Wildlife expert, photographer, world traveler and amateur comedian Ron Magill has been laughed at by the best of 'em: David Letterman, local radio wise guy Paul Castronovo, an oversexed bull elephant.
So the vibe will be fun when the Emmy-winning Zoo Miami communications director hosts a gathering at Due South Brewing in Boynton Beach Thursday night. But Magill, apparently, also has a serious side, especially when he gets on the subject of the "magnificence that is Africa."
"I remember the first time I went there 30 years ago, getting over a hill in the Maasai Mara [National Reserve in Kenya] and the Great Migration [of gazelles, zebras and wildebeest] was in front of me," Magill says. "Now, I'm 6-foot-6, and I weigh 230 pounds, and I started crying like a little girl. I was so overwhelmed with emotion to see the vastness of this place, to smell it, to hear it. Africa becomes part of your soul."
Magill will share stories and photographs he took on one of 50 trips he has made to Africa in a talk on Thursday called "Okavango! The Ultimate Safari: Wild Tales of Ron Magill," the latest installment of the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium's series of casual pub conversations dubbed Science on Tap.
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is one of the most "mind-blowing" places on Earth, Magill says, a river of grass analogous to the Everglades, with an exceptional collection of flora and fauna: lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, antelope, elephants.
"The Okavango has the most impressive lions on the African continent," says the Queens, N.Y., native, describing Botswana's large, muscular beasts. "These lions are famous for taking down full-grown buffalo. The other thing that's really cool is these lions swim across water to get to prey. Lions in Tanzania step in a puddle and it's like they've got cooties on them. These [Botswana] lions are like furry submarines. They're unbelievable."
Magill says the pictures he took on his Nikon D4S (using 200 or 400mm telephoto lens) capture the action at eight or nine frames per second and in extraordinary detail. His presentation includes a sequence in which a pride of lions takes down a buffalo.
"The thing I love about still photography is that you capture a moment that, if I showed you a video of the same moment, you just wouldn't see," he says. "That split second, the look in the eye of the lion, the tension of the muscle in the forearm, the little tiny details that make you go, 'Whoa!'"
A winner of three Emmy Awards for his work on the nature documentary programs "Dreams of Alaska," "The Amazon & Beyond" and "Dreams of the Rain Forest," Magill was "disgusted" by the infamous killing of Cecil the Lion in Africa last summer. But while he goes on safari with a camera, Magill's not against all hunters armed with weapons.
"The true hunter, many of them, are some of our best conservationists," Magill says, describing the role that deer hunters play as a surrogate for the dwindling number of natural predators, such as wolves, bears and mountain lions.
"What I do have a problem with is people who kill animals simply to hang them up on their wall," he says. "Trophy hunters [in Africa] will use the excuse that, 'Well, the money goes to conservation.' Very little of that money goes to conservation. That's a very misleading fact. Trophy hunting is something I have absolutely no tolerance for."
Now, about that memorable date with the elephant. It happened about 15 years ago in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, when Magill was taking pictures of a massive bull elephant. The animal was in musth, a prime mating period when elephants can be particularly aggressive. A few weeks prior, an elephant in Kenya had crushed a car, killing several people inside, he says.
Sure enough, Magill says, the elephant began to stride toward the Land Rover on which he was perched. Magill's driver turned the key: "Click-click-click." The starter failed.
Cowering on the floor as the elephant rocked the truck with its tusks, Magill prepared for the worst. The driver prayed in Swahili.
"All of a sudden the vehicle stopped rocking and a huge shadow comes over us. This elephant was so large that as it went over the top of the vehicle, he blocked out the sun, like an eclipse. I'm thinking, OK, it's all over," Magill says. "His trunk comes over us and I felt it go down my back and up the side my face. And I felt it go, Pfffft! Pfffft! He's smelling, and I'm thinking he's going to grab me in his trunk, rip me out of the vehicle and kill me."
This is the point in the story, if he tells it Thursday night, when Magill might take a dramatic sip from one of Due South's fine craft beers. Except Magill has never had a beer, or any alcohol. No caffeine, either.
"But he just smelled me, and he walked away," Magill says. "I was 100 percent sure I was going to die. And then I felt, wait, this elephant was laughing at us. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals. And I really think this elephant came up and scared the crap out of us on purpose, and then walked away going, 'Ha! Ha! Ha!'"
Ron Magill will speak at Science on Tap 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11, at Due South Brewing Co., 2900 High Ridge Road, No. 3, Boynton Beach. Admission is free. For information, call the South Florida Science Center at 561-832-1988, or visit SFScienceCenter.org.