Jungle Frank: Celebration of a Spanish Eccentric
The author of sci-fi classic Dune, Frank Herbert, once said: 'Behold, as a wild ass in the desert, I go forth to work.' Substitute the desert for the jungle, and it could apply fittingly to the career of 'Wild' Frank.
The Frank in question, a 47-year old from León, is impulsive, opinionated and doesn't stand about on ceremony. As likely to cuss a cameraman as leap on top of a lemur, for a number of years the veterinarian, TV presenter and former tennis coach, real name Francisco Cuesta Ramos, has plodded around the rainforests of the world in a pair of pinks Crocs fronting the most entertainingly informal nature show on Spanish telly.
A winningly direct, informal and seemingly unrehearsed idiom of presentation - combined with a controversially hands-on approach to exotic/dangerous wildlife - has established him as one of the most charismatic characters on Spanish TV.
During the past four years however, his increasingly vocal and fearless campaigning against the exotic animal trade has made him a controversial figure, leading to tensions with the media milieu at home and the political establishment in his adopted Thailand.
This week came the revelation, from Cuesta's Twitter account, that he would be quitting la pequeña pantalla, and taking a side-swipe at all the postuleadores ('postulators') in the media. 'Fighting against animal trafficking is not about winning awards.,' he wrote. 'It's about going to bed happy you've done good work and waking up knowing today could be your last.'
Whether there's an element of paranoia (even justified paranoia) in his latest social media declarations (animal trafficking, one of the world's largest illegal trades, is an ugly, difficult beast to take on and there are doubtless pressures on Cuesta to tone it down - more of that later), what is certain is that Frank Cuesta, in his mind, has become a victim of his own crusade, and that he feels that others aren't willing to follow him into the same battle.
Like Timothy Treadwell, the tragicomic hero of Werner Herzog's docu-drama, Grizzly Man, Cuesta finds a sense of personal epiphany in rubbing up to the most dangerous animals (and capturing the results for posterity on film), seized by the growing sense that he can somehow protect them. Though it is all too plain as you watch Herzog's film that Treadwell suffered from narcissistic delusions of grandeur, such delusions do not translate to the plain-talking, down-to-earth personality of the Spaniard. It's just that, like the American, he too found his Eden in the wild and his calling in protecting the creatures living there.
And, as with Treadwell, part of Cuesta's narrative involves the personal disappointment of missing out on the career he had set his mind on as a boy. In Treadwell's case it was acting; by his own personal account, when a part he was auditioning for in US sitcom Cheers went to Woody Harrelson, it caused him to lose the plot and take to the bottle. Subsequently the American would find salvation swapping the pressures of society for the Alaskan outback and a life living among wild bears.
In Cuesta's case, as a young man he dreamed of being a tennis player. However, a motorbike accident robbed him of the chance to fulfill his ambition.
Hoping to be the next best thing, a successful coach, he relocated to Florida to enrol at the Bollettieri tennis coaching academy. In Florida, Ramos honed his coaching skills, but also found himself drawn to the wilds of the Florida Keys, coming into contact with the kinds of large reptiles - snakes, crocodiles, lizards - which had always fascinated him.
Having earned his coaching badges, Ramos then moved to Thailand, where he founded his own tennis academy. There he continued to indulge a growing passion for wildlife, spending as much time as he could in the rainforest and establishing a foundation to protect reptiles. This led to a chance appearance on cult TV show, Callejeros. The makers of the programme, a fly-on-the-wall documentary following Spanish emigres living and working around the world, were alerted to the existence in Bangkok of a 'Spanish Indiana Jones, as mad as a goat'.' Such was Ramos described in the words of one interviewee. Intrigued, the programme-makers tracked down Frank and joined him on a house-call to handle an errant cobra.
The show's producers were so taken with the expatriated Buddhist convert's manic personality and impressive knowledge of 'bichos', that Cuatro sent out the reporter Nacho Medina and cameraman Santiago Trancho to join Cuesta. The result was Wild Frank, a series of ennervating adventures in the wilds of the Thai rainforest. One of the most memorable early escapades involved the three of them seeking refuge in a tree where they spent a whole night to escape the wrath of an angry herd of elephants.
The trio, thrown together for the programme, would become good friends, and a curious feature of the programme's unusual format was the expletive-riddled, no holds-barred chatter that Frank would direct their way, often berating them for gettting in the way or not doing as he told them as he led them through natural habitats ranging from the Mongolian steppe to Laos, Vietnam, Burma and the Amazon jungle. Instead of crouching behind bushes and whispering softly in the manner of a David Attenborough, Cuesta grappled, embraced and chattered to fauna, giving them names such as Maria Jose, Federico or Fernando. He was game for anything, placing his hands in a glove full of venemous ants during a sacred ritual in a Brazilian village or tapped crocodiles on the back in the African bush. At its best, for a special show on snakes, the programme would capture 10% of the viewing public.
Regularly risking his life on camera by attempting to catch venemous snakes or willing scorpions to sting him, it is in the urban world that Ramos embarked on perhaps his most risky adventures, attempting to chronicle the murky underbelly of the Thai exotic animal trade.
Second only to narcotics and weapons, the exotic pet trade is one of the world's most profitable illegal smuggling business, with an estmated value of $7-10 billion a year.The exportation of exotic animals from their natural habitat for the international pet trade causes dwindling of populations to critical levels. Such is the case with endangered species such as the scarlet macaw or African grey parrot. Even bits of coral reef have been known to hit the market. In Indonesia in February 900 critically endagered snake-necked turtles were discovered amongst a total of 4500 turtles being transported to the Chinese pet market.
Cuesta, trying to document this damaging and illicit trade in Thailand, filming in warehouses against the wishes of dealers with his kamikaze reporting style, was not only wilfully flirting with a section of the Thai mafia, but with the Thai authorities themselves, who according to certain reports in the Spanish media, have never approved of Cuesta's international broadcasting of Thailand's darker side.
The subsequent arrest of Cuesta's wife, Yuyee, after police found five miligrams of cocaine in her belongings, and her condemnation to 15 years in jail, led to suggestions that Cuesta was being punished for his crusade. The 15-year sentence itself was unprecedented - the severest verdict in the history of Thai law for a case of its kind. When Cuesta's appeals, focusing on police irregularities and the absence of a proper hearing in court, fell on deaf ears with the Thai authorities, he took the bold step of asking the Spanish monarch to intervene. As yet, Yuyee remains in prison, but in May of this year Thai Justice promised to reopen her case. Current status; uncertain..
When good friend and cameraman Santiago Trancho tragically died in a motorbike accident in 2015 it was another personal ideal to add to those of the early death of his son Zipi, and the continuing imprisonment of his wife. Cuesta, understandably, was said to be getting weary of his television commitments. So this week's reports that he is on the verge of quitting are hardly surprising.
So what next for the man in the Crocs, tatterred white shirt and turned-back cap? Apparently he has a company importing typically Spanish turron (nougat) into China. Could this be the future? 'No, I'm not really a business mogul type.'
And what of his wife, will she gain a reprieve anytime soon? Was she even guilty in the first place?
Will Frank continue to wage war on the animal trafficking trade?
Will he return to the small screen?
Might he follow in the footsteps of those other adventurers who pushed the limits of interaction with wildlife too far, ie. 'Crocodile hunter' Steve Irwin or The Grizzly Man?
Or might he coach a Thai tennis prodigy to glory at Wimbledon?
To be Frank, who could possibly know?