancy appears to remain unfilled, despite his assertion two years ago that perhaps his next adventure should be “a wife hunt”. These days, he refuses even to discuss it.
Levison lost several comrades in battle after stints in Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul, but that wasn’t the reason he left in 2010 – although he remains a reservist. He wanted to become a writer and had an idea to try to walk the Nile. The film crew did not arrive until later. “It took a lot of convincing to get people to buy into an idea of that scale,” he says.
The Nile remains his “toughest” physical and mental challenge to date. “I have no desire to try to beat that frankly,” he says. “There were so many unknowns on it.”
He foraged for food and endured temperatures of over 110F. The journey was so arduous that the American journalist Matthew Power, accompanying him on assignment, sadly died aged 39 after suffering severe heatstroke.
Levison is measured in his response to the tragedy, saying there was “a lot of soul-searching” about whether to continue or not.
“We came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was to carry on the journey and maintain Matt’s legacy,” he adds. He prepares meticulously – planning is always key – and says situations are never exaggerated for story-telling purposes.
“I don’t go looking for trouble, it usually finds me so we’ve never had to stage anything,” he says. “There’s always plenty going on, especially when you’re walking through Africa.”
Indeed there is a heart-stopping near miss with a hippo in Walking With Elephants, although he made me swear not to reveal the details.
Packs of cigarettes and a sense of humour have got him out of other tricky situations but for the most part, if you get a gun pointed at your head you need to appear empathetic and “just be human”, he says.
While walking through Syria and Iraq during his Arabian Peninsula trip, he hunkered down with Hezbollah troops and spent time with one Iraqi sniper fighting IS. “He had been shooting British soldiers in the early 2000s and was interested to meet me because I wasn’t a threat to him, I was just there with a camera,” Levison recalls.
“There was that kind of almost weird respect between former enemies. There is something to be learnt from that. Sadly he was killed a week later by IS.”
Levison maintains his motivations are cultural. Walking through the Middle East two years ago had been an aspiration for 20 years.
“It was special for me because places like Yemen and Iraq only ever hit the news headlines for the wrong reasons,” he says. “That was a way for me to show a side you never see.”
While there have never been so many TV adventurers around to teach us survival skills, he says the physical challenges are a “small part” of what he does. “I go on journeys I enjoy and meet interesting people. Other people prefer to eat worms and drink their own wee. And some people like climbing mountains. Each to their own.”
In these uncertain times, it’s lucky his next plan is to write a novel. However, might his conservationist efforts be diverted towards the trade of animal parts in China? He says their wildlife markets are “grim” and backs the Tusk Trust in trying to effect change there.
“I hope people learn from coronavirus that eating ground-up rhino horn or having ivory trinkets on your mantelpiece is not good for anyone,” he says. And he does not care if Westerners are deemed hypocrites for lecturing the Third World while ignoring abuses at home.
“I don’t give a toss if it’s hypocritical because if nobody says anything then nothing is going to happen,” he says animatedly. “It’s not wrong to try to educate other people to stop killing rhinos and elephants. If we don’t, there won’t be any elephants left.”
Walking With Elephants, Channel 4, May 10, 9pm. The Last Giants: The Rise And Fall Of The African Elephant by Levison Wood (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) is out now
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