He’s probably SA’s biggest YouTube sensation right now; a crazy crusader for wildlife who wrestles crocs and snakes in a similar fashion to his inspiration, the legendary Australian crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin. Bronwyn Forbes-Hardinge chats to Graham ‘Dingo’ Dinkelman a committed wildlife conservationist.
Funny and fearless, this 38-year-old award-winning Discovery Channel wildlife presenter is determined to leave the world a better place, even if it means risking his life in the company of some of the deadliest creatures known to man. This is something he attempted to do through a series of videos he launched on YouTube as part of the Cell C and Blink Pictures #BreakTheNet (#BTN) competition. Featuring a spitting cobra, black mamba, a rinkhals, some crocodiles, and a handful of South African celebs, the videos netted a whopping 165 000 views that earned him the winner’s crown. Dingo’s dream is to expand on the exposure he received and continue to promote the message of conservation through his passion and love for animals.
On his property in the scenic parts of Everton, Dingo’s playground is nothing like one would expect. The home he shares with his gorgeous wife, Kirsty, and their three kids, Taylor (8), Maddy (6) and Josh (4) is picturesque, in the midst of an English country styled garden, with no hint of what lurks within the confines of this prime piece of land.
Simply put, there’s nothing short of a small zoo in his back yard. Everything is so well-maintained and organised that you don’t notice, that aside from their dogs, there’s a drove of bunnies, some Guinea pigs, chameleons, spiders, frogs, parrots, a Maine coon, a couple of alligators and some of the largest and most venomous snakes on the continent, all of which leave you feeling that its nothing short of a miracle you made it out of there alive!
“I love this life and I’m so passionate about wildlife. I know I’ve knocked on death’s door way too many times for my wife’s liking, but I would far rather die doing what I love than be dying slowly in a seven-to-five job that is destroying my soul.”
For 12 years Dingo slogged away in a career as a life and investment broker. The perks of the job included a financially stable lifestyle, but they didn’t feed his soul or his deep-rooted desire to bring nature to people. Dingo’s love of wildlife began early. His dad worked for the Parks Board which meant his exposure to nature was a little more diverse than that of his peers during his youth.
“I grew up in a world where the river was a part of my life; where tubing and reptiles were an everyday experience for me. At the age of four, I caught my first water snake, and I’m pretty sure the teachers weren’t surprised that every oral, project or presentation I did had something to do with reptiles. My biggest inspiration in life is my dad because he taught me about nature – to respect and appreciate it. It is just magnificent, and I feel closer to God when I am a part of it. One of my favourite things in life is to see an animal in its natural environment; the way it moves, responds to you and its surroundings. There’s something auspicious about being in the presence of great whites and lions; swimming with dolphins and finding yourself so close you can almost touch them, but they don’t allow that privilege. There is something remarkably special about handling a King Cobra that can so effortlessly and instinctively kill you, but chooses not to. I believe there is a reason for that.”
It is Dingo’s belief that nerves keep us alive, fear is what really kills us and respect is paramount when it comes to wildlife. Every day he interacts with Gaboon vipers, his 6.3m long 100kg reticulated python named Bella, who is the largest recorded snake on the continent, his Malaysian King Cobra named Thor, who is the largest venomous snake on the African continent measuring 4.5m long and a snake better known for its kiss of death, the black mamba.
“They are big, have super toxic venom, are incredibly fast, and have a personality that brings fear into the heart of every man. I’ve been bitten five times in the past, the worst of which was by a black mamba. I was 23, full of energy, a massive risk-taker and within 10-miutes my life changed. I felt the pins and needles, then I couldn’t walk and then I stopped breathing.”
Dingo spent three days in ICU on a ventilator, and woke up with a whole new respect for life and the mamba. As a result, he is now highly sensitive to venom, and without immediate treatment and access to a hospital, he is unlikely to survive another venomous snake bite.
“That bite was a life lesson. It has always been my dream to work with animals, and I do believe that was a turning point for me. Doors started opening and even though I forged on in the financial field for the next 12 years, I felt this kind of peace that everything would fall into place and that I would begin to explore a different way of life.”
Dingo got more involved with wildlife from a conservation perspective, and two years ago he said goodbye to life as a broker to focus more on endangered species, anti-poaching campaigns, rescues, dehorning rhino and more. Following the almost overnight success of his videos for #BreakTheNet, Dingo continues to film his fast-paced adventures that can be viewed on his YouTube video channel, Dingo Dinkelman.
When he’s not dicing with death, Dingo hosts holiday clubs and does educational shows at schools where kids get to touch snakes and spiders and all kinds of other scary things. He is currently packing his bags to join an American co-host and crew to film a new series for a US-based broadcasting network. The first season will see the team work with dangerous animals in the Amazon, Australia, South East Asia, South Africa and North America. Short term goals also include opening an interactive animal park between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The idea is to offer a quality life to animals that have been rescued and are unable to be reintegrated into the wild, and unite them with people in a safe, educational, interactive way that will give people a better understanding of these animals and hopefully change their lives based on these controlled encounters.
“I realise that what’s normal for me is by no means normal for anybody else, but I’m doing what makes me happy. I have tons of fun, loads of adrenalin-filled moments and I learn from nature every single day because at the heart of what I do lies conservation. And believe it or not, while I’m extroverted during the day, when I’m done with work, filming and seeing to my reptiles for the day, I like to come home to a place where I can hide. If there is one message I can share, it’s to remove some of the busyness from your life. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and just take the time out to be with yourself, each other and nature. We live in the most magnificent land in the world, we should appreciate all of it. All I’m trying to do is relive my youth and share the beauty of nature that I was fortunate enough to experience as a youngster, with my wife, my kids and with others. I want people to fall in love with animals and understand that there is something good and intrinsic about us when we are in nature. Most of all, I’m chasing a dream of who I want to be in ten years. For now though, it’s just another day in the life of Dingo!”
You can support Dingo’s brilliant work by following him on Facebook at DingoOfficial or Instagram at Dingo_SA or watch him in action on YouTube at Dingo Dinkelman.