Growing up in Arlington Heights, E.J. Horstman always had an interest in animals and the outdoors, and television shows like "Crocodile Hunter" and its star, the late Steve Irwin, helped fuel his passion.
Now in his mid-20s, Horstman is living his dream. Not as a crocodile hunter, mind you, but as a wildlife filmmaker, with segments on the National Geographic and Animal Planet cable television channels to his credit.
Horstman left last week to film his latest project, "Big Cats of India," for Animal Planet, but when he returns he plans to resume his main passion: filming wolves.
Just last month, Horstman won a Young Explorer's Grant from National Geographic to explore the plight of Iberian wolves, which are being shot by hunters in Spain, though they have protected status across the border in Portugal. "These Young Explorers grants cultivate future leaders in science, conservation and exploration," says Rebecca Martin, director of National Geographic's Expeditions Council and Young Explorers grant program. "Since the program's inception, we have provided almost 400 grants for work in 79 countries," Martin adds. "The breadth of issues and discoveries has been extensive." The grants are intended for students between 18-25 years old, Martin adds, and many of them will see their work highlighted on National Geographic media.
It's a long way from Prospect High School and the University of Michigan, where Horstman earned a degree in wildlife film studies, but ever since he earned his Eagle Rank in Boy Scouts, he knew he wanted to aim high. His career started out locally with summer internships at places including the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Shedd Aquarium, but after graduation, he landed the game changer: an internship with National Geographic television.
From 2011 to 2013, Horstman worked his way up to associate producer of the show "Secret Lives of Predators," which took him to a dolphins' shoot in South Carolina and a golden eagles' shoot in Mongolia. This past year, he worked as an associate producer and camera operator for National Geographic Wild channel's "Bandit Patrol." But it was an independent film, "Ambassadors," that he made in 2013 with fellow Prospect High graduate Kevin Van Egeren of Arlington Heights, which ultimately led to his focus on wolves (vimeo.com/66467071).
Together, they filmed on location at Wolf Creek Habitat in southern Indiana, one of the only places in the country that allows visitors to get up close and personal with a wolf pack. Their film was a finalist in the Animal Behavior Society Film Festival, and led the young filmmaker to learn of the Iberian wolves. With the grant he won, he has a chance to not only get up close to wolves, but perhaps save them. "I think that in general, most people don't understand the paramount role wolves play in keeping together a fragile ecosystem," Horstman says. "As a keystone species, they keep every other population stable in a habitat."
He points to the dramatic results at Yellowstone National Park after wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after an absence of 70 years. It resulted in a transformation of the ecosystem, all the way down to its rivers. In Portugal, Horstman will be working with a conservation group to track and attach cameras to a pair of wolves to get an inside look at their lives and expose their plight. "If I can make something people want to watch, it will raise awareness about these animals and the pivotal role they have in maintaining the natural world," Horstman says. "Because, without them, nature falls apart."
To learn more about Horstman's documentary project for National Geographic, or to contribute to his field costs, visit his fundraising page: indiegogo.com/projects/save-the-iberian-wolves-documentary/x/9367389.
Or, visit him on Facebook, at facebook.com/natgeoiberianwolves.