Virunga National Park

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.

Another photo contest, another scandal: Welcome to the world of temptation-by-social-media and instant gratification.

Here we go again. Another photo contest, another scandal. Consider it a scourge of the digital age. Digital technology, the very thing that made wildlife photography easier — less time trying to match ISO with available light; less time worrying about whether you’re running out of film at that exact moment your subject is about to do something, anything, let alone the very thing you’ve been waiting all this time for; less time fretting about whether the subject is even in focus to begin with — has also made it easier to fake that seeming once-in-a-lifetime capture.

Digital manipulation leaves a trace, but that still means a wildlife image can be staged, using a captive animal or — as in this most recent accusation — a possibly stuffed animal. Digital technology can make tiny, telling details that would otherwise send up a warning flag almost seamless. 

Prize-winning nature photographer Marcio Cabral has been accused of using a stuffed anteater in his Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest image — now removed by contest sponsors from the London Natural History Museum exhibit of last year’s winning and nominated images — of an anteater eying a termite mound glowing with bioluminescence, beneath a starlit sky in Brazil’s grasslands. The image was named best-in-show in the prestigious contest’s “Animals in Their Environment” category.

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

Questions were raised after an “anonymous third party” flagged the eerie similarities between the anteater in the Cabral photograph and a taxidermy anteater displayed at one of the entrances to Brazil’s Emas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the same park Cabral said he had scoured for three years at night, trying to get the distinctive image. 

©Natural History Museum (UK)

©Natural History Museum (UK)

In what seems a shame for the other shortlisted candidates in the category, contest organizers say they are vacating Cabral’s win and will not replace his image with another winner. The names of the other finalists were announced last October, the Natural History Museum explained, which means the judges “can no longer render an objective decision.”

I’m not sure I follow that logic — surely the judges can get together in a conference call and decide which of the runners-up they like best in retrospect, but then I’m not privy to the details of the case behind the scenes. The only thing that does seem clear is that the entire situation is a mess. (Photographers who submit images to the WPOTY competition must sign a waiver saying their image has not been staged or manipulated in any way, standard practice in virtually all nature-photo competitions nowadays. It’s largely based on an honour system, though; detection, where it exists at all, is usually after-the-fact and difficult to enforce.)

Cabral denies the accusation, and that’s important to note. The thing with photography, especially wildlife photography, is that much of it has to be taken on faith. Nature photographers, by definition, spend long hours under stressful conditions in the middle of nowhere, often unseen by other human eyes. It’s the nature of the beast, if you will. Nature photography is based on the honour system; there often aren’t witnesses to corroborate or refute the conditions under which an image was captured. The reputable nature photographers who’ve made a name for themselves, often but not always with well-established media organizations like National Geographic and Getty Images, form a close, tight-knit community, in part because it’s a tough job, tougher than it looks, and in part because it’s a hard way to make a living, let alone establish a reputation as one of the world’s best. 

The advent of social media has created a field of intense competition, where clicks and “likes” count for everything. That wasn’t the case just 10 years ago, at least not to the extent it is today. Established conservation photographers like Steve Winter, Michael “Nick” Nichols, Beverly Joubert, Paul Nicklen, Brent Stirton (below), Ami Vitale, Cristina Mittermeier — even a young up-and-comer like New Jersey teen Ashleigh Scully — don’t need to prove themselves.



For relative unknowns looking to break in, though, the temptation to game the system must be great indeed, especially in a present-day social milieu that seems to be driven more and more by instant gratification. We live in a wired, connected world after all, where even some bozo on YouTube can become a millionaire overnight, based on little more than clickbait and trending views.

Reaction to the Cabral controversy has ranged from mild surprise to shock — “I find it disheartening that a photographer would go to such lengths to deceive the competition and its worldwide following,” WPOTY 2017 judge Roz Kidman Cox said Friday in a statement — but perhaps the real surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often. By its nature, nature photographer can be about getting that one image of a lifetime, though it’s also true that the most respected, admired photographers are those who have a proven track record over time. 

Cox is no dilettante; she was editor of Wildlife Magazine (now BBC Wildlife) for more than two decades, and has been a judge of Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 1981.

Brent Stirton, a South Africa-born, New York-based war correspondent for Getty Images who won the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for his haunting, hard-to-look-at image of a rhino slaughtered for its horn, was quoted at length in The Guardian as saying he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to fake an image and then try to pass it off in such a high-profile competition, knowing it would be scrutinized not just by other photographers but also by behavioural scientists — actual field biologists who study animals for a living and can spot questionable behaviour and situations in a heartbeat. Stirton knows a thing or two about the danger genuine nature photographers find themselves in; after surreptitiously taking an award-winning photo of a poached mountain gorilla in Congo’s Virunga National Park in July, 2007, he was told in no uncertain terms to get out of there fast because, “People were looking for him.” People with guns. And a proven track record of using them.

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

The London Natural History Museum is not some monkey exhibit at the local library; submitting a faked photo to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is a little like trying to pass off a plagiarized novel in front of the Pulitzer Prize award committee.

Behavioural science is one thing, where animals are concerned. Who, though, can figure out what gets into human beings’ minds at times?

Whether the Cabral photo was faked or not, only Cabral can know for certain. The contest judges — and the independent scientists they canvassed — seemed to think so. In retrospect, if not at the time.seemed



High risk, low pay and the ultimate price: The real heroes of Earth Day.

Leopold Gukiya Ngbekusa. Patrick Kisembo N’singa. Sudi Koko. Antopo Selemani. Lokana Tingiti. Joël Meriko Ari. Gertomoe Bolimola Afokao. Jonas Paluku Malyani.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

Not household names.

In their own way, though, they made the ultimate sacrifice for what remains of the natural world in the heart of Africa. And their memory is especially poignant today, on Earth Day.

A game ranger’s pay is not significant by any means, especially in a country like Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where — and this is true — one million people died in civil conflict between 1998 and 2003 alone, according to the respected NGO the Norwegian Refugee Council. That’s a low figure. Higher estimates put that figure closer to five million, according to the Norwegian agency —  who, unlike major news organizations like CNN and BBC, actually have boots on the ground. The actual figure, as so often turns out to be the case, is probably somewhere in the middle.

Either way, it’s too many.

And while it’s easy to say the lives of a handful of park rangers don’t add up to a lot when contrasted against the sheer carnage of a civil war that — and, once again, this is true — threatens to ignite all over again, right now, as you’re reading this, the hard truth on this Earth Day is that, in so many instances, these park rangers are all that stand between the mountain gorilla and species extinction.

Once again, it’s down to the Scandinavian countries, it seems, to report on the health of the planet, even though Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland don’t exactly have a history of colonialism to answer to — at least, not in this part of the world.

virunga2 ©Netflix.png

There are two surviving groups of wild mountain gorillas remaining on the planet. One is in Virunga National Park, in DRC; the other is in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in neighbouring Uganda. Neither country is particularly stable politically, though, even for a region that inspired Joseph Conrad’s dystopian classic  Heart of Darkness, DRC is a law unto itself — an impossible-to-govern territory that sprawls over 2,300,00 square kilometres (900,00 square miles). Or, to put it in simpler, easier-to-understand terms, larger than the size of Spain, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden combined.

That’s why, when anyone with a heart and soul learns there are just 900 mountain gorillas left in the world — if that — it’s hard for the brain to comprehend, let alone make sense of it all. (Interestingly, that figure counts as a success story to some experts, who point out that when pioneering primatologist Dian Fossey first arrived in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in 1967, there were just 240 gorillas remaining in the wild — this, according to a census taken the following year.

©Mark Jordahl/Pixabay

©Mark Jordahl/Pixabay

The reality is harsh, but important to remember on this Earth Day.

Just two weeks ago, five park rangers and a driver were killed in an ambush in Virunga. The loss of life was the worst in a single incident in the history of the park, where some 170 rangers have died in the past 20 years while protecting animals — all for a salary that’s a pittance by western standards, though enough to keep their families clothed and fed. Barely.

Official statements are often bland boilerplate, standard-issue press releases that pay lip service to the dead while assuaging the concerns of outside observers and reassuring stakeholders — read: corporate investors and tourism officials — that the situation is under control and not as bad as it sounds.

There was an edge to this one, though, from Virunga chief warden Emmanuel de Merode.

“Virunga has lost some extraordinarily brave rangers who were deeply committed to working in the service of their communities,” Merode said in his statement. “It is unacceptable that Virunga’s rangers continue to pay the highest price in defence of our common heritage.”

©One Green Planet

©One Green Planet

Park officials, speaking off the record and unnamed, told the UK Guardian newspaper, that they believe the perpetrators of the ambush were the “Mai Mai,” a local self-defence militia, but the reality is that the gorillas in Virunga — and the rangers who protect them — are victimized by any number of armed groups, from poachers, illegal hunters and wildlife traffickers to bandits, thieves and rogue militias from neighbouring states still fighting the Hutu-Tsutsi wars that sparked the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and threaten today to spill over the border all over again, this time from neighbouring Burundi.

Virunga isn’t just some obscurely named park off-the-beaten track of wildlife tourism in Africa, either.  It’s the continent’s oldest national park — in historical terms, Africa’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park.

Park rangers are recruited from neighbouring villages. Nearly all are married, and many have young children. The rangers killed two weeks ago ranged in age from 22 to 30.

How much is a life worth? According to the Guardian’s longtime Africa correspondent Jason Burke, the rangers are paid the equivalent of USD $250 a month.

©Jerome Delay/Associated Press

©Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Even at that, much of the funding comes from NGOs and private donors; a partnership was formed just 10 years ago between the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (middle son of the billionaire investor Warren Buffet), the European Union (EU) and the Congolese government.

Earth Day initiatives include making micro loans available to local families and involving local communities in their park’s future.

That isn’t just lip service, either: One of the recent trends in the war against poachers has been the recruitment of women in a frontline role — as in, literally, fighting on the front lines of armed conflict.

“I was born into a ranger family,” park ranger Jolie Kavugho Songya explained to the US-UK and French news site Women’s Advancement, in August. “My father taught me you have to go out  and try for what you want.”

Songya was just nine-years-old when she decided to follow in her ranger-father’s footsteps. She had never seen a gorilla, but she knew it was his job — and moral duty — to protect Congo’s population of endangered gorillas from militias and poachers.

©Jan Powell/Women's Advancement News Deeply

©Jan Powell/Women's Advancement News Deeply

Today, Songya — age 27 — is one of 30 women who’ve passed the stringent requirements to become full-time park rangers.

She’s neither intimidated nor dissuaded by the constant threat of violence.

“It’s risky,” she told News Deeply’s Jan Powell, “but you just have to accept it. Commit, or get out.”

Earth Day, 2018, These are your heroes.

A passion for nature: The brave new world of conservation photography.

“Can a photograph change the world?” has become, “Can a photograph save the planet?”

More and more, nature and wildlife photographers prefer to label themselves as conservation photographers, in part to reflect the perilous state of the environment today, and in part because the word “conservation” suggests a bigger scale and broader reach.

“Conservation” sounds more important, somehow, though old-school nature photographers will argue that nature itself is the reason conservation matters. Nature, after all, provides the foundation on which conservation is built.

Voting has now closed for the People’s Choice Award in the 54th Annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, or WPOTY 54 in the photography community argot. Last year’s winners in all categories are on display at the Natural History Museum in London until May 28th; if past history holds, this year’s winners will be announced in October.

In a somewhat controversial decision — controversial to the outside world, that is, as the jury vote was unanimous, a first in the 50-year history of the WPOTY awards — the grand prize went to Getty Images photojournalist Brent Stirton for his gripping, tragic image of a slaughtered rhino. 

0. wpoty gallery.png

Stirton’s background is hard news, not wildlife per se. After decades of covering conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa — he cut his teeth photographing the anti-apartheid struggle in his native South Africa, before moving on to cover that country’s devastating HIV/AIDS crisis —  he says he had an epiphany 10 years ago, in 2017, after photographing DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) park rangers dragging a dead mountain gorilla out of the Virunga National Park rainforest, using makeshift ropes and heavy wooden beams. 

Stirton had just enough time to take three frames before he had to leave, because, as he told The Guardian in Oct., 2015, “The army were looking for me.”

1. brent stirton gorilla.png

Stirton vowed then and there to become a lifelong crusader for the environment, using what he knows best to document the plight of endangered species, ecosystems and vanishing cultures throughout the developing world.

The People’s Choice award, by definition, is a vote by the people, and all that that implies.

It’s unlikely a picture of a dead rhino with its horn unceremoniously sawed off with a chainsaw would make the final cut for the People’s Choice Award, even if the finalists were chosen by a judging panel first and then submitted to the general public for a vote.

Even so, it’s hard not to look at the finalists’ images — a handful of which appear below — and not view them through the prism of what’s happening right now in the world’s few remaining wild places. It’s tough to see an image of a mother polar bear huddling over her newborn cubs and not realize that, within 20 years, polar bears may vanish entirely, owing to the catastrophic — and accelerating — ice melt in the northern polar regions.

Big cats often make for dramatic photographs, but again it’s hard to see a picture of a tiger today and not be reminded  that it was the apex predators — the sabre-toothed cat, a remnant of the Pleistocene epoch for some 42 million years before dying out just 11,000 years ago, or the “super croc,” Sarcosuchus, an early ancestor of the crocodile, some 12 metres (39 feet) in length — that perished in the end, leaving their legacy to their smaller, more adaptable successors.

The difference now, of course, is that much of what’s happening is caused by human hands, and humans alone have the power to make a difference. Conservation photography is part of that.

This is not new. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was famously so moved by Carleton Watkins’ stereographic illuminations of Yosemite, on the other side of the American continent, that he signed into law a bill declaring Yosemite Valley to be inviolable. Theodore Roosevelt enacted further protections in 1908, at the urging of his naturalist friend John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Yosemite played a key role in Woodrow Wilson establishing the U.S. National Park Service in 1916.

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Today, photographers who document the beauty and wonder of the natural world have an added responsibility — wanted or not — to shine a new, white-hot light on the crisis facing the planet today, whether it’s something as simple and life-affirming as a sloth hanging out in the rainforests of Brazil, or as complex and hard-to-take as the bloodied hand of a poacher handling an elephant tusk in Central Africa.

Both have a story to tell. They are different, and yet tragically connected. It’s good that people know that.

1. Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.11.40 PM.png
2. Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.11.22 PM.png

2 wpoty closed.png
3. Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.10.38 PM.png
4. Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.06.07 PM.png
5. Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.07.18 PM.png
7. Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.10.18 PM.png

THIS JUST IN — Jo-Anne McArthur's "Pikin and Appolinaire" has been declared the People's Choice. Word broke late last night from the UK.

A strong image from a strong field, and well-deserving of the recognition. The conservation message is profound, no?

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 3.40.09 PM.png



Can a single image change the planet? Just ask Brent Stirton, winner of 2017’s Wildlife Photographer of Year award.

Brent Stirton’s haunting image of a dead rhino, killed and butchered for its horn, was already widely known before it won Tuesday’s top honour at the 53rd Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

Stirton, a lifelong documentarian and senior staff photographer with Getty Images’ Reportage unit, photographed an eye-opening spread for National Geographic — both the magazine and the website — before rhinos became the tipping point of the worldwide conservation movement.

Stirton won the top award after earlier winning in the photojournalism category before a black-tie audience at London’s Natural History Museum.

Winners in each category faced off for the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show, capping a confusing process in which a dozen semi-finalists were released to the media last month. The fact that Stirton’s image was even in the running — it was curiously omitted from September’s selection, along with several other finalists for the top award — would have been a clue right there as to the eventual winner. As jury chair Lewis Blackwell told the assembled audience, the final decision was unanimous.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

That in itself may well be a first for a photo contest involving a panelled jury — judging photography is subjective, after all, and subject to individual, personal tastes — but then hardly anyone looking at Stirton’s image, either for the first time or after multiple viewings, can fail to be moved.

Stirton is no dilettante who got lucky. Luck plays a huge role in wildlife photography — that, and patience and a willingness to put in the hours — but in this case Stirton called on a lifetime of placing himself in life-threatening situations, camera at the ready.

His CV reads like a modern-day Robert Capa of combat photographers. Stirton works on a semi-regular basis for the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Ford, Clinton and Gates foundations, and the World Economic Forum. He’s on the road an average 300 days out of the year. His work has been published in Time, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, Geo, The New York Times Magazine, as well as by Human Rights Watch andCNN.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

A Canon ambassador, he has won the prestigious World Press Photo seven times, as well receiving citations and plaudits from the Overseas Press Club, Days Japan, the Deadline Club, China International, Graphis, the American Society of Publication Designers, Germany’s (news) Lead Awards and the London Association of Photographers. In addition, Stirton has two United Nations honours to his name, for his exposés on the global environment, and for his photo essays on the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS.

He has said photojournalists strive every day to find new ways to tell an old story. And the trade in illegal wildlife trafficking is an old story indeed.

In his own work, Stirton consciously looks for images that will move people and galvanize them to action, in ways that extend beyond the 24-hour news cycle.

The single image that changed his life, he said, came in 2007, when he witnessed park rangers with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Virunga National Park anti-poaching unit hauling the bodies of four mountain gorillas — one of the world’s most critically endangered animals — following their deaths under suspicious cicrumstances. 

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

One of the gorillas was a silverback alpha male and the leader of the group. The others were females, two of them with babies and the third one pregnant at the time. The babies were never found; it is thought they probably died of stress and dehydration.

Stirton went about his work clinically andprofessionally, but deep down he was both shaken and angered. He resolved then-and-there to use his camera to expose and document the illegal wildlife trade, for the rest of his career in photography.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

“The image of the dead silverback gorilla in Congo transformed my thinking about photojournalism and the environment,” Stirton posted on Getty’s InFocus page.  “It got a huge reaction that I totally wasn’t expecting. The reason that image affected me so much was that it was a genuine crossover photograph that talked about both conflict and the environment in a single frame. It made me realize how connected those two things are.”

Though based in New York, Stirton’s recent work has focused on his home continent of Africa, everything from unexplained mass die-offs of hippos to the massacre of elephants for their ivory, to the recent, dramatic spike in rhino poaching for their horns.

It’s not often that Stirton is caught at a loss for words, he told his audience Tuesday, after the top award was announced.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

“I have huge admiration for all those of you who go out and spend months in a single place, in tremendously difficult conditions, trying to take a unique picture of wildlife,” he said. “I look at these images as the reason behind my work. . . . My job is to reinforce the magnificence of these creatures.’ These pictures are evidence of their magnificence.

“I always think that photojournalism is the red-headed stepchild of the photography world, when it comes to wildlife. I always have that in my mind. So for you to think this of me, for the kind of work I do, in this space — I’m blown away.”

‘Blown away’ is as apt a way as any to describe his image of the dead rhino.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton