How sharks and psychopaths prepared her for tackling the climate crisis

In the second of our Climate Changemakers series, we get to know well-known Canadian media personality turned climate crusader Ziya Tong — an accomplished anchor and author whose science journalism escapades have taken her to the ends of the Earth. Now she’s on a mission to wake up the world to make a difference.

If you grew up in Canada in the 1990s and 2000s, chances are you’d recognize Ziya Tong’s face and her witty cadence. A mainstay on the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet show for over a decade, she would most often be seen reporting on nature and environmental stories from all over the world. It was a platform that has propelled her to advocate for a whole host of environmental changes today.

She’s served on the board of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for over a decade, and is in the process of travelling the world to report on the hidden impacts of microplastics. Her best-selling book, The Reality Bubble, aims to let humankind into the vastly misunderstood areas that sustain our species: like the food system and waste removal.

“I just want people to wake up. I really desperately want people to be able to open their eyes, but also to be able to shift their perspective,” she told The Weather Network.

Ziya Tong studio

Ziya Tong on the set of Daily Planet. (Submitted)

Persistence is her middle name… literally

They say to choose children’s names carefully, as more often than not they live up to the various cultural and historical origins and meanings. Tong’s middle name translated from Chinese to English is, literally, “persistence,” which is the very quality that became the key to her success.

As a university student needing to pay the bills, Tong took a job selling encyclopedias.

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“They don't tell you that you're selling encyclopedias door to door in a town of 500 by yourself holding heavy books potentially in the rain. Because if they do, you'll quit,” she explained.

She did not quit; in fact, she endured hundreds of doors closing in her face and hundreds of nos and ended up becoming one of the encyclopedia company’s top salespeople.

“It was this numbers game. This idea that if you keep going, eventually somebody will open the door,” Tong said. “And I applied that same methodology years later, quite a few years later, when I first wanted to get into television.”

Not your average start in reporting

Before her TV career, Tong had walked a totally different path. She graduated with a degree in forensic psychology, and took a position working in maximum-security prisons. Her surprising task: interviewing inmates and psychopaths and deciding who was part of the criminal population. It was a very unconventional route towards her future as a reporter.

“I'm always asking questions. So it's sort of the question of what is it like to be around things that people are afraid of, whether it is sharks, whether it's psychopaths or whether it's the climate crisis? I mean, the funny thing for me is the things that people should be most afraid of they're not,” Tong said.

Interested in studying the criminal mind, she was on track to make the psychology world her career path, however a predictable five-to-10-year plan didn’t sit well with this dogged dreamer. She decided to go through an unknown door.

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ziya tong and jane goodall-crop

Ziya Tong and Jane Goodall. (Submitted)

TV pipe dream (come true)

“I really wanted to have my own show. I wanted to be like David Attenborough. And I wanted to be like Jane Goodall, because I grew up watching their shows,” Tong said.

However, she had no background in TV, no agent, and no experience.

"I thought, 'OK, what did I do with encyclopedias? I knocked on many doors.' So I did that virtually," she said. "I wrote to about 2,000 TV executives over a period of two years. And it was the same thing: most people said ‘No,” and maybe one in one hundred people would actually reply, 'Sorry.'"

Then finally, after thousands of emails, she got a gig with the CBC hosting the popular 2000s show, ZeD. Soon enough, doors that she wasn’t even knocking on started opening.

In 2008, Tong landed her long and well-known run as a host on the Discovery Channel’s flagship eco-show: Daily Planet.

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“We definitely got a chance to talk about the environment. In fact, that was probably considered my beat. And, we got a chance to share what we learned, which was absolutely the best part,” said Tong.

Since then she’s explored the ecosystems of over 60 countries, where she’s seen some unimaginable environmental realities.

“When I went to Indonesia, you're swimming in the coral reefs, there was one part that was just filled with life, and I turned around and another part, the entire reef is dead, and it is empty. And you know, I just sat there and little tears came down inside of my scuba mask, because even as I looked around to the life around me, I recognized the waters were starting to heat up. Corals can't survive in that, they start to bleach all over the place. All of these little creatures, it's when they start disappearing, that's when things get incredibly sad,” remembered Tong.

The reality bubble

Preservation of the planet is her guiding purpose now. She has even written a book looking into the things that are crucial to our species survival, yet totally misunderstood.

“What I was curious about is, we're the most powerful species on Earth, hands down. But we're the only ones that don't know how we survive. There are cameras everywhere, except where our food comes from, where our energy comes from, and where our waste goes, right?

And, I don't think we're going to be able to get out of this unless we figure that part out. So this book was an attempt to reveal that,” Tong explained.

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Next, Tong is using her TV talents to travel across the globe again, this time to test, research and film a documentary on microplastics and their effect on us and our world.

“We have to create more shows that alert people not only to what's happening, but how we can change our perspective, right? And how we can create a better world,” she said. “I think that the best thing you can do is fall in love. And I think the best thing you can do is fall in love with the wonder of the world, the joy and the majesty of the universe and our planet and its beauty. I truly, truly believe when you fall in love with the world, you will fight to protect it.”

Thumbnail image: Ziya Tong at the WWF offices in Toronto. (The Weather Network)