SITE UNDER CONSTRUCTION

SITE UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Greetings and felicitations. After 3 years of sharing images of the natural world and examining the issues that surround nature photography, I am in the process of redesigning the look, tone and feel of this site. Expect dramatic changes in visual style, but not substance or content.

The new-look, redesigned site launches June 1, 2019.

In the meantime, hide and wait. And thank you as always for your continuing support, and patience.

From Congo with love: An Earth Day selfie for the ages.

Only the gorillas themselves know what they’re truly thinking. That said, a supposed selfie of rescued mountain gorillas posing for a relaxed snapshot with the park rangers who rescued them as babies has gone viral this Earth Day, and why not?

The gorillas are apparently trying to imitate humans, but again, who can say for certain?

It’s an arresting image, regardless. The selfie was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Virunga National Park, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), ground zero in the anti-poaching wars to help save one of the world’s most recognizable, high-profile endangered animals. There are said to be slightly more than 1,000 mountain gorillas left, of which, according to the most recent census, some 600 of which live in the Virunga Volcanoes. Though a seemingly small number, that’s still twice as many as 30 years ago, when the program to help save them was originally  established.

©Mathieu Shamavu

©Mathieu Shamavu

Virunga — the park and the gorilla conservation program— was the focus of a 2014 British documentary film, Virunga, that won the Peabody Award and was nominated for a best feature documentary Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards. The film Virunga, financed by Netflix, put public pressure on the oil company SOCO International to halt its then-controversial exploration for oil within the protected World Heritage Site.

The film told the story of four people dedicated to protecting the world’s last mountain gorillas from a range of threats, including not just the oil company but illegal hunting, land invasions, the steady encroachment of agricultural farms inside park boundaries, and the 2012 emergence of the violent M23 rebellion movement.

Park ranger Mathieu Shamavu, pictured in the gorilla selfie, is following in the muddy boot-tracks of ranger André Bauma, one of the original “gorilla caregivers” in the Netflix documentary.

@Virunga National Park

@Virunga National Park

It’s dangerous work, and not just because even an adolescent gorilla can tear a grown person from limb to limb. Five Virunga park rangers were killed in an ambush by suspected M23 rebels inside the park just last year. In all, 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

Eastern DR Congo is mired in seemingly endless conflict between an unstable, corruptible government and various armed groups, driven by the wealth of priceless minerals, including many of the rare but vital materials used in today’s smartphones. Eastern DRC has also been the scene of a deadly, growing — and underreported — outbreak of the ebola virus.

It’s small wonder, then, that the gorilla selfie has touched a popular nerve in the wider world, and not just because today is Earth Day.

Deputy park director Innocent Mburanumwe told BBC’s Newsday program that the orphaned gorillas, just two- to four-months-old at the time of their rescue,  think of the rangers as their parents. The gorillas’ mothers were both killed in July, 2007.

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

They’ve grown up in the Senkwekwe Sanctuary and have learned to “(imitate) the humans,” Mburanumwe told BBC, “learning to be human beings.” For example, the gorillas frequently stand up and try to move around on two legs, something they wouldn’t normally do in the wild. 

“I was surprised to see it,” Mburanumwe told BBC. “It’s very curious to see how a gorilla can imitate a human and stand up.”

The selfie first came to light Thursday last week, when a ranger shared a photo on Facebook of what he called “another day at the office.”

The Virunga gorilla program is staffed by local men and women, and relies on donations from the outside world for much of its support. The risk of violence is real, and ongoing: Officials closed the park from May last year to this past February, following the death of a park ranger and the kidnapping of two British tourists.

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

Virunga is believed to be Africa’s oldest national park, according to National Geographic, but there are other parks on the continent that lay claim to that title.

Regardless, it’s hard to think of many parks that may be more important — or fragile. The Earth Day selfie and the worldwide attention it’s generated has prompted prompted program directors  to urge people to “make a difference” and donate to Virunga’s conservation efforts.

Virunga, formerly known as Albert National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and covers some 7,800 square km (3000 square miles) of some of the most breathtaking natural landscape — and unique species — found anywhere on planet Earth.

https://www.virungaparkcongo.com

https://www.instagram.com/virunganationalpark/




A breath of fresh air for Earth Day: Pristine, pure air discovered over the Amazon Rain Basin.

Earth Day beckons. The worldwide Extinction Rebellion protests continue, despite concerted efforts to silence them. Sir David Attenborough, 92, and Greta Thunberg, 16, have been passionate, and prominent, speakers for our threatened and increasingly fragile natural world, and the endangered species who cannot speak for themselves.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the powers-that-be — the world’s major financial institutions, the oil- and gas industry and government policymakers — are going to pay lip service, and no more than that, to the idea that our children and grandchildren’s future is finished unless something is done, and done now, about our increasingly evident climate emergency.

These past few days, on the same weekend an exhausted, disoriented polar bear wandered into the isolated village of Tilichiki on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsular, having floated some 700 km (450 miles) away from its home in the Arctic Circle on an ice floe, there was a remarkable discovery in the faraway Amazon rainforest.

©Leonid Shelapugin/Moscow Times

©Leonid Shelapugin/Moscow Times

The discovery was actually made a while ago, but has only now come to light following reports on BBC’s World News service and PBS News Hour in the US: Researchers from Washington State’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found a baseline of pure, pristine air over the Amazon, and is using it to show how we’re messing with climate, by comparing the pristine air to samples of “dirtied” air taken not so far away, over remote jungle towns and logging camps that are expanding rapidly throughout an area dubbed “the lungs of the Earth.”

A team of researchers discovered the pristine air — air that dates back to pre-Industrial times — by flying a specially fitted Gulfstream jet with specialized instruments designed to identify and record particles of air virtually unchanged since before Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World.

©Popular Science

©Popular Science

The Amazon rainforest covers some 6 million square km (2 million square miles) of the South American landmass. It produces so much carbon — and produces so much life-giving oxygen — that it is truly the last, best hope for humankind, and for planet Earth.

And yet, the city of Manaus, Brazil — population 2 million — lies in the heart of the rainforest, with all the overcrowding, environmental destruction and deleted natural resources that come with a city of that size.

This is the classic good-news/bad-news story. The good news is that, on this Earth Day, there remains at least one place on Earth where the air survives as if the human footprint had never happened. The bad news is that the researchers have discovered that human pollution is driving the acceleration of climate-changing particles — aerosols — much more quickly than previously thought. These particles are not just a driver of climate change. They can cause heart disease and damage our lungs and other organs, not just in the immediate area but halfway around the world.

©Ponciano/Pixabay.

©Ponciano/Pixabay.

The researchers’ results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that science now has a baseline to create a new standard of what clean, pure air on Earth is supposed to be, and can be if we apply enough effort, energy and human brain power to solving our climate crisis.

As one of the lead researchers told PBS’s Seattle TV affiliate KCTS-9, “We can (now) look back at the Amazon and see how much we’ve been changing it, and how much we will continue to change it (if we don’t do something soon).”

The die is not cast — yet. But it’s getting closer. The  urgency is real, and people need to know the truth.

https://phys.org/news/2019-03-uncommon-valuable-pristine-air-reveal.html

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/19/extinction-rebellion-may-be-our-last-chance





The true cause and effects of climate change: The most under-reported story in science and the environment.

Seeing is not always believing. I’m writing this just minutes after hundreds of police officers closed in on Extinction Rebellion protesters on the fifth day of largely peaceful demonstrations in central London. More than 500 people have been arrested at protests on Waterloo Bridge, outside Parliament Square and in Oxford Circus. Police surrounded a pink boat — yes, you read that right — in Oxford Circus with the words, “Tell The Truth” emblazoned across its hull, moments after the actress Emma Thompson told activists that her generation has “failed young people” — the same message 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, 44 years Thompson’s junior, impressed on MEPs, members of the European Parliament, earlier in the week.

“We are here in this little island of sanity and it makes me so happy yo be able to join you all and add my voice to the young people here who have inspired a whole new movement,” Thompson told the crowd, in what sounded like pre-prepared, carefully rehearsed comments. She’s an actress, after all.

©Evening Standard

©Evening Standard

The police, London mayor Sadiq Khan and newspaper editorial writers don’t see it that way, of course. Drivers inside London’s fee-generating Decongestion Zone — the clue is in the name — should be allowed to drive unimpeded, it appears. Making money is more important than the environment. Gas guzzlers are fine, thank you very much, as long as you’re willing to pay the surcharge on your gas-guzzling older model vehicle, on top of the charge you already pay for driving through the centre of London.

The police were certainly pre-prepared. BBC reported many of the officers were wearing high-vis jackets sporting the words “Protestor Removal Team,” something they wouldn’t have bothered with had they no intention of removing protestors.

It’s worth remembering that it’s now the weekend,  and a long weekend at that. Or, as they call it in Britain — irony unintended — a “bank holiday weekend.”

©Sky News/YouTube

©Sky News/YouTube

The protests come at a time when many of the same media outlets that are criticizing the demonstrations with op-ed pieces headed, “The Extinction Rebels have got their tactics badly wrong,” have said — in separate pieces, written by other writers — that climate change and, more importantly, the cause(s) that lie behind climate change, is the single most overlooked, under-reported story in media today.

©Sky News/YouTube

©Sky News/YouTube

That will doubtless sound counterintuitive to anyone reading this page, or who follows groups like SeaLegacy and the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST Namibia) on Facebook, where the news seems to be nothing but climate change. For all their passion, though, these are niche audiences — the mainstream news, even on Earth Day weekend, is all about Trump, Brexit and Notre Dame Cathedral, and who’s going to be named “Head of Household” this weekend on Big Brother: Canada.

And the news on Trump has nothing to do with his stance on climate and the environment (“HIs ignorance is startling,” according to the journal Oil Change International) but rather his propensity for corruption, obstruction of justice and currying favour with his country’s traditional enemies in order to win an election against an unpopular opponent — two years ago.

©Image by Pete Linforth/Pixabay

©Image by Pete Linforth/Pixabay

“Hearts and minds will not be won with protest puppetry, guerrilla gardening and talk of climate justice,” the protest’s detractors say, citing the usual bromides: Blocking bridges, disrupting public transport and gluing themselves to fences outside politicians’ homes is no way to effect change, leaving aside the fact that street demonstrations in Paris in May, 1968 did exactly that, and shaped French society for decades — decades — afterwards. The May 1968 street protests in France are today considered a cultural, social and moral turning point in that nation’s history. The 1968 Paris demonstrations succeeded in part, activist and then-protest leader Alain Geismar — a physicist sentenced to 18 months in jail for his actions — would point out, because they were “a social revolution, not a political one.”

The Extinction Rebellion protests might yet mark a turning point in what to date has been a struggle for climate activists to seize the public conversation. The old simp about how meaningful and long-lasting change requires more talk and less direct action no longer holds water — pun intended. The climate crisis is no longer a crisis but an emergency. The time for talk is over. Climate model after climate model shows that the process of global warming is accelerating at a pace beyond even the most pessimistic — some would say realistic — projections. It’s no longer enough to say Canada’s Northwest Passage will be free of summer ice in our lifetime — it is already ice-free in the summer months. As the David Attenborough Netflix program Our Planet documented painfully in its episode about the polar regions, Arctic sea ice has vanished to the point where walruses are dying from jumping off rock cliffs, thinking they’ll land in water. This is happening now, today, not in some abstract future. And that’s what the Extinction Rebellion protests are about. They’re a call to action. And whether you choose to believe 60-year-old Emma Thompson or 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, it’s time for everyone to wake up.

©Image by Gerd Altmann /Pixabay

©Image by Gerd Altmann /Pixabay

Here are the ways climate change has gone unreported by the mainstream media in the past year, according to a study by the NGO Care International that analyzed more than one million online news stories.

Climate change was directly responsible for the majority of humanitarian disasters over the past year. Entire populations were affected by food crises caused by drought or hurricane flooding in countries from Ethiopia, Sudan and Chad to the Philippines, Madagascar and Haiti, and yet few of these crises generated more than 1,000 news stories each.

In Madagascar, more than a million people went hungry as corn and rice fields withered in a drought exacerbated by severe El Niño conditions. Today, almost half that country’s children suffer from stunted growth, according to CARE International, but their suffering has generated scant few headlines. Across the globe, extreme weather events claimed more than 5,000 lives in 2018 and left 25 million people in need of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance. 

As Asad Rehman, executive director of the NGO War on Want, told The Guardian, “Climate change reporting prefers pictures of polar bears to those who we are killing with our inaction.”

Dr. Viwanou Gnassounou, assistant secretary general of the Africa Caribbean Pacific (ACP) group of states and the point person on ACP’s program for sustainable development, told The Guardian that donor countries often link aid to an agreement to remain silent on the climate change.

©Image by Robert Jones/Pixabay

©Image by Robert Jones/Pixabay

“We try always to show that these disasters are linked to climate change but we have to fight to get our points heard. We have not been very successful until now. The media coverage is poor and reported in terms of ‘disaster’ — not linked to climate change or its consequences.

“They will never say it formally but it is part of the conversation,” Gnassounou told The Guardian. “They prefer that you condemn yourself by saying you did not have a proper policy to prevent disaster and now you need their support.”

Contrast that with what some of the demonstrators were telling local papers these past few days in London.

Here was Cathy Eastburn, 51, who told reporters she decided to take a stand for her teenage daughters. “I don’t want to be here today, and I’m really sorry for the disruption, but I feel I have been forced to do this,” she told The Guardian’s Matthew Taylor and Damien Gayle. “I have two daughters and I can’t sit by while their future is threatened … The government is doing nothing. We have to force them to act.”

Given the stakes involved, an extra weekend of traffic disruption in central London seems a small price to pay to get the rest of world to wake up.

http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/as-trumps-climate-denial-continues-a-global-rebellion-spreads?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIiazbxKDc4QIVCNVkCh3FkgiPEAAYASAAEgIQq_D_BwE


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/19/extinction-rebellion-climate-change-protests-london

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-47976184?fbclid=IwAR2FXxfzQqQTi1N23u5VAgPAliGA4i20ozZGp1MNNBT_krBuI9F6YAL3sWk

https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/world/europe/29iht-france.4.12440504.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all


https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/06/climate-manifesto/



https://theconversation.com/why-covering-the-environment-is-one-of-the-most-dangerous-beats-in-journalism-105477


Reflections of humanity at its best and worst: 2019 World Press Photo Award winners.

If it’s true that a picture tells a thousand words, I’m not about to repeat 1,000 words here telling you about this year’s winners of the World Press Photo Awards. “Show, don’t tell,” as they say in the media business.

What’s more pertinent is why these images won, and what it tells us about the world we live in today. 

Getty Images senior staff photographer and special correspondent John Moore won World Press Photo of the Year for his affecting image of a young girl crying at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Swedish photojournalist Pieter Ten Hoopen, of Paris-based agency Agence VU — he also founded the Stockholm-based non-governmental organization Civilian Act — won the World Press Award for Photo Story of the Year, for his series of images depicting the Migrant Caravan of refugees on their passage through Central America, from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to that same U.S.-Mexico border and the possibility of asylum in America — on a wing and a prayer, as it were.

World Press Photo, in other words, an independent nonprofit that supports photojournalism worldwide, has judged that the displacement of people — ordinary, everyday human beings, including many vulnerable children — is the single most important issue facing our time.

Human migration, and climate change.

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

People who think — or are willing to think, at any rate — know that, deep down, below the surface, climate change is one of the main factors driving mass migration. Climate change results in food insecurity, both caused and exacerbated by weather-related disasters such as droughts, floods and hurricanes, leads to poverty and, inevitably, crime and political instability. Everything is connected — and these pictures tell us that.

Veteran conservation photographer Brent Stirton — a former war correspondent and conflict-zone photographer originally based in South Africa — was recognized with the World Press Photo Environment Award for his striking image of a female special forces park ranger in Zimbabwe, part of an all-female anti-poaching unit, the Akashinga, tasked with stopping the illegal slaughter of rhinos for their horn.

And veteran Hungarian photojournalist Bence Máté, like Stirton a former winner of the London (UK) Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, won the World Press Photo Nature Award for his sobering image of frogs with severed legs being tossed back into the water after being shorn of their limbs for food, in the Carpathian mountain region of Romania.

Overconsumption. Mass migration, brought on by human desperation. The despoiling of the planet.

These are the issues that jump out. (Interestingly, Moore was a double winner for his image of the crying girl at the U.S.-Mexico border: The picture also won the World Press Photo Award for Spot News.)

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

There is a point to these images, beyond preaching to the converted. Hope for humanity, even — the better angels of our nature. The state of the planet has never appeared more grim and desperate — not in the history and evolution of Home sapiens, at any rate — and yet these images serve a dual purpose. Uplifting, as well as alarming and cautionary. Understanding them is crucial to knowing and understanding the situation we are now all in. I saw the friendliest of spirits, one witness has said of public marches of public conscience, these streams of humanity marching along the open road and crowding into town squares. There’s an openness, a willingness there, among those on the march, to comfort children, share food, find spaces for older people to sit and rest — small acts of tenderness and mercy, and of humanity.

Perhaps that’s the real strength of these images — not as yet another reason to feel depressed, but rather a clarion call to action, to do something.

There are those in the mainstream media who will dismiss these World Press Photo Awards as yet another example of belabouring the obvious, more grandstanding by the left — but those who took these photos, who witnessed the worst, and best, of what humanity has to offer, know better.

These images appear to tell a simple story on the surface. Look deeper down, though, and they tell a very different story. It is time to challenge those who would do evil.

https://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photocontest/winners/2019

@WorldPressPhoto - Twitter


©John Moore/Getty Images

©John Moore/Getty Images

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards


©Pieter Ten Hoopen/Agence VU

©Pieter Ten Hoopen/Agence VU

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards


©Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

©World Press Photo Awards.

©World Press Photo Awards.

©World Press Photo Awards.

©World Press Photo Awards.


©Bence Máté

©Bence Máté

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards

©World Press Photo Awards




Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’: ‘Planet Earth’ revisited, but with a stronger, clearer eco-voice.

Politics is inescapable these days, it seems. Take something as seemingly benevolent and benign — and beautiful to behold — as Our Planet, the new, eye-filling nature series from Netflix, narrated by the ubiquitous Sir David Attenborough.

At the time of Netflix’s original announcement, Our Planet was to be similar and yet different to such distinctive, ground-breaking natural history programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. And, as the great unwashed are about to learn Friday, it has largely succeeded. There are moments of real, eye-filling majesty and genuine grandeur, backed by the swelling symphonic score of film composer Steven Price. Overbearing, yes, but it fits this kind of program. It’s easy to forget now but when the original Planet Earth came out, the loud, overblown music was by George Fenton, fresh off an Academy Award for Gandhi and its follow-up Cry Freedom, both films directed by Attenborough’s brother, the late Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough.

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

The familiar visual paean to nature and the natural world that made Planet Earth and Blue Planet must-see viewing in countless households around the world is there for all to see in Our Planet, and on a Netflix budget to boot.

This time, though, there’s a noticeable difference, and not just the subtle shift in tone. Our Planet, eight episodes in all, is more eco-aware and socially conscious. It strikes a cautionary tone  — a warning. Not alarm, exactly, but still. Our Planet is no longer nature programming that focuses on nature-for-nature’s-sake, to the exclusion of any environmental message beyond a polite, almost apologetic request that we be more careful with the Earth’s dwindling natural resources. Please remember to turn off the lights on your way out, and try not to wreck the climate during your drive home.
There’s a sadness, a feeling of regret tinged with genuine fear of an uncertain future as we’re reminded, time and time again, that polar bears and elephants might not be with us much longer.

And not just polar bears and elephants, either, but bees, hummingbirds, ocean-going reef sharks and everything in-between.

Our Planet opens with a close-up view from space — reminders of 2001: A Space Odyssey —  of the moon, with the Earth rising gradually behind it. Since Neil Armstrong made his first step for man and giant leap for mankind, on July 20, 1969, Attenborough tells us, the human population has doubled, while wildlife numbers have dwindled some 60 percent during the same time. 

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

Our Planet isn’t strident. It doesn’t harangue us with a lecture from the bully pulpit, though there are certainly those eco-crusaders out there who would prefer to shake every last one of us — not without reason — into waking up.

Attenborough has not left BBC for Netflix, as some in the media suggested at the time. (Looking at it from both sides of the media divide, these things are easy to misreport, especially given today’s frantic get-it-first-before-you-get-it-right climate of competition in information.)

Attenborough may be 92 (he turns 93 next month) but he’s committed to several more big projects for BBC, including Frozen Planet II, Blue Planet III and Planet Earth III.

Similarly, he has left the door open at Netflix. He was signed after-the-fact to narrate Our Planet as a one-off, to give the expensive — even by Netflix standards — program instant gravitas and global credibility. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the current TV landscape is such that Netflix can reach more viewers in a single week than BBC can over the course of an entire year.

That instant access to the global village is one reason Attenborough needed no convincing to exchange Broadcasting House in London for Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif.

In his later years, he has readily admitted to anyone who’ll listen that his raison d’être in later life is to convince anyone and everyone he can that our home world is in trouble and needs our help.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Netflix’s reach doesn’t exactly exceed its grasp, either: Our Planet could conceivably reach one billion people, something not even BBC can do.

Attenborough is the face and voice behind Our Planet, but not its primary inspiration and directing force. That would be veteran British producer Alastair Fothergill, who made Blue Planet and Planet Earth for BBC and has recently divided his time between BBC, Disney’s Disneynature film division (African Cats, Chimpanzee and the soon-to-be released Penguins, in theatres April 17) and now Netflix.

Fothergill, a Fellow of the British Royal Television Society and recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Keaton Medal, has been at the vanguard of socially conscious, environmentally aware nature filmmaking that seeks to be both entertaining and informative. Unlike Blue Planet, which touched only briefly on plastic’s effect on the world’s oceans, Our Planet’s entire focus is on the man-made threat to the natural world.

Early reviews in the UK — in the Daily Telegraph and Independent, for example — have grumbled that, beautiful as Our Planet is to watch, the overall effect is scattered and unfocused as a result. Fothergill would argue that, unlike Dynasties with its Shakespearean tales of kings and matriarchs facing rebellion and revenge from within, Our Planet is unified by a single, overpowering message: that everything is connected, that what affects the ice fields in Canada’s frozen north also affects the semi-arid deserts in Africa’s sun-parched south, not just Arctic bears and savannah elephants myriad microorganisms, smaller animals and pollinating insects that lie between.

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

“From every region of the world there are stories that reveal nature’s resilience and show how restoration is possible,” Attenborough says in his voice-over — a reminder once again how, over time, his soothing, reverential tones have a calming effect on this crazy world we live in.

There’s something joyful — and joyous — in the way Attenborough reads out loud. It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, why Blue Planet and Planet Earth have reached such a wide audience. He’s a born storyteller. It’s not hard to imagine that programs like Blue Planet and now Our Planet wouldn’t reach nearly as many people without Attenborough as their verbal guide and shepherd.

Our Planet is important because, while it doesn’t harangue and harass us at home the way a TED Talk might, it focuses on the most important threat to humanity — arguably the most important threat of our generation — in ways that both move and inspire.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Attenborough is the star but the last word, by rights, belongs to Fothergill.

“When Huw (Cordrey) and I both made Planet Earth, that series was about amazing scenery,” Fothergill recalled a number of years back at a Television Critics Association press session in Pasadena, Calif. for the then new BBC nature program The Hunt. “It was about taking the audience on a journey around the planet that they could never do in their lifetime.”

What he’s tried to do with Our Planet is combine that epic cinematic poetry with a potent, topical message about climate change, species diversity and the perilous balance of nature, and why all those things matter to our collective future on planet Earth, and to the planet itself.

Only time will tell if Our Planet — and we ourselves — succeed.



©Davos/Silverback/Netflix

©Davos/Silverback/Netflix



The “eye of the beholder” and award competitions: When seeing is not always believing.

Another internationally juried photo prize, another controversy — another scandal.

Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee’s haunting image of a partially blind Vietnamese woman carrying her baby won top honours — and the USD $120,000 prize that came with it — at the 2019 Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) in Dubai.

Ong’s vision was judged to be the most representative of this year’s theme, “Hope,” and there’s an undeniable human quality to the image, its depiction of sadness and loss, coupled with one person’s determination to survive, despite the challenges.

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

As reported on PetaPixel, though, according to those who were there at the March 12 ceremony, the announcement was greeted with several eye-rolls, mutterings and murmurs of thinly veiled irritation. Here we go again with the poverty porn, they seemed to be saying.

The term “poverty porn” has been used to describe photographers’ fixation on images of people struggling to survive desperate circumstances. These images are considered safe to do because to dismiss the image is to dismiss the subject, and who in good conscience would do that?

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

There’s a growing feeling in the photography community, though, that creativity — looking at familiar subjects in new, unfamiliar ways — should count for more than always taking the safe and obvious route, especially when it comes to internationally recognized competitions.

Any announcement of a major award, especially one with money involved, is bound to be greeted with catcalls. Judging is subjective, after all. My choice may not be yours. Cynics are everywhere, and it’s always easier to disagree than to agree. Safe choices are safe for a reason: People like them, and photo juries tend to agree. When a rare, controversial choice is made — South African photographer Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino winning the prestigious 53rd annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year award being a prime example — the resulting public disagreement, and the bad press that comes with it, can scare future juries away from making similar choices. 

The Wildlife Photographer jury opted for a much safer image in this year’s awards, picking Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s portrait of two rare golden snub-nosed monkeys in China's Qinling mountains, over a field of nominees that included SeaLegacy photographer Justin Hofman’s unforgettable — and hard to look at — image of a starving polar bear in Canada’s far north.

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

The Hamdan International Photography Award was bound to have its detractors, in other words, no matter what image was chosen.

But then the other shoe dropped, and a controversy became a scandal.

It turns out the photo was probably staged. The seemingly natural image — with its echoes of Steve McCurry’s famous National Geographic cover shot of “the Afghan Girl” — was one of several taken by a group of photographers at a photo-op session organized by fellow photographer Ab Rashid.

Ong defended his image to the Malaysian daily The Star, telling the paper, “In this trip to Vietnam, we (photographers) went to the rice field and there was a mother (with her children) that passed by. We never told her to stand up or sit down.”

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

Strictly speaking, Ong never violated any rules of the contest: Unlike some juried photo competitions, the  Hamdan Photography Award doesn’t require photographers to sign a claim that prohibits staging or, in the case of nature photography competitions like the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer awards, that the subject be free-ranging, in its natural habitat. Unlike the World Press Photo Awards — itself a lightning rod for recent controversy — the Hamdan Award doesn’t demand that photographers follow the principles and ethics of professional photojournalism, with its emphasis on hard news.

Recent past winners of the Hamdan Award show an understandable bias towards photojournalism, though, and it’s easy to see why: These are the images that reflect the world as it is, not necessarily as we want it to be.

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

Even so, there’s something unsettling knowing that an image was, if not staged exactly, certainly posed, when comparisons to actual, genuine photojournalism are not just implied but obvious for all to see.

In a thoughtful essay on PetaPixel, Yale University graduate, iTunes podcaster and PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi suggests the problem isn’t the contest but us, as a society.

“We feel duped,” he wrote, “not necessarily because the image may or may not have been directed. We feel duped because Ong took the image with a gaggle of other photographer of a young, impoverished mother in a way that feels creepily reminiscent of a mid-20th-century all-male camera club hiring a female model.”

We live in an Instagram culture of algorithm-generated clicks that encourages “likes” and feeds on our collective vanity and search for validation.

“The same people who decry contests use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to build their own followings,” Murabayashi said, “while chasing retweets and likes of their own.”

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

Our collective fascination with the pain and suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves is harder to reconcile. A powerful image of someone in distress can raise awareness and generate much-needed funding for relief efforts — we can’t rely on Western and particularly US politicians to do the right thing — but there’s also that disquieting feeling that it’s amoral to celebrate suffering in the form of competitions that provide a cash prize — in some cases a significant cash prize, as with the Hamdan Award — to the winners.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, any monetary reward should go to the subject, at least in part.

There’s an upside to the Hamdan Award as is, Murabayashi suggests.

“If nothing else, maybe increased awareness of the world’s richest photo contest will attract a whole new wave of photographers doing important, long-term work.”

Perhaps. As long as photo captions — and juried competitions — don’t explicitly explain whether an image was natural or posed, though, questions will remain. Troubling questions. 

https://petapixel.com/2019/03/18/the-winning-photo-of-the-120k-hipa-prize-was-apparently-staged/


Later: Here’s an interesting thought.

In the stream of comments posted on PetaPixel and other sites in the wake of the “posed photo” revelation, more than one person suggested the behind-the-scenes image below tells a more topical, relevant story than the actual image that won the Hamdan Award.

It has certainly kickstarted a more far-reaching conversation about the relationship between photographer and subject, and how the haves often exploit the have-nots for their own purposes, regardless of motive.

That’s not news, of course — or won’t be to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of how the world works — but it’s worth talking about in the open, in online chat forums and other public spaces, and not behind closed doors in sequestered photo-jury rooms.

Another interesting question: How many of these  photographers pictured here got exactly the same image, but didn’t think to submit it to an international photo competition?

How original is originality supposed to be, anyway?

After all, the eye of the beholder doesn’t add up to much if everyone sees the same thing.

Food for thought.

©PetaPixel

©PetaPixel




A single picture can change the world, but can it save the planet? This is Nick Brandt.

Yousuf Karsh, Robert Capa — Nick Brandt. The art of photography is subjective. How we view the world is personal, and unique to us. How we interpret other people’s visions, as reflected through the medium of photography, is also subjective.

Every so often, though, an image — or a series of images — speaks to a deeper, more meaningful truth. A universal truth.

The debate over climate change — how is this even still a debate? — remains divisive and fractious, driven by monetary considerations, to do with jobs, the world economy and old-fashioned human greed. It takes a lot to cut through the clutter in a world connected through social media and motivated by instant gratification.

Thankfully, the power of a single image — an unforgettable moment, frozen in time — still has the ability to shake us out of our complacency.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Africa, a continent of shit-hole countries, to quote one world leader whose name is widely known but I prefer to think of as El Mamón (thank you, Dave Eggers), is a study in contradictions, not unlike most places, but on a grander, more epic scale. The cradle of humankind — if one is to believe evidence of early archeological digs in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which I do — is home to natural beauty on a scale unsurpassed virtually anywhere else on planet Earth in the early 21st century, but it is also home to overcrowded cities and a seething, steadily expanding sea of humanity, reflecting a youth bulge where the majority of the population is under 25. The population of Africa surpassed one billion people in the year 2009. The annual growth rate is more than 2.5% a year, with a doubling time of 27 years, according to United Nations estimates from the UN’s  Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs.  Today, Africa’s population is estimated to be 1.3 billion people, 17% of the world total. If the population continues to expand at the present rate — a big “if” — the UN estimates the continent’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, or 26% of the world total.

The population growth is the natural result of a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy, coupled with a corresponding healthy fertility rate. So much for the “civilized,” Western notion of Africa as a basket-case continent, riven by famine, disease, conflict and pestilence.

Climate change, on the other hand, is real, and affects impoverished, overcrowded communities in the equatorial tropics more than in the more sparsely populated — relatively speaking — countries of the far northern and southern hemispheres.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

How to convey this paradox of conflicting realities in a single photographic image with the power to both inform and move is no easy challenge, and most photographers don’t bother.

Which is where Nick Brandt comes in. He is neither a nature photographer nor a documentary news photographer, but rather a visual artist who combines elements of both. 

Nature purists argue against “posed”    animals (Brandt actually doesn’t pose his animals but rather takes photos in the wild; many of the animals in his most recent book,  This Empty World, published just last month, on Feb. 5, were photographed in the Maasai tribal lands outside Amboseli National Park, on Kenya’s border with Tanzania, where the dry, dusty plains look onto Mt. Kilimanjaro, a majestic backdrop for some of the most iconic images of wild Africa taken anywhere on the continent. (Mt. Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” to the locals, is also evidence of the more obvious effects of climate change, owing to its ever-shrinking glacial ice cap, but that’s a story for another day.)

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Photojournalists who focus on hard news argue against staged photos, as news, by definition, is about what happens in the moment, in the blink of an eye. Brandt does stage the people in his photos, building entire sets  — for This Empty World, a gas station, an industrial rock quarry, a dusty river bed — and posing his people there, but in a “green” way, deconstructing and dismantling the sets afterwards, so that any evidence of human interference has vanished entirely — we were never there. The animal images are superimposed over the staged people photos, and the result is both eerie and unsettling, and yet strangely real.

And powerful. Brandt’s images in This Empty World, and in his earlier black-and-white work, Inherit the Dust,  are — to these eyes, anyway — some of the most powerful images of human-wildlife connectedness and conflict it’s possible to imagine. The fact that Brandt, while respected among his peers, isn’t a household name on the art and gallery circuit is not just confounding but profoundly annoying to anyone who cares about the future health of the planet. I admire the David Attenborough nature programs immensely, for their pristine beauty, a soothing balm for troubled times and immensely — and deservedly — popular. But Brandt’s work, to me, is just as profound, but in a different, perhaps more meaningful way. Where Attenborough inspires us to action through natural beauty, Brandt demands that we sit up and take notice, and realize that this is happening right now and that it may already be too late to do something about it.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

This Empty World has only recently been published, so there is renewed media interest in Brandt’s work. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this week — Brandt distanced himself on his Facebook page somewhat from the published version, as it appeared in a first-person format, as if he had written it himself, with all the inevitable perils of entire thoughts edited out to fit a proscribed space — Brandt revealed some of his innermost thoughts behind his creative process.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/19/nick-brandt-best-photograph-elephants-and-building-workers-share-a-crowded-afric

The theme emerges again in this reasoned essay/review in the arts journal Brooklyn Rail.

https://brooklynrail.org/2019/03/artseen/Nick-Brandt-This-Empty-World

“These men weren’t actors, just normal people from Kibera in Nairobi,” Brandt told The Guardian. “I didn’t direct them, except for the two guys on their phones. Wherever you are in the world, you see people staring at their phones.”

The animals were filmed in their natural state, with the final composite image edited later.

“The (animal) shots were planned ahead of time but only half-staged,” Brandt said. “We built a partial set and installed a camera that was triggered by motion sensors each time an animal came into the frame. And then we waited. Weeks, sometimes months, went by before we would capture one. There were times I wondered if the project would work.”

Clearly, it did.

“These men are not the aggressors,” Brandt continued. “Their communities are as badly impacted by the destruction as the animals. The villains are off-screen, typically industrialists and politicians, responsible for runaway development in the interests of their own short-term gain. 

“Every environmentalist I know in Africa who has seen the images has written to say: ‘You have absolutely nailed what is going on.’”

#Truth. And amen.


Skolstrejk för klimatet — a Children’s Crusade for the 21st century.

Twelve days ago, on March 1st, 150 students with the School Strike for Climate movement, aka #FridaysForFuture, signed a joint letter to the world demand action from their elders — us —to prevent further degradation to the global environment. The movement formed a number of years ago, but it wasn’t until 15-year-old Swedish ninth grader Greta Thunberg staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish Riksdag parliament in late August after a summer of heat waves and wildfires across the Nordic country that the movement gained traction. Thunberg vowed not to return to school until the Swedish general election on Sept. 9. Perhaps it says something about the Swedish education system that schools there were in session long before end end of summer holidays across North America, but that’s the Nordic mindset for you.

©Michael Campanella/The Guardian

©Michael Campanella/The Guardian

As it happened, her protest, while easy to dismiss — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously huffed that these kids today need “more learning in schools and less activism,” thus proving Thunberg’s point about Herberts being completely tone deaf, not just on climate but on any number of other issues — spread like autumn mushrooms in an old-growth forest. By December, student strikes had expanded to nearly 300 cities around the globe, from Australia, Austria and Belgium to Switzerland, Uganda, the UK and the US.

Thunberg herself points to an unlikely source of inspiration for her What-Do-Kids-Know-Anyway protest: the student activists at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who staged their own protest march, March for Our Lives, in the wake of a deadly school shooting earlier that year that claimed 17 lives.

Thunberg, whose bright yellow rainjacket and hand-drawn sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate) became impossible to overlook outside the Swedish parliament, galvanized school students around the world to take part in student strikes each Friday,  and make their voices heard.

@Washington Post/Getty Images alexandria villasenor

@Washington Post/Getty Images alexandria villasenor

Last month, the movement claimed its first political scalp, a regional environment minister in Belgium, just days before winning endorsements from climate scientists and environmental groups across the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Flanders politician and then-environment minister Joke Schauvliege resigned on Feb. 5, days after falsely claiming that Belgium’s state security agency had evidence that the school strikes were “a set-up.” Days later, more than 300 Dutch scientists signed an open letter in support of the school strikes, writing, “On the basis of the facts supplied by climate science, the campaigners are right. That is why we, as scientists, support them.

Not to be outdone, on Feb. 13, more than 200 academics across the UK signed a letter in support of the advocacy group Extinction Rebellion, writing that they were giving their “full support to the students” backing the School Strike for Climate movement.

All this is pointing toward Friday’s moment of truth, the most widespread strike yet, endorsed by some of the world’s most pro-active, high-profile environmental groups, with 450 events planned in 54 countries — this, according to the website FridaysForFuture.org.

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times

Thunberg was among 150 co-signers of an open letter in The Guardian on March 1st, which read in part, “We finally need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It is the biggest threat in human history and we will not accept the world's decision-makers’ inaction that threatens our entire civilization . . . . Climate change is already happening. People did die, are dying and will die because of it, but we can and will stop this madness. . . . We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. . .”

It’s easy to pull a Scott Morrison and be cynical about this — what the hell does a 16-year-old know? — but, simply by looking around us with our eyes open and taking in the big picture, it’s easy to see that the environment is ailing and that climate change, while a terrible scourge in itself, may be a symptom of an even wider, more serious malaise. At best, colder winters and hotter summers are an inconvenience — an inconvenient truth, if you will. At worst, they could signal a looming mass extinction — the end of the Anthropocene era, in a blink-of-an-eye compared with how long it took the dinosaurs to die out.

©Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

©Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

Seeing the starry-eyed idealism of “the climate kids” and watching the way adult cynics, duplicitous politicians and the slick, self-styled Saurons of the fossil-fuel industry round on Thunberg, Xiuhytexcatl Martinez and others — just as the NRA gun lobby and Republican politicians rounded on the Parkland students before them — it’s hard not to be reminded of historical accounts of the Children’s Crusade in the early 13th century. That was a crusade that ended in catastrophe for the children involved, remember, with  many of them sold into slavery after being tricked by merchants along the way who promised them safe passage to the Holy Land.

A revisionist version published in 1977, by the Dutch historian Peter Raedts, has it that the children were not children at all but rather bands of “wandering poor” from Germany and France who had little intention of ever reaching the Holy Land.

©HIstory Channel/YouTube

©HIstory Channel/YouTube

One thing about climate change, though, if it’s real — and few can now doubt that is, not given the recent paroxysms of climate extremes — is that it won’t be subject to interpretation or revisionism. The effects won’t be limited to a small corner of the globe, or even continental Europe, for that matter. They will be worldwide, global, from pole to pole and from Asia to Australia, taking in Africa and the Americas along the way.

That’s why this particular Children’s Crusade is meaningful. It matters.

Banner image ©Michael Campanella for The Guardian, 2019.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-cant

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times


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Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 11.02.01 PM.png

The 'Climate Kids' and #FridaysForFuture: "There is no Planet B."

“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city,” Barack Obama famously said in his stirring, still memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. “And if it can change a city, it can change a state, it can change nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.”

Little more than a week before the planned worldwide strike on March 15 by students and grade-school pupils protesting the effects of climate change on future generations, support is surging for the legal case Juliana v. United States, in which 21 young people have sued the US federal government over climate change. A “Young People’s Brief” amicus brief was filed in US court last Friday, alongside briefs filed by environmenatlaist, women’s groups, business leaders and eight members of the US Congress in support of a case that has been before the courts for months now. On two separate occasions, US federal administrations — first under Barack Obama and again under Donald Trump — have tried to have the lawsuit tossed out of court. The government has lost both times. A early, lower-court ruling by an Oregion judge, giving legal reasons why the case should be allowed to continue, was appealed to the US Supreme Court twice. Both times, the Supreme Court sided with the climate activists over the government.

climate2.jpg

Students and school pupils from some 50 countries have said they will rally together in the March 15 demonstration, even as the strike is being dismissed on both the right and left as a cheap publicity gimmick — so much hot air, if you will — and an excuse to skip school for a day.

As it is, school students in Australia, France, the UK, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Thailand, Colombia and Uganda have already skipped a day of school to demand stronger climate action from their governments, as part of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture climate campaign. Thunberg, who started the whole process as a solo campaigner outside the Swedish parliament last year, has become a lightning rod for both praise and controversy, and has been mentioned as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate, and was recently invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Some saw this as a cyncial ploy on the part of fat-cat industrialists who have already done their part to wreck the planet, but the truth is that — whether useful idiot or Nobel material — Thunberg herself couldn’t really give a (compost heap) how she’s perceived. The issue is what drives her, and that’s what has made her such a compelling voice for climate activism. She really couldn’t care whether she wins the Nobel Prize or gets to dine at Davos (don’t feed her lobster!) or not, and she’s the first to lash out sharply at soothing but empty feel-good words from those in power. Words don’t count anymore, actions do. She’s told people on her own side that. Actions deferred, whether it’s the Paris Agreement or tepid promises at the climate conference in Rio de Janeiro to scale back carbon emissions by 2050 mean nothing, she says. We need action, and we need it now.

climate3.png

That this argument was first made by a 15-year-old would have seemed laughable a year ago, and the truth is that many people did laugh at the time.

Well, they’re not laughing now.

In a stroke of good timing — though, knowing the way the media works, I suspect it was planned that way all along — 60 Minutes’s Steve Kroft presented a news segment, The Climate Kids, on North America’s most-watched news-magazine program this past weekend. The amicus brief this past Friday was co-signed by 30,000 young people. Now, all of a sudden, those 21 students who filed the original court case have swelled in number to the tens of thousands.

That number will only grow on March 15.

Will any of this make any difference? It’s hard to tell. I’ve commented here about how the 1973 Hollywood thriller Soylent Green, itself based on the dystopian sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! by the American novleist Harry Harrison, eerily foreshadowed a world overrun by too many people and choked by carbon emissions, where fresh strawberries are a near-priceless luxury that only multi-millionaires and captains of industry can afford — until they’re murdered as part of a corporate coverup, in case the proles — i.e. us — find out what’s really going on and rebel against their masters.

climate5.png
climate4.png

Soylent Green proved popular in its day, and has endured enough to be referenced even today— but as Greta Thunberg would point out, so what? What’s actually been done? 62 million American voters voted for Donald Trump to be their president, and this is a man who doesn’t even beliheve there’s a problem.

Xiuhytexcatl Martinez, the 19-year-old indigenous environmental activist and youth director of the self-explanatory Earth Guardians, is one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, alongside climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. The suit — which many dismissed at the time, remember — argues that the US federal government has failed itd responsiblity to safeguard the health of future generations. The very air we breathe is at risk from rising carbon-dioxide emissions, which in turn affects global warming, a now-unfashionable phrase that most if not all legitimate climate scientists agree is the prime driver behind climate change. “What’s at stake right now,” then-15-year-old Martinez told the UN General Assembly in 2015, “is the existence of my generation.”

climate6 Xiuhytexcatl Martinez.jpg

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Possibly . . . probably, in fact. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Soylent Green went over this same ground in 1973, after all.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/youth-climate-change-lawsuit-grows-support/

https://www.vox.com/2019/2/21/18233206/greta-thunberg-student-school-strike-climate-change




Akashinga, ‘The Braves Ones,’ the women saving Africa’s wildlife — and now finalists for the World Press Photo of the Year.

Judging from the social-media nontroversies over judging faux pas at past World Press Photo Awards, one could be forgiven for thinking the prestigious photo contest,now in its 62nd year, must have an enemies list to rival that at any MAGA rally.

There were the concerns over “post-processing” in 2013; the staged photos and subsequent disqualification of a WPPA-winning photographer in 2015; the cancellation of the WPP exhibition at Visa Pour L’image (also in 2015); the creation of a new category, for “creative documentary photography” in 2016 (a competition that, in the words of contest organizers, “not have rules limiting how images are produced,” that would allow staged and manipulated images); questions about the authenticity of the 2nd-place long-term projects winner (‘An Iranian Journey’) in 2017; and the fracas over 2017’s World Press Photo of the Year, of which jury chair Stuart Franklin said at the time, “I didn’t think, if I’m honest with you, that (this) should be World Press Photo of the Year.”

One photographer’s controversy is another’s nontroversy.

If I’m honest with you — speaking strictly for myself — the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards aside, the World Press Photo awards is the one I pay closest attention to.

And that’s why I was gratified to see that, this year, for the second year in a row, an environmental conservation photographer has been nominated for World Press Photo of the Year.

New York-based, South African-born war photographer Brent Stirton — whose controversial (hard to avoid that word, where high-profile photojournalism awards are concerned) image of a dead rhino slaughtered for its horn won the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award — has made the shortlist of six images for this year’s World Press Photo of the Year, for his image Akashinga — the Brave Ones.

The Akashinga are an all-female anti-poaching unit in Zimbabwe, not the most stable country on earth, nor the easiest for women to take up arms against poachers — all men — willing to kill anyone who stands between them and the booming market in illegal ivory and rhino horn.

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The World Press Photo Awards are top-shelf in my view because, unlike, say, the Pulitzers, they reflect the world’s best, not just America. The other nominees for Photo of the Year, for example, hail from Italy (Marco Gualazzini, Almajiri Boy); Syria (Mohammed Badra, Victims of an Alleged Gas Attack Receive Treatment in Eastern Ghouta); France-Spain (Catalina Martin-Chico, Being Pregnant after FARC Child-Bearing Ban); Australia (Chris McGrath, The Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi); and the U.S. (John Moore, Crying Girl on the Border).

Shortlisted candidates in other categories include photojournalists from Venezuela, Mexico, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In all, 43 photographers from 25 countries have been nominated for this year’s awards, the 62nd edition in the organization’s history. A new category, World Press Story of the Year, should prove less controversial than 2016’s “Photoshop is OK” category — fake news! — but recent history cautions that wherever there is a high-profile photo contest with the profile of the WPOTY or WPP awards, controversy inevitably follows.

The World Press Photos are a lightning rod for debate because they’re now the world’s most high-profile competition in a field of photography that’s all about competition. Winning can lead to paid work in what’s an ever-shrinking pool of full-time staff jobs with credible, reputable media organizations.

Different juries judge the awards each year, which lessens the chance of an institutional bias — or laziness — setting in.

Stirton knows that a great story lies at the heart of any great photograph. He got his start as a war photographer, covering conflict on his home continent of Africa. In his later years — he’s now repped by Getty Images in New York — his photojournalism has taken on more of an environmental angle, the result of his witnessing, and photographing, a mountain gorilla slaughtered for its body parts in a war-torn corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC), more than a decade ago now, in 2007.

©Brent Stirton / BrentStirton.com

©Brent Stirton / BrentStirton.com

An all-female army of wildlife rangers sounds like a gimmick, but as a BBC story by correspondent Rachel Nuwer last September showed, it isn’t. The project is the brainchild of Australian Defence Force special-operations sniper Damien Mander, who had been hired to stem a wave of poaching in Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Park, a 115-square-mile former trophy-hunting area, ground zero in a larger ecosystem that’s home to some 11,000 elephants. The women, 16 in all, come from backgrounds of abuse and deprivation, and so are motivated to prove what they can do. The women feel empowered, and are more likely to improve their communities in the process. They chose the  name “Akashinga” themselves, after Mander asked them to come up with a name for their unit. Akashinga means “the Brave Ones,” in the local Shona language.

“There’s a saying in Africa,” Mander told BBC. “‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”

The situation is serious. In just seven years, Africa’s elephant populations have crashed by 30%, largely due to poaching.

Stirton’s World Press Photo nominated image is a portrait of Petronella Chigumbura, age 30, in the field, where her specialty is in military stealth and concealment. Akashinga’s stated aim is to work with  rather than against local communities, Stirton explained in his submission. This is especially relevant today, as a renewed debate over whether trophy hunting can help fund conservation efforts, in wilderness areas where elephant populations have grown to the point where an ever-shrinking ecosystem can no longer sustain herd animals that eat up to 500 kgs. of trees and agricultural crops a day. Unlike trophy hunting, conservationists argue, finding ways to get local communities involved in serving and protecting wild animals is a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.

For his part, Stirton understands that a single powerful image is worth a thousand words — at least — if, at the end of the day, the idea is to galvanize people to act.

The same could be said of any of this year’s six finalists of course. A single image can indeed change the world. And that, controversies aside, is what the World Press Photo Awards are all about.

The 62nd Annual World Press Photo Awards will be handed out April 11 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.


©John Moore/Getty Images

©John Moore/Getty Images

©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

©Marco Gualazzini/Contrasto

©Marco Gualazzini/Contrasto

©Mohammed Badra/European PressPhoto Agency

©Mohammed Badra/European PressPhoto Agency

©Catalina Martin-Chico/Panos

©Catalina Martin-Chico/Panos



So you want to be a wildlife filmmaker? These are the stories of the people who made ‘Dynasties.’

A change of pace doesn’t always mean faster. Dynasties’ five hour-long life stories of five individual animals have now aired in the US, following their BBC One debut late last year, and it was evident from the start — each hour-long episode was filmed in a single location over a two- to four-year period — would have a different rhythm and pace than traditional nature programs.

Dynasties was always going to be different from earlier David Attenborough spectacles like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. By focusing on a single family group of animals over an extended period of time, Dynasties would bend and twist to the rhythms of life, and pack a real emotional punch. Survival of the fittest is never more urgent than when it affects individual animals viewers have grown to know and care about, even if only for a moment. There were times when Dynasties was both profound and poignant, and hard to watch. Life in the wild is a struggle, and there are never any guarantees that the noble — whether lion or penguin — will win out of the ignoble in the end.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

(New editions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are on the drawing board, by the way, following the next in the BBC-Attenborough canon, One Planet: Seven Worlds. Film composer Hans Zimmer confirmed earlier this week that he’ll be composing the theme for One Planet, as he did for Planet Earth II; no word yet if Radiohead will follow, as they did on Blue Planet II).

If any of Dynasties was hard to watch for the viewer, imagine what it must’ve been like for the cameramen — and women — sound technicians, location managers and field producers who followed each family group for months and years at a time, for the sense of achievement, if not the pay exactly.

Their stories, and the rollercoaster of emotions that rocketed them from highs to lows with an almost capricious regularity, form the core of The Making of Dynasties, which will air this weekend exclusively on BBC America (Sat., 9E/8C).

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the original program itself, The Making of Dynasties’ doesn’t dwell on the obvious — the bugs, the heat or, in the case of Antarctica, the cold — but rather the emotional, inner story of what it’s like to, say,  witness an African wild dog grow from infancy to become a strapping, adolescent would-be hunter and clan leader, only to stand by helplessly while it’s snatched, screaming, by a gargantuan, Antediluvian crocodile after pausing at a riverbank to drink.

It’s hard not to admire the physical and mental toughness of these filmmakers as they spend long days and nights outdoors in places that haven’t changed in millions of years in some cases — there’s no room service on the ice sheets of the Antarctic Peninsular, or in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, for that matter.

There’s Will Lawson, field producer of the Antarctic episode about penguins, rocked to his core at the sheer power and rugged beauty of the Earth’s most remote region, admitting softly to the camera, “I am absolutely speechless,” and 10,000 kilometre away, in Senegal on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rosie Thomas, producer-director of the episode about chimpanzees, struggling with her emotions as she admits. “It’s heartbreaking to see this chimp that was so powerful has just become so weak.”

Many nature programs, even those that claim to take themselves seriously, make the mistake of anthropomorphizing their subjects — deliberately giving animals human characteristics — in the belief that will make the program an easier sell with viewers.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As this hour of Dynasties shows, for the filmmakers themselves, these animals proved relatable in their own right, on their own terms. It’s easy to relate to any living creature when their very lives are at stake. There’s no need to Disney-fy the story. When the aging leader of a chimpanzee clan vanishes for several days after being badly injured in a fight with a younger, would-be alpha male, cameraman John Brown is shaken to his core.“We saw him not only nearly lose his position in the hierarchy but we saw him nearly lose his life,” he says to the camera. “The injuries he sustained in the last coup would have been enough to kill me. . . . 

“We’re still looking.”

The confessional to the camera, a type of aside used as a stylistic, storytelling device, is a tried and true staple of reality TV. Watching Dynasties, though — not just The Making of Dynasties — but the entire series, is a reminder of how much more trenchant and relevant documentary is than reality-TV. Here, the personal confessionals really mean something.

Seeing these cameramen and women in isolation, sharing their innermost thoughts, creates a sense of intimacy, emotions close to the surface for all to see. The Making of Dynasties provides depth and added  perspective to what was already a rich and deeply textured series.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“It’s tough, actually,” Nick Lyon, director of the African painted wolves episode, admits. “Because you spend day in and day out with these animals, for months and months and months, and their lives become very important to you. The stories can be incredible but it’s actually an emotional rollercoaster to see what’s happening with them.”

There are many moments in The Making of Dynasties that will surprise even those viewers who hung onto every word of every episode. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most dramatic revelations of life behind the scenes emerge in the Antarctica episode, where three intrepid filmmakers, Lawson and camera operators Stefan Christmann and Lindsay McCrae,  spent an entire Antarctic winter — in months of round-the-clock outdoor darkness — hunkered down inside an isolated German research station, Neumayer Station III, with just half a dozen German researchers to keep them company. A violent polar storm descends on them, on a scale witnessed by few human beings. Antarctic storms are more violent and powerful than any hurricane. There were times, Lawson admitted, when the sheer noise and violent stresses against a German-made structure designed to withstand just about anything, made him think the entire research station was about to come apart at the seams, taking them with it.

“We were told the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was less than 10 percent,” Lawson told the BBC’s RadioTimes. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was very apparent.”

The best nature programs give voice to endangered animals that can’t speak for themselves. As The Making of Dynasties shows, the conservationists and filmmakers  behind the camera have some interesting stories of their own. The Making of Dynasties ends, not with the Northern Lights but the Southern Lights, as seen from Antarctica.

“That is absolutely amazing,” Will Lawson says, nearly overcome by emotion in the black pitch of the Antarctic night, as clouds of green and amber light play overhead. “Oh my God.”

And how.




‘So near and yet so far’— Weddell Sea Expedition succeeded at climate readings but failed to find Shackleton’s ‘Endurance.’

“The search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance has been called off after extreme weather trapped an underwater vehicle under a sheet of ice.”

                                — Thu 14 Feb 2019 18.42 GMT

In the end, it wasn’t climate change but rather weather that proved the difference. The Weddell Sea Expedition’s attempt to find what remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s missing ship Endurance was scuttled after rapidly advancing sea ice trapped a submersible ROV expedition members were using to search the seabed floor beneath Antarctica’s beleaguered sea ice. The remote-operated submersible was lost to the deep, in what some might say was a fitting and somehow appropriate denouement to a brave but ultimately futile effort to use 21st century technology to unravel a mystery that has posed questions ever since the Endurance was itself trapped in sea ice and sank beneath the surface on the 21st of November, 1915.

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

Despite February being the height of the Antarctic summer and seemingly favourable conditions at first, coupled with 21st-century GPS readings based on the immaculate charts and maps provided by Endurance’s navigator, the two dozen geoscientists aboard the Dutch icebreaker and research vessel  SA Agulhas II knew when they had been beaten. Without their remote-operated  submersible submarine, they’d be working blind. And even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of conditions in Antarctica would know that “blind” is not how you want to operate in the most extreme — and potentially deadly — environment on planet Earth. No one — literally, no one — alive today would’ve been more aware of the potential for disaster. Shackleton and his crew were forced to give up the ghost in 1915, despite having survived much of the polar winter when frozen ice floes crushed their ship’s hull. Their subsequent escape from the Antarctic sea ice on foot and in lifeboats is one of the great stories of human resilience and endurance in recorded history. The lure of finding what remains of Endurance has captivated maritime historians, geographers and romantics for more than a century.

“We’re disappointed, clearly, as a team not to have been successful,” Mensun Bound, the expedition’s director of exploration, said in a statement. “Like Shackleton before us, who described Endurance’s graveyard as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world,’ our well-laid plans wee overcome by rapidly moving ice and what Shackleton himself called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea.’

“We hope our adventure will have engaged young people about the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed with Endurance to Antarctica.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Where Shackleton had to rely on hand-drawn charts based on meticulous longitude and latitude readings, the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition was decidedly high-tech. The submersible, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV, was designed to map a wide electronic grid of the sea floor below frigid waters more than 3,000m (9,800 feet) deep using HD still colour cameras.

The expedition is not considered a failure, however, as its main mission — completed before the crew’s attention turned to finding Endurance — was to study the effects of climate change and melting sea ice along the nearby Larsen C Ice Shelf, which famously “calved” a monster iceberg and later dubbed A-68, twice the size of Luxembourg, in July, 2017. Strangely, even given the remote location of Endurance’s watery grave, no team of scientists had examined the continuing erosion of the Larsen C ice shelf in person until the SA Agulhas ventured deep into the Weddell Sea this past January. Satellite imagery can only tell so much. Part of the expedition’s mission was to take actual physical samples of the ice and measure carbon readings and other scientific date that may be locked inside.

Expedition geoscientists, including polar geographers, geologists, oceanographers and climate scientists, pointed out just last week that their findings have already enhanced our knowledge of Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems, not to mention the oceans that surround the Southern Continent on all four sides.

The Weddell Sea Expedition was never going to solve the world’s climate crisis, of course.

Thanks to the incalculable value of the retrieved and recorded data, though, scientists now have a better understanding of what exactly’s going on. Good thing, too. The future of humanity may well depend on it, if not the future of the entire planet.


©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition



Rare black leopard caught on camera in Kenya. So, who deserves the credit?

Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest? History records that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, on May 29, 1953, but purists have always wondered if his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Hillary addressed this issue directly in an interview with National Geographic Adventurer contributing editor David Roberts in April, 2003, in a story titled “50 Years on Everest.”

“When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalled. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.”

You may be wondering what the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt. Everest has to do with a series of stunning photos published in the past 10 days of a rare black leopard on Kenya’s central Laikipia Plateau, but there is a connection.

It has to do with shared credit, and what the protocol is when a hard-earned wildlife photograph goes viral on social media and becomes front-page news for major news organizations around the world.

Who deserves credit? The person who took the photograph of a rare animal, or the person who found that rare animal in the first place.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

It’s how that news was reported — on the BBC World News’ main website, for one— that the controversy started. 

Veteran UK nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who leads photo expeditions of his own in Africa for avid shutterbugs and animal lovers, captured the startling image of a black panther — actually a regular leopard with a rare melanistic gene that causes the fur to appear black, though not a pure black exactly but grey, which is why the leopard’s spots, or rosettes, are clearly visible against the background fur when — using a remote-controlled trap camera. It was a local Samburu tracker and research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Global outreach NGO, Ambrose Letoluai, however, who knew where to find the leopard and told Burrard-Lucas where best to set the camera. LetoluaLetoluaii has lived his entire life in Koija, a small  village which borders Loisaba Conservancy, and was hired as a leopard researcher after recalling tales elders in his community had told him about black leopards being common on the Laikipia Plateau.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

San Diego Zoo Global researchers, working with biologist Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D deployed remote cameras as part of a larger-scale study aimed at understanding the population dynamics of leopards on conservation land that, like much of northern Kenya, is shared by both wildlife and pastoral cattle herders. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where goats and calves encounter an apex predator like a leopard, and researchers believe more needs to be known about wild animals’ habits if they are to have a chance to survive. Leopards are not critically endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as “vulnerable” on its official Red List of threatened species.

Black panthers have always held a special place in the human imagination, in part because they’re seen so rarely and in part because they’re such a familiar symbol in popular culture.

Burrard-Lucas got wind of the Laikipia program and its trap cameras, and decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream to capture a black panther, if not on film exactly, on-camera. Letoluai was his assigned minder — his Sherpa, if you will — and the subsequent images, part luck, part good timing and part insider knowledge, exceeded their expectations.

So far, so good.

The mainstream media like nothing better than a good story, though, and while “Night-time Photos of a Rare Black Leopard” might sound like a good story to some people, “First Black Leopard Spotted in 100 Years” sounds much better.

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

In a media climate desperate for some good news about the environment for a change, rare photos of an animal that hasn’t been seen for a century is a headline grabber.

There’s just one problem. It wasn’t true. Local media in Kenya, among them photojournalist and staff photographer Phoebe Okall of the Nairobi Daily Nation newspaper, had captured images of a black leopard in the wild just a few years ago.

Many Kenyans, politically sensitive toward any perceived slight by westerners in the post-colonial era of independence, saw this as a double insult: Ambrose Letoluai was being given enough credit for finding the black leopard on BBC World’s main news site, and local, Kenyan photojournalists were not being given any credit for having captured images of black leopards on not one but several occasions prior to “the first capture in 100 years.”

Burrard-Lucas, for his part, found himself caught in the middle. What should have been the crowning achievement of his photographic career — and still might — is suddenly at the centre of an increasingly noisy and fractious controversy.

He posted an immediate clarification on his website: He never said it was the first photo of a black leopard in 100 years. That was something the media added, for effect. He was also more than willing to credit Letoluai  for his work in setting up the camera trap — it’s quite common, and perfectly acceptable, for nature photographers to credit the guides who take them to the rare animals in the first place.

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

Earlier this week, a reasoned, thoughtful, well-researched — and properly sourced — article in the Washington Post, by general assignment reporters Alex Horton and Reis Thebault, sought to put an end to the controversy by outlining exactly what happened, who did what, where, how, why and, importantly, when.

The damage is done, though, and the outrage on social media sites like Twitter, mostly from Kenyans proud of their heritage and the wild animals they know as their own, continues unabated, even today.

Perhaps, if and when Burrard-Lucas’ images are recognized at some of the big wildlife photo awards, such as the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in October — which I suspect they just may — Burrard-Lucas and Letoluai can accept together, in person, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before them.

Enough about that, for now. Here, then, are some key links to the controversy, as it unfolded.

https://www.camtraptions.com/black-leopard.html

https://naloolo.com/2019/02/14/how-a-24-year-old-samburu-warrior-captured-images-of-kenyas-black-leopard/?fbclid=IwAR10jnCgSeIiOomn8po_x1MeFEoIwzMjbvtJb-XuW9yN9AByDpkyPNRYn-E


https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2019/02/13/black-leopard-photos-are-definitely-not-first-years/?utm_term=.7f87481a31e1


Lawson’s choice: On penguins and filming ‘Dynasties,’ when is there a right time to intervene?

Not so long ago, I asked the producer of a prestigious,  award-winning series of wildlife programs if he was ever tempted to intervene if he and his camera crew witnessed a tragedy unfolding that they could somehow stop.

It’s the first law of journalism that the reporter must never become part of the story. Objectivity counts for everything. No professional, self-respecting journalist can allow themselves to be seen taking one side over the other.

The wildlife filmmaker faces a similar if not identical dilemma. They’re there to capture nature at its most raw and untouched, and ideally the film crew is meant to be invisible, as if not there at all.

His answer surprised me.

“Yes,” he said.

For the simple reason that, by their mere presence, a camera crew has already intruded on a natural situation. So it’s their responsibility — an obligation, some might say — to help solve a crisis if it was of their making.

This is not a question of semantics. It comes up with wildlife filmmakers all the time. (In this case, I had asked about a nature film I had seen recently, in which a lioness with newborn cubs suddenly moves her litter to a new den she presumes to be safer, despite the presence of a cobra at the den she’s moving into. The producer worried she may have been spooked into moving her cubs to a less safe den by the presence of a camera crew. They had no way of knowing.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The more prestigious production houses, like BBC’s Natural History Unit — makers of the David Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, Planet Earth and Blue Planet — have a strict code of ethics, which is rooted in non-interference.

The intention, always, is to let nature take its course.

That directive was sorely tested in Emperor, the climactic episode of the Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, which makes its US debut this weekend on BBC America (Sat. 9E/P, 8C). Filmmaker Will Lawson pulled off a first, following a  colony of emperor penguins for an entire year, including — obviously — the bitter, cold, dark Antarctic winter.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

At one point during filming, Lawson discovered a small group of penguins they had been following, chicks in tow, had inadvertently stranded themselves in an ice gully. The filmmakers realized that if they did not intervene, the penguins — every single one of them — would die. Intervention in this case was to dig a gully and ice ramp, providing a way for the penguins could escape inevitable death that, rather than being a case of nature taking its course, seemed more like a capricious twist of fate — not nature at all but rather simple bad luck.

Lawson chose as my producer friend had chosen: He knowingly broke the “cardinal rule” of non-interference, rationalizing that the penguins would find the exit ramp on their own, and if they didn’t … well.

It was not a straightforward decision, “by any stretch of the imagination,” he admitted in an interview with ITV’s Lorraine Kelly on the breakfast program Lorraine! last November, shortly after the episode first aired in the UK on BBC One.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

In a situation like that, he said, you have to look at the facts in front of you. Which is what he did. Attenborough himself would have done the same, BBC insiders have since said. The penguin episode makes its US debut this weekend, and will arguably reach the largest audience Dynasties has yet seen.

“Film crews have to capture events as they unfold, whatever their feelings,” Attenborough himself noted. (Programming alert: A special hour-long “Making of” program, hosted by Attenborough, will air exclusively on BBC America in 10 days time, on Feb. 23, and will feature behind-the-scenes moments from all five Dynasties programs, including the penguins in Antarctica.)

“I know it’s natural,” Lawson said of his to-do-or-not-to-do dilemma, “but it’s bloody hard to watch.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Decisions are never easy, and there will always be those who disagree, no matter how one decides. An informal poll on YouTube found that while 700 viewers agreed with Lawson’s choice, 40 disagreed. (“You’re not intervening, guys,” one assenting viewer posted. “You’re doing a very humane thing. You’re helping poor creatures get a second chance in life.”)

It’s contrary to the better angels of our nature to allow animals to die needlessly. And that’s as true of penguins in Antarctica as it is of any living creature anywhere else. Our job as a species should be to act as stewards for the planet. After all, as more than a few viewers have noted on various Dynasties message boards, we have caused so much death and destruction — inadvertent or otherwise — that helping the inhabitants of this planet, even if unnatural, seems the least we can do.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1rBMlBtJzVvfJWXJ6rjfhJ1/a-filmmakers-dilemma


Of painted wolves and African wild dogs: ‘Dynasties’ most emotionally wrenching hour yet.

Life in the wild is hard. We know this.

From the first hour, the David Attenborough-narrated nature program Dynasties has been unflinching in its depiction of survival.

Even so, the fourth episode in this exquisite — and intensely personal — series, airing this weekend in the US for the first time (BBC America, AMC Networks, Sat. 9E/P, 8C), is harrowing and emotionally wrenching. The episode Painted Wolf, filmed along the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park, a remote, relatively untrammelled region of wilderness area in Zimbabwe, made director and cameraman Nick Lyon physically ill at one point, as he stood by helplessly as a painted wolf pup, part of a family group the filmmaking team had followed for two years, was grabbed by a crocodile from a riverbank.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Painted wolves — once known as African wild dogs, before conservation groups decided that the name “wild dogs” was unhelpful in raising awareness of the plight of one of Africa’s most rare and critically endangered predators — are social animals. For the purposes of storytelling, the filmmakers followed two groups in rival territories. As the program begins, one of the competing groups is led by a wise but aging matriarch, nicknamed Tait; the other group is led by her estranged daughter Blacktip, who is young and healthy and looking to stake out her own territory. Murder and mayhem ensue, in arguably the most bloody and brutal hour in Dynasties’ entire run.

Complicating the already complicated family entanglements are other predators — lions, hyenas and the prehistoric, monstrously sized crocodile that caused filmmaker Lyon such distress. Predators are conditioned by nature to kill other predators when and where they can, in part to alleviate competition for a limited and often dwindling food supply.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The wrenching scene, in which one of the pups is snatched unsuspecting by the paw and dragged into the water, flailing helplessly, made Lyon, a veteran cameraman and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, sick.

“When you follow animals as long as we did,” he told The Telegraph, via BBC, “you get to know them and care what happens to them.

“It becomes an emotional experience when you see one of the characters having a bad time, or having real success. I loved the puppies. I remember when they were out of the den for the first time at just three weeks old. They were so tiny, with oversized heads, that would overbalance on their front legs.”

Lyon described the rivalry between mother and estranged daughter as Shakespearian, both in scale and in the intensity of its rivalry.

From a natural history point-of-view — and from the perspective of the casual viewer who watches nature programs from time to time — the hour is a reminder of just how challenging life in the wild really is, even in the most ideal of climatic and environmental conditions, and the fine margins between life and death. It’s hard enough to survive, let alone thrive. It’s impossible to watch Painted Wolf and not be moved by what’s unfolding on the screen.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Away from the screen, if real life, painted wolves, African wild dogs, Cape hunting dogs or whatever you care to call them, face an uncertain future. As a nation, Zimbabwe is beset by genuine real-world problems that involve real-world hardship for countless people, problems that range from poverty, drought and hunger to corruption, bad governance and a failing economy. As pristine as the Mana Pools wilderness appears to the outside eye, the entire ecosystem is in peril, besieged on all sides. It’s hard to imagine how even an adaptable charismatic animal like the painted wolf can cope, and yet cope they must if they are to survive as a species.

Lyon estimates he and his camera crew drove through some 82,000 kms — 51,000 miles — of miombo woodlands while tracking Tait, Blacktip and their respective aunts, uncles, offspring and more distant relatives. The insights they gleaned along the way were extraordinary.

In its three outings so far during its US debut, Dynasties  has established itself as a unique, compelling and hypnotic document of natural history, even by the lofty standards of other such BBC Attenborough programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Tough to watch, yes, but unforgettable at times.




Strange days: Scientists discover ‘void of nothingness’ beneath Antarctica’s biggest glacier.

Strange days have found us / Strange days have tracked us down.

These are strange days. It will strike some of us as an exquisite irony that, in this age of climate denial and fake news, we’re also living in an age of new and unique discoveries. Science continues to open a window onto new frontiers and open a door to new finds. Less than 10 years after scientists discovered evidence of a prehistoric megalake  beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert — a lake formed some 250,000 years ago that, at its highest level, covered some 42,000 square miles (109,000 square kms) over the eastern Sahara where the Nile River burst its banks and pushed through a new channel in Egypt — now NASA scientists have discovered a growing void of emptiness deep inside Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, planet Earth’s most important glacier.

©Pixabay-COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay-COO Creative Commons

The hollowed-out section of ice, somewhat misleadingly dubbed a “hole” by much of the world’s media, is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet (300 metres) tall, and represents some 14 billion tons of missing ice. That might not sound like much, considering the glacier itself is the size of Florida, but scientists are alarmed that it is the most pronounced sign yet that rapid ice melt caused by climate change is happening much faster than even the most pessimistic climate models suggested.

thwaites map.png

The Thwaites Glacier is critical to earth science because it’s the largest outflow channel in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, already considered to be vulnerable to ice melt.

If the glacier melts entirely — and that’s no longer seen as a big “if” — sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet over the next 50-100 years. That could, in theory, flood every coastal city on Earth, possibly within the lifetimes of many people who are alive today.

Climate deniers will argue, of course, that this is simply more alarmism from conservationists looking to feather their fundraising nests and justify their existence — an argument that conveniently overlooks the fact that if, any side in the debate is driven by financial considerations, it’s the big oil and energy companies that have vowed to continue extracting fossil fuels, no matter the cost to the environment, and despite clear  evidence that man-made carbon emissions are the big driver behind rapidly accelerating climate change.

©Science

©Science

This is the height of the Antarctic summer when, for obvious reasons, most of the important scientific surveys are being conducted. The Thwaites Glacier has come under heightened scrutiny in a month when temperatures across Australia have soared to a record-breaking 50°C in some towns, and much of the US Midwest is locked into a deep freeze where an Arctic  polar vortex has caused temperatures to plummet as low as minus-60°C, once wind chill is factored into the equation. (It might sound counterintuitive, but actually record cold is also a sign of “global warming,” which is why that term has fallen out of favour with those who know what they’re talking about. “Climate change” is a more accurate description, and some — myself, for example — prefer “climate emergency,” if only to inject a sense of urgency into the debate.

“Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to (measuring) its impact on sea-level rise in the coming decades,” Eric Rignot, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a prepared statement.

©NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

©NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Science may be unfashionable to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As the famed astronomer and advocate for science education Neil deGrasse Tyson — often described as “America’s preeminent badass astrophysicist” — is fond of saying, science doesn’t much care what you or anyone else thinks. “The thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

The reason a void — or a cavity or a hole, or whatever you care to call it — under a glacier is worth measuring is because the more heat and water that seeps under a glacier, the faster it melts.

©COO-Creative Commons

©COO-Creative Commons

The void at the heart of the Thwaites Glacier wasn’t stumbled over by some adventurers in a sea kayak, either. The find is the result of intensive data analysis of ice-penetrating radar readings taken from space by the European Space Agency, in cooperation with NASA’s Operation IceBridge (established in 2010 to measure the connection between the polar regions and the global climate) and scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Study results were published Jan. 30 in the journal Science Advances.

The discovery comes at the same time the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition has intensified its search of the Antarctic seabed for the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which was crushed by pack ice and sank in 1915,  and at the same time UK and US scientists are launching their own five-year research project, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which will use artificial intelligence, seafloor ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles), ocean-based weather stations and — get this — more than a dozen warm-blooded seals fitted with sensors designed to measure and gather readings of glacial ice and the surrounding water.

©University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

©University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

“Thanks to a new generation of satellites,” Rignot said, “we can finally see the detail.”

That detail might not be entirely what we want to see.

Strange days have found us / And through their strange hours / We linger alone / Bodies confused / Memories misused / As we run from the day / To a strange night of stone.

— ‘Strange Days’ by The Doors, 1967.








Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forest of the night, in this week’s outing of ‘Dynasties.’

There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already, Ashlan Cousteau once said.

That watchful gaze — ever aware, always alert — may not be enough to save it, though. Jungles and tigers both are in trouble, in this hot mess of a world. 

And the tigress Raj Bhera in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has it particularly hard in Tiger, this weekend’s Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C). She has newborn cubs, and everything from Indian sloth bears to other tigers seems to want them out of the way.

Never mind that Bandhavgarh, as indefatigable narrator David Attenborough takes pains to point out in his voice-over, early in the program, is a tiny — and shrinking — green island surrounded by a very human problem: over-population. The small, 105 sq. km. park in Shahdol District has a tiger population of roughly 45 tigers, which means that each cat has a territory of less than five square kilometres. The better-known Kanha National Park, by contrast, is home to some 60 tigers over an area of 950 sq. km, more than twice as much territory for each tiger than in Bandhavgarh.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

It wouldn’t matter so much, except that — as Attenborough stresses in Tiger — these cats, the biggest of the big cats, are notoriously particular about their territory, which they go out of their way to mark. Trespassing on another tiger’s territory can lead to fights, even death. And it doesn’t help if one of the tigers, like Raj Bhera, has a litter of newborn cubs to protect.

Watching Dynasties, not just Tiger but all the episodes, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers, who followed each of their subjects over a four-year period, have gone out of their way to edit each hour to end on a positive note — if not a happy ending exactly, at least not on a nihilistic note. Animals, predator and prey alike, lead a hard life in the wild, wherever they are. And one of the things that makes Dynasties so compelling, if hard to watch at times, is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the tension, or the threats to its subjects’ existence — even if those endings do seem shaped in some way. (Last week’s episode Chimpanzee, for example, left out the bit where an expedition team returned Senegal’s Sahel region several months after filming ended, only to learn that the researchers’ primary study animal, and the episode’s lead character, clan leader David had been killed after all, beaten to death, most likely by his quarrelsome challengers Jumkin and Luthor, and Jumkin was now clan leader and facing an insurrection of his own.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the other episodes, Tiger’s making demanded meticulous attention to detail and no small amount of time, sweat and dedication from the production team. Episode director Theo Webb, an eight-year veteran of BBC’s Natural History Unit (1997’s Land of the Tiger, which aired on BBC Two, is among his many credits —  gave viewers a hint of the day-to-day jungle routine, writing on BBC’s website late last year, when Tiger made its debut in the UK (this weekend marks Tiger’s US premiere).

“Each morning at sunrise, we’d drive into the park and head straight to the territory of our tigress, Raj Bhera. Tigers are very site-specific and we knew the rough boundaries of her territory. She wasn’t radio collared and so to find her, we’d look for tracks in the dusty roads that criss cross through the park. It’s not only the tourists and us that used these dust roads. A lot of the animals also use them, because it’s much nicer to walk on soft sand rather than twigs and thorns.

“This was incredibly useful to us because you can see what’s happened during the previous night — for example, whether the tigers moving in that area were an adult male, female or cubs.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“If the tiger is moving through the jungle you can actually hear the alarm calls (of other animals) moving, as it passes through. . . .

“Tigers are very unpredictable, so you never know what’s going to happen, or when. Sometimes a deer would walk right past, and they’d continue sleeping in the middle of the day. Other times they’d get up and start stalking right in the middle of the day.

“We’d often sit and wait for an entire day with nothing happening. But you could never zone out. One day there was only a tiny window through a piece of vegetation where I could see the tiger’s tail occasionally flick. I had to have my binoculars on my eyes for hours because I knew that if she left, she’d move off silently and we’d lose her, and we’d be left waiting by an empty piece of grass.”

A tiger’s life in Bandhavgarh is beset by the ever-present threat of poaching and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict that breaks out when a small and shrinking wilderness area is hemmed in by ever-expanding agricultural plots and growing villages.

Alpha predators like tigers are the reason you don’t see old animals in the wild, biologists say. You don’t see sick animals in the wild. You don’t see lame animals in the wild. The predator — the tiger, the lion, the leopard, the wolf — sees to that. That’s why, as more than one field biologist has pointed out, a healthy predator population is invariably a sign of a healthy ecoystsem. It’s not just that the fittest survive. Those survivors procreate and pass on their genes.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Tigers are special, yet they’re vanishing, slowly but surely. It would be a terrible shame if the world loses them.

The Malays only speak of them in whispers, the 19th century explorer, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird, the first woman elected a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, wrote in 1883, in Sketches in the Malay Peninsular.

Malays only speak of them in whispers because they believe the souls of certain human beings who have departed this life have reincarnated themselves through these beasts, Bird noted, “and in some places, for this reason, they will not kill a tiger unless he commits some specially bad aggression.”

Over the centuries, the definition of what “specially bad aggression” really means has proved to be malleable,  shifting, morphing and shape-shifting with the times. The tiger has been able to adapt for the most part — until now. How much longer will the immortal hand or eye frame its fearful symmetry? 




‘Endurance’ beckons — 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is on the cusp of history, as you read.

Endurance went down entombed in ice, “in a sea of other people’s expectations,” as the saying goes. Men had drowned in seas like that. The year was 1915 and the place was Antarctica, and there — but for Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographer Frank Hurley and a small group of men determined to survive, damn the odds — no more would have been said, heard or told about it.

And yet, here we are.

Just days ago, on 27 January, 2019, the Weddell Sea Expedition and the 13,700-ton South African icebreaker SA Agulhas II, with some 30 climate scientists, geologists, historians and polar explorers aboard, started to break their way through 75 miles (121 km) of sea ice in their effort to reach the final resting place of Shackleton’s ship.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

It’s midsummer on the far side of the world, and while climate deniers have complained all week about it being colder in Chicago — minus 30°C — than it is in Antarctica — minus 25°C — the fact is that, even in midsummer, this part of Antarctica is still entombed in ice. Expedition members have spent the last few weeks taking measurements of the Larsen C ice shelf, together with climate readings of the Weddell Sea, parts of which remain covered in ice up to 3 metres thick.

Make no mistake, this is very much a 21st century expedition. Team members are using satellite imagery, drones, autonomous robotic submarines and underwater Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) in their effort to find what remains of the 145-foot (44 metres) three-mastered barquentine which sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea in the polar spring of November, 1915 after being trapped in sea ice for 10 months.

©Frank Hurley/Endurance c/o Royal Geographical Society (RGS)

©Frank Hurley/Endurance c/o Royal Geographical Society (RGS)

We may be living through troubled times, but in this tiny corner at the far end of the earth, hope springs eternal.

“We hope to achieve what we thought was impossible,” 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition director-of-exploration and maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound said in a prepared statement. “Although the odds of success were initially against us, the mood within the team is upbeat, given the favourable ice and weather conditions, which we think will allow us to reach the search area.

“We now view this as the best opportunity to locate Endurance and we are relishing the chance to be involved is a search of such significance.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Thanks to the obsessiveness and penchant for detail of Shackleton’s master navigator and skipper Frank Worsley, the Agulhas II is not operating in the dark as it were. Worsley took great pains to record the exact coordinates of where Endurance went down, never dreaming of a day more than a century later when autonomous robot submarines could scan the sea floor.

This past Sunday, just 72 hours ago, the expedition was in the Erebus and Terror Gulf — named after Sir John Franklin’s two ships in Franklin’s own, ill-fated effort to find his way through Canada’s Northwest Passage in the high Arctic, at the other far end of the earth— calibrating high-precision acoustic positioning systems, which is a high-falutin’ way of describing the use of modern-day technology to track down a century-old shipwreck.

©John Shears/2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©John Shears/2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Agulhas II scientists and crew members have shared moments of unalloyed joy in their weeks so far, from an impromptu game of pick-up soccer on making first landing on the Antarctic Peninsular — recreating a game played by Endurance crew members a century earlier, before they realized the hardships and terror that lay before them — to bright-eyed selfie videos in front of walls of ice, shared in real time, on Facebook and Twitter. Before turning their attention to finding Endurance, the scientists spent the better part of a month collecting ice samples and surveying the effects of climate change near the Larsen C ice shelf carved an iceberg four times the size of Greater London in July, 2017. Satellite images from the European Space Agency have since revealed that the iceberg, dubbed A68, has moved away from the ice shelf and is floating out to sea.

This may be the Age of Trump, but the fact is that the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is making real discoveries in the name of science, in fields that include oceanography, glaciology, biology, geology — and now, potentially, history.

Endurance beckons.

https://weddellseaexpedition.org

http://www.rgs.org/wse

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition






‘Dynasties’ and chimpanzees — “The Garden of Eden is no more.”

Cometh the weekend, cometh the summoning hour. 

This weekend, the David Attenborough-narrated program Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C) focuses on a war for power and succession among a chimpanzee clan in the eastern Sahel region of Senegal, where the Sahara Desert is making inexorable inroads against the cool, green forests the chimpanzees call home.

Chimpanzee first aired on BBC One in the UK last November, and its harrowing tale of an aging but wise and decent clan leader threatened by adolescent anarchists in the clan played like equal parts Macbeth and King Lear

Dynasties, from many of the same producers who brought the world Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unrelenting in its violence and tension, both implied and actual. The filmmakers followed the clan leader David and his bumptious sons Luthor and Jumkin for the better part of four years as a cohort of younger males challenge the alpha male and threaten to tip the troop into chaos as they fight to gain the upper hand. “This is a story of power, politics, and the fight for survival,” Attenborough intoned in his familiar dulcet tones in voice-over.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

For the filmmakers who followed the troop for four years, it was all that and more.

Episode producer Rosie Thomas, a 13-year veteran of BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, gave casual viewers insight into the day-to-day routine of following a chimpanzee clan in the wilds of Senegal in a compelling essay for BBC One’s main website, that shows quite a different picture to the one seen on the screen. 

“It’s 3.45 am,” Thomas wrote. “With the ping of the alarm we drag ourselves out of bed, pull on our field clothes, assemble in the kitchen and try to stomach some coffee and gloopy porridge. No one speaks other than the briefest of ‘mornings’ to each other. It's too early to think straight, let alone try and have a conversation. . . .

“Every trip the road looked different: the rivers might have filled or dried up, the grass could be completely burnt or even two metres high and looming well over the height of the car. So each time we had to relearn the roads. 

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

“We followed the chimps last night until they built their nests so we know where they are located now, but we must reach the troop before dawn to make sure we’re there before they wake up. The temperature is already high, and by the time you’ve walked for half an hour you’re dripping in sweat. If the chimps are in a difficult area you may have to wade through thick vegetation, or even across a river. And all this before the sun is even up. 

“We locate the individual we want to focus on for the day (usually David), set up the camera and wait. We walk and we film, we walk and we film. It’s getting very hot now. We walk, we sit and we wait.”

Not for long. Because when something happened, as it inevitably did, they would see the kind of things that stay with one for a lifetime.

There are never happy endings in the wild kingdom, only temporarily satisfactory outcomes. The chimpanzees’ future is inexorably tied to that of planet Earth, and it’s still an open question as to how that story will end. 

Chimpanzee ends on a solemn grace note, with David temporarily back in control of his clan. As with any Shakespearean play, though, there are more acts to come.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit